On Philosophy

December 3, 2006

Members of Society

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:52 am

Yesterday I briefly mentioned that some of the uses of “person” in philosophy (as a technical term) could perhaps be replaced by the phrase “possible member of society”. Which led me to the question: what is required to be a member of a society*? Of course here I am examining the requirements to participate in a society in general, requirements that must be met to join any society. Obviously particular societies may have additional requirements, for example to be a member of a religious “society” one must generally believe in that religion, or at least pretend to, but such restrictions have no bearing on the general question.

The first requirement is the ability to communicate. Obviously sharing the same language is one way to meet this requirement, but it is not the only way. Any two human beings, no matter what language they speak, can communicate in a very basic way simply with body language and with demonstrations. The communication might also be indirect; even if they can communicate only through some intermediary it would still count as the ability to communicate. To see why this must be a requirement simply try to imagine a society made up of beings that can’t communicate. For example we could imagine that rocks are intelligent and communicating with each other via esp. Even if this were the case humans and rocks could not form a society. With no way to communicate how could we interact meaningfully, or even be aware of the potential for the other to be part of our society?

The second requirement is the ability to understand rules, and the ability to follow them. Now the rules I have in mind here might include things like laws, but the really important rules, in terms of being part of a society, are those that govern relations between members of society, which might be considered simply customs. For example, the rules of language are one such example, and the rules of ethics are another. Now it isn’t the case that the rules must always be followed for someone to be a member of society, but if there weren’t such rules, or they were never followed, then members of the society wouldn’t be able to coordinate to accomplish anything at all. They wouldn’t be able to have shared goals, or purposefully interact with each other in ways that were mutually beneficial (for example, economic transactions), and thus wouldn’t be a society at all.

The requirements above are, I think, the most important ones. There is a third, however, which is that the members of a society must be roughly equal. Now that doesn’t mean that they must be perfectly equal, but it does mean that one can’t have complete power over the other. Of course it is hard to define exactly what this means, but through some examples the general idea is easy to grasp. For example, animals and humans aren’t part of the same societies, even though animals can communicate with us in a limited way, and can follow a small set of rules. And the reason they aren’t is because they are our pets or our property, we don’t work with our pets, they work for us. Of course this brings us to the trickier problem of royalty and managers. We might be able to make the case that kings aren’t part of the same society as peasants, but what about our bosses. Certainly we work for them. It is true that we do work for our bosses, but we don’t necessarily have to, and the formal structure of society (the laws) treats us as equals. Thus I would say that we can be part of the same society. It does highlight some of the difficulties in working with the third requirement however.

Obviously in forming these requirements I have made some assumptions about what a society is. I don’t think they are controversial assumptions, nor do I think they exhaust what a society is. Still it is unavoidable that what is needed to be a member of a society and what a society is should be connected with each other. More importantly we should ask whether “possible member of society” could, and possibly should (for reasons of clarity) replace our use of person in philosophy. In the context of the philosophy of mind I think that the answer must be no, when studying the mind we care only whether the person has a mind. But I do think it is a good replacement for our use of person in ethics, perhaps because I think that ethics and society are bound together.

* Here I am using society to loosely designate a group of beings (I don’t want to say people, because that would be to introduce hidden requirements). And this group is not an arbitrary selection, rather it should be a natural grouping defined by the beings interacting and having some habits/customs/ends in common. Obviously then one could belong to multiple societies and there could be societies within societies. It is another task to define formally what a society is, and possibly an enlightening one, but I won’t attempt to do so here.


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