Is there such a thing as society?

by Martin MacConnol – Apr 01, 2020

“One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.” Thus, spake Boris from his sick room in a videocast in recent days.

Such a seemingly innocent line has provoked quite a media storm. But then of course it isn’t innocent at all, it’s a hugely loaded phrase.

For those of us who lived through the Thatcher years, the reference was clear. “There is no such thing as society,” is a controversial quote of the Iron Lady. Some argue her words were taken out of context, others see them as evidence of the Tories being the “Nasty Party”, all about individual greed and selfishness.

But there is a layer that lies below that debate and which is relevant to these chaotic days. “There is no such thing as society,” comes from the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. And Thatcher knew that. Writing in the 17th century at the time of the Civil War, he placed the idea at the heart of his book Leviathan. It was a big idea then, and clearly it remains a big idea today.

In stating it, Hobbes turned on its head a school of philosophy that ran from the idealised Greek city state of Aristotle through the great Christian thinkers, Augustine and Aquinas. Aristotle argued humankind is instinctively social, we are programmed to come together into communities and to work in the common interest. You can see why early Christian philosophers liked it; it’s got JC written all over it.

But was Hobbes’ wrong to deny people’s instinctive goodness? And why is it so controversial to think we are not instinctively good anyway?

I love the world around me and want to do my bit. But I’m no saint and would hesitate to argue people are pre-determined to come together as society. Yes, we live in a time where there are great examples of people being selfless, but we also live in a time of massive self-interest. Nielsen has reported today that UK shoppers spent £1.9bn more in the supermarkets in the four weeks to March 21 than they did in the same period in 2019. That was not instinctive altruism at work.

“There is no such thing as society” was only the starting point of Hobbes’ argument. He reasoned that we come together not because we are instinctively good, but because our self-interest is best served when rules are applied to protect us from the tyranny of others. The reality of that is hard to deny at the moment: as just one example, think how supermarkets are now limiting people to only buying three items or fewer of key goods. Without that rule many would still be stockpiling.

On a tiny work level, at Wardour we know the value of society, of teamwork. You can only deliver the best work when you call in the resources around you. But we also know the benefit of hierarchies and rules, such as clear meetings where progress is discussed, and where slippages are arrested. Just assuming that people will instinctively come together to get to the right end feels like a recipe for disaster.

So, we come back to Boris’s statement. I think he is right, we are seeing evidence of society, of people coming together, but I also think Hobbes is right too, and that this society is only working because most people’s self-interest is being channelled by rules – rules we realise it would be worse for us individually to disobey.

Denying humanity’s instinctive goodness is a massive problem in some people’s minds (qv Thatcher). But in some ways I think it makes me more proud not less proud of the human condition. It takes effort and choice to do the right thing, to create a society that works for all. Now is a time when that effort is needed, and I applaud all of us who are making it.

Published Apr 01, 2020

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