Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Bad Society

One might think that morality is a matter of promoting the good of one's society, understood as an entity in its own right. (I think that Peter may believe something along these lines.) An immediate problem is that we might reasonably doubt whether there really exists any such entity, or whether we can sensibly talk of it having a 'good', or welfare interests. But even if we can ascribe a societal telos -- longevity and power, say -- there's the more fundamental problem that the society might be objectively bad, and so not worth helping at all.

Imagine a dystopia of ruthless efficiency, where individuals are brainwashed from birth and tightly controlled by faceless institutions. Members eat dull, nutritious food; work productively on uninspired projects that increase the power of society's institutions (though never, of course, its private citizens); and reproduce in sufficient numbers to further support this 'purpose'. The society is little more than a virus, propagating itself to no higher end; still, we may suppose that this miserable situation is perfectly sustainable. So there seem no formal grounds to deny that the continued exploitation of the people could in fact be good for the State ("society").

Suppose, by some fluke, you manage to overcome your brainwashing. Are you morally obligated to continue to serve this society? On the contrary, it seems far more plausible that you're obligated to destroy the miserable institutions and start a whole new society in its place -- one that will be better for its inhabitants.

I conclude, then, that people are not universally obliged to serve "their society", i.e. the institutional order they actually happen to find themselves in. At most, we are obligated to serve our collective, which is simply us - a plurality of persons - and not some impersonal entity that exists over and above us. (Perhaps this is all that was meant by 'society' all along?) But even then, it wouldn't do for us to exploit some other group of innocent people, even if it would be to our society's advantage. So we need to expand the collective to all beings with moral status. We might call this the 'universal society', but it's no longer clear that the label is doing any real work.

7 comments:

  1. Wow. I know you hate this, but cf. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals second essay.

    By the way, doesn't your description of a dystopia sound a lot like the society we live in? And isn't that "fluke" the little moment when we all start asking philosophical questions?

    All in all I'd have to say the thesis here is quite obvious. However there is a check one has to make and realize that he always has to deal with that society that he knows isn't perfect.

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  2. See also: The Declaration of Independence. To paraphrase, if you find yourself in a society with institutions that do not support fundamental human ends, like the pursuit of happiness, then you should work to alter or abolish the institutions, replacing them with institutions that are more conducive to those ends.

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  3. In some sense serving society is by definition supporting the status quo because in a sense the status quo is society (if it isn't then what is the difference?).

    that is a little different from "doing what society wants" and "doing what some group claims society wants" (like how people might claim what a 'real maori' or a 'real african american' does) and probably a lot different from "promoting the good of one's society".

    Lots to explore there but in particular there is the confusion between doing what somthing/one wants and what promotes their good. for example a dysfunctional society could be rather like a dangerous drug addict - they WANT you to give then drugs but you know thats just slow suicide.

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  4. I am struck by some of the evaluative words in your description - "miserable", "better". How can we assume that the people in such a society, who have never known anything else, would be miserable? How are you defining better? Not that I would want to live in such a society either. It sounds miserable to me too. But that could be because both of us live in societies where "good" for the society and the individual have been defined in particular ways.

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  5. That's quite the straw man argument. Never, for example, have I identified society with the state. What is good for society may very well be bad for the state. Often what is best for society is best for the individuals composing it, to to improve their lives is to better society, and vice versa, in most situations. The wellfare of society might be compared to the total good of utlitarianism, both are aggregate measures which have no direct reflection in the real world; you can't read off total happiness or the wellbeing of society just from a few people or from whether people express dissatisfaction or not. As an off the cuff description consider the wellbeing of society a measure of that societies competitiveness as compared to other societies. Will other societies technologically outpace this one, will they motivate its members to defect to them, and so on. By these standards your hypothetical society is bad because ruthless efficiency sucks at producing innovation and it sucks at attracting members from other societies. It also has a hard time holding onto its own members, since no brainwashing is perfect. Thus in the long run it (like Sparta) isn't very competitive.

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  6. "Often what is best for society is best for the individuals composing it."

    So what? My point is simply that this convenient coincidence is not guaranteed to hold. And when they diverge, it is the welfare of the people, not the society, that matters.

    "Will other societies technologically outpace this one, will they motivate its members to defect to them, and so on. By these standards your hypothetical society is bad because ruthless efficiency sucks at producing innovation and it sucks at attracting members from other societies. It also has a hard time holding onto its own members, since no brainwashing is perfect. Thus in the long run it (like Sparta) isn't very competitive."

    Nonsense. As the author of the thought experiment, I get to stipulate that my miserable society can and does outcompete the others (even in the long run). This is logically possible: there's a possible world where this is true, and it serves as my counterexample.

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  7. Ok Richard, whatever you say. But I would disagree that it is logically possible, since we are comparing a societies effectiveness to all possible societies, not just those that happen to be arround it. To be convincing you need to specify how it is better than any other possible society, not just wave your hands and make a claim. If it was that easy then every philosophical position could be defeated in about 2 sentances. (You claim that X is the best/better in general. Consider my thought experiment in which Y is better by stipulation. Therefore you are wrong.)

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