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What Is “The Good Society”?

December 15, 2009

Michael Walzer in Dissent:

PRELIMINARY Dialogue: The co-editor of Dissent argues with a philosophical friend to determine the truth (or a truth) of the matter.

MW: The definite article is wrong. How could there be one good society, given the immense variety of human cultures?

A Philosophical Friend: Well, there is one human nature, recognizable across many historical and cultural settings. So why shouldn’t there be one good society that “fits” human nature and enables all men and women to reach their highest potential? Isn’t this the goal of philosophy since its Greek beginnings, and of most of the world’s religions, especially the monotheistic ones (think of the city on the hill, the holy commonwealth, the messianic kingdom), and of the left also for the last several centuries? Isn’t the pursuit of justice, truth, and beauty also, simultaneously, the pursuit of the good society, in which our higher nature would finally be fulfilled?

MW: But surely what is most distinctive about humanity is its creative power—to think, imagine, speculate, argue, and disagree. So men and women will imagine different good societies, argue about their political and economic arrangements, and disagree about which one is best.

APF: All right, that just means that the good society has to leave room for all those imaginings—it has to be liberal and democratic. The “marketplace of ideas” must be open to all comers.

MW: No, no, the good society isn’t a debating society—or rather, a debating society, a really lively debating society, may be one kind of good society, but not the only kind. People won’t just argue about different versions of goodness, they will try to act them out; they will build different “good societies,” and live in them, and teach their children that the society they have built is better than all the others.

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