An Illusory Intertwingling of Reason and Response

Philosophy: I wax philosophical, and many times violently politico-philosophical. If you can stand the heat, here’s the kitchen: enjoy your stay . . .

Tafel :: philosophy :: political

Monday, September 25, 2006

Society as a Construct

I've been contributing to Everything2 recently, and was inspired to contribute to the "Society" node. Here is the article as published in Everything2. It pretty much stands on its own as an exposition of my philosophy of society; so without further ado:

Society is a construct deriving from the necessity of groups of individuals to live in proximity to, depend on, and interact with each other. A society may define both social mores and social institutions, which take their root in the combination of individual moral values and individual activities: and as such, they are tantamount to implicit contracts that govern individuals as members of that society.

Society is used as a definer of "common good" (and by extension, often "higher good"). From a utilitarian standpoint, social mores and institutions which produce greater beneficial (subject, of course, to definition) impact for the greatest number of individuals within that society are considered superior to competing values. The social relativism (used here unperjoratively, simply to indicate adjudication based on social, rather than individual, effect) thus resulting often results in the concrete concept of the individual being demoted to near-abstraction and being supplanted by the abstraction that is society.

Unfortunately, this has been linked, especially in modern Western culture, to psychological and other problems in individuals. Common examples of the individual being placed beneath society are peer pressure (especially among adolescents) and material decadence (or "spending pressure", which has in one form or another been a prime target of American social reformers for much of the last century).

As a side note, peer pressure and conformity are some of the highest-priority concerns for adolescents. So much so, in fact, that ostracism from a group and non-conformity with that group can be severe causes of depression.

Suggestions for easing related social ills range from the minimal to the radical, and span the gamut of the individual-society gradient; and indeed, many of the key political debates of the present revolve around resolving the individual-society dichotomy. Currently the extremes (with reference to individualism/social relativism) lie at one end with the extreme liberals and conservatives of many Western governments — which advocate subjugating various aspects of individuality completely to society — and at the other with anarchists of various forms — which demand subjugating society entirely to individual whim. (See also Conservatism, Liberalism, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, Communism, Politics, and any other philosophy you can think of.)

And remember, even though:

This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn't the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. — Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

. . . the only value small green pieces of paper have is in the context of a society that values them, where they can define and promote actions of individuals possessing them within that society. So at the root of it, solving problems regarding the distribution of small green pieces of paper will not happen until problems are solved with the underlying structure of society and the implicit contracts between individuals which make it up, and the rules of interaction between individuals within a society are improved to reflect that change.