Jan 18, 2016
Social and Political Philosophy: What is the Best Society?
Social and Political Philosophy: What is the Best Society? States and Societies
Humans are social creatures: We like to do things in groups. varying sizes, including families, schools, sports teams, work shifts, church groups, social networks, neighbourhoods, towns, and citiesAt the largest macro levels, we organize ourselves into nations, states, and international communities, such as the United Nations or the Commonwealth.These groups have a variety of functions, including nurturing us, protecting us, or helping us in our quest for the "good lifeIn fact society is a term that refers to these groups, how they operate, and our place within themThe area of Philosophy that examines theories of how and why societies operate is Social Philosophy. An adjunct of Social Philosophy is Political Philosophy, which focuses on states, political systems, and human rights.
What is a Society? What is a State? Society: A set of individuals and/or institutions in relations governed by practical interdependence, convention, and perhaps law.State: The political organization of a body of people for the maintenance of order within its territory by coercion.
Societies, then, are groups of individuals working together, in some form. The state is a legalistic expression of this organization, with the ability to coerce (force) the compliance of individuals to this organization to maintain order.This force keeps the society functioning by regulating the relations between the individuals and institutions. This use of force, either agreed to by the individuals in the state or imposed upon them, is the law, the basic rules governing how society operates.How did states come to be?At one time our ancestors lived in small bands. These bands had rules and laws governing relations between members, based on their needs. As societies evolved and grew larger and more complex, the need for rules to more efficiently organize larger social units also evolved, leading to such forms of government as:monarchy (rule by a king or queen)oligarchy (rule by a small group)empire (rule of one group over others)theocracy (religious government) democracy (the people rule themselves)
The terms we use for these types of government are derived from Ancient Greek, because the theory of government we use derives from them.A variety of prefixes are added to the suffix archy, meaning a form of rule or government such as mono (one)olig (few)theo (god)demo (people)In Social and Political Philosophy, one of the main questions is how society should be organized. What is the ideal form of government and society?What is the Best Society? utopia (Greek meaning, not any place): the term is now used to describe any vision of an ideal society.
There have been innumerable utopias proposed, including many visions for future societies.
The literal meaning of the term is appropriate, as utopia is less a destination than a direction, as the ideal society will never be realized.
However, people will continue to construct societies and states that reflect their vision of the ideal.
The examples that follow are a few of the more famous utopian social visions.
The opposite of utopia is dystopia, the most undesirable society. Of course, one philosopher's utopia may well be another's dystopia.Plato's Republic In the Republic, the character Socrates discusses various examples of just societies.
Through this character, Plato proposed an ideal state designed to maximize social harmony and reduce conflict. Plato was leery of democracy having seen that if not exercised responsibly it could lead to corruption and tyranny, as it had in his city of Athens in the 5th century. Athens had a system of direct democracy, in which every citizen was entitled to attend the legislature and vote on every measure proposed. The assembly was enormous and could not even conduct business without a minimum of 6000 citizens present!
Anyone skilled in oratory, the art of making clever speeches, could sway the crowd, in a manner similar to today's politicians who look good on TV.
One of the criticisms of this form of democracy is that it was too democratic, did not protect the rights of individuals against the masses, and represented a "tyranny of the majority".
Plato proposed a system that would correct this and ensure harmony and peace. Society would be strictly organized; each citizen would belong to one of three social classes:
Guardians, who ruled the state for the benefit of all; Soldiers, who would defend the state and enforce the rules; and Workers, who would supply the needs of the others and enjoy the benefits of society.
In Plato's republic, there would be no private property and all goods would be owned in common.
This would eliminate the corrupting effects of material possessions and the desire to have more, and would eliminate the differences between rich and poor, since everyone would be economically equal.Each person would know his/her role in society. The family would not exist as a social unit and children would be nurtured and educated by the state to maximize their talents and for the specific role they would have, based on their individual characteristics. Plato's political theory of the tri-partite state is based on his notion of the tri-partite human soul, with its ruling elements.
Guardians represent reason, the highest element; soldiers are spirit, aggressive and passionate; workers are ruled by appetite, by the desire to have and make. In his theory of the human soul, Plato argues that reason needs to rule the other two, which are necessary to a healthy balance, in order to control and harness their ability, which, if left unchecked, will cause chaos.
In this utopia, everyone would be happy, because everyone would be doing what he/she was best suited to do.
Because ruling is a complex and difficult task, only the best and brightest children would be educated to become guardians.
Their education would lead them to become philosopher-kings, dedicated to ensuring justice for all.
Naturally, the guardians would be accountable to themselves alone, since only they were capable of ruling wisely or understanding what they were doing. They would have absolute power and would control every aspect of life.
This would include censoring art and literature, selective breeding of workers to produce the best workers, and deciding who would be educated as a guardian. The workers would be controlled by the noble lie of religion, in which the guardians would claim that the gods had mixed a precious metal in each person's soul, that is, gold for the guardians, silver for the soldiers, and bronze for the workers. By appealing to the gods and the natural order of things, the workers would be content with their place in society, even though the guardians were aware it was a lie.
Contrary to the standard of the time, which was staunchly misogynistic (woman-hating) Plato believed that women would be as suited to being guardians as men.Plato's utopian republic has been criticized for its anti-democratic basis, and it has been often cited as an inspiration for totalitarian forms of government such as fascism and communism.
The Republic itself raises concerns about how to curtail the unlimited power of the guardians.
Aristotle: The Politics
Aristotle, not surprisingly, differs from Plato in his approach to political organization. His views flow from his Ethics which are presented at the end of Nicomachean Ethics.
Just as Aristotle argues that the best life for each person to live should be based on their individual strengths, the best political system for each state will be based on the needs of the state. Thus, he does not propose one utopian system, as does Plato, but a range of possibilities. His work, The Politics is more a study of political systems and their theories than a proposal of a utopia.Aristotle was not so negative on democracy as Plato, but was concerned about its excesses, particularly with an uninformed or uninvolved populace.
Aristotle argued that while individuals might be unwise, as a group, they possessed a sort of wisdom. The range of opinions would lead to a "golden mean" of wisdom, which would allow them, as a group, to make good decisions.
However, there could be "too much democracy" and Aristotle favoured a system mixing oligarchy and democracy, with each working to balance out the other and keep things working smoothly to benefit all.
Examine the diagram (handout) to better understand Aristotle's analysis of various political forms.Thomas More: Utopia Thomas More is best remembered for being beheaded by King Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Henry's marriage.
wrote Utopia at a time (1516) when the Christian church was in the midst of the crisis of the Reformation brought about by Martin Luther's new Protestant concept of salvationIn Utopia, More used the story of a shipwrecked traveller as means to explore notions of how society should operate.
"Utopia" has been described as a "Christian communist" state, because there would be no ownership of private property and society would be organized along Christian lines.
With no private property, there would be no rich or poor, hence no class conflict. Equality was taken to an extreme: Everyone would dress identically, all houses would be the same (and people would swap them at regular intervals to discourage notions of "mine-ness"), each town would be identical, and everyone would work exactly six hours a day. The ruler would be elected, based on merit, and removed when not ruling properly. Slavery was part of Utopian society, slaves being criminals serving out sentences fo