There is no ideal society this side of the Second Coming. Flawed people can’t create such things, and we’re all flawed, so social gains are offset by social losses. Current tendencies of thought, which reject natural law and the Catholic outlook generally, make it even less likely that anything ideal can be achieved.
Even so, ideas of the good society are helpful for putting our thoughts and actions into perspective. They can’t serve as blueprints, but they can clarify confusions, remind us of basic purposes, and suggest the direction our efforts should take. At the very least, they can warn us against false ideals and misdirected efforts.
They don’t always have that effect. Our ideals are inevitably affected by what people are doing and saying around us. Sometimes that points us in the right direction but often it doesn’t. Thus, people today have confused ideas about the good life. The result is that they reject settled views on the matter and adopt an unmoored ideal of freedom and equality. That ideal, which has become enormously influential, leads to a tyrannical form of liberalism and so ends by contradicting itself.
Vehement rejection of current understandings and practices can also distort ideals. Since capitalism has faults, people conclude that whatever opposes it—socialism for example—must be good. The anonymous Tradinista Manifesto a couple of years ago provided vivid examples of the tendency.
To talk sensibly about political ideals we must step back and look at the most general features of social order and human reality. When we do we notice that a society becomes coherent and functional through the principles that establish its common good. The question “what’s the point?” must somehow be answered, and those are the principles that do so.
We have such principles today, although their supporters try to avoid the need to defend them by denying the fact. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) the Supreme Court told us that “at the heart of liberty [which is thought to define America] is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Since the Court invalidates laws thought to violate that right, like laws that restrict abortion or deny that same-sex unions can count as marriages, it functions as a defining principle of our political order—in theory, its most basic one.
The ultimate ideal behind the current American order, then, is that each defines reality for himself. That ideal is puzzling if taken literally. But its practical meaning is that everything must be left as undefined as practically possible: a man isn’t a man and a baby isn’t a baby unless the people most visibly involved say so. And since we each create our own reality, our goals get equal credence, and each has an equal claim to satisfaction. The public good—the good toward which the society is oriented—is therefore maximum equal preference satisfaction. Each is to get what he wants, as much and equally as possible.
What makes it possible to turn such radically individualistic principles into a functioning social system is that ultimate goals are made subordinate to considerations of efficiency, stability, and administrative convenience. Convenient goals that support the system are accepted, while goals that burden, oppose, or offer an alternative to the system—which is seen as a uniquely rational system of freedom, equality, and public order—are disfavored and suppressed as irrational, oppressive, and at least implicitly violent.
The effect is that people are encouraged to be careerist, politically correct, and absorbed in consumer goods. And they’re warned off the idea that there are goods higher than personal satisfaction, or authoritative institutions, like the Church or natural family, that stand for them. The public good is people getting what they want individually, to the extent that’s convenient to people running things, and nothing is allowed to stand in its way.
That’s why celebration of cultural and lifestyle diversity is now considered good and even compulsory. It turns all goods into personal choices and disrupts all institutions that stand for a substantive moral view or particular cultural tradition. What’s left are markets and neutral expert bureaucracies.
The result is a system designed to be easy to run for billionaires and bureaucrats. A system that’s easy to run has some benefits even for people who aren’t at the top, like reducing social conflict, but it doesn’t seem a sensible way to choose a way of life. Obfuscating the question of the good life doesn’t seem likely to make life better, and denying the objectivity of human reality seems very unlikely to lead to a functional and enduring social order.
It’s evident that issues like the nature of the good life are too basic to be avoided forever. So why not discuss them?
The obvious place to begin is with human nature and what fulfills it. The view now in vogue is that it’s our nature to define our own nature, and what fulfills it is for that self-defined nature to be recognized and accepted, and for us to get what we want. So if I—a man—decide I’m a woman, then I am a woman. Others should recognize me as such, and to the extent possible I should be able to do and get what I want, as a woman, a human being, or simply as a particular person with tastes of my own. If all that happens then my nature will be fulfilled.
That’s not believable, but the reasons for accepting it have nothing to do with truth.
It’s evident that we don’t create ourselves or make ourselves what we are, except within limits that don’t include (for example) choosing our own sex. Further, there are natural patterns in human life that must be respected for us to have a chance of happiness. Liberals are right that these include individual choice and agency, but those things aren’t untrammeled. For their exercise to be rational they must be oriented toward goods that are good for reasons beyond the bare fact we choose them.
Also, the natural patterns in human life that help constitute our happiness have natural and social elements: the natural family, based on sexual complementarity; stable local networks of friendship and mutual aid; and the experience of growing up in a settled community that functions in accordance with its own understandings and ways of doing things, including a common understanding of man and the world.
With that in mind, it seems evident that a good society would have a coherent culture that includes an adequate common conception of human nature, natural law, and the purpose of human life and the world. In the modern world—actually, ever since classical antiquity—a stable and adequate conception of such things requires an institution with transcendent authority that can decide disputed points. If that sounds a lot like the Church, it shouldn’t surprise you.
If a society, like our own, is too big and diverse for such things, that’s a serious problem. It appears that the best way to live with the problem is to stabilize the society to the extent practical—for example, by limiting immigration and government attempts to remake society—and to decentralize as many functions as possible so that smaller communities with more humanly adequate institutions and understandings can live as much as possible in accordance with their own way of life.
Decentralization would have other advantages, of course. It gives more scope to individual initiative, family and community life, and the development of people’s culture in accordance with their aspirations and experience. Such a situation is necessary for human dignity, and it’s what the Catholic conception of subsidiarity is all about.
One could go on, but enough has been said to make it clear the ideal society would be similar to the classic Catholic one, and very much at odds with current social ideals. And that, it seems to me, is worth knowing, even if what can presently be achieved in that direction is quite limited.
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