Rules, Plurality, and Goodness

Navigating Pluralistic Societies

A few months ago, I piloted a seven-week course on choice and impact entitled, What We Leave Behind. As the participants and I journeyed through ideas about choice-making and how we think about our impact on others and the world around us, something arose. Whether in the context of determining a personal choice, or judging impact, we continually bumped into the idea of goodness. What is a good choice? What kind of impact is good? We came to understand that ideas of goodness vary among people. What is good for one person, might not be good for another. Even deeper, we learned that what might be perceived as good by one person, might not be perceived as good by others.

Of course, there is a spectrum between goodness (where there is joy, fruition, gentleness, kindness, and love) and evil (where there is de-humanization, unnecessary destruction, and harm) in which much of life happens. I’m not going to wrestle with the definition of goodness or evil here. There are plenty of writers who have done that well enough. What I am thinking about is how these definitions function in a pluralistic society.

Societies in general have rules that govern behavior. These rules are based on values. In the best of situations, these rules set a baseline of activity that are supposed to allow for safety, clarity, fairness, and other principles of interaction that point towards goodness. One might say that if everyone loved everyone there would be no need for behavioral rules. Everyone would intuitively know the good choice, the most loving choice, in a situation. Obviously, that is not the case. A quick look at the world around us will show us that. So, we need rules. The rules are meant to help form us into the kind of people for whom doing good is the easy thing.

Pluralistic societies have an added twist to them. The rules are meant, again in the best of situations, to provide a kind of mediation between the many ideas that are at play in the society. As rules are derived from values, values are derived from ways of thinking about the world and life. To mediate the many ways of thinking that exist in a pluralistic society, the rules institute common values. They establish agreements around behavior (what do we do or do not do), priorities (what we think is important to do or not do), and even the navigation of life (how do we get to do or not do these things together). These common values, and shared agreements are to be meant for the flourishing of everyone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to see examples when these rules have failed to do that. Sometimes to the contrary, societal rules, whether imposed through social pressure or instituted law, have been used to punish, isolate, confuse, and otherwise disenchant members of the society. But I digress.

Pluralistic societies pride themselves on the competition of ideas. The opportunity for ideas to live and be tested. However, even in writing about the role of rules, agreements, laws, in pluralistic societies, I quickly bump up against needing to define goodness. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “All things are lawful [allowable, permissible]; but not all things are expedient [profitable, advantageous, good]. All things are lawful; but not all things edify [are constructive, encourage growth].”

If we believe that all possibilities are afforded to us – new ways of working, new ways of living, new ways of thinking – every choice we make could be the door to an entirely new world. The next step is to test the choices to see if they will be good. In a pluralistic society, a continued work in cultivating a common vision is necessary. This seems to be true for both the idea of endless possibilities and in the definition of goodness. With a vision of endless possibilities, the attraction or fear of new things diminishes. Any new proposition may be looked upon primarily for their potential good. However, without a tested definition of goodness, there is nothing holding us back from doing whatever we think is possible. Another quick look around the world will show us how that idea has fared on the larger scale.

Another wrinkle in the pluralistic society is the navigation of disagreements. At any scale of human interaction disagreements are to be expected. Without the continual cultivation of a definition of goodness, disagreements can become fraught. Of course, a certain amount of tension is to be expected in a society based on the competition of ideas. However, natural levels of tension can elevate to levels of war if a common definition of goodness is not cultivated. Every proposed activity could become a battle ground for the definition of goodness. Those of us without the margin to wait for action will find ourselves more likely to fight (as we feel our lives may depend on it). The social dynamic will move from one of communal exploration of ideas to the imposition of ideas upon one another. Further, if rules are instituted without clear articulation and broad acceptance for what is good in them, the fissure among the people will deepen. Distrust, hate, vengeance, and malice can grow in this fissure.

So, what can be done? How does a communal vision for goodness develop that honors the individual experiences of everyone in a pluralistic society? In my experience, the smaller the scale, the better. The slower the pace the better. Building visions among smaller groups allows for ownership, interaction, and intimacy (that is the deep knowing of one another). We can literally see one another. The vision scales as the number of groups multiples. The slower pace allows for the testing, learning, and sharing of ideas that generate knowledge for everyone in the group. A slower pace also allows for growth that honors everyone in the group. No one gets left behind, and the vision grows across generations.

We might also have to rethink how we think of goodness. Is goodness an outcome that happens? Is it a way of interacting? Is goodness a way of being? It is all these things. However, there is a relationship worth noting here. Working out a definition of goodness that begins at being and progresses through interaction, towards outcomes, might be worth thinking about. Rather than the reverse. If a being is good, and interacts with goodness, then the things that happen with and through them have a higher likelihood of being good without any further effort. If we concentrate on our being and interactions, the subsequent outcomes of our actions can be left to be what they are. We have done what we can with our full effort.

If we all do this within the sphere of influence that we have, we just might find ourselves in a different kind of world. In a pluralistic society all the ideas might never fully reconcile, but maybe we can find ourselves in a world in which we are able to navigate them with more kindness, gentleness, love, and peace.