There are numerous marks of a good society: justice, equity, rule of law, economic opportunity, reciprocity, prosperity, critical thinking, ethical standards, concern for good citizenship, right to defense, right to private property, etc. But where does the value of Goodness for Goodness sake come in?
Alice C. Linsley
As Americans watch the political stalemate in Washington, we can’t help but notice the conflicting views on what makes a society good. We might agree that it takes good people to make a good society, people reaching out to people. We might say that it takes good leaders to design a good society. Lyndon B. Johnson spoke of the "Great Society" which for him meant social reforms designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. Johnson's vision was formed by the radical changes of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. He saw the nation's greatness in terms of economic prosperity and opportunity.
The Founding Fathers spoke of a society in which there is "liberty and justice for all". Such a statement could be made by left-leaning Democrats as well as old-guard Republicans. It rings with the shallow “truth” of a slogan. It reads well on a banner carried by activists on both sides of health reform, campaign reform, education reform, etc, but this ideal can be achieved only by embracing the Good.
Plato was right that one can't live the good life unless one knows the Good. The hard part is defining “good” apart from self-interest. For many, good is what I perceive to serve me best. Society is good if it features personal comforts and benefits and generates a standard of living that I feel entitled to enjoy. But the reality and the dream are very far apart! We are a nation of overworked and underpaid wage slaves whose debt dampens our passion for the Good. Many are just trying to survive. Our standard of living never will be high enough to satisfy us. There always will be another convenience or techy toy just beyond our reach. We are no longer free. We are ruled by schedules, technology, taxes and our own discontent. And we tend to think our discontent is someone else's fault. No wonder many Americans are angry!
Aristotle believed that free men are responsible for their voluntary and involuntary actions and behaviors. He did not include slaves in this scheme because to him the society of ruling men was the basis upon which to build a good society. For Aristotle, a society or state is held together by friendship more than justice. He regarded men with many friendships as good men. 
That friendship, or natural affinity, is the basis of a good society is evident to children who determine who is included and who is excluded from their group. No matter how often their mothers tell them to be nice and let everyone play together, children form groups according to their own rules. (And their parents don't "play" with everyone either.) Yet children are more egalitarian than Aristotle's society. Children slip in and out of different groups quite often. This is how they discover where they fit best. But in Aristotle's society a person could never escape from his caste. Slaves were at the bottom of the caste system and they had no rights except those granted to them by their masters. Some slaves were highly skilled in medicine, arts, reading and writing, etc. These were generally treated well by their masters because they had valuable skills, but they were not regarded as the equal of free men like Aristotle. So all the things we like about Aristotle - the attitudes which seem fair and democratic - really apply only to men of his Athenian social class. There is little application to America, a society of myriad communities straining in diverse directions to achieve a good society .
We grow up hearing that America is the "Land of the Free" but we know from daily experience that people aren't treated as equals and many, though not slaves in an institutional sense, bear the heavier load of work and for the least amount of pay. It is no surprise that our nation produced a thinker like J. B. Rawls who articulated a way for a person's execution of a rational long-term plan of life to remain fair to other people's life plans under the "veil of ignorance". The veil is to keep people from tilting the balance of justice in their favor. But Congress, reflecting the nation, is a community of communities, each working to tilt the balance in their favor. This is not the balance of justice, but the balance of power. Winning the votes, passing the porked bill, getting the dirt on one's opponent - these are what tilt the balance. These are what break bonds of friendship.
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni has written, "the quest for a good society points to one that allows communities to maintain some limitations on new membership while at the same time greatly restrict the criteria that communities may use informing such exclusivity. The criteria for exclusion cannot be race, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, or a host of other criteria based on ascribed statuses. Rather, the bonds of good communities, it follows, should be based on affinities whose nature remains to be defined." 
Contrary to political correctness, the good society limits membership by law. It is predicated on affinity, not on grand schemes or social engineering. Societies are organic. They develop according to their social DNA, and can't be designed. (Socialists neglect this truth.) Unless natural communities can be connected in friendly ways, nation building is impossible. The good society works as a confederation of tribes, each honoring the other's right to exist and all responsible for the most vulnerable and the poorest.
1. Aristotle intended authentic friendships, not fair-weather friends. Authentic people tend to attract authentic friends. That being the case, the larger the network of friendship, the greater the measure of a man's virtue.
2. The quotation is from Etzioni's essay "The Good Society" found here. Etzioni is a communitarian. As such, he views institutions and policies as reflecting values passed from generation to generation. "These values become part of the self through internalization, and are modified by persuasion, religious or political indoctrination, leadership, and moral dialogues." Read more here.
Related reading: Critical Thinking and Good Citizenship; Revising Good and Evil; Teaching the Benefits of Capitalism; Moral Obligation