Friday, September 15, 2017

The measure of a society

Mankind creates societies. It's what we do. Over many thousands of years we have built and torn down many societies, some good and some not so good. But what makes a "good" society? I claim that the measure of a society is not art, leisure, wealth, etc. Those things will always be part of any society. Sometimes they are reserved for a select few, sometimes for more. No, the real measure of a society is how it treats the poorest members.

It's a given that every society will have some great achievements, some wealthy people, some art, some music, and also some poor. We could look at how wealth is distributed. What percentage of the people are so wealthy that they have nothing but leisure time? What percentage needs to work full time just to get by? What percentage must hold down more that one job? What percentage of jobs are for unskilled labor, versus those with a higher degree? While these are all good measures of how successful a society can be, they all really come back to one thing; quality of life. We're really measuring the quality of life and looking at the distribution of that quality through out the population.

As Jesus said, "You will always have the poor among you." Think about how many religions there are which stress that caring for the poor is important. Why is that? Because, if the poor still have a reasonable quality of life, then it stands to reason that everyone else will have a life even better than that. It's a distribution with the poor at the bottom end and the ultra rich at the top. The rich can take care of themselves, the poor can not. Yes, there's a certain amount of socialism here as well, but that's not the main point.

The rich lives of those who are better off in a society are always built on the backs of working people. Each person's life is made better by the work of those below them. Look at it another way, society will always have some people at the top end and will always have some great achievements. These can almost be taken for granted. The question to be asked is how that society achieved those great things. Did they have slaves? If so, we would not say that's a great society, because we do not recognize slavery as a good way to treat people and thus get things done. It's been found, for example, that the people who built the pyramids where not slaves, they were paid workers. Thus we tend to think of Egypt's great achievements as being even greater, in that they were built by paid and respected workers. If we later find that the pyramids were, indeed, built by slaves, then our view of that society would be lessened.

We will always have poor. If we shove them under the rug and pretend they do not exist, we, as a society are the worse for it. One of those lost and forgotten poor could have made a great contribution, but since we threw them away, they never had a chance. That's a great lost for society. But this is only a practical, analytical, viewpoint. There's also the viewpoint of nature. Humans are a social species. As such, we get endorphins when we help each other. For most people, empathy is normal and has a great effect on their well being. That's a selfish reason for being nice and helping people!

What I'm trying to say here is simply that since we will always have poor in any society, the question for a society is whether these people are taken advantage of, taken for granted, ignored, shoved under the rug and forgotten, or if they are treated like fellow human beings and given the opportunity to better themselves. Note, I didn't say give them handouts. I said give them opportunity to better themselves. India's caste system doesn't do this, but that is slowly changing and is generally viewed as unfair.

We, as a society must decide how to deal with the bottom of the quality of life curve. When we move that bottom up, the rest of the curve rises also. So, we can measure a society in many ways, but the one which matters the most, the one which makes us human and betters everyone's life, is to make sure the poorest members are not forgotten. It's been said that if one were to design a society, the best way to go about it would be for one person to do the design, while a different person gets to assign roles. If you are willing to be in any position in your society, it's a good one. If there are some positions which no one wants, that's an easy measure of "bad", and improvement is needed.

So, look at a society, not for its great achievements, but for how it treats the poorest members. There's your measure of humanism.

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