What would make the Best Society? Question of the Month from Philosophy Now

Issue 73


What Would Make The Best Society?

The following answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book.

The closest to perfection would be an interdependent Confederation of societies, each containing between one and two hundred citizens, depending upon factors such as location and climate. These villages would be more or less evenly distributed across the globe, having access to roughly equivalent amounts of arable land. Thirty per cent of all land would be designated wilderness, and no societies would be allowed to colonise these areas, but antisocial individuals would be free to inhabit the wilderness following a life-style of total lonesomeness.

Each society would be run according to a consensus of members, on a Rousseauian model of full participation of all members over 14 and council decree. Dissenting members will be invited to move to alternative societies, set up their own on land proportionate to the size of the dissenting group, or to take to the wilderness. Councils may legislate on shared interests, but there will be no laws restricting private activities provided these do not infringe upon the same freedoms of others.

Whilst each society would decide its own rules, the Confederation would respect a universal constitution according to which no-one can own anything they have not made. Communal products could be exchanged freely amongst individuals or between societies. There would be no money, and no hoarding of mutually-owned resources, on pain of banishment to the wilderness. Every year there would be a Global Festival of Gratitude and Giving, during which gifts would be freely exchanged and art, music, dances and games would celebrate and renew the freedom of the Earth from human domination.

According to the constitution, animals culled from the wild may be eaten during the winter in cold climates and during illness. But there would be no domestication or other infringement upon the freedom of animals. Killing would be allowed only if human life is in danger, or to stabilize populations and environmental harmony. All waste would be recycled, and energy derived only from renewable sources such as wind and tide.

If one society threatens aggression against another, the Global Confederation would boycott it for 50 years. Members would be invited to join alternative societies, but may emigrate only to one that has received no other members of the rogue society. All political relationships will be entirely internal to each society and there would be no alliances formed between societies. Societies attempting to form political allegiances or extend their power beyond their own members will be boycotted. Individuals would be free to travel to and form relationships with individuals of other societies, but any group growing too large for its arable resources would have to redistribute.

Helen Williams, Coley Sirgar, Swansea

The perfect society would be one in which everybody got whatever they wanted. Obviously, this is impossible to achieve. So we can only strive for the best possible society. This logically would be the one in which everyone got as much of what they want as it is possible to equitably achieve. Achieving this would be the equivalent of finding the lines of best fit through a series of points for various graphs. For example, if we all have different opinions about the ideal length of a working day, then in the best society the length of the working day would be the mean of all our ideals. Generally, in the best possible society, all parameters would be set at the average of our individual ideals about that thing. It won’t be the perfect society for anyone, but on the whole, it’ll be the least bad for everyone.

Clearly, there are some huge practical difficulties to achieving this society – so huge as to render the full achievement of it an impossibility. Nevertheless, it is an ideal we can work towards. Indeed, it would seem that society is slowly moving in this direction. The biggest step we have taken in many countries towards this society of the average is the democratic election of leaders – and as our administrations become more transparent and accountable, populations are able to exert greater pressure on their governments to act more in line with the collective will. We can imagine in the not too distant future being able to register our views online and by phone; and thus we will be able to easily and rapidly vote on many more issues than we do currently. Just as we now vote on X-Factor, we might soon be voting on important political issues: where reality TV is currently leading the way, genuine reality will follow on behind. So the best society would involve a whole lot more reality TV.

Kevin Andrew, Tadcaster, North Yorkshire

There will be no government as we currently know it. Government is overkill. We’ve tried it, and for the most part it has failed. Mostly, government is about manipulating political and economic power. It does not produce a good society. To quote Henry David Thoreau in On Civil Disobedience: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically… [further] ‘That government is best which governs not at all’.” There may be courts to mediate disputes. These disputes will be limited to the basics: the only laws needed are laws concerning basic decency and respect, following this formula: No killing or hurting another person or damaging their property. This would included ecological destruction, which damages everyone.

Each local community will cooperate with as many or few other communities as it chooses: nothing will ever be forced. Each communities will produce what it needs. Factories will be owned by the workers, and excess profits will go to support the needed services and the well-being of the community, further excess going to greater projects benefiting the wider world. No community should number more than a few thousand. Any system over a million people will always fail; a community kept under 10,000 will likely succeed. No community will be able to possess the manpower or wealth to threaten other communities.

Kraig Mottar, by Email

The best society would not penalise people, working or not, for disabilities or mental illness. This is not their fault. It would transform its idea of beauty from the Platonically idealistic, discarding ‘ideal forms’ for forms that are both realistic and which embrace humanity’s highest aspirations. Life chances would be evenly distributed rather than a concentrated in the 20-65 age range. No longer would people be thrown on the scrap-heap for being ill, disabled, too old etc: rather, there would be a just way of distributing resources to all. This could be implemented in various ways to adjust to society’s changing needs.

This society would be rights-based but not ignore the need for cultural deviation from norms. Democracy would be a norm; but global society would be wide enough to embrace it in different forms. There may need to be an anarchic element; but educational systems should also help people through life at every step. Big Business would be required to act with equity with regard to product quality and customer service. It would not be so easy to inflict disabilities on people via various ‘suffering pipelines’ such as the army, drug damage, etc: but neither would unjust blame be put on people/companies/societies. Unfortunately, suffering would still exist because the physical world is in a fundamental state of increasing entropy, ie disorganisation.

The general principle is that there would be a massive healing of society in terms of its function and functionality. However, social function would be tempered with endless creativity and lots of fun. Society would not be cut on ‘utilitarian’ lines, in the sense of people being shoehorned into the most financially profitable but emotionally profitless careers; instead everybody would be able to develop their capabilities and talents. Thus in this society people would be able to fulfil roles at their level of abilities without ruling out their potential to completely jump out of the box!

Kate Hillier, Colchester, Essex

The best society would be run by nurses. Nurses are the caring profession; theirs is an ethics of caring that will see you from the cradle to the other place.

Just think – all of them with PhDs in caring, taking collegiate responsibility for everything. Thus all waste products wiped up efficiently and carefully disposed of. Similarly, firstly there will be potty training of the finest calibre (warm but directive) even for the potential obsessives in adult life, who will have the best in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, possibly even by the same nurses – like learning, caring is a lifelong thing, a vocation! And for the psychological dissonances, there will be an empathic ear, an emotional ‘hand’ held tightly, unconditional positive regard!

Nurses, of course, need not be paid handsomely. Having long allowed their consciences to go beyond things like money or self-advancement, they would be the mainstay of a low-cost society. All care would be delivered in the local community, but given sufficient numbers of nurses, bicycles should be all that’s necessary. This would also have the beneficial effect of inducing contentment by provoking images of ‘the good old days’.

It might of course be crossing your mind to ask, What about the non-nurses? Well, in a post-capitalist, Nursist world it only remains for people to be cared for – indeed, to have an entitlement to it: most will carry a ‘cared for’ ration book to be filled in with dates, types, and depths of caring, when last cared for, and so on. The awkward question of what people care about has not yet been resolved, but is being fully discussed by the Nursing Administrative Board.

Due to the huge increase in the techniques of caring, plus, it must be said, a smidgeon of threat – ie, “there’s more than one way in which we can ‘care’ for you” – non-compliance in the new society would mostly be a thing of the past. For the small few whoinsist on self-assertion, there will be well-developed virtual reality alternatives. Here recalcitrants can be placed in a virtual helmet, where they will remain sweet. Consistent with virtual ethics, they must not be abandoned to their ‘other world’, and specially-trained carers will always be at hand to coax them back to reality. Nobody goes without in nursing world.

Liam Clarke, Brighton University

What would make the best society? An aggregate of people living together in a harmonious community with common values and customs. But although this appears an acceptable definition, harmony is a difficult if not impossible state to achieve in society, and the maintenance of harmony invariably impedes the achievement of individual ideals. So this definition is nothing more than an unachievable ideal.

Philosophy has long been a defender of this impossible ideal, yet it seems that many are still confused by the nature of the notion: an ideal may be desirable but wholly unobtainable, especially if it concerns social matters. Plato reported such an unreachable ideal in the Republic, as did More and Bacon; and it is disparaging to their works if one thinks they were so na ïve as to believe that what they wrote could be actualised. Yet people still criticise their work on just this basis.

Maybe a poet could better portray the way things are. D.H. Lawrence says of love: “We have pushed a process into a goal.” Love is an ideal we all wish to acquire; but as Lawrence says, it’s a process not a goal, and to believe it is something to acquire is actually a fallacy. We do not fall in love to reach something and then stop: love is ongoing. So too must we understand social improvement as a process, for if we begin to view the ideal society as a thing we can create, then we’re accepting that we’ll reach a point at which we can go no further, no longer improve. Instead then, we must formulate an ideal and work towards it, knowing that its perfect implementation is unattainable. At least we will be moving in the right direction.

With all this in mind, I offer up the suggestion that we work towards a society where due to advances in technology no one works any more – allowing us to sit around discussing philosophy, eating fine food and drinking fine wine!

Christopher Burr, Southbourne, Dorset

There are two broad categories of society: narcissistic and outward-looking. The first typically involves a search for peace, harmony and pleasure. Fine as these are, the prospect of nothing else until the Heat Death of the universe lacks something. I prefer the more outward-looking search for meaning. This has been approached through religion, which is unfortunately stuck in the Middle Ages. Philosophy has made some technical advances here, but on the big questions we have not advanced beyond the ancient Greeks, who were also the inventors of every modern political system. Advances in art follow technology: a Stone Age Beethoven would not have produced symphonies, as he lacked the orchestra, whose instruments are the products of technological knowledge.

In fact, the only direction in which any substantial advances have been made is through science: so the best society would be one conscientiously advancing through science. This not a new departure, as we are already doing this to some extent – we have already split the atom and put men on the moon.

Science advances through individuals: the Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins formulating new ways of looking at the world; followed by periods of consolidation, which form the basis for the next genius to emerge. There is no formula for producing geniuses, who seem to appear at random, but history does give us a lead. They do not often come from the governing classes, who are busy politicking to maintain status. They do not often come from the bottom of society either, as these are too busy struggling for survival and usually lack the education. Innovation is a middle class affair, and to a great extent so is the consolidation process. The Western mode of society has a proven track record in providing a middle class environment, so its world-wide introduction would therefore be recommended. Unfortunately, ecologists tell us that we’d need the resources of three Earths to bring our present six billion up to a Western lifestyle – so to speed the plough of progress we need to remember Malthus and put quality of life before our present witless chase of quantity.

G.E. Haines, Woodbridge, Suffolk

The best society would exist when a common concern for the collective became intrinsic to individual priorities and choices. It would also be in harmony with the environment. Poverty, disease, warfare and crime would be things of the past.

Such a society would be the result of a collective freedom of thought that had disentangled itself from doom religions, dead philosophies and greedy politicians. The conscious and subconscious fallacies embedded in the primitive mind by the assertions of those taken to be superior would be finally put to rest, especially in the discovery that man’s natural state is not one of war, and neither is Armageddon inevitable. Principles would transcend the national, cultural, religious and political. However, the chief characteristic which would make it better than all the societies we may compare it with, is that it could only exist because it has defeated the possibility of just getting worse.

What makes the best society is also determined by number. A society of one can be the absolute best. A society of two could also be the best. It may be that the best society is determined by the number of good relationships which can exist within it. So before we can say anything about what would make the best society, we must first determine the number of people in it.

Nick Kelly, Eastbourne

In thinking about the best society, I thought of the many noble attempts at creating utopian societies. They range across left- and right-wing, scientific and counter-cultural, and religious concepts. Whether it’s a Brook Farm, a phalanstere or a kibbutz, they all share a common trait: failure.

What of the great attempts by intellectuals to offer models of the best society: Plato’s Calliopolis; More’s Utopia and Marx’s communism, or Bellamy, Morris, St. Simon, Heinlein and Buckminster Fuller? Whatever their merits, they all seem radically and deeply flawed, most significantly, by lacking any truly practical way of instituting the necessary changes to bring those dreams into reality. Even the dystopian cautionary voices and visions of Huxley, Wells, Orwell, Atwood or Lowry seem to be practically far removed from actuality (thankfully).

And then it happened. Something strange occurred to me after watching Pixar’s Wall-E: perhaps humans are the central problem in our inability to realize a utopia. We are the whole reason for utopia – yet we also seem to be the reason why no such attempt is ever realized.

I am uncomfortable with this conclusion because it smacks of misanthropy; but the common element to all the above failed utopian (and dystopian) communities is that they are human-centered. Perhaps, then, the best society isn’t even human. Take this aggressive, self-centered and most destructive species out of the mix, and what’s left? Peace? Utopia? A technoutopia of machines could exemplify the very best of universal moral qualities such as courage, honesty, and, above all else, love. All this from robots. We humans have been building our utopian visions out of the wrong stuff.

Perhaps we need to rephrase the question from “What is the best society?” – a utopia – to “What is a good society?” – an eutopia. What would a good society look like? I submit it would be something like the one Socrates outlined in Book 3 of Plato’s Republic – its members living in harmony with nature and one another. But, as beautiful as that bucolic vision may sound, remember Glaucon’s retort: “Socrates,” he said, “you’ve fashioned a city fit for pigs.” Well, perhaps not pigs, but maybe machines.

Patrick Standen, Burlington, VT

Some suggestions:

1. Population propagation will need to be controlled.

2. There will be workable old and new ways to provide necessary and desirable goods and services.

3. There will be leaders and doers who try to arrange a just distribution of these resources and goods.

4. There will be leaders and doers who try to minimize wars and other conflicts, and also crime.

5. People will sometimes ill-treat others (unfortunately).

6. People will sometimes treat others well.

7. People will sometimes try to develop desirable intellectual and emotional abilities.

8. Wise people will accept stoically what they cannot change, change what they should and can, and strive for wisdom to know the difference.

9. Wise people will tackle conflicts between religious, political, philosophical and scientific beliefs with good will and tolerance, and be stoical when such conflicts seem ineliminable.

I set out to describe a better society (not the best one, if there is such a thing). However, I seem to have described societies we already have. So maybe this is the best of all possible worlds that could exist, here, now and forevermore?

Gordon Fisher, South Salem, NY

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