A Good Society

In today’s entry, I intend to answer a question that humanity has struggled to answer for most if not all of its existence. What is a good society, and how do we get from here to there?

First of all, notice that the title of this entry is “A Good Society” rather than “The Good Society.” I don’t think that there can be, or should be, a single monolithic definition of what qualifies as a good society for all people, all places, and all times. However, as a human, I am a social and political animal. As a social and political animal, I desire to live in a good society, with good being defined relative to both my innate human potentials and the social and ecological context I live in. Therefore, I feel driven to describe what I, as a human being situated in a particular personal, social, and ecological context, believe are qualities of a good society that apply to my context in particular and arguably to most human contexts that are even remotely similar to mine.

I’ve come up with several qualities that I would argue describe a good society. Where possible, I relate these back to the principles outlined in my Foundations of Philosophy of Politics article.

1. Freedom

Freedom is a core quality that defines us as humans. A good society embraces this quality and does what it can to protect and nourish this quality. Any society that places involuntary limits on anyone’s freedom without offering them a way to “opt out” and forsake their social contract with other members of society is not a good society.

Some people believe that freedom is a quality that must be balanced with other concerns such as a concern for the common good. I disagree. This implies that we must take away certain freedoms in order to serve the common good, and that we must sacrifice a bit of the common good in order to let people remain free. This is sloppy, one-dimensional, zero-sum thinking. Instead, I argue that freedom and the common good must be harmonized, not balanced.

What does this means? Balancing our innate tendencies toward freedom and social cooperation means that we must learn to create social, economic, and political structures that empower us to choose to cooperate with each other while not eliminating our freedom of choice in the process.

The default assumption in a free society is that all individuals are free to do whatever they choose to do. The only valid reason for an individual or institution to even consider restricting someone else’s freedom is because that someone is attempting to harm to others, either by restricting their freedom or acting in a way that disrupts their health or well-being (i.e. physical injury, emotional/mental suffering, exposure to carcinogens, etc.).

Types of freedom include, but are not limited to: freedom of thought and belief; freedom of expression and communication; freedom of assembly and association; freedom of movement and migration; and freedom to form consensual contracts with other free individuals and groups of free individuals.

2. Direct Democracy

As social, economic, and political animals, most humans almost inevitably choose to live in a society with one another. As mentioned in the previous section, our dual nature as both individual and social creatures creates a potential tension between our choices as individuals and the interests or decisions of social, economic, and political groups or institutions. This tension, however, can be resolved through direct democracy.

Direct democracy is a decision-making process in which all members of an organization have equal authority and opportunity to participate in decisions made about actions that will be taken by the group as a whole. Depending on the size, purpose, and preferences of the group, this can vary from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority to more complex systems such as formal consensus decision-making.

Not all organizations in a good society need to be direct democracies. Unless there is harm or coercion involved, people should be free to form whatever types of organizations and relationships they choose. For example, parent-child relationships, teacher-student relationships, and clergy-congregant relationships are all examples of potentially non-democratic relationships that can exist in a good society. The parent-child relationship is a special case due to the fact that the child is not yet able to offer informed consent and the parent is their guardian. The other examples, however, are cases where individuals freely choose to enter into arrangements where one person has more decision-making authority than another, but all people involved have agreed that this is an acceptable arrangement. In a sense, since these are voluntary forms of association, entry into the organization or relationship is a way of casting a vote in favor of letting certain people in the organization or relationship make decisions on behalf of the group.

Non-democratic organizations, and non-direct democracies, may be acceptable social arrangements if all people involved have joined them voluntarily and are equally free to leave them voluntarily. However, they should be strongly discouraged or avoided entirely in an economic and political context.

Economic and political decisions are both matters of life or death and matters of freedom or bondage. The process of making economic and political decisions is the process by which we individually and collectively secure both our freedoms and our livelihoods. Therefore, each individual must have the power to participate directly and democratically in all economic and political decisions that affect their freedom and their health and well-being.

This is a profound statement, and a contentious statement that some people will disagree with. It is, however, firmly rooted in the foundations that proceed it. If we are to have a free society, and we are to have a democratic society, then each of us must be able to participate directly and democratically in all economic and political decisions that affect our freedoms and our health and well-being.

What does this look like in practice? It will vary from person to person, place to place, culture to culture. I will explore the question more thoroughly through my issue-based articles. In the meantime, here are a few general examples of what I mean.

In economic terms, any economic entity that conducts business of any sort should either be a self-employment sole proprietorship (an individual freely making their own economic decisions) or an economic cooperative/collective (a group of individuals who have chosen freely to engage in directly democratic decision-making about their shared economic enterprise). For-profit corporations, and other arrangements that involve capital being held by one or more capitalists while labor is conducted by one or more workers, create an inherent tension between the freedom of choice of the capitalists and the freedom of choice of the workers. Once such hierarchies of economic authority are created and institutionalized, society is stuck trying to “balance” the rights of these two classes. As noted earlier, “balancing” rights leads to choosing one over the other rather than finding ways for both to exist simultaneously and harmoniously. Rather than descending into an endless conflict between capitalists and workers, as humanity has done far too often, it is better to ensure that all people who work are co-owners of the material resources with which they do their work.

In political terms, this principle of direct democracy means that representative democracy is merely a transitional form of democracy along the path to direct democracy. Representative democracy is preferable to feudalism, or plutocracy, or other forms of unabashed authoritarianism. It is, however, itself a kinder, gentler form of authoritarianism. The “common people” choose a “leader” to make political decisions “on their behalf” for two, four, or more years. If the people who that politician “represents” decide that they don’t agree with these decisions, there is often little or nothing they can do about that until the next election cycle. If most or all of the politicians are corrupted by bribes or other outside influences, the citizens of the representative democracy are simply out of luck.

In a direct democracy of any size beyond about a dozen people, there will surely be politicians, and these politicians will almost inevitably be making decisions on behalf of their constituents. But politicians should be administrators, not policy-makers. They should serve the will of the people by enacting our decisions, not supersede the will of the people by making policy decisions on our behalf. We, the people, should decide on questions of policy directly and democratically, in accordance with the principles of our society and our educated opinion as to what policies will be most helpful in putting those principles into practice.

3. Ecological Integrity

Humans are ecological animals. In retrospect, I should have included this in the list of premises in my Foundations of Philosophy of Politics article. It slipped my mind, however, because referring to us as animals strongly implies (for me, anyway) that we are ecologically situated creatures rather than abstract forms that exist independent of an ecological context.

As ecological animals, we must ensure that the physical and institutional infrastructure of our society are designed both to fulfill our goals and to work in harmony with ecological principles. Arguably, this is an ethical or moral imperative based on our innate capacity to engage in free and mutually beneficial cooperation with the non-human world. In addition to ethical and moral considerations, however, this quality of a good society is also a measure of our very sanity and capacity to survive in the long term. Living communities that act in harmony with ecological principles are capable of finding a niche in their local ecology and living there indefinitely. Living communities that don’t live in such harmony, and don’t find such a niche, inevitably exhaust crucial resources and end up experiencing environmental stresses and ultimately a crash in population.

I’ll talk about the specifics of ecological integrity in future articles. In the meantime, the general principle of ecological integrity is one that arguably all human societies must adhere to. If we do not, our behavior will be corrected in rather unpleasant ways by the ecological realities we have chosen to ignore. It is better to choose freely and reasonably how we relate to our ecological environment than to ignore said environment and end up having harsher and narrower choices forced upon us down the road due to our collective lack of foresight.

The Path from Here to a Good Society

Do we in the United States of America currently live in a good society?

“Good society” is a relative term. Relative to feudal societies, I think we do. Relative to some of the less free and less fortunate societies in the world today, I think we do. But how are we doing relative to the social democracies of other nations? Perhaps more importantly, how are we doing relative to where we could be in ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years if we put our minds to it?

We have made progress as a species in the way in which we structure our societies. Some aspects of our institutional structure and cultural sensibilities in the United States of America are a shining example of this progress. However, other aspects of our society are examples of how systems of oppression are also becoming more advanced right alongside systems of liberation.

Our political system, especially on the state and federal levels, has become a tragically corrupt and twisted mockery of the democracy that many of us feel it should have and could have been. Politicians must raise millions of dollars to secure their place in office, and in the process they become beholden to the large corporations and other wealthy interest groups that fund their campaigns. I still believe that there are a small percentage of politicians who genuinely seek to serve their constituents against all odds, but the vast majority are either tainted by their corporate donors or had no genuinely democratic motivations to start with.

Our economic system is arguably in far worse shape. In the political sphere, there is at least the pretense, and the occasional reality, of democracy. The economic sphere, on the other hand, is dominated almost entirely by massive transnational corporations that are the very antithesis of a democracy. Bankers, traders, and shareholders rake in billions of dollars of profit and choose the executives who will make decisions on behalf of the corporations, while everyday workers in said corporations do almost all of the material labor and see almost none of the material benefit.

There is, however, still hope for the creation of a good society.

In order to get from here to there, we have to start a public conversation about what constitutes a good society. We have to explore this question in detail — like I’m doing in my articles, but in a public dialog rather than one person’s monologue. This may seem like a needlessly abstract exercise to some people, but since we obviously seem to disagree with each other vehemently on individual policies, we need to get to the root of the matter and examine the foundations of our political decisions. Otherwise, we will just be flailing at each other as we bicker about policy issues and have no shared foundation to draw on in making our policy decisions.

Admitting that there is a problem is the first step to finding a solution. Once we’ve taken that first step, we can work together to find solutions that most of us find agreeable, and that almost all of us find tolerable.

The most important part of this process is to start working in our own communities to build a better society from the ground up. We can draw on the strengths of what already exist and tear down what no longer serves us. We can create directly democratic political and economic institutions in our own communities that challenge and replace the local, state, federal, and transnational institutions that are currently failing to hear our voices and meet our needs. We can create local communities of freedom, direct democracy, and ecological integrity that are prefigurative of larger regional organizations that will eventually form the foundation of a better society.

What do I mean by prefigurative? I mean that our local communities can possess all of the qualities that we support in society at large. In other words, our communities can each be a miniature example of the general principles that we advocate for society as a whole. I also mean that as we work on creating a better local community, along every step of the way, we will talk about how what we’re doing can be a model for what others in our region and nation can do to create a better society. In other words, the process of creating a good community, when followed to its natural conclusion, will also result in the creation of a good society.

I realize that even as I become mildly more specific, some of this still remains rather abstract.

First of all, this is because I believe that it’s undesirable to lay out the details with too much specificity. Each person is different; each community is different; each region is different; each nation is different. The details of this approach can only be made clear by groups of people who have come together freely to make directly democratic decisions about how they choose to relate to each other and their ecological environments.

Second, this is because I’ll be answering some of the more specific questions of policy in my issue-based posts, which will soon follow. These issue-based posts will indicate what public policies I support based on the foundations I’ve presented in my philosophy of politics articles. While these policy statements are rooted in my foundations, they will also be heavily focused on what I believe can and must be done in the here and now rather than what I would do in some idealized “good society.” There are plenty of policy decisions we as a society can and must make right here, right now, in our current context, that will go a long way toward improving our society. I will explore what those policy decisions are in my future posts on public policy.

Thank you to those of you who have actually read these philosophy of politics articles. ๐Ÿ™‚ I look forward to any comments you may have about them. Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, though, I look forward to delving into policy debates on issues such as health care, immigration, climate change, and whatever other policy questions come up in the next few weeks. Let me know what you think, and I’ll let you know what I think about these issues soon!

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Kick-Ass and Real Life Superheroes

“Kick-Ass” is a new movie that came out last Friday here in the U.S. It’s based on a comic book by the same name that features a high school student who decides to become a superhero in real life by donning a costume and going on patrol to fight crime.

I’m a big fan of superhero movies. I’m also a Real Life Superhero. Naturally, I was eager to check this out. Now, I’m equally eager to talk about it. First, I’ll talk about the movie itself. (Spoiler Alert!) Then, I’ll talk about the implications for the Real Life Superhero movement and society at large.

Kick-Ass was both entertaining and high-quality. I’ll admit when I enjoy a trashy movie purely for it’s entertainment value rather than any artistic or literary qualities. This film, however, did have its moments of glory and ended up being a good movie overall.

For those of you who are still biased against superhero films, allow me to explain.

First of all, I really liked the way it explored the dynamic tension between a realistic and unrealistic portrayal of superheroes in real life. The story as a whole was grounded in a reality-based continuity, but there were two strands pulling it in opposite directions.

The main character, Kick-Ass, was more realistic, and human, and fallible, and vulnerable. His origin story was simple and believable, and he was constantly bringing humanity and realism back into the story by suffering wounds, having doubts, making mistakes, being frustrated, and responding to serious threats by panicking, thinking about loved ones, and wanting to just go back to an ordinary life. This was the most realistic big screen portrayal that I’ve ever seen of an otherwise ordinary person who chooses to put on a costume/uniform and go on crime-fighing patrols.

The “dynamic duo,” Hit Girl and Big Daddy, were about as much like comic book superheroes (anti-heroes?) as they could be in a setting that was committed to a fairly strict realism. Their back story is an interesting, but deeply stereotypical, revenge story straight from the comics. The entire exposition of that story is revealed through an animated comic sequence, which stressed the fact that the back story is intentionally lifted from comic book reality. Their fascinating but bizarre relationship, their fanatical arsenal, their exceptional martial abilities, and their cold and calculating approach to killing criminals all pull us into viewing this as a comic book story.

Through this dynamic tension, Kick-Ass shows us what the consequences of a fairly realistic approach to being a superhero would be like, while Hit Girl and Big Daddy show us what would happen if we unleashed the madness of ultraviolent comic book reality into an otherwise real world setting.

If a skeptical viewer doesn’t “get” this tension, it may seem like the characters are just a mish-mash of varying degrees of realism, and thus it may seem like any other sloppy action movie plot. But really, the often subtle interplay between these two threads is what really made the movie for me.

As a movie, then, I not only thoroughly enjoyed it, but also thought it was very well-done.

With that said, I have a few comments on the implications of this movie on real life and the Real Life Superhero movement.

First of all, Kick-Ass is not a realistic portrayal of the Real Life Superhero movement. For anyone out there who can’t distinguish between Hollywood and reality, I repeat: Kick-Ass is not a realistic portrayal of the Real Life Superhero movement.

Hit Girl and Big Daddy are obviously extreme comic book characters who have been translated into obviously extreme action movie characters. Hopefully, no sane person is going to go out there and emulate their approach to crimefighting. But even Kick-Ass, who is the anchor of realism among these superheroes, is not quite like what Real Life Superheroes do.

The street patrols are good, and there are some great moments like the training scenes, the lost cat search, and the soda at the convenience store that seemed like real moments in the life of a superhero. But at times Kick-Ass adopts the attitude of a vigilante rather than a more responsible and law-abiding crimefighter.

On the one hand, this attitude is definitely realistic for an inexperienced teenager who is doing this on his own. There are surely some people out there like him who will walk up to criminals and pick a fight with them. Kick-Ass, then, is arguably the first on-screen portrayal of a Real Life Superhero. But if Kick-Ass were on one of the Real Life Superhero message boards, he’d have people advising him to tone down the attitude!

Not all Real Life Superheroes are crimefighters. I, for example, support local community groups and charities and have no plans in the near future to do a neighborhood watch patrol. But the Real Life Superheroes who ARE crimefighters usually act a lot more like neighborhood watch members than vigilantes. They keep an eye out for crime and call the police when they encounter it. Their goal is to avoid and minimize violence rather than go around kicking the asses of criminals. Like anyone else, they have the right to self-defense if they are attacked while conducting a neighborhood watch. Like anyone else, they have the right to defend someone else who is being attacked. In some cities and states, they even have a right (like anyone else) to perform a “citizen’s arrest” and detain an alleged criminal until the police arrive. They do not, however, go out and threaten or beat up criminals. Whenever anyone on the forums I’ve been to starts talking about that kind of behavior, red flags go up, and people start to object.

I give this movie tremendous credit, however, for at least trying to present Kick-Ass’ Real Life Superhero adventure in a realistic manner for most of the movie. The initial stabbing scene shows what is likely to happen if an inexperienced person walks up to petty criminals who are committing a crime and tries to use threats and force to stop them. They will probably get stabbed or shot, and the perps will probably flee to avoid capture. Also, in the fight that won him his fame, I really like the fact that he told the witness to go call 911. He stumbled onto that fight accidentally, and his goal in fighting was clearly just to protect the victim while waiting for the police to arrive. This is very fair — and while Real Life Superheroes thankfully don’t end up in that brutal of a fight very often, there have been times when they’ve had to physically defend people from attackers. As long as they’re not the ones picking the fight, this is generally within the boundaries of the law. I thought that the scene where Kick-Ass stands over the prone body of the victim and says he would die to protect him is one of the most intense and real scenes of genuine superhero bravado that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

So, even the most realistic character, and the one who serves the most as a role model and source of identification for the viewer, has tendencies toward vigilantism rather than responsible neighborhood watch. Even so, I think this exploration of being a Real Life Superhero is definitely worth watching. When he strays into vigilantism, he suffers serious consequences. When he draws the attention of powerful criminals, he suffers serious consequences. And when he encounters ultraviolence, he is horrified. The only real gap in this is his role in the final battle, which he was really only drawn into by the over-the-top comic-book plot arch of Big Daddy and Hit Girl.

Before I end this blog, I do want to mention one more thing about the movie’s portrayal of diversity.

Sadly, the movie succumbs to the almost unavoidable Hollywood perpetuation of “isms” — in this case, sexism, racism, and heterosexism.

Hit Girl is the only developed female character, and she’s a tween who has been turned into a ruthless killer. Her mother is dead, as is Kick-Ass’ mother. The only other female characters who receive any attention are Kick-Ass’ teacher and girlfriend, both of whom mostly exist for his sexual gratification. The girlfriend, at least, has some interesting character twists, but probably wouldn’t stand as a character in her own right. The female characters aren’t necessarily one-dimensional, but with the exception of Hit Girl, I don’t think they make it past two dimensional, and mostly exist for the male characters.

The perpetual portrayal of Italians as mafiosos is not surprising, and a little bit predictable and annoying, but perhaps forgivable since the mafia does in fact exist and is composed of Italians. On the other hand, I didn’t see why the “petty criminals” had to be people of color, and why none of the superheroes were. Either fact in isolation may have seemed okay, but both in conjunction seemed a bit unsettling It felt to me like some of the usual unconscious racism that often appears in the corporate media.

Finally, I was a little uneasy with the whole subplot surrounding rumors that Kick-Ass was gay, and subsequent interactions with his female friend (and eventual girl friend). On the one hand, it definitely fit with the context of how straight teenagers think about and talk about their own and each other’s orientations. On the other hand, since all of the characters are straight, it raises the question without having any real portrayals of a gay or lesbian character to serve as a resolution. Of course, not every movie can tackle every issue — but it’s a point worth noting and talking about.

Since these points are common themes in almost all movies that come out of Hollywood, they didn’t really distract or detract much from my enjoyment or appreciation of the film. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but there it is. I had to at least mention something about them, though, if only to spark thought and discussion on portrayals of gender and race and sexual orientation in the corporate media.

Anyway, this movie response has gone on far too long, and I must sleep. In conclusion, I would say that the movie is entertaining, well-written, and definitely good food for thought in terms of what Real Life Superheroes are (and aren’t) like.

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VILLAIN WATCH: 20 April 2010

Welcome to the first edition of Villain Watch!

Villain Watch is a weekly review of ominous ecological and social justice news stories. Each edition starts with a short introduction followed by several News and Action links. The message of Villain Watch is that each of us has the power to make the world a better place, no matter how grim the situation may be.

Be a hero! Act now in defense of our lives, our health, our freedom, and the Earth!


Banking on Dirty Energy

One of the biggest environmental disasters in recent history is happening in our own country, and JP Morgan Chase is financing it รขโ‚ฌโ€œ to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

JP Morgan Chase is the largest US bank financing mountaintop removal coal mining, which literally involves blowing the tops off historic Appalachian Mountains and poisoning drinking water to extract a relatively small amount of dirty coal.


Talk to Chase in Your Community

Tell Chase to stop funding destructive mountaintop removal coal mining. Rainforest Action Network is calling for actions to stop Chase’s financing of the destruction of the Appalachian mountains. We are now looking to team with you in pressuring Chase out of the MTR business.


Texas Education Board Approves Conservative Curriculum Changes By Far-Right

“A far-right faction of the Texas State Board of Education succeeded in injecting conservative ideals into social studies, history and economics lessons that will be taught to millions of students for the next decade.”


Stand Up To The Texas Taliban

Since Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, material written to cater to the Texas curricula will find its way into textbooks across the country unless textbook publishers take a stand.

We can’t allow a small group of extreme ideologues on the Texas State Board of Education to re-write history. Tell textbook publishers to stand up to the Texas Taliban.


Study and Teach:
People’s History of the United States [text]
People’s History of the United States [book]

“A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn is a comprehensive overview of United States history from the perspective of everyday people. It covers a great deal of important material left out by most high school and college level history curriculum. It can be used as a textbook or as reference material.


Supreme Court Shreds Campaign-Finance Laws, Lifts Corporate Spending Restrictions

In a sweeping 5-4 ruling, the US Supreme Court on Thursday struck down several longstanding prohibitions on corporate political contributions, saying legislative measures to control such spending infringed upon corporate First Amendment free speech rights.


Pass Legislation to Get Corporate Money Out of Politics

Sign our petition to President Obama and the Congressional leadership telling them they must enact strong laws to save our democracy from the pernicious influence of corporate money.

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Foundations of Philosophy of Politics

What is philosophy of politics?

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, is the deepening of our understanding of the world. Politics, the practice of citizenship, is the development of relationships between members of a society. Philosophy of politics, then, is the deepening of our understanding of the development of relationships between members of a society.

A purely theoretical and value-neutral approach to philosophy of politics merely seeks to understand what the different types of political relationships and philosophies are and how or why they come into existence. It makes no judgments as to which relationships and philosophies are better or how people can transform political relationships for the better.

I, on the other hand, seek a very practical and normative understanding of philosophy of politics. Yes, we must start by understanding what the different relationships and philosophies are and how and why they come into being. Our inquiry into these questions, though, should be guided by an overarching goal to discover our greatest potential as political beings and develop strategies to make that potential more manifest in the world.

In other words, our primary goal in the study of philosophy of politics should be the creation of a good society.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that there’s only one type of good society, or that we should come up with some abstract idea of what society should be like and hack away at the rough edges of our society until it fits into the box we’ve created for it. It does, however, mean that we can — and must — use our innate capacity for reason and observation to take a step back, take a look at our society, and do our best to understand why it is how it is today and what we can do to make it better.

Human Nature

Philosophy in general addresses many complex and difficult questions. When attempting to develop a “Theory of Everything” that describes the nature of the entire world, it’s hard for anyone to know where to start, where to finish, and what to do along the way.

Luckily, philosophy of politics is a more narrow discipline.

In theory, we still need to answer all of those messy questions about the nature of being, the acquisition of knowledge, and the ascription of value (moral, ethical, aesthetic, or otherwise). In practice, there is one question that usually if not always serves as the foundation for any exploration of the philosophy of politics.

What is human nature?

Once this question is answered, there are many other questions that a political philosopher must answer. Most if not all of these questions, however, have their roots in this one.

(Of course, if we encounter other self-aware creatures with whom we can debate philosophy of politics, we will need to expand this question. In the meantime, since everyone who can read this article is presumably a human being, the question at hand is the nature of human beings.)

In this article, I’m going to make some bold assertions about human nature. I believe that these assertions are, where possible, born out by empirical evidence and reasonable conclusions that we can draw based on this evidence. If you disagree with one of these premises, that would certainly be a simple way to dispute the soundness of my overall argument. However, for the sake of argument, here are my assumptions:

  • Humans are social animals. Yes, we can go for long periods of time without human contact, and some humans seem to prefer doing so. Some of us also exhibit decidedly anti-social behavior. However, a human infant would be hard-pressed to survive without the aid of a parent or parents, and our species seems to have put a great deal of evolutionary effort into developing social traits such as speech, empathy, and an almost universal desire for human companionship. Therefore, humans are in general social animals by nature.
  • Humans are individualistic animals. This doesn’t contradict the above statement. It merely reflects the complexity of human nature. As one of the few deeply self-aware animals on Earth, we are uniquely gifted with the capacity to see ourselves as discreet individuals and act in pursuit of our own rational self-interest rather than purely in response to instinctual drives.
  • Humans possess an innate potential to reason. Depending on our age, health, education level, and other factors, our capacity for reason may vary. In general, however, we as a species have the innate potential and frequent tendency to attempt to make sense of the world by considering how we can draw valid conclusions from our observations of the world around us.
  • Humans are political animals. Aristotle famously said as much, and I tend to agree. I see this as a consequence of the above three points. We are social; we are individuals; we think about the world. Therefore, we think and talk about how we as individuals relate to each other in a social environment.
  • Humans possess an innate potential for freewill. We are self-aware and reasoning creatures. These two traits combined empower us to recognize that we are distinct individuals and can act in the manner of our choosing.
  • Humans possess an innate potential for social cooperation. This is not to say that we are destined to live in peace and harmony for the rest of our days. It does, however, mean that on some level, we want to cooperate and have the capacity to develop the social, intellectual, and emotional skills required to do so.
  • Humans possess an innate potential to choose freely to engage in mutually beneficial forms of social cooperation. We can debate until the ends of time whether there is some inherently flawed, sinful, or otherwise unfortunate aspect of human nature that drives us to desire things that are harmful to other people, or that benefit us at the expense of other people. In the end, however, this questions is largely irrelevant. The more important questions is this: can we as human beings choose freely to engage in forms of mutually beneficial forms of social cooperation? I say yes. If I’m wrong, then we’re all locked in a “zero-sum” game where people seek to better their situation at the expense of those around them. If that’s the case, then I see little point in engaging in philosophy of politics, or seeking to create a better society.
  • Humans are adaptive and malleable. All of the above describes the most basic potentials and general tendencies of human nature. They are a fairly predictable and reliable part of our evolutionary heritage. However, we are not ideal forms floating around in some realm of ideal forms. We are also not physical manifestations of ideal forms. We are living organisms — and though we are structured in such a way that most of us tend to share certain innate potentials and behavioral tendencies, there is no cosmic law saying that we will all live up to those potentials, or that those potentials will never change. Individual, social, environmental, genetic, or other forces may result in changes to these potentials and how they manifest in the world. The bad news about this is that potentials and tendencies that we consider desirable can possibly be reduced or eliminated. The good news is that those potentials and tendencies that we consider desirable can also be promoted or maximized. In other words, society in general may one day be better or worse than it is today based on our choices in regards to the evolutionary development of human nature. Do we choose to favor our innate potential for free cooperation, or do we choose to squander it?
  • Human nature, and thus the philosophy of politics, can be fully understood through our nature as human animals. Personally, I have strong spiritual beliefs about human nature and the nature of the world that go far beyond what is outlined above. However, I believe that whatever else we may or may not be, we are in this moment human beings, and human beings are a particular species of animal that possesses the traits described above, among others. Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, the above should serve as an accurate description of several of our crucial innate potentials as human beings. Therefore, it serves as a solid foundation for the philosophy of politics.

Toward a Good Society

As I said earlier, there isn’t just one ideal “Good Society” that all humans should be striving for. There are many good societies, and many bad societies, and all real societies are somewhere in between. The project of philosophy of politics is to understand what the most general traits of a good society are, to discover strands of those traits that already exist in our society, and to encourage the further development of those positive strands for the benefit of both individuals and the society as a whole.

This is no small task. And yet, in our own way, every time we address a political issue, we are working on this task. When we comment or act on an issue of public policy, we are hopefully trying to create a better society. The goal of philosophy of politics is to deepen our understanding of what politics is and how we can engage in it for the mutual benefit of all. This is, of course, an ideal goal that can never be fully realized, especially since there is no one ideal “Good Society” that we are developing toward. However, the process of examining and transforming our political relationships is as close to a utopian society as our complex, organic, dynamic species can achieve.

In my next article, I will explore what I consider to be the qualities of a good society. Once again, there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all blueprint for creating a good society. Each society needs to develop its own institutions and structures that are rooted in its history, culture, and other particular and highly variable circumstances. However, I believe that there are a few broad qualities that many, most, or perhaps even all good societies will possess. I don’t believe that any one person, or group of people for that matter, is fully qualified to make such an assessment. However, I believe that applying our capacity for reason to the analysis of our political relationships, and working to improve those relationships, is a part of what it means to be political animals who desire to live in a good society. Therefore, I intend to do what I can in this area and hope for the best.

After I’ve described what I see as some of the broadest and most universal qualities of a good society, I intend to write several articles on particular issues that we in the United States of America are currently facing. The arguments that I make in these articles will be rooted in the foundational principles described in this article and the qualities of a good society described in the next article. My goal with these single issue articles, however, will be very practical. There will, of course, be some theoretical discussion of how a “Good Society” would address these issues. However, my main goal in those articles, and in this entire series, is to promote thoughtful and effective action to transform our society for the better. Given that goal, practical arguments about actions that we can take right now as an individual, as communities, and as a society will take precedence over any consideration of what would or could be an “ideal” way of doing things.

I expect that my single-issue articles will draw the most comments. However, in the meantime, your comments on these Foundations of Philosophy of Politics would be greatly appreciated.

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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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