Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society. What she was actually reported as saying was that some people "are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours."
I think that Mrs Thatcher probably meant that human societies consist of nothing more than individual humans and the relationships between them. Society is not some kind of magic pudding that has an existence that is separate from the individuals that comprise it.
Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships among individuals who share distinctive institutions. It seems reasonable to suppose that a good society would have good institutions.
Good for whom? If our focus is on humans, there are two possible answers: those outside the society and those within it. It might make sense to think of a good society as one that acts in ways that benefit people outside it, for example by fostering peaceful relations and trade. But it seems more relevant to focus on the way the culture and institutions affect the lives of those within the society and the quality of their relationships with one another.
What are the characteristics of a society that is good for the people who live within it? Different views have been expressed. For example, John Cruddas and Andrea Nahles write: “The good society is about solidarity and social justice. Solidarity creates trust, which in turn provides the foundation of individual freedom. Freedom grows out of feelings of safety, a sense of belonging, and the experience of esteem and respect.”
The main problem I have with this approach is that social justice tends to be a divisive concept. Even if there is widespread agreement that a lot of people deserve higher incomes and better health care and education etc than they obtain at present, the people who would have to pay higher taxes to make this possible through government intervention often feel, with some justification, that they deserve to keep the incomes they have earned. Policies to achieve social justice tend to increase distributional conflict.
Some authors suggest that the concept of a good society is inherently subjective. For example, in attempting to provide an answer to the question of what is a good society Lyndsay Connors writes: “Our answers to this question will always draw upon our personal values and describe the kind of society in which we could feel a sense of well-being.”
The personal values of Walter Lippmann, the famous journalist who wrote a book entitled “The Good Society” in 1937, are evident in his perception of the good society. Lippmann saw the good society as being synonymous with “the liberal, democratic way of life at its best” (“Essays in the Public Philosophy”, 1955, p.96). He also wrote: “The ideals of the good life and of the good society fall far short of perfection, and in speaking of them we must not use superlatives. They are worldly ideals, which raise no expectations about the highest good. Quite the contrary. They are concerned with the best that is possible among mortal and finite, diverse and conflicting men. Thus the ideals of freedom, justice, representation, consent, law, are of the earth, earthy. They are for men who are still (as Saint Paul says in Timothy I, 9-10) under the law. (op cit, p. 142-3).
However, it seems to me that there are objective characteristics of a good society, that nearly everyone would agree on. The most important characteristic of a good society – one that is good for the people living in it – is that the institutions of the society should enable those people to live in peace. In an earlier post I have discussed Friedrich Hayek’s view of what living in peace entails. In broad terms, it requires the ideals that Walter Lippmann identified.