We all want the world to be “a better place”. So, what does this “better place” look like? What do we envision as the ideal society?
Various philosophers have outlined various visions of the ideal society. Let me mention 3 visions very briefly. This discussion is not entirely fair since I have not read these 3 authors’ works in depth, so I may be misrepresenting them. But anyway.
1 Kant’s kingdom of ends
One ethical vision provided by Kant is the idea of the “kingdom of ends”. It is a society where people treat others as “ends in themselves” as opposed to using others “as means” to advance their own, selfish goals. I think this vision is nice, but blatantly impossible. For one, humans are too selfish to achieve this. There will always be free riders to ruin the game. For another, this idea is too abstract. People aren’t just ends. They’re idiosyncratic, they’re quirky, they’re weird. They have different motivations, different interests, different likes and dislikes, and differences in just about everything. I have no idea how we could construct a system that would enable us to treat others “as ends” in every waking moment of social interaction. The essential problem, then, is that we can’t reduce the complexity of human social life to a few basic (but elegant) principles about treating others as ends.
2 Marx’s class struggle
Another vision, provided by Marx, has to do with economic and political equality. The idea is that social inequality exists because rich people are exploiting poor people. To address this problem, Marx advocates for “class struggle” whereby the poor laborers “seize the means of production” and then use those means to serve themselves instead of serving someone else’s profit motive. This idea seems alright, I suppose, but I am not entirely on board with it. One objection is that the idea doesn’t seem to go far enough. Suppose that we achieve economic equality and prosperity. At that point, we would probably end up asking ourselves, “So, is that it?”. Isn’t there more to life than economic achievement? Once we achieve economic success, then what do we do? Like Kant’s idea, Marx’s idea doesn’t really address the richness of human life. It does not provide us with an enriched goal to look forward to. We aren’t reducible to abstract “ends in ourselves”, and we’re also not reducible to concepts like laborers, proletarians, bourgeoisie, or what have you. Another critique of the Marxist idea is empirical. The Marxist idea has not really seemed to work in practice, as exemplified by the failures of Russia, China, North Korea, and other Communist countries in South America.
3 Rawls’ veil of ignorance
Anyways, one last ethical vision. Rawls offered a nice idea of the “veil of ignorance”. Here, the ideal society is one that everyone could agree to if they had to plan the society from behind a veil of ignorance regarding where they would end up in the society. This does seem like a great procedural method for designing policies. However, again, just like with Kant’s idea and Marx’s idea, this idea fails to give humans something they can look forward to. The veil of ignorance is an idea about procedure, not about content. And it seems to me that the procedures we could agree upon would only be baseline regulations such as social safety nets. The veil of ignorance would not provide us with individual aspirations for the simple reason that humans, being different, have many different aspirations.
In short, there is a common weakness to the ideas offered by Kant, Marx, and Rawls. The weakness is that these ideas only provide abstractions, when what we really need are aspirations. Should I go around thinking of myself and others “as if” we were ends in some mythical kingdom (even though we are not)? Should I live my life thinking about my relative economic status all the time? Should I live my life thinking about what I would do if I were behind a veil of ignorance (even though I am not)?
A human family ethic
Here is another solution. Perhaps the ethical vision that we could all get on board with is the vision of a “human family ethic”. The idea is that we think about ourselves as part of an extended but tangible family.
Yes, the idea sounds simplistic, but it has many advantages. In fact, its simplicity is one of its advantages. Its simplicity makes it accessible to the common person.
Let me describe and defend the idea of a human family ethic. By the way, I am not advocating for a “Confucian” perspective. I read the Analects and I didn’t like it.
The idea is that we think about and treat others “as if” we were all part of a tangible family. Thinking about others “as if” we were family is much more natural than thinking “as if” we were in a kingdom of ends or “as if” we were behind a veil of ignorance.
We did not evolve the cognitive machinery to effortlessly think about kingdoms of ends or other abstractions. But we did evolve the cognitive machinery to think about family members and close friends. We evolved, after all, to interact in close-knit tribes where everyone knew everyone else.
It is already easy to think in this familial way about children, for instance. Any healthy human adult can say, with some sincerity, that every child is, in some sense, their child. Why? Because we all care about all children. Whenever you see a little kid, you wish them well. You hope for their best. You would be willing to protect them from some imminent harm, you would be willing to provide some necessary good for them if need be, you would be willing to give them an answer if they asked you some question. It may not be much of a leap to start thinking about peers as brothers and sisters and older people as aunts and uncles. We’re all in this together.
Given that we have these prosocial tendencies to care about relatives and ingroup members, why not leverage those tendencies for our benefit? Wouldn’t it make sense for an ethical blueprint of the ideal human society to take into account the building blocks it is working with?
This kind of familial thinking promotes the personal care and concern that we so desperately need in the modern era. The family is an illuminating force. Within the family, people are individuals. Not statistics. Not calculations. But people.
Suppose one of your relatives stole things. Now, you would obviously not like this, but you would not think about your relative in the same way you might think about some random thief on the street. Why? Because you know this relative. You know their complex life story. Their quirks and imperfections. You know that they are a person. When you see them doing bad things, you are personally concerned for them. You ask what’s wrong. You offer to help. Basically, you care.
And the random thief on the street is somebody’s child as well. Could you think about them in that way?
Also, the family is an equalizing force .The family not only “raises up” the low, but also “brings down” the high. Suppose your uncle was a senator. If you met a stranger who happened to be a senator, you might not feel like you have the standing to question them. But if your uncle happened to be a senator, you might feel perfectly comfortable questioning them. This familial relationship brings us closer, then, to the heart of participatory democracy. In an ideal democracy, people reason with each other, demand justifications from each other, and hold each other accountable as equals. Within families, these things happen all the time—across generational lines, across lines of social status, and across lines of conventional authority. Families, then, may help us enact the universal moral principle that “all people are equals”.
Basically, the point is that the family brings out the best of us in how we think about each other and treat each other. Normally, criminals are abstractions. Authority figures, as well, are abstractions. But within the family, they are just people. Think about all the ways people treat each other impersonally and think about how those attitudes would be sheerly impossible within a family. You would not wish the death penalty upon a brother or a sister. You would not coerce an aunt or an uncle with the threat of violence or poverty. You would not stand by and let them destroy themselves if you saw them going down a dark path. You would want to forgive them and to help them.
Now back to our original question: what should we envision as the ideal society? Would an extended human family be a worthwhile vision? I think it would be. We have the cognitive and motivational machinery to adopt this way of thinking. It is a way of thinking that brings out the best in us. To live among family is truly to live in “a better place”, as far as places are concerned. Wherever you are loved, there you are at home.
The human family ethic provides us with aspirations. The aspirations are simple: connecting with other people, sharing experiences with other people, getting to know other people. Thus, the human family ethic provides what the other ethical visions did not, namely, a positive goal for people to aim towards.
The pressing question that remains is whether widespread adoption of this way of thinking would even be possible. Could we get lots of people to get on board with the idea of thinking about others as family? I believe that the answer “yes” is more plausible than it may seem.
Humans crave belonging. In particular, humans crave deep and meaningful belonging. As well, it is relatively easy, once you get to know someone, to think about them as an individual. In fact, it’s almost impossible to not think about them as individuals after you get to know them even just a little bit. We are all aware of how complex our own lives are. It is easy to see how others’ lives are complex as well, with their various motivations and emotions and dreams and other things. It is quite interesting, being alive. And to be alive in the company of like-minded, complicated beings is even more interesting. It may be that our natural human cravings to belong to groups and to be curious about life will make it relatively easy to think about others as brothers and sisters.
Now, in closing, let us suppose we adopt this mentality in practice. At first, we would have to adopt this mindset unilaterally, since other people may not be aware of the idea. But even unilateral adoption of this idea has its benefits. Suppose you are walking down the street and you see some random guy walking towards you. You might just think, “Oh look, there’s a guy, I better either look away or make eye contact and say hello or something”. But suppose that instead you thought, “Oh look, there is a brother.”
“Yes, there is a brother. He might not think of me as a brother. And I might not know him well enough to invite him over. But he and I, yes, we, really do have something in common. You over there are just like me. You are living your life. I am living mine. Your life is full of incredible things. Mine is too. How many people do you talk to each day? How many people have you been a light to in dark hours? How many people have you held in your hands in comfort, in protection, in security? What are you looking forward to? What is the truth of your life? How are you living your truth? What could we learn from each other if only we had the opportunity? And what am I doing? What have I lived that, if only you knew, would create respect and understanding between us in an instant?”
It would seem that this way of thinking about others—not as strangers, not as rivals, not as threats, but rather as relatives—would make one feel more comforted and secure while in the presence of so many people.