Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Good Society

During the last few thousand years, philosophers and authors have tried to define the role of government in creating The Good Society. These great thinkers struggled to define the perfect social system and the quality of life experienced by the people that lived within the systems they envisioned. Their approaches differed, and the quality of the resulting societies changed based on the values held by each of the philosophers.

In his book The Executive's Compass – Business and the Good Society, James O’Toole provides an interesting overview of several thousand years of philosophical thinking about The Good Society, and which of those societies might be best for humanity. O’Toole says:

  • To Aristotle, it [the good society] permits some of its members to live “the good life.”
  • To Hobbes, it provides sufficient order to allow material progress.
  • To Locke, it guarantees life, liberty and property.
  • To Rousseau, it preserves as much as possible of the conditions of liberty and equality that humankind enjoyed in “the state of nature.”
  • To Adam Smith, it has nearly absolute economic freedom.
  • To Thomas Jefferson, it consists of people who live in small-scale, rural communities characterized by a high quality of life.
  • To Alexander Hamilton, it consists of people who live in modern industrial cities characterized by a high standard of living.
  • To Marx, it has nearly absolute economic equality.
  • To J.S. Mill, it allows nearly absolute social freedom.
  • To Harriet Taylor Mill, it allows women to enjoy the equality of opportunity with men.
  • To Weber, it is governed by laws, so that no citizen is treated arbitrarily.
  • To Martin Luther King, it guarantees the “natural rights” of all its members, without regard to their race, sex, religion, or class.

(p. 19-20, The Executive's Compass – Business and the Good Society, James O’Toole, 1993)

How can there be so many different definitions of what constitutes The Good Society?

Perhaps the answer can be found by applying some of the principles of the Leadership Diamond.

The Ethics point on the Diamond gives us some insight into this question. From an ethical perspective, every philosopher defined The Good Society based on an underlying set of values and assumptions about how people within a society should be treated and live. Their underlying ethics and values shaped their thoughts about the quality of life people within the society should experience. Their underlying ethics and values also helped each philosopher clarify his or her thoughts about equity and justice.

When we see that it is possible for so many thought leaders to differ widely on the definition of what constitutes The Good Society, it should come as no surprise that governments across the country, and around the world, have difficulty agreeing on exactly how government should behave to create what is best of the community.

Perhaps the answer is that there is no single Good Society, and to recognize that there are many societies that may be chosen by a community to serve its needs. Perhaps what is necessary is for the community to invest the time and effort to first define its values, and to use those value statements to help define the vision of what it is they want to create as a result of their efforts. Once defined, perhaps the role of government is to reflect the ethics and values of the community in its effort to live within The Good Society.

What are your thoughts on The Good Society, and the role of government in its creation?