A Call to Invigorate Society

18 Jan 2016

Harold James, Co-Editor of 'The Thriving Society' and member of our Board of Advisers, encourages readers to strive towards a society that is not merely decent but dynamic.

What led you to edit a book on “The Thriving Society”?

I was intrigued - as I think Jim Stoner also was – and provoked by Robby George’s interesting distinction between a decent society and a dynamic society. Professor George argued that dynamism often helps decency, and certainly isn’t fundamentally incompatible. In George’s categorization, the decent society which we need is based above all on the proper respect for the human person, but also on firm principles that allow firm and decent government and the institution of the family. In a dynamic society, other institutions, notably the firm and also the university (both the result of applications of the principles of corporate personality) cultivate dynamism. In the book we have essays examining different elements of the Thriving Society, and with Michael Bordo in a particular essay on the economic challenge, we tried to look at the bases of a sustainable monetary and fiscal policy, and trade-offs between short-term reactions to shocks and long-term well-being. But I also wanted to rethink Robby’s categorization – as does John Haldane – in that some institutions that may be seen as dynamic (including governments, firms, and universities) may be counter-productive or even on occasion harmful. I do not believe that we should think of an institution, the family or the firm or the university (any more than say, a hospital or a prison), as having this centrality as such. Institutions of higher learning can be inspirational, but they can also be deeply dysfunctional. What is important is the extent to which they potentially offer a way of developing dispositions and behavioral traits. So in a separate essay I tried to relate the subject of human flourishing to fundamental aspects of the human personality.

How do you link the human personality to society?

I propose that what makes society both decent and dynamic depends on two human capacities and their development. First, a notion of sympathy or compassion, an ability to put oneself in the mental vision of another being and to reflect on what it would mean “not necessarily to be me.” There is an exclusive version of this kind of action: We lose ourselves in another and are completely absorbed in romantic love. But there is also a wider and inclusive version: The Christian tradition recognizes this when we think of finding Christ in one another. The great Abrahamic faiths recognize eating in common as a way of establishing a community. Christians treat the divine provision of manna in the desert (Exodus 16) and the miracle of the loaves and the fishes as an anticipation of the sacrament of communion. Many scholars suggest that the Last Supper is related to the Jewish Passover meal. The Quran also gives a substantial significance to manna.

Secondly, human beings are competitive and seek preeminence. That makes for ingenuity, then technical advancement, then the provision of a more satisfactory base for human flourishing. Religions live organizationally on the competitive principle—as against each other, but also internally. But they also encourage people to see it as their duty to develop their capacities, to excel, and even to measure themselves against others (for instance, in the New Testament parable of the talents).

Competition has also been seen as an ingenious way of inculcating virtue. Adam Smith appears to have made this argument when he reflected upon self-interest and in parallel, evolved a partial theory of good or virtuous behavior. The passage about tradesmen’s motives is probably the best-known and most quoted sentence in all of the Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” But we should also not be tempted to think – as sometimes self-styled defenders of the free market do – that economic freedom and the principle of competition are good because they produce dynamic growth, efficiency, and material goods. In some circumstances – as Peter Thiel has forcefully argued – monopoly rather than competition produces big material gains. The argument should be more about the intrinsic importance of freedom for the ability of human beings to fulfil themselves, to develop their capacity.

Each of the two desirable intrinsic characteristics of the human personality, caritas and competition, has its obverse, which develops when the two features do not work in balance with each other. Competition unmitigated by communality or caritas turns into a war of all against all. It is driven by a different characteristic, frequently described as a vice: envy. However, solidarity without any competition to perform—and to actually demonstrate solidarity—becomes inactivity. Again, we often refer to this sort of behavior by using the language of vices: in this instance, sloth or indolence. Monasteries—set up to realize the ultimate Christian life—in practice often became alternately centers of envy (in which monks resented each other) or sloth.

What is the right balance between the various institutions you examine in the book?

The family is—as George correctly presents it—a way of learning virtues that are indispensable to the health of a society at large. It is a microcosm that prepares for other-oriented action on a larger scale. This view is ubiquitous in classical thought, and it has been articulated very powerfully in other traditions. States and governments have often stepped in where families have failed. The idea that a contract between the generations lies at the basis of society is fundamental to visions of a just social order. It is also at the heart of any notion of social stability and sustainability. The conservative theorist Edmund Burke famously put the generational contract in a larger perspective: “Society is a contract… a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born.” Traditionally, the family was the most obvious way of expressing this idea of continuity among humans. Burke saw essentially saw a private contract that was violated by the dramatic political action of the French revolutionaries. But the character of the contract has changed remarkably since Burke’s time. In modern industrial societies, families no longer invest in children with the goal of securing their own position in old age, but have collectivized or socialized Burke’s contract. But collectivized intergenerational transfers lead to all kinds of gaming of the system, that helps to discredit the idea of the state and also the idea of the contract. Many modern people alas, when they think about contracts, immediately think of ways that they can escape from the consequences of contracts. Too much dependence on contracts mean that they are not really kept, and the consequent uncertainty threatens the basis of a stable society, making both dynamism and decency less likely.

Do you have an action plan?

There are real limits to what can be achieved by tweaking institutions, by institutional redesign. In some ways, what I would like to plea for is a plan for action and engagement by people who are in existing institutions - in families, but also in governments, business enterprises, universities, churches – to think how their places can better accommodate the human personality in its full dimensions. This is not a self-help book, but it would be terrific if the message got through that human beings can work on themselves, become better fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, but also better citizens. Again in this area we encounter the paradox of utility: a workplace that is dynamic because it allows employees (and their managers) to realize their full potential will usually produce better results, but shouldn’t just be cultivated for that reason, but more fundamentally because anything else feels wrong, and makes us morally, psychologically, and even physically sick. 


'The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing' is a newly published collection of essays aimed at demystifying the key economic, social, and moral foundations of successful societies.

Visit Prof. Harold James' expert profile

'The Thriving Society' is available for purchase at Amazon.com.