What Makes a Society Thrive?

A collection of essays helps the public understand the elements that make up a society where people can flourish, the reasons for our society’s current problems, and some avenues for potential reform. Below is an adaptation of the editors’ introduction to that collection.

Reports tell us that a majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. They are unhappy with the quality of our political discourse and pessimistic about their children’s and grandchildren’s prospects for enjoying the quality of life that they themselves have experienced. Some point fingers at those they think are at fault for our current ills, but much of their criticism is partial or superficial. Few have thought comprehensively about how modern society, with all its complexity, actually thrives.

The Witherspoon Institute has just published a new collection of essays titled The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing. In this collection, some of the most distinguished scholars of our day aim to help the public understand what elements make up a society where people can flourish. They also point out the reasons for some of the problems we currently experience and indicate several avenues for reform.

Five Pillars of a Decent and Dynamic Society

The collection begins with Robert P. George’s essay, “Five Pillars of a Decent and Dynamic Society,” which the authors of most of the subsequent essays respond to or elaborate upon. According to George, these five pillars are the person, the family, the law and government, the university, and the market.

George distinguishes a decent society (home to the first three pillars), where human beings can live moral lives and achieve a measure of happiness, from a dynamic society (which adds the latter two pillars to the first three) that promises additional opportunities for individual development and promotes intellectual, economic, and social progress. Unlike those who see the choice between a decent, traditional society and a dynamic, modern society as a tragic one—supposing that the goods of tradition must be sacrificed in the course of pursuing progress or that the opportunities of modernity must be forgone if morality is to be preserved—George argues that the aims of decency and dynamism can be successfully balanced. By enabling social mobility, a dynamic society can achieve a kind of justice that traditional societies typically had to ignore. Likewise, the institutions that promote modern progress in fact depend on many of the virtues of individuals and families that decent societies especially aim to form.

In the spirit of George’s essay, the project of explaining what makes for a thriving society is optimistic but not utopian. It is built upon the understanding that most—not all but the majority of persons—want to flourish and to help others, but cultural circumstances incline the consequences of their hopes and deeds toward good or ill, sometimes against their intention. The challenge is to chart a course where more people are better able to flourish, or rather, to enable a well-educated citizenry to make informed choices, individually and collectively, for themselves.

Unlike some advocates of social progress, the authors assembled here know that it is a mistake to think we can create heaven on earth. Some of the world’s worst atrocities have been committed under that pretense. Instead, the tone is empirical and ameliorative: observing what has value and what constitutes threat, and promoting the one while cautioning against the other. The project is ecumenical, in that its authors come from different faith traditions, have different kinds of academic expertise, take a variety of perspectives, and even hail from different countries, and also in that the society they envisage has room for many different ways of life and points of view. Recovering our society’s capacity for a moral conversation is, we think, already a sign of flourishing, a positive antidote to despair.

Examining Distinctions

Immediately following George’s essay are two responses that contextualize and elaborate upon his insights. John Haldane places George’s framework in philosophical and historical context, describing his task as Hegelian. He finds four ancient foundations underlying decent societies as we have come to know them in the West—Hebraic monotheism, Christian incarnationalism, Greek aletheism, and Roman legalism—and he identifies three dimensions to moral understanding in the modern world: utilitarianism, Kantian moralism, and a focus on character or virtue. Haldane sees George’s distinction between the decent and dynamic as a distinction between the premodern and the modern, or alternatively between the constitutive and the instrumental, and he concludes by wondering whether the university is best understood dynamically, as an engine for research and the increase of knowledge, or traditionally, as a place for its transmission.

Economic historian Harold James reconceives George’s distinction between the decent and dynamic as the distinction between compassion and competition, two intrinsic characteristics of human beings in their relations with one another. James sees value in both, and danger, too, if they are not kept in balance. Less skeptical than Haldane about the value of modern market freedom, James stresses the importance of inner conviction and its regulative effect in both economic activity and moral life.

The next essays examine in turn George’s pillars. Roger Scruton offers a meditation on the puzzle of the human person, who understands himself as a person only in relation to another but whose moral formation comes about not as a result of chance encounters but under the guidance of a moral community. Mark Regnerus, a sociologist, discusses marriage and the family, acknowledging their variance over time as the social context changes but showing as well that the consequences of family form—for better or, now often, for worse—permeate social life in many ways. Harvey C. Mansfield notes the continued “majesty of law,” a traditional attribute still persisting in spite of efforts to make law wholly instrumental. James Stoner finds the dignity of politics under siege and political liberty, as a result, precarious, though the constitutional forms of American government still enable political action by those willing to embrace them.

Sociologist Michael O. Emerson writes about “The Vital Role of Religious Institutions” in the United States, providing as they do numerous volunteer services to society and constituting a seedbed of civic formation. Religion was not a separate pillar in George’s framework—in a modern society that recognizes religious liberty, its social role is projected through the person—but its influence and importance appear in many of the essays.

The university, founded originally by the medieval Church, is treated in its modern form by two separate essays. The first, by philosopher Candace Vogler, examines the multiple tasks undertaken by modern universities and the tensions among them. The second, by scientists Sanjeev R. Kulkarni and Donald W. Landry, focuses specifically on basic research and analyzes its vulnerability to politics and the danger of bias that vulnerability presents.

Finally, Michael D. Bordo and Harold James consider the pillar of the free market in an essay on “Economic Sustainability,” looking at fiscal-, monetary-, and financial-policy issues that have arisen in the wake of the recent economic crisis called the Great Recession.

The Challenges of the Present

The concluding set of essays is concerned with particular challenges of the present. Paul O. Carrese and Michael Doran consider the proper outlook toward foreign policy that Americans might adopt, recommending a recovery of the tradition of republican prudence, originated by George Washington and adopted by many of his successors, as preferable to today’s academic theories of political realism on the one hand and liberal internationalism on the other. Society today often has an international dimension. This is certainly true for economic matters in a globalized market, but it is also true for science and for much else in universities. Yet, as Carrese and Doran write, “Only political institutions rooted in national identity permit the civic engagement required for a thriving society.”

Law professor Gerard V. Bradley presents a trenchant critique of the path of modern constitutional law regarding the family, noting its substitution of liberal ideas concerning an autonomous self for the traditional culture of personal and social formation, usually permeated by shared religious and moral ideas. Steven Justice’s essay, “A Way Forward: The University,” addresses some of the concerns of the earlier essays on the topic and suggests what can be done to make improvements, not by radically remaking institutions but through the work of devoted individuals within them doing their tasks especially well. Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, an economist, examines modern healthcare reform, looking critically at the Affordable Care Act but also recognizing the genuine problems it meant to address and sketching the elements of any fair, further reform.

The health of a democracy, it is often said, depends on the education of its citizens. If more Americans were given—in plain language—the ingredients that go into making society flourish, we would be better able to make sound choices in public life.

In this book, our aim is not advocacy of specific policies. For all that we share in our orientation toward a thriving society, the authors assembled here would surely find many areas of disagreement on such matters. Rather, we seek the strengthening of public discourse and the widening of perspectives on public affairs. We do not think that society will ever be perfect—far from it—but we are confident that when people find compelling reasons that explain what is wrong and what can be done about it, they are more apt to act according to those reasons and work for better solutions. If reading these essays can guide that work and give readers hope for eventual success, then our aim will be accomplished.

Thriving Cover

The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing is now available from Amazon.com.

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