Chapter 2

The essence of a society

It follows, therefore, that the basic function of any society is to enable the members to develop some aspect of their humanity which they could not do (or do as easily) without it. And this leads to a second conclusion:

Conclusion 2: Every society is a system, not a body; it primarily exists for the sake of the members, not the other way round.

The distinction between a system and a body was given in Chapter 2 of Section 2 of the second part 2.2.2. There actually have been people who held that society is a body; for example, Herbert Spencer. It can be fun to play around with the analogy and talk about the roads as the "arteries" and the government as the "brains" and so on; but he took it seriously, not realizing that the analogy is totally awry on the major point: in a body, especially a living body, the parts are created by the whole and exist for the whole to such an extent that (a) the whole is what has the properties, and (b) the individual cells are expendable, not just for the survival, but for the well-being of the whole as such--while in a society, (a) the different societies come into being because of needs and desires of the individuals, (b) the individuals are what behave, and the society's properties as a whole are insignificant; (c) since the society needs to assume the free choice on the part of its members to cooperate with each other, then it is dependent on the good will of each member, who is in large measure looking to his own interest; and hence, it exists for the members. And finally, (d) since society as a whole does not really do anything in the sense in which a body as a whole acts, the "good of society as a whole" that the members are expected to sacrifice themselves for always amounts in practice to the good of those in government, who of course are members; and when the members being exploited see this, they rebel.

A totalitarian society is a society organized on the premise that the members exist for the society primarily, and the society for the members only accidentally.

This last point indicates why totalitarian societies are always police states. Once people see that the only ones benefitting are the ones in power, then the spirit of cooperation which is the main driving force of any society (its "unifying energy," as it were) vanishes, and the only way the members can be made to follow the laws is by imposing heavier and heavier penalties on them and having a larger and larger police force, especially a secret one, to spy on them to see that they are obeying. In totalitarian societies, most of the energy in the society is used up trying to make the people toe the line; with the result that they do so grudgingly and never go beyond the minimum required by law, and not even the society as a whole prospers. The fact that societies that are not totalitarian function much better than totalitarian societies is just another indication that the society exists for the members, and to make the society itself the be-all of its existence is contrary to its nature.(1)

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the members are simply recipients and beneficiaries of the society. Since society is in fact necessary for every human being's existence, it follows that belonging to the society (with all that this entails) is a real, though secondary, aspect of each person's human reality. For a person to declare himself, then, independent of society is for him not to recognize that society is an aspect of himself. And since society does involve laws and so on, the refusal to obey them unless one sees personal gain in doing so is, as we will see, a contradiction of this social aspect of one's own reality, and is morally wrong.


Conclusion 3: Every person is to some extent really subordinate to the society.

Since, primarily speaking, the society is subordinate to the members, this subordination of the member to the society is secondary; and what this means in practice, as we will see later, is that no society can by its laws prevent a citizen from doing what he has a right to do, provided he has not freely given up that right upon entering it. It can restrict his freedom, (and this is where the subordination comes in) but it can't violate his rights.

Now then, what is it that makes a society a society, as opposed to simply a set of people? It is clear that people who happen to be together in one place, as in the waiting room of an air terminal, do not form a society. They are independent of one another, and the only relation they have with each another is the economic relation of each person's not violating anyone else's rights.

Some have said that what makes the society a society is that everyone in it shares a common goal. But this can't mean that each has the same goal, as can be seen if those waiting board the airplane and take off for Paris. Each passenger on the plane has the goal of getting to Orly Airfield, which is also, and not by accident, the goal of the plane itself. But each passenger has individually an economic relation with the crew as serving his personal desire to get to Paris and accepting (directly or indirectly) compensation from him; but the passengers still have no relation with each other except the relation of not violating each other's rights.

So whatever a "common goal" is, if it is what makes a set of people a society, it isn't that each person has the same goal. But to approach a little more closely to a society, consider the type of flight I once was on going to the Bahamas. The plane was chartered by the resort to which we were all going, and the crew did little things like hold a lottery and so on to try to establish a feeling of camaraderie; and by the end of the trip, we were chatting and laughing with each other rather than just sitting there in silence seeing to it that our elbows didn't touch. We became a small and temporary community; but that still didn't make us a society.

A community is a set of people who have common interests and/or concerns, and share them with each other.

In a community, people recognize each other as persons in a positive sense rather than just the negative one of possessors of rights which must not be violated; that is, they know that the other people are self-determining and pursuing their own goals, and they become interested in what those goals are and so in who the other person really is. This recognition of the positive side of personality generally comes about because of the fact that the goals and ideals are similar to one's own, and so the other person as such is similar to oneself. One enters, to some extent, into the personality of the other, and lets the other enter into one's own personality--while still, of course, remaining oneself. Communities involve mutual communication of personhood.

To put this another way, a community establishes a "we," which is a plural "I." I am not "by myself" any more when I am in a community; I have expanded, in some sense, into the others, because "we" share the same values and goals, and to the extent that these are the same, we are the same as self-determining, or as persons. Thus, I see the others as variations on my basic idea of myself, and they see me as a variation on what it means to be themselves. I am now greater than simply myself, and all these other people enhance in some way my own personhood.

Note that the easiest way to establish a community of sorts is to agree on who "they" are. If I criticize someone and you nod your head, the fact that we both dislike this kind of person implies in a negative way that we share the same values, and hence are together. This is obviously a cheap way of establishing community, because it involves no real communication of my own aspirations for myself, but simply that I have standards that others don't measure up to, as I mentioned in the section on goals and values in Chapter 2 of Section 7 of the fourth part 4.7.2. It is also an ineffective way of establishing community, since the person I am talking to is bound to wonder whether I have other standards that enable him to be despised and excluded from another "we" I form that makes him in this respect part of "them."

Conclusion 4: Communities based solely on shared disapproval of certain kinds of conduct or shared dislike of certain kinds of people are perversions of communities, and are morally wrong.

This does not mean that communities have to include everybody. The point of a community is that the members have a common interest and common aspirations, and that they support each other by communicating their approval of the goals and encouraging one another. If others do not share the interests, then they are not part of the community (by definition); but they are not necessarily excluded. If they should happen to develop an interest in what binds the community together, they would be welcome.(2) But communities are still not societies, because the people don't have what sociologists call "patterned behavior," which we will be exploring; but what it amounts to is expectations of what others are going to do. Every society is to some extent a community, but not every community is a society (or a "group" in the sociological sense).

To illustrate the difference, consider now not a plane ride, but a car pool. This consists, let us say, in four people who drive from their house to work every day in one car; but all through the first week, Jones goes around and picks everyone up and drives them all, and in the second week Smith does it, and so on. Here we have a "getting to work and back" society, whether or not they have any particular shared concerns except the goal each has of getting to work as cheaply and with as little inconvenience as possible.

What makes it a society is that they are cooperating to see that this is accomplished. And if we look at what the member is doing when he cooperates, we can see what this means. Clearly, the main cooperation is being exhibited by the one who happens to do the driving this week; during this week, the others are only cooperating to the extent that they are ready to be picked up when he gets there and ready when he comes to take them back home. Certainly, they would regard someone who makes them wait ten or fifteen minutes before he's ready as not being cooperative; but they would think that the driver was not cooperating if he decided not to bother picking them up one day.

But this is interesting in that the driver is not doing something that is in his own interest this week. He has to go out of his way to each of the other houses and wait for them to come and only then drive to work. It would obviously be much more to his advantage this week (since no one else is going to drive him, because it's his week) simply to drive straight to work and then come back home at his own convenience. And the others are cooperating by being ready, not when it suits them, but when it suits the driver to arrive at their door.

Hence, when a person is engaged in cooperative behavior, the essence of what he is doing is acting for others' sake rather than his own. Of course, in the long run, the driver gets driven three weeks out of four, and so as far as the nuisance of driving to work is concerned, he is much better off than if he drove himself all the time; and even the inconvenience of being ready at seven forty instead of the eight o'clock he could wait till if he drove himself is more than offset by the fact that he isn't the one who's going to be fighting traffic for three out of the four weeks. So in the long run, he is better off for being in the car pool (according to his value system--because if he weren't, he in general would not choose to get into one).

But this doesn't alter the fact that during his week, he is worse off (according to that same standard he has of getting to work conveniently) than he would be if he weren't in the group at all; and it is this that makes the act cooperation.

Note that if the driver just wanted to drive the other people to work, because he wanted them to get to work conveniently, and so he volunteered to drive all of them all the time, then his act would no longer be one of cooperation, but of love (freely chosen uncompensated service, as we saw in the preceding section), and there wouldn't be any society, precisely because each other person would be nothing but the beneficiary of the driver's efforts, and they would not be "helping each other," as cooperation seems obviously to imply. But the driver would be cooperating even if his actual motive when he drove the others was the benefit of the others and not because of the three weeks in which he benefitted from the arrangement and allowed them to take turns driving him without particularly preferring this.

So an act of cooperation may or may not be explicitly an act of love. If you are looking to your own long-term benefit, then it is not an act of love, because you see that the setback you are now taking will be made up for later, and you personally will be the gainer. It is an act of love only when you would perform the act even if there were no long-term gain in it for you. But in either case, the act is an act of cooperation as long as each member of the group does something at some time that in fact benefits the other members more than himself. In this sense, sociology is not interested in the motive for the act, but in the act itself, and who in fact it benefits.

But there is something more to cooperation than this. The car pool would collapse in short order if each person agreed to drive the others "sometimes," and get driven by the others the rest of the time. In that case, each one would be sitting around wondering who was going to pick the people up today or whether he should do it; and there would be days when no one happened to feel generous, and each would have to drive himself and be late. In order for there to be even such a simple cooperative endeavor such as a car pool each member must know when and under what conditions the other members are going to engage in the cooperative act, and when and under what conditions the others expect him to perform his cooperative act.

Another way of saying this is that the cooperative act on the part of each member must be predictable. This is what the "patterning" of "patterned behavior" mainly consists in. Thus, we can finally make a definition:

Cooperation is the fact that each member of a society does something that benefits the other members more than himself, and does so in such a way that what he does is predictable by the other members.

When people engage in cooperative conduct, then, they conform to the expectations of the other members of the society, and do something which is not in their own (at least short-run) interest because they are expected to do it by the other members.

Conclusion 5: No society can exist without cooperative conduct on the part of the members.

The reason, of course, is that if there isn't cooperative conduct, then by definition the collection of people is not a society, but a community or something else.

Now since the people are cooperating, then they have to agree on what this cooperative conduct is for. The cooperative conduct is systematic, (which is another way of saying "patterned" or "predictable"), not haphazard the way acts of love tend to be; and insofar as it is systematic it is rational; and insofar as it is rational behavior, then it has a goal.

The common goal of a society is the purpose for which the members are cooperating.

This is, of course, why the people in the airplane didn't have a common goal. Each had the same goal as the others, but no one inconvenienced himself for the sake of getting everyone there. Note that the crew forms a society, however, because each has certain behavior that is expected of him at definite times; and this is all for the common goal of getting the passengers to the destination safely and happily. Even in the case where there is established a community among the passengers, the crew is still a society and the passengers aren't part of it. Similarly in something like a college, the faculty and staff are the society, who are cooperating to educate the students; but the faculty, staff, and student body (it is hoped) form a community.

Note that what the common goal is is the main distinguishing factor between one society and another. Clearly, societies which have the same common goal can differ from each other in terms of organizational structure and even more in just what type of cooperative conduct is expected of the members; but in a sense, these are not as significant in distinguishing between societies as the fact that in one society, the members are cooperating to educate people and in another, they are cooperating to get people from Point A to Point B. It is also true that in general what the common goal is will tend to dictate in large measure what cooperative acts are needed to attain the goal; and this in turn will dictate much about the organizational structure of the society. Still,

Conclusion 6: Every society has a common goal toward which the members cooperate.

Traditionally, every society was said also to have a "common good," which was the welfare or benefit of the members of the society. The idea was that the person in authority was to be a wise person who knew better than an individual member what was good for that member, and who therefore (consistent with the common goal of the society) commanded all the members to do what was in their best interest.

But that supposes that there is such a thing as the "objective good" for a person, which implies that someone else can know this better than the person himself; and I have argued against this position repeatedly, from Chapter 10 of Section 5 of the first part onward 1.5.10. Further, this position historically was developed before the self-determining nature of the individual was thought through in all its implications, as I indicated in Chapter 2 of Section 1 of this part 6.1.2 in discussing the history of rights.

Hence, with the advance in what we know about persons nowadays, the definition of "common good" must be changed:

The common good of a society is the rights of the members which have not been freely given up upon entering the society.

Thus, the people in the society are assumed to be self-determining, and so must be let alone except insofar as they are cooperating for the common goal; and this means that they have all their rights intact. The society must then respect their self-determining nature and not try to do "what is best" for them as if they were children. They and their individual goals are what are primary even in the society; the society is supposed to be a help to them, not a master which has them on its leash, however benevolent the master might be.

It would be well to remember this negative sense in which the "common good" must be taken, because it is very easy to slip back into thinking of it positively. But I will tend to remind you of this when there would be an occasion for your falling into that temptation.

A couple of definitions:

The role a member has in a society is the cooperative action he is expected to perform by the other members.

The status in a society is the position in the society that has a definite role attached to it, irrespective of who in fact is in that position.

The role, therefore, is not really something that Jones does; it is more abstract: some action that promotes the common goal that someone must do; and the status is the "slot" that needs to be filled to get the task performed, or the "assignment" to that role as such. When someone is assigned to perform that role, then he is automatically in that status. Thus, as we will see, somebody has to assign the different tasks to different members; and this must be someone everyone can recognize. Therefore, there is a status of "role assigner" (authority), and the one assigned to play that role has the status of being in authority.



1. Religious orders (as in the Catholic Church) are an exception to this. In them, the vow of obedience binds each member to do whatever the superior (who has the function of the society as a whole in mind) wishes, as long as it is not immoral. In this sense, they are totalitarian. But since obedience is vowed, the least sign of the superior's will is taken by the subject as what God's will is for him; and of course God wills what is to the benefit (in the long run, perhaps only in heaven) of the subject. Since one of any religious society's primary goals is also the "perfection" of the members, it is also the case that even here, the society exists for the members, and not the other way round.

2. In this respect, the Christian churches are really communities rather than societies. In fact, though the Greek word ekklesia, a "calling out," was used for the election of members to the legislative assembly, as the early Christians used it it meant the people in a given place who were "chosen" by God to share the common life of the Holy Spirit. Hence, they were a community in the sense I defined it--and certainly in the earliest days did not form much of a society, since they had no organized structure and no expectations of each other. Basically, these expectations of certain behavior for each other don't still exist; what makes a church is the shared beliefs.

But since this is so, it follows that one who does not share the beliefs of the community is eo ipso not a member of the community; he is anathema, a word which the Greek dictionaries give as a "curse," and is usually translated "is accursed"; but the verb it is taken from also means "to change the position of," which obviously fits the context better. That is, a person who does not share the beliefs of the community is not necessarily going to hell, but is to be regarded as one who has put himself outside the community, as no longer a member of it.

It also follows that, since what is called "communion," the sharing of the Master's bread, is supposed to be a sign of the sharing of the life that all believe in, it is contradictory for one who is not in communion to share the symbol of communion. Again, this implies no condemnation of the excommunicated person, but simply is a recognition of the fact that he is not really a member of the community any longer. Facts are facts.