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Defining the function of Society

Posted: Fri Jun 11, 2010 9:57 pm UTC
by morriswalters
I offer the following as a starting point for a discussion. I would be interested in seeing what other people think. In this context society and government are almost interchangeable. The discussion is about purpose not implementation.


Societies exist because they offer individuals benefits difficult or impossible to get otherwise. It provides this benefit by acting as a buffer and arbiter between competing interests and organizing a collective response to the needs of individuals represented in the group. Those benefits involve the ability to specialize and the ability to access resources in a manner likely to reduce conflict. This is possible because of the economies and efficiencies of scale. While an individual must serve all functions himself in the absence of a structure, the group allows people to focus on different tasks. To get those benefits the individuals give up their a measure of their ability to act in self interest. This is the simplest form of the so called social contract. This also the source of the basic tension between the individual and the social group. The social group is an unstable system. This is true because the needs of the group can never be completely aligned with the needs of the individual. One intrinsic problem is the need for the group to be administered. If it is a given that individuals represent a range of capabilities. Then those who administer the group will reflect that range. In addition there is no way to eliminate the self interest of the administrators. The implication of this is that the best administration is impossible to achieve consistently. In addition the group evolves as the capabilities gained from the participants of the group for the group increase. This evolutions speed is a function of cumulative acquisition of information and the ability to use it. Eventually the information is acquired faster than societies ability to create structures to deal with it's use. Without those structures, the use of information is driven by self interest alone. Eventually this will overwhelm the group interest. The implication of this is that over a period of time all groups become less efficient in the ability to serve their function and in the worst case dissolve into chaos.

Re: Defining the function of Society

Posted: Sun Jun 13, 2010 4:49 pm UTC
by Steroid
To begin metaphysically, I assert that a society does not exist in the same way that physical objects do. The particles that make up a stone have actual, physical existence, but to actually be given the label "stone" requires a conceptual view, and that requires a viewer. Similarly, the individuals in a society exist at a more direct level than does the society itself. An individual may speak, move, and act, but what does it mean do say that a society speaks, moves, or acts? That only has meaning in a metaphorical, anthropomorphic sense. Also, individuals can exist without a society, but a society cannot exist without its component individuals. Now, I assert that that gives individuals metaphysical primacy over society, but I can see where one might argue against that point.

I also believe that teleology does not have actual existence, that a purpose for a structure is only imputed by the users of that structure. Thus to say that a society exists to keep the peace or to bring prosperity is an obfuscating shorthand. The individuals who compose that society may desire such ends with enough power and will to bring them about, but it is improper to say that is the purpose of the society, just as it would be to say that the purpose of water is to be drunk. (It can also be used to wash, or to cool, or can simply exist without purpose.)

And my conclusion from this is that society should not attempt to alter the nature of the individual in any way, but should be accommodating as much as possible to each individual's desires and actions. In other words, any person should have the right to say, "In this capacity, in this situation, I am not a subject of the realm but a sovereign, free to act in my own interests," and the society should only withdraw what benefits apply to that situation. Society should be like a Chinese menu. For examples: if one person wishes to enter into a contract with another without the protection of the arbitrators, he should be free to do so. If he wishes to dispose of his property in a way detrimental to the society, he should be free to do so. If he speaks against the society, it should not preclude him from nonetheless acting within it.

To try to put it in simplest terms, the function of society is to let everyone do what they want as much as possible.

Re: Defining the function of Society

Posted: Sun Jun 13, 2010 6:50 pm UTC
by Glass Fractal
Steroid wrote:To begin metaphysically, I assert that a society does not exist in the same way that physical objects do. The particles that make up a stone have actual, physical existence, but to actually be given the label "stone" requires a conceptual view, and that requires a viewer. Similarly, the individuals in a society exist at a more direct level than does the society itself. An individual may speak, move, and act, but what does it mean do say that a society speaks, moves, or acts? That only has meaning in a metaphorical, anthropomorphic sense. Also, individuals can exist without a society, but a society cannot exist without its component individuals. Now, I assert that that gives individuals metaphysical primacy over society, but I can see where one might argue against that point.


A society may be said to speak, move or act as follows its constituent parts. A society can speak if a great portion of its pieces express an opinion and act if those pieces direct themselves toward one goal. As for society not really existing, I'm not sure what you mean. Surely mountains really exist although they are made of stones which are made of molecules which are made of atoms and so on. The issue of a label also seems to be a non sequitor, the label of "atom" requires a viewer even the label of "individual" requires a viewer to create the word or idea. If we follow this down far enough it becomes apparent that essentially nothing exists and the photon has metaphyiscal primacy over the human.

Steroid wrote:And my conclusion from this is that society should not attempt to alter the nature of the individual in any way, but should be accommodating as much as possible to each individual's desires and actions. In other words, any person should have the right to say, "In this capacity, in this situation, I am not a subject of the realm but a sovereign, free to act in my own interests," and the society should only withdraw what benefits apply to that situation. Society should be like a Chinese menu. For examples: if one person wishes to enter into a contract with another without the protection of the arbitrators, he should be free to do so. If he wishes to dispose of his property in a way detrimental to the society, he should be free to do so. If he speaks against the society, it should not preclude him from nonetheless acting within it.


I don't see why a person should be free to dispose of property in a way that is detrimental to society. That society is made of people, generally ones who wish to exist within it so by harming society that person is necessarily harming individuals and realistically dangerous forms of disposal will harm individuals in direct physical ways. Let's say I firebomb Dresden, the society has surely been harmed/forcibly altered but I can't then say that my actions are justifiable because society either doesn't properly exist or should exist to serve me. Quite clearly because that society is made of people I cannot hurt it without hurting them.

Or look at the disposal example. The man says "I will dispose of trash this way and society must not oppress me." Now his neighbors arrive as a group because the stink irritates them. Can he dismiss them because they are acting as a group? Are they no longer individuals because they have formed a society that favors safe disposal of waste?

Re: Defining the function of Society

Posted: Sun Jun 13, 2010 7:53 pm UTC
by Steroid
Glass Fractal wrote:A society may be said to speak, move or act as follows its constituent parts. A society can speak if a great portion of its pieces express an opinion and act if those pieces direct themselves toward one goal. As for society not really existing, I'm not sure what you mean. Surely mountains really exist although they are made of stones which are made of molecules which are made of atoms and so on. The issue of a label also seems to be a non sequitor, the label of "atom" requires a viewer even the label of "individual" requires a viewer to create the word or idea. If we follow this down far enough it becomes apparent that essentially nothing exists and the photon has metaphyiscal primacy over the human.

Certainly it does. But photons do not act against their nature. They do not voice opinions or hold preferences. They have no will and are not sentient. If somehow it were otherwise, then we collections of particles should defer to them. The example of a mountain is a good one. How short does a mountain have to be before it is a hill? How flat before it is a plateau? Such labels are based not on actual physical configuration but on perception, even though a physical configuration exists. In the same vein, a society can comprise a set list of individuals, but whether it is to be called a nation, a state, a club, or any other classification is not an objective question. That non-objectivity is a qualitative difference that makes its actions different from the actions of one person.

I don't see why a person should be free to dispose of property in a way that is detrimental to society. That society is made of people, generally ones who wish to exist within it so by harming society that person is necessarily harming individuals and realistically dangerous forms of disposal will harm individuals in direct physical ways. Let's say I firebomb Dresden, the society has surely been harmed/forcibly altered but I can't then say that my actions are justifiable because society either doesn't properly exist or should exist to serve me. Quite clearly because that society is made of people I cannot hurt it without hurting them.

Or look at the disposal example. The man says "I will dispose of trash this way and society must not oppress me." Now his neighbors arrive as a group because the stink irritates them. Can he dismiss them because they are acting as a group? Are they no longer individuals because they have formed a society that favors safe disposal of waste?

But if you firebomb Dresden, Munich cannot have a claim against you. The victims of your actions, both in bodily injury and in property damage, have been forced into an injustice, but you have not offended society as a whole, because it is a nebulous concept. The other alternative is to buy up all the land in Dresden, after which you may firebomb it at your leisure.

Now, it is possible to take this principle to its extreme. It is reasonable to curtail someone from burning trash as you describe on the grounds that the odor does bodily injury to the neighbors. But if the burner burns behind a filter, what then? Will you claim that the display of burning is an offense? Targeted light pollution? That is something of an absurdity, but as a more practical point, the neighbors cannot reasonably curtail him from burning his recyclables rather than giving them over for society's use. It is a claim on his time and his property for something he does not want. That is the essence of the proper place of the individual over the society. That the society's desires are more reasonable, more utilitarian, more practical should not come into play. The will of one person is sanctum sanctorum.

Re: Defining the function of Society

Posted: Sun Jun 13, 2010 8:37 pm UTC
by Charlie!
Steroid wrote:But if you firebomb Dresden, Munich cannot have a claim against you. The victims of your actions, both in bodily injury and in property damage, have been forced into an injustice, but you have not offended society as a whole, because it is a nebulous concept.
To "take this principle to its extreme," are you saying that if you witness a murder, you are not allowed to do anything to the murderer, since you're not a direct victim?

the neighbors cannot reasonably curtail him from burning his recyclables rather than giving them over for society's use. It is a claim on his time and his property for something he does not want. That is the essence of the proper place of the individual over the society. That the society's desires are more reasonable, more utilitarian, more practical should not come into play. The will of one person is sanctum sanctorum.
You claim this, but you do not demonstrate it. And I doubt you believe that last sentence - after all, you were fine with society preventing him from exercising his will to pollute, so this sanctum is only sanctorum when your underlying morality says it is.

Re: Defining the function of Society

Posted: Mon Jun 14, 2010 12:46 am UTC
by Sheikh al-Majaneen
A society does not exist for a reason. Society is something that happens. Get more than two people together and you have a society. It is only imbued with the purpose that its constituent individuals make and let happen. Depending on its openness, it can also be an efficient medium through which ideas transfer (if you are looking for function).

Also, of course, society is independent from government, though the governors participate in society just like everybody else (which is something that hardly be said of government).

Re: Defining the function of Society

Posted: Mon Jun 14, 2010 1:04 am UTC
by Glass Fractal
Steroid wrote:Certainly it does. But photons do not act against their nature. They do not voice opinions or hold preferences. They have no will and are not sentient. If somehow it were otherwise, then we collections of particles should defer to them. The example of a mountain is a good one. How short does a mountain have to be before it is a hill? How flat before it is a plateau? Such labels are based not on actual physical configuration but on perception, even though a physical configuration exists. In the same vein, a society can comprise a set list of individuals, but whether it is to be called a nation, a state, a club, or any other classification is not an objective question. That non-objectivity is a qualitative difference that makes its actions different from the actions of one person.


But labels, like language, are simply a convenience. Lack of perfect definition does not make something less real. If I toss a rock at you, you can't avoid being struck by arguing that it should be called a pebble.

Steroid wrote:But if you firebomb Dresden, Munich cannot have a claim against you. The victims of your actions, both in bodily injury and in property damage, have been forced into an injustice, but you have not offended society as a whole, because it is a nebulous concept. The other alternative is to buy up all the land in Dresden, after which you may firebomb it at your leisure.


Many societies can exist within a population. I have offended the society that is comprised of the population of the city of Dresden, in fact with all the people I killed I've probably offended millions of individuals that are part of thousands of different societies

Steroid wrote:Now, it is possible to take this principle to its extreme. It is reasonable to curtail someone from burning trash as you describe on the grounds that the odor does bodily injury to the neighbors. But if the burner burns behind a filter, what then? Will you claim that the display of burning is an offense? Targeted light pollution? That is something of an absurdity, but as a more practical point, the neighbors cannot reasonably curtail him from burning his recyclables rather than giving them over for society's use. It is a claim on his time and his property for something he does not want. That is the essence of the proper place of the individual over the society. That the society's desires are more reasonable, more utilitarian, more practical should not come into play. The will of one person is sanctum sanctorum.


This is trivially solved. We simply strip away the world "society" which people are so quick to use as an evil boogey-man and rephrase it as "multiple individuals" (see your statement that a society is a list of individuals). Second we assuming you have a consistent philosophy and generalize your statement about "one person" tho this: "the will of each person is sanctum sanctorum". Now the man with the trash can't hide behind a convenient label and must face the fact that when he offends society he in fact offends an individual and another individual and another individual etc etc

The alternative is that we say that by becoming a group, people lose rights, at which point you have an incredibly bizarre system the encourages people to claim rights but discourages doing anything to enforce them. When a man stabs me I can claim the right to not be stabbed but I cannot get some buddies and run him out of town because that would suddenly be an act of oppression by society. In fact with this system the man is encouraged to stab many people because then he only offends a nebulous society and no one has really been hurt.

Re: Defining the function of Society

Posted: Mon Jun 14, 2010 1:32 am UTC
by PAstrychef
What steroid proposes is in fact not a society at all. It's barely a functional banding together for defense. If the rights of the individual trump all other concerns, then there is no reason for individuals who want power over others not to take it, and no deterrent to anti-social behaviors.
In a society people agree to give up certain of their rights as individuals so that people can live together in a group without being subject to anarchy or total tyranny. And even in tyrannies there is a facade of legality, of a structure that allows the state to be a bad actor.
I agree to forgo my "right" to dump trash in a stream in order to live in a place where no one else is allowed to either. I agree to not kill at whim so that those who might want to kill me are constrained. I agree to pay taxes, to give up the use of my money, so that there are things like sewers, etc. In that all residents get use of such things, I'm willing to make it mandatory that everyone else also pays.
On a more whimsical note-if I want to enter the society of bowlers, and part of the code of that society is that all members wear a certain type of shirt, and I refuse to do so-how much a member of that society am I?
There is a distinction between society and the State. The State is an emergent feature of society, as it were, a codification and legitimation of the strictures of a given society. At the root, the State has a basic method of enforcing compliance-comply or die. (or leave) It punishes transgressors as the society that created it desires. Social structures other than the state can only enforce their strictures with the bounds of the law, unless they are criminal in nature, in which case they are already under interdiction by the State. Mafia guys aren't allowed to kill other mafia guys, just because everyone was in the same social structure. If I wish to reap the benefits of a codified society i.e. the State, I agree to follow the boundaries of behavior and action defined by the State.
Now-I can enter into any contract I want to without arbitration of any sort. But how will that contract be enforced? If I enter into a contract to be killed and the killer takes my money but fails to kill me-what do I do? How about if the person to be killed is someone else? And how in the world would any society survive if it allowed behavior and actions detrimental to that society?

Re: Defining the function of Society

Posted: Mon Jun 14, 2010 3:14 am UTC
by morriswalters
Steroid wrote:I also believe that teleology does not have actual existence, that a purpose for a structure is only imputed by the users of that structure. Thus to say that a society exists to keep the peace or to bring prosperity is an obfuscating shorthand. The individuals who compose that society may desire such ends with enough power and will to bring them about, but it is improper to say that is the purpose of the society, just as it would be to say that the purpose of water is to be drunk. (It can also be used to wash, or to cool, or can simply exist without purpose.)

Society is a gestalt and has persistence absent any member. A close analogy would be the human body. Each cell has specific self interests but sum total of the cells gives you a human being.

Steroid wrote:Now, it is possible to take this principle to its extreme. It is reasonable to curtail someone from burning trash as you describe on the grounds that the odor does bodily injury to the neighbors. But if the burner burns behind a filter, what then? Will you claim that the display of burning is an offense? Targeted light pollution? That is something of an absurdity, but as a more practical point, the neighbors cannot reasonably curtail him from burning his recyclables rather than giving them over for society's use. It is a claim on his time and his property for something he does not want. That is the essence of the proper place of the individual over the society. That the society's desires are more reasonable, more utilitarian, more practical should not come into play. The will of one person is sanctum sanctorum.

This could be said of a cancer cell. The counter argument is that it assumes a trivial connection between cause and effect. It assumes that you have perfect information about your activities and their effects in a broader context. To again use the analogy of the body again would be like the heart saying it doesn't want to beat faster when the total organism exerts itself trying to escape death.

How would you organize a society to achieve the goal you wish? I described an hierarchical society with power centered on the top.