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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Good for the Individual & Society the Same

There is no difference between the good of society and good of the individual. The choice we face is between ill for the self and society (vice), or good for the self and society (virtue). There is no way to choose good for the society and ill for the self, or to choose good for the self and ill for the society - they are one in the same.

People often do believe that they are choosing good for themselves at the expense of society. What they are unaware of is that they are harming themselves. Sometimes the harm is obvious and direct, and other times the harm is subtle and insidious. But it is only because of ignorance that they do this. If they could see the truth, they would understand that they are harming themselves.

It should be noted here that people who live vice-filled lives of evil are unhappy - including those who may have riches or fame and appear happy to others. They may not know why they are unhappy. Furthermore, some people's entire lives are this way and it is all they know, so they may not even realize they could be happier. They just toss it up as "that's how life is". So, it is not necessary for them to realize it in order for them to be worse off because of their vice. In this way, the evil are naive of the good life completely. They imagine good people to be dupes who are as miserable as themselves, only more so because they lack their material wealth or perceived freedom. When good people tell them they aren't happy they laugh and wonder what foolishness the dupe is talking about.

Potentially innocent people may be fooled into following evil people because they can often be naive and ignorant enough to think that the evil person really is happy. I know of a woman who doesn't take care of her children, has no responsibility, is deep into drugs, lives with various low-lifes, in and out of prison, and is basically alienated from her family. She is quite obviously miserable because every time you see her, you see she is upset or ashamed or fighting. This cannot be a happy life.

Yet, her young teen daughter, when told that her mother is miserable said, "What do you mean? Her life seems happy?" Because her mother was always "doing whatever she wanted to do" the poor girl actually thought that her mother was having an enjoyable life. She hasn't learned yet what constitutes a good life and doesn't know the misery her mother lives with.

It is true that virtue is what's good for society. I only add that, it is therefore good for the individual as well.

It works the same in reverse. Some rulers have thought that they could do what was good for society while harming the individuals that make up that society. But this always comes back to haunt them in the end.

A society is made up of individuals, and you cannot impose something on a system that is opposed to the nature of its components. It is the nature of human beings to want protected rights and fair treatment. When a social system is imposed on individuals that is abhorrent to them, they will not function well in society and the society suffers. It is like thinking that we can have something which harms individual cells without it harming us.

This is why oppressive societies eventually crumble into violent rebellion, or simply stagnate due to the lost efficiencies inherent in an oppressed people.

A society is a system, and there is no such thing as a prosperous society made up of unprosperous individuals.

Addendum / Illustration:

As an illustration of the concept, imagine a needle gauge measuring the degree to which a society is more supportive of the individual (when the needle is far right) and the degree to which a society is more supportive of the collective (when the needle is far left).

Now imagine the needle balanced in the middle. If the needle begins to veer left, we imagine the society passing laws for the 'sake of the collective', which necessarily infringe upon individual rights to some degree. As the needle moves further and further left, the people become more and more oppressed, disgruntled, unproductive, and unsupportive of the society. Thus, the further left the needle moves, the greater the harm to the society because it's constituent components (individuals) are not optimal.

In the opposite situation, with the needle moving right, we see individuals are given greater and greater liberties such that they are allowed to pollute the environment, scam people, and eventually even assault others. Thus, the individual is harmed the further right the needle moves.

On the whole, we see that, if the needle moves left the society and the individual are harmed. If the needle moves right the individual and society are harmed. There is no way to harm one without harming the other. This, makes perfect sense when we understand that 'society' is just a term for a 'bunch of individuals', and when we understand the nature of inter connectedness.


  1. Interesting topic.

    I'm not saying I disagree with you, but just to play "Devil's advocate", let me make a few point.

    1. Your analogy about "not being able to harm individual cells while still being good for our body" isn't quite accurate. Very often, cancerous tumors must be purged from our body for the good of the whole. Cancerous cells are those that fail to comply with societies (i.e. the body's) rules, and must be silenced for the good of the whole. Also, people frequently and voluntarily remove unanted bodily tissue to improve themselves. Getting a haircut, clipping your nails, pulling a bad tooth, etc. are all examples of where individual cells are sacrificed for the greater good.

    2. I think your point here is to say that sometimes laws are passed for the supposed benefit of society, but such laws come at a cost to individuals, and such laws are actually BAD for society, even if they don't seem so at first glance. Does this work in reverse though? Does this mean that any law that benefits society will also benefit the individuals? Obviously not based on your arguments. What I think you mean more specifically is not that societal and individual benefit/harm is equal, so much as causal. What ever effect is put on the individuals flows up to the societal level, but it doesn't flow the other way. In other words, the only measure of the laws effect is it's effect on individuals. Any effects on society are simply the aggregate off the law's effects on individuals. What this means is that no law really helps or hurts "society" at all. In fact "society" is a non-factor in all of this, as nothing can really effect "society" in that way. All it can do is effect the individuals.

  2. Hi, thanks for the comments.

    1. When you point out the cells that are cancerous, consider this: in keeping with the analogy, if I'm a cancerous cell I might think that what's good is for me to go around eating everything up and dominating the tissue around me. But this leads to either me being surgically removed, or the body dying, and eventually me along with it. So, yes, the body can do things to harm individual cells when they are not keeping their end of the deal, just as police (agents of the state) can harm individual trouble makers. But a body cannot be harmful to general individual cells by its nature and expect to live (like, if I were to drink poison). Likewise, the state cannot be generally abusive to its individuals by its nature and expect to function well.

    2. Yes it does work in reverse when you consider what "benefit" really means. In other words, any law that *truly* benefits society will benefit individuals. What you mention about society just being a collection of individuals is true, and part of the reason why this is so. But let's say that a society needs to take an action that will save it from harm, but at the expense of a few individuals. If I am one of those individuals, then I should know that this is necessary for society, and submit to this (if it truly is). If I do not, then I will harm the society I am in, which will eventually come back to harm me anyway. So, basically, I can go down, dragging my society with me, or I can go down content that I'm doing the right thing. This is not harm - at least not harm from society, but harm from the circumstances that both society and myself have come across. Now, if the sacrifice of these individuals is actually NOT beneficial for the society, then that is another matter, and an example of "society" making a mistake in judgment.

  3. One other point I just remembered. Think of a spectrum with the "best case scenario" in the middle. If a society as a whole starts to take too many liberties from its individuals, the pointer moves to the left. If individuals take too many liberties it moves to the right. BUT, my point is that, no matter which way that pointer moves, both sides are harmed. If it moves left, then the individuals are obviously harmed, but society is harmed by the secondary effects of being made up of harmed individuals. If the pointer moves to the right, the society is harmed by unruly or offending individuals, but those individuals are also harmed by the secondary effects of their actions. So, in both cases, both are harmed. And, when the pointer moves toward the "sweet spot" both are helped.