Towards the Good Society:
A Postconventional Manifesto
The need for noble purposes in a disoriented world
I wrote this manifesto for the many people who feel very concerned about the state of our society, both on a local and on the global scale, but who feel disoriented and have misgivings about the future. I aspire to outline a hopeful and yet realistic vision of how each one of us can meaningfully contribute to a better common future. This vision takes account of the limited ability of the traditional political solutions to inspire optimism about the path societal development is taking, and seeks alternative openings. The manifesto starts with a broad-brush painting of some essential problems afflicting our contemporary society, and points out a number of key issues that need attention. Then I discuss why the conventional political solutions are ineffectual, and suggest a direction for finding an alternative orientation. In the key part of the manifesto I propose a set of humanistic values I find worthy of our commitment. My hope is that these values will provide something of a beacon for our good will in a quite disheartening time. In the penultimate section I suggest that the way we deal with social conflicts has a pivotal role in a vision of a better future. Finally, I discuss the implications of this humanistic vision for our daily life, wherever we may spend our time.
Analysis of the problems
In order to set the scene for the suggestions in the latter part of the manifesto, I would like to remind you of some preoccupations many of us share. There are a number of troubling issues both at the societal level, and in our personal daily lives. In the news, we are presented with reports on unemployment, increasing crime rates, cases of ruthless and meaningless violence, environmental problems, and deterioration of ethical values. In our daily life we may experience an increasing sense of insecurity, because we hear about burglary in the neighbourhood and mugging, and we see more junkies, skinheads, beggars and other marginalized persons on the streets. Some parts of the cities we are living in have been rapidly deteriorating due to vandalism, defilement, and graffiti expressing destructiveness and alienation. Even more ominuous is the increasing incidence of ethnic and religious conflict. Many cases around the world show how rapidly such conflicts can tear the fabric of a society asunder, resulting in reckless violence, persecution, and general destruction.
Looking a little deeper it is evident that politicians have a shrinking room of maneuver, due to a contracting tax base, increasing costs for unemployment, and internationalization of capital flows. Who, then, is in a position to do something decisive about our common afflictions?
I would like to stress the importance of the undermining of our basic trust in the relative security of our daily life. A humane society depends very heavily on the existence of a certain measure of mutual trust among its members. We must be able to feel that we can move about in the streets without an everpresent risk of getting stabbed in the back. If the sense of a reasonable security in daily life erodes, we have to anticipate the worst at all times, and we start to avoid contact with certain places and certain types of people. We may even think about arming ourselves, or we find ourselves making up ideas about different ways of getting rid of the people we feel threaten our lifestyle. I believe that deteriorating mutual trust was a key factor in the Yugoslavian catastrophy. Fear leads to dissociation and rejection, a refusal to stay in touch with that which scares us. Alienation is both cause and effect: fear leads to broken relationships, which exacerbates the conflict escalation processes. Broken relationships are at the heart of our troubles.
A reduced sense of basic trust is one side of the coin. On the other side there is the absence of a credible and realistic vision of a better future society. Some decades ago progressive visions (technological, liberal, socialist) mobilized a tremendeous amount of optimism and constructive energy. In the contemporary situation, we are hard pressed to gather much optimism around the visions presented by the political movements. This is a huge problem in itself, since we cant focus our collective efforts if we dont have an orienting vision, a shared myth, that can give us the feeling of participating in a concerted action towards a common goal. Without a vision of a noble purpose, we feel powerless and alone, and our ability to take action is restricted. Faced with the serious problems hinted at above, we more than ever need orienting visions.
There is no one single explanation for the social, political and economic afflictions we face, but I would like to point to a dimension which has received comparatively little attention so far. I believe that the conservatives are right to a certain extent when they see the erosion of the power of traditional morals as a major factor in contemporary developments. However, in contrast to them, I believe that the declining influence of conventional morals is a natural and even necessary part of a long-term evolutionary process in the society. More and more people are becoming individuated, i.e. they want to make up their own standards for how to live and what to believe in. In the late 1960s there was a cultural revolution in the Western countries against conformism and unquestioned adherence to traditional conventions. This revolution was very successful, perhaps too successful, or at least the success came faster than many could handle. If we remove the external moral structures (conventional dos and donts), we have to rely on each individual developing their own internal ethical standards making them responsible fellow citizens. However, a lot of people didnt grow up in a family that could provide a favourable environment for fostering such internal moral structures. Those people have little to keep them on track as citizens in a modern society. They are susceptible to become absorbed in any kind of social group that can provide some orientation, and some of those groups may be gangs, authoritarian activist groups or sects. Our fear that an increasing number of disoriented and disillusioned people will be drawn to hate-based movements promising significance and glory by persecution of some minority group is not unfounded. Identity is a key issue: how can the society offer individuals possibilities to develop benevolent individual and collective identities? We need to find contraceptive strategies for dealing with the sinister possibility of increasing xenophobia.
The conclusion of this discussion is that we need an orienting vision that can inspire optimism and create a sense of common direction. It has to deal directly with serious social problems, even if they are frightening, and it must be immediately relevant, both in our daily lives and in terms of the society as a whole.
Conventional strategies and why they fail
Conventional political strategies, whether conservative or radical, for dealing with societal ailments have two fundamental problems that reduce their prospects for success.
The first of these is an exaggerated belief in reforms of the external structures of society (i.e. laws, taxes, public service facilities, etc.) as the major method for improving our society. The futility of this approach is glaringly visible in the case of the socialist countries, where visions of a classless and humane society through social revolution met with a grim reality when the strategies were implemented. Beautiful ideas cannot be realized without a corresponding transformation of the minds of the citizens and their leaders. Indeed, it seems as if many of the structural problems are secondary problems, rather than the fundamental causes of suffering. It would be possible to alleviate many social problems if the majority of the citizens were firmly committed to universalistic values.
The second problem of conventional political strategies is that the whole political system is permeated by an adversarial mentality. The very logic of the political system is based on the idea of competing perspectives. Politicians are supposed to be firmly committed to a specific wholesale solution, and to be skilled in rejecting and devaluating the wholesale solutions put forward by the political opponents. The widespread decline in public interest in traditional (party) politics might actually be a good sign. I believe that a lot of us have come to regard much of the political debates to be futile and unproductive. A large share of our contemporary societal problems stem exactly from a widespread propensity to adhere to inflexible standpoints. We dont need another wholesale solution about what the good society should look like. Efforts to impose an ideology on political opponents is a crucial part of the problem. The most important barrier to universal compassion is our limited ability to hold competing perspectives in our minds simultaneously without feeling a need to reject and devaluate the perspectives we dont accept as our own. Of course there are very substantial and important differences in values between individuals and groups. These differences should not be ignored. However, the conventional ways of dealing with differences in values and worldviews seem to create worse problems than they solve.
We have focussed too much on the wrong problems. The most pressing problems dont stem from inadequate societal structures. There are serious problems with poverty, discrimination and violence, but no better society will emerge from structural reform if the mental structures remain the same.
An alternative approach
An alternative approach to political activism would have to resolve the two problems described in the last section.
I suggest that we need to broaden our conception of what political activities are. Conventional conceptions emphasize decision-making in political institutions, perhaps also mobilizing the public around certain values and policies. We need to complement that conception with a less visible but crucially important dimension, namely how we interact with each other as individuals and groups, and how we experience our identities and motivations. Whereas conventional political strategies seek solutions in reforms of the external structures, the alternative approach would emphasize a continuous work with our internal structures: the nature of our values, attitudes, and interactions with each other. Transforming the nature of our relationships to other people and other groups in the society is working on the core of social problems. In later sections, I will make a number of concrete suggestions on what this might mean in practice.
An alternative approach must find ways of transcending the adversarialism that permeates the current political arena. It is futile to make a specific ideology, group or organization responsible for all kinds of social, economic and political ailments. Nor can the solution be found in implementing an alternative political programme per decision. Since the utopian visions of the Good Society have lost their appeal, the form of our guiding visions must shift from contents to processes. No one is in a position to make a reasonable outline of an ideal society. I suggest that we need to reframe political visions from outlining wholesale solutions to outlining fruitful processes.
The causes of social problems are not to be found in people or groups with morally corrupt motives, but in widespread alienation from our basic goodness. Ignorance about the possibility of finding satisfaction in a more encompassing identity leads us to harmful behaviour.
A focus on the role of fundamental identities and motives implies that one part of an alternative approach to politics is that we should focus on what positive qualities we can offer the world around us instead of focussing on how other people and the society ought to be.
This manifesto relies on a basic trust in the possibility of human development. Difficult social problems can be dealt with if we can set our developmental potential free.
Values worth commitment
In this section I will suggest a range of basic values that I believe would be meaningful guidelines both for our ways of dealing with each other in our daily lives and for political activities. In listing and describing these values, I have tried to formulate an orienting vision worth our deepest commitment. This endeavour can only succeed if the values meet a number of criteria:
(1) The values must be felt as having universal application: to be valid in all kinds of different social and cultural contexts;
(2) They must feel like real challenges on a personal level, so we can feel that living these values would make a substantial difference in our own lives;
(3) They must be applicable to our daily interactions in a very concrete and immediate way;
(4) They must have the potential of being transformative in the society; i.e. if actually introduced in social, political and economic interactions they must change the way our society operates in a positive direction.
These criteria mean that it ought to be a tough assignment to really use the values as guidelines in daily life. I believe the considerations presented below really have the potential of being ever-present challenges.
I have grouped the core values into three groups. The first group is named deep democracy. The values of this group deal with the nature of our interactions with others, presenting challenges to democratize our concrete interactions with each other on a daily basis. The second group is called benevolence and compassion, and represents desirable values about our general orientation towards the external world. The third group, Moral courage, reminds us of the need to really put our values into action.
I. Deep democracy
1. Commitment to the principle of others freedom to make their own decisions, i.e. to avoid, as far as possible and reasonable, the use of coercion, manipulation, emotional pressure, diagnosing and unconditional demands.
This principle might sound simple, but a closer look at our own daily interactions usually shows that it is very difficult to abstain completely from trying to manipulate other people to do as we want. Such manipulations may sometimes be very subtle, e.g. appealing to the guilt feelings of others, using veiled threats, hinting at rewards (such as conditional praise), or labelling their behaviour in manipulative ways (e.g. "you are selfish"). This principle of course does not mean that we should avoid trying to influence others, only that the means we use for influencing should be free from manipulation.
This principle should be extended to groups as well as individuals, such as minorities. There may be good reasons to depart from this principle, e.g. when a group abuses the rights of others. However, a basic commitment to freedom of decision implies that violations of this principle should be a cause for concern and for inquiry into the arguments justifying the departure from the principle. This precept takes us to the very core of political and personal oppression, because it challenges us to look closely into instances where persons or groups are denied the right to make their own decisions.
2. Commitment to the right of each person and group to express their concerns, and to have these concerns considered.
This principle involves a basic readiness to listen to and consider the concerns and arguments of both individuals and groups that may for various reasons have difficulties in making themselves heard. The hard part in this is not the right of expression, but the commitment to listen. If extended to the national and international arena this quite elementary principle has far-reaching implications.
3. Commitment to non-violent caring for own needs, such as integrity and self-realization.
We have a right to care for our own needs and interests, not least our sense of personal integrity and our need for realizing our unique potential. However, in pursuing our personal or ingroup needs, we should stay committed to non-violent means.
4. Commitment to relate to the good and sane aspects present in every human being.
A very common consequence of getting involved in conflicts is a reduced ability to perceive the constructive aspects of counterparts. It is convenient to put a derogative label on people we experience troubles with. It is also convenient to put the blame for undesired events or conditions on some person or group that is perceived as powerhungry, greedy or indifferent. It might require a dedicated act of mindfulness to remain open to the complexity of others, and to persist in relating to the good and sane aspects present in every human being. Some people may be deeply attached to agendas related to their own perceived interests, but there is always some part that is prepared to contribute to something which is good for others.
5. Commitment to sincerity, abstaining from keeping hidden agendas.
Openness with our needs and interests is important not only as a general ethical principle, but also as a method for surveying the nature of our own motives. If we discover that we indeed have a hidden agenda, intentions we dont want to disclose, then there is a need to explore the reasons for this.
II. Benevolence and compassion
6. Commitment to caring for the well-being of everyone, irrespective of group membership, while also caring for the needs of oneself and of close others.
This precept is primarily directed against group egoism, i.e. being exclusively identified with the interests of a particular group as opposed to others. We have a right to feel concerned about the needs and interests of ourselves and our close others, but this concern for close ones should be set in an overall context of commitment to universal caring.
7. Respect and compassion for basic human needs (e.g. survival, security, food, recognition, self-esteem, stimulation), wherever there are people who suffer deprivation.
Human beings have the same basic needs, and the same basic feelings. Respect and compassion for hurts and deprivation wherever they occur is very desirable. This may be a critical issue in relation to groups we have negative feelings about. Ability to relate empathically to suffering in whatever context it exists is absolutely central to enlightened politics, and a powerful antidote to group egoism.
8. Commitment to offer whatever good things one can to others, to make a positive contribution.
A basic commitment to benevolence means taking care that our net contribution to others is positive. We should use our unique individuality to offer something good to the environmnet. This is for each person something different.
III. Moral courage
9. Yearning for courage to stand up for our most noble values, to defend them when they are threatened.
The values discussed here doesnt mean much if we dont commit ourselves to stand up for them whenever the need arises. This includes being prepared to go against the prevailing opinions in the groups we belong to, something which might require a great deal of moral courage.
10. Commitment to care for the maintenance of social trust.
A humane society is ultimately built on the foundation of a basic mutual trust. Only if we can feel reasonably safe, only if we can count on the basic benevolence of our fellow citizens, is it possible to let go of defensiveness and aggressiveness. A feeling of basic trust in the society is created and recreated by our behaviour towards each other in the social arena. Each day we contribute to the creating of mutual trust by behaving decently towards each other. Those small considerate acts and our body language signal to others that we wont hurt them, and that we are benevolent.
Mindfulness in contributing to maintain mutual trust in the public arena is a very important contribution to a spiritualization of the society, and also a meaningful and immediately accessible form of participating in creating a more humane society.
Perhaps it would be helpful to visualize the general thrust of these values (rather than their specific formulations here) as a good force in the world. The stronger and more influential this force gets, the better are the chances that we can create a more enlightened society. Whenever we succeed in embodying these values in our social interactions, we contribute to strengthen this force. With this perspective, it becomes possible to participate meaningfully and effectively in a common practice aiming at transforming the society each and every day.
Conflicts as fulcrums of social transformation
I believe that constructive engagement with conflicts may become fulcrums in the process of social transformation, provided that we are prepared to reframe conflicts to transformative challenges. There are a number of arguments for the crucial role of conflict work in a strategy for social change.
Conflicts always involve some kind of dependencies: someone else can block us from attaining something important. Conflicts arise because there is something that matters to those involved. When we get personally involved in a serious conflict we are presented with an opportunity to examine what we find important and why. Wherever there are social conflicts, there are good chances that something important is going on. I suggest that we should regard conflicts as valuable pointers to opportunities for constructive social change. We all have worldviews telling us what are interesting issues. Our worldview may have resulted in an agenda that blinds us to issues that are very important to other people. Openness to deal with the phenomenon of social conflict wherever it appears therefore increases our chances of expanding our worldviews and transcending limiting assumptions. I suggest that social conflicts have a real transformative potential, because if we take them seriously we have to be prepared to reevaluate our ideologies and agendas. In this way, conflict resolution can become a powerful means to transcend the adversarial mind, the tendency to force our own preferred worldviews on others.
Conflicts arise because one or more parties are blocked from getting something they want. If a party to a conflict cannot reach her/his/their goals by forceful or peaceful means, the party gets stuck. Furthermore, acute conflicts usually mobilize a lot of energy. As long as we have no conflicts we can arrange ourselves in life so that we avoid confronting our own limitations. The pain of conflicts can provide the impetus we need to make an extraordinary effort to invent new ways of extricating ourselves from the stuckness of the conflict. Some conflicts therefore have the potential of being opportunities for transformation of conventional beliefs, self-images, motives and behavioural patterns. Here is an enormous potential for social and personal transformation provided that we can create propitious settings for working with the conflicts.
Constructive conflict work is dependent on the availability of safe spaces for engagement. Safe spaces are created by establishing rapport. In a safe space it is possible to reduce fear, allowing for openness to change. During the process of working with conflict, it might become necessary to examine the very fundaments of our position: our identity. Maybe there is something in our own worldview that chains us to an insoluble position. Maybe we can discover values that are more satisfying than the values we held previously.
Legitimacy is a crucial concern in conflict resolution. If the outcome of a conflict resolution process is not regarded as legitimate by all parties, then the solution falls short of being successful, even if no better solution was possible.
Concrete challenges in our daily lives
The purpose of this manifesto is to formulate a concrete and realistic vision for political activism that can serve as an orienting platform for those who feel a need to go beyond conventional beliefs and attitudes. The key challenge for such a vision is to offer meaningful suggestions about how each one of us can put noble visions into action. I have argued that it is desirable to extend our conception of political activism from a narrow focus on formal politics to include all kinds of social interactions. Politics is, from this perspective, working to transform how we relate to each other and to larger societal issues. Using the values delineated above as guidelines for both daily interactions and for organized political activities in parties, organizations and social movements can be a very effective way of contributing to a more humane society. We can feel that we are engaged in a meaningful quest for creating a more enjoyable world by developing mindfulness about the character of our interactions with others.
The vision outlined here is a challenge to transcend the conventional mode of consciousness. We can all contribute to introduce and consolidate the postconventional mode of consciousness in all levels of the society. In the personal sphere by learning to make room for others self-expression and by communicating non-violently, in the public sphere by contributing to reproduce mutual trust through small acts conveying respect and helpfulness, and in the formal political sphere by a firm commitment to openness, listening, universal compassion and a willingness to engage constructively in whatever needs attention, e.g. through conflict work.
Inspirational sources: Marshall Rosenberg, Arnold Mindell, Chögyam Trungpa, Martin Buber, Friedrich Glasl, Adam Curle, Ken Wilber.