What is a good society?

Our answers to this question will always draw upon our personal values and describe the kind of society in which we could feel a sense of well-being.

But there is more to a good society than the sum of the values or the sense of well-being and happiness of each individual. As we each individually pursue what makes us feel good, we affect the lives of others. A good society has procedures for making collective judgments about how these effects are to be managed.

Understanding what makes family life or working life good – or not – can help answer the question of what makes a good society. In these settings, we soon learn that self-interest will not work well or for long, unless it is coupled with some understanding of, and sympathy for, the interests of others.

Since public schools have featured most heavily in my working life, I will make that my starting point. Public schools are, after all, microcosms of society

There is much evidence that children and young people learn best in schools where they have a sense of belonging; where they have opportunities to learn things that they value; and where they experience personal achievement and progress. They will not generally prosper in schools where they feel like 'outsiders'. They will not engage in learning if they feel that the odds are rigged against their being able to succeed.

Schools or school systems that make the opportunities to achieve so unfair that some students are always the 'losers' will create fear, cynicism and alienation among those students. Schools that provide no challenge or reward for high achievement by groups and individuals will create boredom.

So far, I have argued that a good society – like a good school – requires a continuing effort to manage the tensions between the democratic values of liberty, equality and solidarity.

Like a good school or a good family, a good society makes it easier rather than harder for us to be our best selves, to be 'good' persons and to live 'good' lives. Other writers here have already said, in a myriad of ways, that a good society is one in which most individuals consider it rational to treat each other in the way they themselves would want to each be treated by others when presented with similar circumstances: a society where people aspire to 'do' as they would be 'done by' and to live good lives that serve good ends.

The ends which people want to achieve are determined by three things, according to Hugh Stretton and Lionel Orchard (Public Goods, Public Enterprise, Public Choice. Theoretical Foundations of the Contemporary Attack on Government, 1994, p.262-3).

These include their desires and their capabilities. Stretton and Orchard remind us that our desires are not all greedy or antisocial; and that capabilities can only be exercised in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

As well as their desires and capabilities, Stretton and Orchard remind us of the Aristotelian principle 'that human beings enjoy the exercise of their realised capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more their capacity is realised, or the greater its complexity.

In their view, which I share, a good society is interesting. It satisfies our desire for variety and novelty of experience, it has room for feats of ingenuity and invention, and the pleasures of anticipation and surprise.

My understanding of a good society is one that is open to new and different ideas. One enemy of openness to ideas is the tendency to create false dualisms and unnecessary dichotomies. We can see it in education – the foolish arguments that create a dichotomy between content and process; between excellence and equity; between the ability to recognise individual words and to read for meaning.

Dualism has flourished under the Howard Government. You either support the completely unregulated entry into Australia of all foreigners, or you support Howard's detention centre policy with all its inhumanity and irrational procedures.

It is the mark of an educated mind, according to Aristotle again, to be able to entertain a thought without necessarily accepting it. And that is also a mark of a good society. In such a society we would give priority to those forms of education that, rather than relying on doctrine and dogma, encourage competition among ideas in their students.

This notion that an interesting society is one that ensures its continuing renewal and advancement through openness to new ideas came up when I was deep in discussion last week with CPD regular, Jane Caro, about how to tackle the subject of this article. When I raised the question of what happiness is, Jane observed that happiness for an individual is being able to find your own preferred place on a continuum between boredom and fear.

We could say the same thing about societies. Pervasive fear is surely a hallmark of the worst kind of society. We have had much evidence of this in the past century; and have seen truly repressive societies that have managed to combine pervasive fear with pervasive boredom. The worst thing is that this can sometimes result from trying to create Utopia.

Peter Singer warns of the search for Utopia. In an article entitled 'New Ideas for the Evolutionary Left' (Australian, 17/6/1998, p.49) he urged the Left to replace utopian ideals with a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved, having regard to the tendencies inherent in human beings.

Although a tendency to utopian visions does not seem an imminent danger in Australian society, the balance between fear and boredom is at risk. This can be seen from the Federal Government's ideological mission to give priority to creating a high-risk economy by unpicking forms of protection built up over the past century. Its argument is that governments should 'get out of the way' of those with entrepreneurial flair.

This will increase the level of fear even among the high flyers, let alone among those who face severe penalties for their lack of desire, opportunity or capability to demonstrate such flair.

In a 'good' society, this increase in risk and fear would be balanced by a greater, rather than lesser, governmental role and acceptance of responsibility in guaranteeing the conditions that allow people to protect and secure themselves against exclusion and hardship. It is imperative that these conditions include universal, high quality education and health systems.

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