Ceara Conway

What Makes a Fair Society?

As with all big questions, I found, while grappling with this one, that it led to many more. I had to go backwards and dismantle for myself on a very basic level ideas of systems, society and human nature. Is it natural or unnatural to be unfair? When did the idea of society start to take hold? Where did we even get the notion that we should be treated fairly? And so on. What you will find here are not concrete answers to the question but my attempt to offer some suggestions and to open up the discussion even further.

Waking up and Dreaming. In 1750, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a paper titled ‘A Discourse on the origins of Inequality’ in response to a question posed by the Academy of Dijon. The question was ‘What is the origin of inequality among men and is it authorised by natural law’?

In his study Rousseau explored two types of inequalities amongst men. Natural inequalities such as physical strengths and weaknesses and qualities of both the mind and the soul. He also observed a second range of inequalities which he classed as being political and moral.

‘Inequalities that depend on a kind of convention, and that are established, or at least authorised by the consent of men. The latter ( political and moral inequalities ) consists of the different privileges, which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others; such as that of being more rich, more honoured, more powerful or even in a position to exact obedience’.

Fairness in society, human rights and many other major moral codes and systems did not always exist; they had to be developed, envisioned, and sometimes fought for.
More importantly, as Rousseau highlights, they came about through consensus. How many of us I wonder are conscious of the fact that the societies we live in now exist because we concede to them – and what this really means on an individual level of responsibility? Throughout history we have seen that societies become fairer when enough people want them to be so, or when those in power are met with such force or equal power that they have to change. There has to be as it were ”the will to power” the will power to make it happen. Consider Mahatma Gandhi in India and his use of labour strikes as a means of civil power. Consider Martin Luther King or the Women’s Rights Movement. Societal change for the greater good most often begins with an insight, an awareness, a wish, a need; ideas that may even seem crazy at first.

Could a society exist where our global resources are distributed so that millions of people don’t have to die of starvation every day? Yes, of course! Could a society exist where the average person didn’t have to work nine to five, five days a week with just two weeks off a year? Imagine if the majority of the 99% took part in the Occupy movement in 2011. Where would the power have lain then? A society or even the ‘concept’ of a society is a constant ever evolving organic notion. For it to be fair it needs to be open to new insights, to be plastic in its nature, fluid and changeable. It needs people who can continually dream a new version, who see that it’s possible, who challenge supposed ‘norms’.

Time and Energy. We need both time and energy to contemplate, to dream, to reflect, to act and to create. Without time and energy, societal changes on a mass, global scale will probably always take longer to effect.

Fear and love. It would make sense that if we want a fair society what we need are individuals with the capacity to be fair. So why then, I wondered, are people capable of being unfair? My initial response was to say that when we are unfair we are acting from a place of fear. Fear that there isn’t enough to go around ( self preservation ), fear that we need to have more power or control over others as a way of keeping safe. Or perhaps we are just unfair through plain self interest and sheer greed.

Is it that simple?

In his study of whether man was naturally or unnaturally unequal, Rousseau was interested in the state of man before he became civil and socialised, what he called man’s ”natural state”. He proposed that man’s initial survival in the world depended on both his love for himself and his compassion for others and that this is what has maintained the survival of mankind as a species throughout the early years. He also proposed that as humans evolved within a civil and a socialised society that they began to develop faculties that were essentially destructive both to themselves and their fellow neighbours.

‘The increasing regularity and convention of man’s contact with other men transfigures his basic capacity for reason and reflection, his natural or naive self-love into a corrupting dependency on the perceptions and favour of others. Natural, non-destructive love of self advances gradually yet qualitatively into a state of amour proper, a love of self now driven by pride and jealousy rather than merely elemental self-preservation. This accession to amour proper has four consequences: (1) competition, (2) self-comparison with others, (3) hatred, and (4) urge for power”.

Three hundred years later psychologist Michael Lerner echoes a similar thought in this following extract taken from his article on the psychodynamics of Western Culture.

‘The basic reality is that most of humanity has always heard a voice inside themselves telling them that the best path to security and safety is to love others and show generosity, and a counter voice that tells us that the only path to security is domination and control over others. This struggle between the voice of fear and the voice of love, the voice of domination/ power-over and the behaviour between these two worldviews and ways of engaging others. This struggle between the voice of fear and the voice of love, the voice of domination/power-over and the voice of compassion, empathy and generosity, have played out throughout history and shape contemporary political debates around the world. Because almost every single one of us hears both voices, we are often torn between them, oscillating in our communal policies and our personal behaviour between these two world views and ways of engaging others.

In response to what both Rousseau and Lerner highlight in relation to our loss of capacity to be empathetic or our inner conflict of inter dependence-independence, I would add that in order for us to become more empathetic and compassionate we need guides and teachers to act as catalysts for change and personal growth. First and foremost so that we can learn to tap into the awareness of our own needs on a deep and conscious level. After all, if we are not in touch with our own needs and the miracle of our unique existences how then can we be in touch with anyone else’s or that of the planets for that matter? Who are these guides and catalysts in our societies? They are our visionaries and leaders, our therapists, artists, storytellers, spiritual leaders, parents, teachers.’They’ are you.

Imagine schools where the emphasis is not just placed on learning skills for what you are going to ”do” in the world but ones that also place importance on your developing an awareness to the kind of person you are becoming; the values and perceptions you hold and more importantly your ability to question where they have come from.

I quote Michael Lerner once again as he talks about the ways in which our humanistic ways have been/are continually affected through living within capitalist societal systems.

‘As the competitive and me first ethos of the capitalist marketplace has grown increasingly powerful and increasingly reflected in the culture and world views of the contemporary era, more and more people bring the world view of fear, domination and manipulation of others into personal lives, teaching people that the rationality of the marketplace with its injunction to see other human beings primarily in terms of how they can serve our own needs and as instrumental for our own purposes, rather than as being deserving of care and respect just for who they are and not for what they can deliver for us, this ethos has weakened friendships and created the instability in family life that the right has so effectively manipulated’.

Imagine a society where people were aware as to how we are most affected by the societal capitalist systems in which we exist. What could we do in response to protect ourselves, our values? We could begin to learn how to bring consciousness to our levels of fairness in our own lives, in our homes, in our workplaces, our communities.

In his book ‘Dancing With Dinosaurs’ Abbot Mark Patrick Henderman says that in an unfair or an unjust society we need to learn ‘how to dance with dinosaurs’. Here he uses the dinosaur as a metaphor for institutions that are so monolithic that we cannot compete with them. He asks. ‘Who are our own dinosaurs’?

‘Dinosaurs as a species are diverse and varied, but, without putting a tooth in it, as they say, you are probably working for one; you may be investing in one; and, if you are a believer; you are likely to be worshiping in one. Churches, banks and multinationals are some of the modern breed of dinosaur’. He goes on to say. ‘There is no point bemoaning there existence or suggesting that you are not prepared to play the game of life until they are all removed from the playing pitch. They will be here long after your protest has ended. Those of us, who plan to continue, have to learn how to dance with dinosaurs rather than allow them to crush us’.

Recently in Ireland several small communities pooled their resources so that children seeking asylum living within the Direct Provision System ( excluded from receiving state funds for third level education ) could attend college. This is an example of dancing with dinosaurs. When people took on MacDonald’s and used the power of the media and their ”spending power” to influence the ways in which they produced and presented their food, this was another example of dancing with dinosaurs. Human beings will always have ingenious creative resources and abilities to come together to create fairer societies on both small and large ways.

What makes a fair society is an evolving question with changing answers.
In earlier times, most people might not have agreed or even questioned that slavery wasn’t fair or that it wasn’t fair that women weren’t educated. It seems that with each new century a new level of development or consciousness and insight arises pertaining to its time. I imagine that in years to come people will no doubt look at our own society and see atrocities which we are committing that we are not even aware of now.

I will end here with some wise words by Pema Chodron. ‘Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s become critical. We don’t’ need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here. It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times’.

‘Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbour’s children starving?’

Ceara Conway, Social Practitioner