I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the purpose of society and government, and therefore of life (yes, I know, it’s 42). So in the context of my current studies in American founding principles and the whole concept of a “western” moral tradition however distinct this tradition may be from overtly religious moral teaching, I want to outline some of where my thoughts have been going.
First, I think that people’s answers to the “big questions” like Why are we here? and What is the meaning of life? and Is there a God or an afterlife? -- well, I think they can’t not be answered in each heart, and that different answers lead to very different value systems (whether acknowledged or not) and therefore, very different choices and lives. I think that they are difficult questions, and that some of the best lives in history have been dedicated answering one or more or even a portion of these questions. Moreover, I think everyone has some form of an answer for them: whether we experience certainty or overwhelming uncertainty, whether we believe they can or even should be asked, whether our answers feel final or are only “working solutions,” even whether we feel satisfaction or resentment toward what we think the answers are – each of these has implications for our worldview and how we choose to act in it.
OK, with that preface, here’s a tentative outline of my thoughts currently. As humans, we seem to be most fulfilled when we are able to live lives that develop our “higher” powers, i.e., our intellect and will, as opposed to habituating our lives to act by greed or passion. Taking cues mostly from Aristotle here, I’ll say that a certain amount of empirical data, teased out with some inductive reasoning (reasoning from specifics to generalities), suggests that our “purpose” in the universe is most likely related to what we are best at and what will bring us the fullest level of happiness.
We use this logic very naturally with manmade objects. An object with no flat surfaces, pieces falling off, maybe spikes protruding randomly, and which doesn’t stay in one place easily, wouldn’t make a good chair, for example, and couldn’t possible have been meant to be one. (Except maybe as a prank, but only because humor derives from the juxtaposition of things that don’t go together.) So a life that makes us miserable, causes damage to ourselves and others, wastes the abilities that are best in us, is an equally unlikely purpose for being (humans) with such highly developed rational abilities and sensitivity to good and bad, happiness and sorrow, etc.
Now another thing we (that is, Aristotle and I, for a start) can’t help noticing is that there is a set of complementary (opposite?) ideas that live in tension together as one fact about humanity: that is, that we are both individual and social. Aristotle says we are social beings (“political” actually, but I don’t think he intended the distinction between society and politics that our vocabulary helps us to assume). Yet we are social beings with individual powers to deliberate and choose. So is the meaning of life to be attained together? Sure, to a large extent. Yet a key issue for me is the relationship between geographic and ideological proximity. There are cognitive and precognitive predilections in human nature that tend to make members of any kind of group think or feel somewhat similarly. Yet this fact is countered by things like pluralism in society, intercultural and interreligious contacts, and the modern world’s massive capacity for the communication of facts.
Insert here thoughts on the nature and purpose of government. For since we are social by nature, there must be some method for administering society. Abstracting from either the form or the method of establishing this governing function of society, it seems to me the most basic fact of this function is that it serves only half of the individual-social spectrum of human nature. But if man’s purpose is also discernible by (or identifiable with) his nature, neither purely individual nor purely social elements should hinder his (or others’) pursuit of that purpose. Hence the commonplace recognition of truths that, on the one hand, one’s personal choices should not endanger society (no flying planes into buildings), and that on the other hand, society has no claim to hinder personal choices that do not danger society (no legislating my favorite flavor of ice cream).
So whatever the purpose of life is, the purpose of government is subordinate to it. This isn’t to say the state has any role in answering the “big questions.” But society does. This is key. Remember, whatever your answers to the Questions are, they will determine how you seek to discover and live out your “purpose.” So in order to live together, people in the same community must be able to discuss and come to some common ground on the Big Questions. The more common ground, the less likely that community’s governing function will be to conflict with the Answers, and thus with people’s living out those Answers.
That much should make conservatives and xenophobes happy. However the other side of this is that uniformity isn’t the ultimate goal of our intellect, truth is. Here is where visionaries often seem anti-social or even counter-cultural: You have to be, in order to advance the understanding of society as a whole on a given topic. This is why pluralism is useful and good – provided we actually benefit from it by discussing the Big Questions. If people in a society commit themselves to journeying the road to truth together, and at the same time being at peace (to a degree) with not being there yet, that seems to be society at its best. Sometimes "conservatives" feel so happy and confident in the truths they have found, they indulge in an incredible amount of impatience in demanding that others accede to those truths instantly. This is not realistic or human, and ends up turning people away from those truths. (It is also nothing like the gradual method God takes in Scripture, starting where people actually are, and leading them gradually and patiently.) So pluralism is a good, beautiful, and exciting opportunity for personal and societal betterment.
The worst of both worlds, however, would be a society that attains neither the peace that comes from relative unanimity, nor the peace that comes from knowing the truth. This yields a pluralist society with only one trait truly in common: a despair of reaching meaningful truth, stemming from intellectual exhaustion, hypersensitivity to conflict, and simple frustration that it is so hard to reach answers to questions that seem so natural to ask.
This, I believe, is where nature most seems to suggest the possibility of something beyond it (etymologically, the words for this are “super-natural,” from Latin, or “metaphysical,” from Greek). The nature of humanity, our abilities, our natural inclinations, and our natural limitations, all seem to point to a gap, a blank space that goes back to the idea I mentioned at the top of this post: It doesn’t make sense that either creation or evolution would yield such a strong need for something that doesn’t actually exist. I’m talking about anything you can conceive of as supernatural or metaphysical: humanity’s seemingly infinite capacity to seek truth, beauty, and goodness, alongside our historically very finite capacity to achieve these things.
In another post, I’ll think more about what this means for the natural limitations of government (as in, not just shouldn’t, but can’t). As well as how something personal like the natural impulse toward religion (or at least any outward-focused sort of reverence or humility stemming from acknowledgement of our own natural limitations as humans), can possibly have a happy interaction with the public/social side of human nature.