I was a graduate student when I became interested in this question, which is hard to escape if you are working in the field of political science. Human societies differ greatly in how they work, and in the opportunities they provide for their people. Some grow in strength and wealth; some collapse from within; some are over-run from outside. How and why this happens is a fascination for historians and social scientists, who like to offer explanations and advice.

The state of one’s own society is of great interest to many people, though not all. Lots just take it for granted, as though it is both everlasting and a ‘given’ – there is nothing at all anyone can do to affect it. Yet change occurs all the time, prompted by technology, weather, the movement of people, and trade. Change occurs also when governments, rulers, make decisions that affect everyone.

Societies that have democratic forms of government argue constantly about how the society should be, and what should change, and who should benefit. Most of the time such argument goes on as though all those taking part share (or should share) the same values and the same knowledge. From time to time I try to examine my own values and the extent of my knowledge, and today’s post focuses on the values.

Half a dozen value statements follow. They are mine, and I have been working on them for a long time. If they stimulate you to look at your own, well and good. I don’t suggest that mine are perfect, or right for everyone; but they affect how I write, and the judgments I make. They are not in rank order, and are plainly inter-related.

1. Human beings are capable of great altruism and also of great destruction. A good society employs the former and tries to avoid the latter. I do not subscribe to the notion of some kind of disembodied ‘evil’.

2. Societies function best for the largest number when nearly everyone is a ‘stakeholder’: each sees real value in belonging, and has a decently positive view about the future, personal ills aside. Generating that feeling of being a stakeholder is a major task for governments.

3. In societies like Australia the best social change occurs incrementally. Rapid change is to be avoided if possible. Revolutions inflict great harm on large numbers, and rarely change much when the dust settles.

4. A good society has no established classes or castes or religions, and social mobility is the natural order: one rises (and falls) through one’s skills, capacity for hard work and perceptiveness. The good citizen is self-confident, responsible, altruistic and creative. Entitlements, nepotism and the old school tie are small in their importance.

5. In a good society there may be wide differences in wealth, but there will be no real poverty. Human beings are not born equal in anything, and no law can make them so, other than in areas like voting, or equal responsibility to obey the law. The trick is to make people value what they have, and not to envy what others have. And as I said in a recent piece, who would want to live as Bill Gates has to live, with bodyguards and all the rest of the protection he has to have? Stakeholders are busy in making their lives, not in calling for the wealthy to be taxed so that they themselves can have more.

6. I have seen enough of education and skill development to join with Howard Gardner (in Frames of Mind) in believing that nearly everybody is capable of high levels of performance in almost anything if they want to, they are encouraged to do so, and they are properly trained. So much gets in the way, and our education systems are all of the one-size-fits-all variety. Nonetheless there have been enormous changes in my lifetime, and without them our society would be much less enjoyable. Human knowledge has expanded greatly since the end of the Second World War, and that expansion has given us much more capacity to improve not just the length of our lives, but the quality of those lives as well.

That’s a start. Books could be written about each of those numbered sections, and none of them is by itself enough. Moreover, if you make too much of any one of them, you collide with one or more of the others. That is why our arguments never end, and why politics is so heated.

But these six values are useful to me. I look at the ‘climate change’ debate with their aid,  for example, noting how the AGW orthodoxy has its own stakeholders, worrying that too many scientists don’t seem to know how important observations are, seeing high priests where there should be only seekers after truth, and lamenting that governments so often ignore what their proper tasks are.

Is Australia a good society? It’s better than it was when I was a boy, and for a very much larger number of people. But it still has a long way to go. Perhaps human societies always will have a long way to go (see #1 above).

[update: this post created a good deal of interest, and in re-reading it I can see that I left out a value that I meant to put in — that human beings are equally valid, whether rich or poor, male or female, Christian or Muslim. I’ll work on a Part II…]

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • GenghisCunn says:

    Don, I’d go along with your first five points; I’m not
    convinced that “nearly everybody is capable of high levels of performance in
    almost anything,” although, to quote a lyric, “You can be better than you are!”

    So how does a society become “good,” how does it become
    better? Ultimately, it comes down to
    each individual developing wisdom and compassion, to be able to live a
    peaceful, harmonious, productive life, good for themselves and good for others. While this depends on each person’s effort,
    the nature of the society, the prevailing values, will affect – though not
    determine – the focus and direction of each individual. Going against the herd is often difficult. A personal example: in the early-mid ‘70s, I
    found it easy to be celibate in India, hard not to be promiscuous in London (I
    eventually resolved this in Hollywood).

    So how to overcome the ignorance, tensions and reactions which
    leave us (and society) not at peace, not harmonious, not happy? Well, I found an answer in India, but I’ll
    leave that for now.

    • GenghisCunn says:

      (When I copy and paste from MS Word, I get the above format. If I try to edit it here (and in many fora), I still can’t get lines of similar length. Such is life.)

  • PeterE says:

    It’s an impressive list, with little to disagree about. It is vital to own one’s own ‘shadow’ (Robert Johnston ‘Owning your own Shadow’) that is, admitting the human propensity not only for destruction but also for sainthood and taking both on board. My greatest concern for Australia is the like-minded group of people who are working away assiduously (through politics, the national curriculum, the media, agitation and propaganda, including CAGW) to change our good society into their idea of perfection without ever setting out their goal. The goal of the good society, and the improving society, is a worthy one but let us ensure that we understand what we’ve already got and how we got it. Don’t raze paradise and put up a parking lot. Be open with your plans and be prepared to accept a workable compromise.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    The use of the term ‘good’ seems quite quaint in this day and age; words such as ‘ideal’, ‘mature’, ‘desirable’, ‘ethical’ are also problematic; in fact, Hamlet suggests “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. There is often a subjective element so that, for instance, Swift’s society of ‘houyhnhnms’, so beguiling for Gulliver, seems illusory when he returns to England. Lots of writers have had a go at it – Marx, Proudhon, Plato, many different political philosophers, so we have ideal socialist, communist, theocratic or democratic ideal states but, as with Gulliver, many of these turn to dust through history.

    In your list of six primary value, I wonder if there is a place for the resolution of conflict, perhaps through rationalism, non-violence, or even philosophical rigour and analysis, has a place.

    Even today in media reports, Bernie Fraser is using the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in relation to climate change. One might think that the the most high-powered traditions of philosophical and academic analysis might resolve such conflicts but ‘no’, the quest is always illusory.

    So the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are used, where perhaps ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder:

    “The good guys are way behind and seem to be not making up ground,” he says, in an interview with Guardian Australia ahead of a speech he will make to the national press club on Thursday. “The public generally are getting bored with it all and switching off. The problem seems to be to be that the bad guys are spreading untruths and exaggerations and assertions without a lot of hard evidence and serious debate, cheered on by the big companies who make similar assertions and repeat those assertions without thorough debate.”

    Asked to define the “good guys” and the “bad guys” in this analysis, he says: “The good guys are the mainstream scientific bloc and their analysis of why the planet is warming up.

    “The bad guys are the mavericks, the kind we hear on the radio, who don’t accept the science and who attack the scientists, I ignore them and they deserve to be ignored … but it’s more serious when you get to people in positions of influence, in industry associations or companies, or in the government and the opposition who in some cases say they believe the science but then don’t act as if they do.”

  • Lysander says:

    Without doubt, the biggest problem to wider societal good is the individual’s heart.
    You can all sorts of structures and processes but this does not guarantee a good society (try Nazi Germany).
    You can have the absence of all sorts of structures and processes and not be guaranteed a good society (try US?).
    You can have all the fights, protests, revolutions, elections that you like but you actually need to start with an internal revolution of the heart: JPII.

  • DaveW says:

    Hey Don,

    I think this is called fisking (or as the spellchecker would have it ‘fishing’), but since I enjoy your posts, I will respond point-by-point:

    1. Human beings are people, close relatives of chimpanzees and bonobos. They respond in predictable ways to perceived threats and advantages in their environments. Some of these responses benefit the individual and/or his/her group, but some responses are not functional at either the individual or group level.

    2. Accruing individual/group power as opposed to implementing individual/group success strategies is the basic societal dichotomy. Since the future is difficult to predict, short term goals tend to be perceived as more important than longer term strategies and those able to provide immediate rewards tend to be favoured. Those groups that are best able to resist the accumulation of power in small groups are those that are most likely to succeed in responding to long-term change.

    3. The rate of change needs to be proportional to the real rate of change of any threat (not to the bloody-shirt waving).

    4. Over the long term, a group that shares resources and responsibilities will survive longer than one that allows small groups to seize control. The groups that survive the longest will have the greatest probability of spawning other similar groups and this will be a direct function of how evenly empowered the individual members of the group are. (NB – this is fits the group selection meme, and therefore, is somewhat heretical).

    5. Some people will spend their lives accumulating wealth, others will spend their energies accumulating knowledge, stamps, leisure time etc. Who cares what motivates people to do various things? The important thing is that they are willing to share the results of their obsessions with their group. If they do not, then they are not members of the group.

    6. People exhibit a range of abilities on the various axes that can be proposed to measure talent. People are not all the same everywhere – but they should be treated the same under the law (the code defining what is expected of members of a group). Not everyone can climb rock walls at the same rate, no matter how much training they have received. Not everyone has a knack for making widgets efficiently, telling the difference between a false hypothesis and a not yet falsified one, figuring out why an engine won’t start, a toilet won’t flush, a garden won’t grow …

    ‘One-size-fits-all’ is a specious model. The most comfortable clothing are those tailored for the individual.

  • John Morland says:

    I visited the Gold and the Incas exhibition a few days ago. I was surprised the number of societies prior to the Inca; the Inca society (or culture) only existed a little over 100 years before the Spanish arrived, looted and destroyed them. (I did not say civilization because not one of them had writing; writing is a criteria for civilization).

    Anyway, one of the South America societies were the Moche (100AD – 800AD), the Moche had powerful priests who conduct regular ceremonies and sacrifices as way to appease, influence and seek favor from the Gods. For bountiful agriculture they needed both sun and rain and reliable seasons. It all worked well, the populace believed in their priests’ influence, ceremonies and endless sacrifices kept the weather and seasons ticking over nicely; until the climate changed rapidly in the 8th century (gosh…the climate did change prior that allegedly awful industrial revolution when CO2 was only around 270ppm). A massive El Nino started causing widespread flooding lasting for 30 years followed by a 30 year drought (a long La Nina event).

    (Just imagine the hysterics from the CAGWs if a similar 60-year event happened today, the loony greenies, climate “scientists” , evangelical conservationists etc would claim absolute vindication and direct unbelievable pressure on governments (or may even form a government) to close everything down and send us back into the dark ages)

    Not surprising after 60-odd years of a climate change, rapidly swinging from one extreme to the other (see … the climate also changed rapidly), the priests lost all credibility; the Moche were finished by 800 AD. This is one example of change in climate destroying if not a good, at least a working society.

  • DaveW says:

    John Morland – I suppose your are right. Although I always thought civilization meant a society that could support cites, I don’t suppose that could happen without a method of taxation which would require some kind of writing. Thanks for the insight.

    Peter Donnan – I agree with your skepticism about ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I think they may be better defined in evolutionary terms – eventually these behaviours must have some reason for still existing – but I admit to failure. Chimpanzees form political cliques in the hopes of achieving domination over copulations and food resources. I’m pretty sure this is comparable to human politics, if only by analogy (our equally close relatives the bonobos use sexual favours to structure their societies, but that also seem to suggest certain human behaviours).

    Don, sorry to be pedantic, but in your banner there is no comma between ‘Education Music’. Does this mean your blog is about education-music or education and music?


  • margaret says:

    I believed once in a “good” society – I think I thought it was similar to Plato’s Republic. If I revisited that book I’m sure it’s very flawed and in no way relevant to today’s world. When I read that book as a text it was the 1970’s, and I was a high-minded sort of unformed young woman, open and receptive as a sponge during that particular philosophy course at the the CCAE. We wrote our essays by hand, there was no internet, television was fairly newly in colour and Canberra was a cocoon in which I was a silkworm being fed mulberry leaves and turning beautiful colours.

    It’s different now …

    (maybe not Canberra, but the world … the world is full of hundreds of thousands of societies and the best ones are not run by the feminist Tony Abbott)

    • margaret says:

      Oh but I do think Howard Gardner is terrific and I believe in a society that appreciates and values and encourages multiple intelligences.

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