The term "society" is a generalization, like such terms as "left wing" or "right wing" - single terms for broad classifications of people. All generalizations have pros and cons but we all use them. If we didn't then the only way we could say anything descriptive about these large collections of people would be to describe all those thousands (or millions or billions) of "rivulets" individually, with all their almost infinite variety. It would take forever to say anything! So we have to generalize. We talk about particular societies having collective characteristics. Obviously we know that not every single member of that society shares those characteristics to the same degree, or at all. But that's the downside of all generalizations. They sacrifice precise detail in exchange for brevity.
If the term is intended merely as a generalization it is harmless and may be accurate. But it is often used to denote an ontologically distinct entity, with goals and interests which are contrasted, and which may conflict, with those of individuals. Such contrasts make no sense if the term is meant as a generalization, since the "interests of society" are nothing but
the interests of the individuals who constitute it.
Groups (of any kind) have no properties, other than statistical ones, not traceable to the properties of its members, and propositions sbout groups are non-cognitive (they have no determinable truth values) unless they can be translated into propositions about the members of the group. E.g., we can say, "Utah is a Mormon state," if we understand it to mean that some significant fraction of its population are Mormons. It is they who have that property, not the state per se
. On the other hand, if we say, "Utah has a population of 3 million," we are then speaking of the state per se
(no member of that group has a population of 3 million).
Any proposition purporting to contrast the "interests of the state" with the interests of individuals must be translatable into statements contrasting the interests of some individuals with those of other individuals. And that always raises the question: Does Tom have any duty to pursue the interests of Dick and Harry?
There is an almost universal assumption among politicians, pundits, and even political philosophers to conceive of "society" as an organic unity, and even as a moral agent with goals, interests, and a welfare distinct from those of the individuals who constitute it. That is an ontolological mistake.
Why is it any more of an ontological mistake than talking about a single person as an "organic unity", or talking about the collective behaviour of any
group of related interacting things? An individual person is a collective of billions of individual cells. He/she has many facets to their personality and is, in a very real sense, a different person as time passes. If you abandon the whole idea that a collection can have properties then you abandon much more than the particular example of "society".
That is an excellent question. Not all groups of interacting things qualify as "organic unities." Living organisms are, of course, the paradigm examples of organic unities, but there are many others --- the many parts of an airplane or automobile, when arranged in the proper way, are also organic unities. The constituent parts of an organic unity are chosen, organized, and interact per some sort of design.
They all work together in pursuit of a common goal because they are designed to do so. For a living organism the design is spelled out in its DNA; for the airplane, in a set of blueprints. The component parts of organic unities are tightly coupled
; they can perform no functions other than those they were designed to serve, and have no degrees of freedom other than those permitted by the design. The cells of a walrus, for example, cannot leave their host and decide to join up with a whale. Nor can a heart cell function as a kidney cell. An airplane's fuel pump cannot function as a beverage dispenser.
Human societies, on the other hand, are complex adaptive systems (CAS) --- collections of autonomous agents with individual goals and interests who find it to their advantage to remain in a setting where they can interact with others of their choosing for certain purposes. The members of CAS's are only loosely coupled; relationships between them are discretionary, unpredictable, and often temporary. Each member's role in the group is chosen by him and is mutable.
CAS's tend to organize themselves into some sort of spontaneous order, a dynamic one which adapts to changing external constraints and to the ever-changing needs and desires of its members.
So, in the above, you appear to recognize the concept of a "tribe" as being a collection of people with shared interests. Is the USA (for example) not in any sense a tribe? When the US president says "America First" isn't he declaring his allegiance to his tribe? Isn't the US Constitution a statement of some shared values of a tribe? Do not the members of tribes such as the USA and the UK have a tendency to want to protect the interests of their own members more than the interests of members of other tribes?
Real tribes do have shared interests. From a previous post of mine:
Homo sapiens, if the anthropologists are right, has been on Earth for about 200,000 years. Until the last 10,000 or so of those years, he lived in small tribal villages, consisting of a few dozen to a few hundred members — small enough that all of its members knew all of the others; indeed, had known each other all of their lives. They midwifed one another’s births, tended one another’s illnesses, shared one another’s possessions, and married one another’s cousins. They knew and trusted one another, and had dense, intimate relationships among one another. They needed no formal ethics nor any political structure to govern their affairs, simply because each was and had always been a part of every other’s life.
The organic model is a good approximation of the structure of such societies. But with the rise of civilization — societies characterized by cities — that model began to break down. People found themselves living in communities in which most of the people around them were strangers, with whom they had no familial or other personal ties, and often very little in common. People began to take notice of the differences among them — differences in coloration and bone structure, in choices of dress, in temperament and mannerisms, in interests and tastes, in the habits and practices of daily life, and eventually even in religion and language. They acquired individuality.
In tribal societies there is no free will, and no individuality. All the myriad choices we today are constantly obliged to make are prescribed by the tribe; they’re part of the tribal consciousness, codified in tribal tradition, the “folkways” of the tribe. How one dresses, what one eats, where one lives, how one earns a living, the choosing of mates, the Gods to be worshipped and the rituals for worshipping them, all the petty rules governing the tasks of daily life and the “standard methods” for performing them, are absorbed from the tribe, without question and without the need for thought.
There is no individuality to speak of in these groups because all members have known and interacted only with each other since birth, and they are locked into a resonance. There is no politics, no debate, no alternate point of view on any matter — and as a result, almost no innovation. Tribal cultures can remain all but static for thousands of years, with only a slight refinement in spear points to indicate any time has passed at all. Australian Aborigines, for example, when encountered by Europeans in the 18th century, were making didgeridoos indistinguishable from those made 2000 years earlier. In 40,000 years they never added another instrument to their musical technology.
That resonance, however, cannot be maintained in larger groups, because the required intimacy is impossible. The group becomes too large for everyone to know and interact constantly with everyone else; hence one soon finds oneself in the company of strangers — individuals with whom they’ve had no prior contact and whose habits, preferences, and beliefs cannot be predicted in advance. And because they’ve all been subject to different combinations of influences, they begin to differ in all the ways indicated above.
The breakdown of that resonance represented a huge transformation, not merely of the social structure, but of the human psyche. The traditional tribal control mechanisms, based on age and personal stature, gave way to formal systems of governance — politics. The tribesman’s intuitive sense of right and wrong, which derived primarily from his personal ties to and commonality with his fellows, gave way to formal systems of ethics. Indeed, ethics, like law, is a code for regulating behavior among strangers — among people who have no personal interest in one another’s welfare. As Jared Diamond pointed out in Guns, Germs, and Steel, “With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them.”
Every utopia conceived in the last 5000 years has been an attempt to recapture the tribal consciousness. The Garden of Eden story embodies this “fall from Grace” — the loss of mankind’s oneness with God and Nature, his “alienation,” his exile into a world of strife and temptation, where he seems to have free will and must constantly choose between good and evil, between this course of action or that, relying only on his own judgement, and must suffer the consequences when his judgments go awry.
All these laments of lost innocence and alienation are atavisms, psychic echoes of our tribal heritage, the social form honed over the course of our 3 million year primate history. All of our fellow primates still practice that form, and until the rise of civilization, so did all humans. It would be surprising were our brains not adapted to that social form. They have evolved syncronously with that form, and thus may be expected to function optimally in that environment, in many ways. So it is not surprising that we miss that form, or that we long to regain it. We are ducks out of water, trying to find our way back to the pond.
We remain “wired” for tribal life. We long for it, unattainable though it may be. And often we try to recreate or or substitute for it, by immersing ourselves in cults or joining in totalitarian movements. The cult seeks to insulate itself from the “society of strangers;” the totalitarian movement seeks to subdue it and impose a tribal-like conformity, a synthetic common identity and purpose — usually resulting in much bloodshed.
But civilized humans are individuated; they are no longer interchangeable instances or exemplars of a tribal identity, and cannot be forced into that mold. That individuality is what drives the dynamism of civilized societies; what enables it to change more in 100 years than tribal societies might in 10,000. It is what has permitted humans to overcome the famines, diseases, disasters, and other idiosyncrasies of Nature which beset them and all their primate cousins for millions of years, and to transform the natural world to better meet their needs and better satisfy their ever-evolving and proliferating desires.
What worked for pre-civilized societies never worked very well, and cannot work at all for the unrelated, individuated members of civilized societies. There is no longer a collective consciousness, and in communities of more than a few hundred members, not even any common goals. Modern societies are meta-communities — public venues for personal interactions. They provide opportunities for individuals to forge relationships with others, but supply no content for those relationships. They are like public playing fields; they offer space and seating, but each team brings its own gear, its own personnel, and its own game with its own rules. The house rules are few and general: “No reservations accepted: first-come, first served,” “Do not intrude on others’ games,” and “Pick up your litter.”
The organic society that continues to beckon to the professor from our long primate ancestry is lost to history. It is irrecoverable. Contemporary social theorists need to let it go, and craft theories applicable to societies and to persons as we find them today.
Many people believe
their society is a tribe, and politicians pander to that belief, in the hope that they can induce others to support, or at least tolerate, some proposal in which they actually have no interest. But modern civilized societies do not have that structure; that belief is mistaken. Anything promoted as in the "public interest" is always in the interest of certain people only.
So the USA (for example) cannot be said to have any collectively agreed norms and values?
Correct. It has no "collectively agreed" norms and values, but there are certain norms and values fairly widely held. Those are, like all norms and values, the norms and values of particular people.
So you don't think any kind of forward planning for the good of your community is worthwhile?!? No investment in infrastructure which individual players in the market don't have an individual interest in maintaining?
The "good of the community" must be analyzable into the good for specific people, or it is meaningless. Are you suggesting there is some infrastructure in which no individuals have an interest, yet is in the interest of the community?
This is an interesting assertion about a specific statistical fact and may be a good point. I'll look into that one.
You can find the government spending history here:
Poverty rates for the early 20th century are harder to come by, since official statistics were not compiled until 1959 (when the rate was 22%). Several estimates cite 1900 as the (approx) point when the rate in the US fell below 50%.
So do you think that anti-trust laws, laws to protect against monopolies and cartels, are a waste of time? Political and economics freedoms can, and do, destroy themselves, don't they? People can freely elect a dictator who then removes their freedom. Companies don't have to be protected by any state to form a monopoly. They simply have to be successful enough to use their economy of scale to nip competition in the bud.
They can form, but they can't endure. The point of of seeking a monopoly is to assure high profits. But those high profits immediately attract others into the industry, which soon destroys the monopoly. The monopoly can persist only if the government subsidizes it or restricts entry into the field. (I assume, of course, that the monopolists are not maintaining their monopoly by force or fraud).