Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What Makes a Good Society?

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. [1]

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." [2] 

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


sandra sexton said...

I must say I was very impressed with this article. This certainly hits the "nail on the head" doesn't it. We do base our idea of a "good" society on what our wants and needs are. More so what our wants are than anything else. As Plato suggests....we can't live the good life until we know what good is. This is true. More so, what might be good for one group of people may not be good for another. I took a philosophy class several years ago and I was puzzled by a book called "Escape from Freedom". I can't remember the author, but my professor said we as human beings don't really "want" total freedom. He more or less said that we want laws and government because this is what keeps our societies going. I don't know how relevant this is, but it came to mind as I was reading this article. We must honor each other rights and beiefs as individuals while caring for those who are less fortunate in our society. This is the best way to achieve our good society.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The book was written in 1941 by Erich Fromm. The central idea of Escape from Freedom is that humans cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom and therefore tend toward authoritarian systems.

There is something about human nature that makes us yearn for order that we are unable to achieve by our own efforts.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Leslie asked me to post this comment for her:

"It takes a combination of good leaders and good people to make a good society. We will all always have different opinions to the definition of good so there will always be this question and everyone will always have a different answer. Good people is the key to what I believe makes a good society. There are still a few good people but with times as they are it is hard to be good to anyone in fear of their motives."

Brittany Gregory said...

I would have to agree with Leslie. I think it takes a combination of things to create a "good" society. For one it takes good people to make a society good. These good people come from good leaders setting rules and boundaries for us to follow. So it takes a society with rules and order to create good people. I think that they counteract each other and we can not have a good society with out both. I also think that if we didn’t have rules and guidelines to follow then we would not know the difference in good and bad. Yes we have a conscience, but that conscience only comes from knowing what is right and wrong.

Sweeney's said...

In order to have a "good" society we need to have good people and good leaders. We have to have good leaders that are strong and know what is right and wrong. Having good people in the society helps the leaders be even better than good. Granted we have our own definitions of good and what is good for you or good for me. A society with rules and order create good people. Just think what the society would be like without rules and order to manifest people into "good people"

AshleyC said...

Whose 'society' are we referring to? Or are we talking about a country as a whole? My society is so much different than those on top. My day goes by with happiness and good being defined as healthy and without despair for myself and my loved ones. Despair including work stress, bill stress, and family stress. This article was so right about so much, based on my status in society. But others, good means so much more. Society is a trap. Education, work, style, expectations....we are all slaves to the expectations of everyone and everything.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Ryan H asked me to post this comment for him:

" really enjoyed reading this article. As we look to today's leaders, are they really looking out for our best interests? They seem to take sides, trying to win battles, but it's for their own benefit. So they can say that they won. They don't reflect on the others that are suffering while they debate these decision. I feel that our leaders do not have our best interests in mind. I agree that one will never reach full satisfaction. As I read the article, it is true that people are always wanting for something better. We dream for bigger and better things, for ourselves. We must focus on the true happiness for everyone as a whole. This will not only make us better people, but a better society. You reap what you sow!"

Alice C. Linsley said...

Timberly asked me to post this comment for her:

"I like the quote in the article where it states, "Unless natural communities can be connected in friendly ways, nation building is impossible." It is impossible to achieve a moral, upstanding and righteous nation if those that are involved in making it are full of hate and greed.

As Mrs. Linsley quoted "There is something about human nature that makes us yearn for order that we are unable to achieve by our own efforts." Just as infants are born with the need for stability and consistency in order to complete developmental tasks, the same process is needed throughout the life span. As an infant, they rely on their caretaker to help them establish these milestones. Those caretakers who neglect their infants, results in an underdeveloped and malnourished children physically and emotionally. So yes, humans throughout the life span yearn for order and it sometimes takes a higher power to maintain the order. If the caretaker/higher power is a caring and nurturing individual, more than likely the result will be a good one, rather than making an angry and underdeveloped community.

Although I am not in agreement with Ayn Rand's theory, mainly because she rejects religion, I do think that she does have some logical points. "Humans, in order to be human,act in accordance with what they think will promote their own best interest."

While I disagree and agree with Rands theory, I do however, agree with John B. Rawls theory. I also see that there are alot of others on this discussion board who do as well. Rawls accepts that there will always be some economic differences in society. His concern is that those who are at the bottom should never be allowed to sink below the level of basic material needs. I believe our modern day society sometimes overlooks this simple theory. There are so many out there in this horrible world that go without, and shouldn't. There are so many living without the basic materials of needs. There are so many homeless and hungry, and even though there are resources to assist these individuals, I know that there is not enough. There should be more laws based on Rawls theory to ensure that NO ONE in our country should go without, and if that means that putting a restriction on those that bear children and not take care of them, then so be it. I mean it's harder to adopt an animal in some states than it is to have a kid. I know this is a far fetched topic, but it ultimately intertwines with how I think that Rawls theory is the most consistent and satisfying than any of the other theorist I have learned about."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Monica asked me to post this for her. Here it is:

"As human beings we think of good as what is best for us not what is best for everyone as a whole. What is the best living for us what is the best car for us. It is all about what we think is good for us. I like this article because it reminds us that good is what we do for others not what we do for ourselves. Good is helping out those in need and helping someone who needs it. Good is doing something that you normally would not do to help someone."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Barbara S asked me to post this comment for her:

"Citizens are the most important factor in making a society "good," in my opinion. If the majority participate and make their concerns known with a firm stance, most of the leaders will "aim to please." Leaders need to "reach out" to society showing care and concern with all levels; from the "needy" to the prosperous.

Plato believed that one can't live the good life unless one knows the "good." Distinguishing "good" apart from self-interest...hmm? With self-interest, "good" provides oneself with the most benefits and personal comforts, along with a comfortable lifestyle in which to survive in today's society. Of course, being "able" to survive and "trying" to survive are clearly, separate classes divided by income differences; underpaid and overworked, the pattern of many in our country.

John B. Rawls' "veil of ignorance" was to prevent people from altering the justice system to suit their own, selfish needs. His concern was for those living at the "bottom rung of the ladder," and the hope that they never would be allowed without basic material needs. Mr. Rawls felt consideration was deserving toward those in less fortunate situations and they should be given a chance for opportunity. Yes, control and power can destroy friendship and progress.

Societies tend to form their own special groups, in relation to similar interests. I feel this somewhat "natural segregation," perhaps provides their members with comfort, confidence, and strength in numbers. In communities, the citizens' positive collaboration and contribution can help steer toward a "good" society."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Brian asked me to post this comment for him:

"I personally don’t believe a good society (as a whole) will ever be possible. As I read through the article and posts I realized that everyone’s view of “good” is slightly different. That being the case, how can all people collaborate to make a perfect and good society. One person may see a good society where hunger and suffering is eliminated, but at any cost. Where another may say that the cost of eliminating those issues is too great and now this perfect society is gone due to two different viewpoints of what good is. In my view a good society is only one where each person can be strong enough to disregard stereotypes and some of the ignorance of our forefathers (prejudice teachings and ideas) and live a life that each person knows to be right and proper. A society where each person treats others with the same respect and courtesy that they too desire to receive from others.

Unfortunately many people are not strong willed and will follow the improper ways of others in hopes of finding acceptance by a group or person. I feel that these ideas of respect and courtesy to others are what have allowed me to succeed in both life and career, and have allowed myself to create a better personal society."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Karen asked me to post this for her:

"To some extent I agree with Barbara in regards to the fact citizens are important in a good society, but I beg to differ they are the most important. I feel that leaders are most important. Great leaders make for good societies. They are able to make decisions that are best for all and not just some. When you have great leaders their followers are more likely to follow in unison. Plato's belief of distinguishing "good" apart from "self interest" is also key in making a good society. We need to stop choosing leaders based on who will do the best for "me" and choose who will do what's best for all. Someone who will put the self interest of others in front of their own self interest."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Craig asked me to post this for him:

"I thought this article identified people exactly as they are, not that it is a bad thing. I was raised to always want better for my children than myself just as my parents did me. With that being said I think it is human nature to try and make things work out for what good for us. It’s not logical to think that we are going to keep ourselves in harm’s way and live a stressful life, it’s just not natural. Actually if you think about it this is what leads to most disputes and even wars is because we want what’s good for us. The one thing I think that keeps people good and helps them make the right decisions for the good of society is to keep their morals straight. All political societies should have a religious portion that makes up the power triangle. Sticking with your religion, whatever you choose for to be always tends to make good people no matter how hard times are."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Mary asked me to post this for her:

"It is actually difficult to come to the conclusion of what is exactly good for us as individuals and as a society. It is human nature to think that what is good for us may just be the things we want instead of things we actually need. Everyone is like that to a certain extent, some far worse than others. It's scary to think that a person in high authority could be a prisoner of this characteristic. How do we, as humans, turn away from society's expectations and our own selfish ways?"

Unknown said...

iam realy impressed and appriciated this article, allthough i read many many diffrent authors who difined the good society and wellness in to diffrent ways and methods, ex, they metion the four pillars that the every society must have to exist, religion,economy,family, and the good government,