As strange as it may seem ethics and the economy have something in common, besides starting with the letter e. They are both ways of understanding a certain aspect of society, some part of its functioning, and its relation to individuals. Economics describes how wealth is created and distributed within a society, and thus it describes some of the macroscopic patterns that structure society, and thus that structure the individuals that make up society. Similarly ethics describes another fact about society, in this case the rules that govern how an individual is related to other individuals. Or, in other words, how an individual is related to society.
Of course ethics and economics aren’t the only ideas that we use to understand society. But to try to understand society as a whole by understanding these pieces is methodologically backwards. To try to manufacture an understanding of society from our ideas about certain parts of it is a recipe for error. Our concepts may be confused, ambiguous, or mistaken, and putting them together isn’t going to fix these problems. Instead we need to take a top-down approach. First we try to understand why society exists, what its point is. Then, with that knowledge, we can understand what society must do in order to accomplish that purpose. I will call the things society must do to fulfill its purpose its functions, with the understanding that society will have more than one function, in this sense. Each of these functions will correspond to one of the concepts we use to understand society, like economics and ethics. And, by understanding the role each them plays in furthering society’s purpose, we can improve our understanding of them, and, more importantly, have a better understanding of what the best implementation of each of these functions might be.
So why do societies exist? When you think about it the answer is relatively obvious: societies exist because they benefit the individuals that constitute them. If society didn’t benefit its members then societies wouldn’t have formed in the first place, we would have remained a primitive people forever. Of course then need to understand how people are benefited by society, because obviously the details will be relevant in determining society’s functions. There are certain needs, shared by all people, such as food, water, and shelter that society can aid in fulfilling, and thus society might be beneficial by meeting these needs. But people can satisfy these needs on their own, so society must do something more as well. This something more is, I think, satisfying peoples’ other desires; although you can survive on your own you won’t have the resources to do much of anything else but survive. But, unlike basic needs, the desires of people are not uniform; different people desire different things. Thus the purpose of society can’t be to deliver some specific good or service to people, but rather to give them the ability to satisfy their desires, whatever those may be.
This is an idea I have discussed before, so I won’t go into any more detail. Instead let me address the question of what society must do in order to benefit people in this way. But before I start listing the functions of society let me first mention that there are two kinds of functions: those that directly aid people in fulfilling their desires (the primary functions) and those that exist to maintain society (the support functions). There are only two primary functions of society: to give people opportunities and to make people wealthy. Here I am using wealth in the sense meant by ecumenicists, which corresponds roughly to personal power and not to the monetary value of our assets. For example, if every computer was to suddenly double in speed (magically) we would have all become wealthier, in this sense, even though our assets would have the same value (since all computers doubled in speed they would retain the same market price). I don’t mean anything special by my use of the word opportunities; to have more opportunities is to have more options as to how you can spend your time. We can get more opportunities by being wealthier (I have more opportunities than people in the 1900s because I can fly to anywhere on the globe while they could not), by being constrained less by society (being restricted by only as many laws as is absolutely necessary), and by being able to spend more of our time as we wish without diminishing our wealth to the point where we can’t pursue the opportunities that we want. The concepts that correspond most closely to these two primary functions are economics and liberty. The ways in which society increases our wealth we describe as economic facts, and the ways in which society increases our opportunities we describe as liberties,
Although there are only two primary functions for society there are many more supporting functions; I’ll just cover the most important ones here. For a society to even exist individuals must work as a group; a bunch of people who are related to each other simply by living in the same area do not constitute a society. A society exists because the people who compose it act as if it exists, which means following the rules, acting for the good of the whole, etc. A society must also be able to resolve internal conflicts, to create and sustain some kind of harmony within itself, otherwise no matter how well intentioned the individuals making it up are society will come flying apart. And finally society must have the ability to coordinate its members for certain projects, since even well-intentioned individuals who are able to get along won’t spontaneously organize themselves. These three functions correspond to ethics, justice, and law/politics. I say the first supporting function corresponds to ethics primarily because of the analysis of ethics that I have given elsewhere; I describe as ethical those actions that are in the best interest of society as a whole. And the process by which the members of society are coordinated seems natural to describe as politics or law. The most questionable description here is probably my claim that justice is that which promotes harmony in society. In this modern day and age we have very strong intuitions to the effect that justice involves equality of some kind. Of course given our modern attitudes equality is what creates harmony; people are unhappy when they perceive their treatment as unequal. Since the matter is partly a question of what we choose to call things there is nothing I can say to definitively show that we must call that which promotes harmony justice. However, I can point out that equality is not needed if the individuals who make up a society are satisfied with a social order that treats some people better than others (on the basis of wealth, merit, or whatever). So if you equate justice with equality then in some societies justice may not be needed, or may even be detrimental (if harmony is better promoted by some system of inequality). And I don’t think many find the conclusion that justice is superfluous acceptable. So if you think that in our society justice entails some kind of equality, and you think that justice is something that should be a part of all societies, then the only option is to accept that justice is what makes a society harmonious; but I can’t say anything against a rejection of one of those premises.
As I final note I would like to mention an interesting effect that the structure of society has on itself. The point of society is to satisfy peoples’ desires. But the existence of a society changes peoples’ desires. It gives them new desires and motivates them to re-evaluate their previous desires. For example, any successful society does its best to give everyone the desire to be ethical. This may very well be an extra hidden condition for society’s success; not only must it perform its functions well, but the culture of that society must promote the right desires, the desires that society can fulfill, desires that fit with the current principles of justice that the society has. But perhaps that is a topic for another time.
[Methodological Note: This analysis of society was initially motivated by the need for an analysis of justice. As I mentioned previously every theory, including philosophical theories, starts with ostensive definitions and then turns them into categorical ones. A theory of justice then needs to start with an ostensive understanding of justice, namely in the form: justice is the thing that …. But our intuitive understanding of justice is very closely tied with notions of equality, and we can’t develop a satisfactory theory of justice in general that begins with an understanding of justice as some kind of equality. Thus I was led to question what the purpose of justice was, how it fit into society, which led me to the above analysis of society in general. I am satisfied with the understanding of justice that fell out; the work of many other philosophers can be seen as approximating this understanding of justice. For example, Rawls understood a just society as one that everyone would agree upon from behind the veil of ignorance. He saw this as just because to him it seemed to guarantee some form of equality. However, developing the structure of society from behind the veil of ignorance can be also seen to be guaranteeing harmony, because you are trying to structure society so that everyone is satisfied with their place in it. And that only requires equality if the people who will find themselves in that society value equality.]