“But there is no society in isolation…The environment, together with the society in question, must form a larger society in respect to more general characters than those defining the society from which we started. Thus we arrive at the principle that every society requires a social background, of which it is itself a part.” — Whitehead, Process and Reality
One of the most common arguments I hear from people (ok I’ll be specific: libertarians and conservative types) who are adamantly against government helping people, and who often use vague incendiary terms like “big government,” the “welfare state,” and “entitlement culture,” is that those lazy slobs who refuse to get jobs and work hard essentially contribute nothing to society and are merely draining valuable resources from the larger societal group, thus, they are not entitled to anything and do not deserve to be taken care of. I admit that this is an easy view to have if one is thinking in abstract hypothetical terms, i.e. we can all imagine the lazy slob who simply wants to drink beer all day, eat donuts, and play video games. “Screw that guy!” we might say with righteous indignance, “Why should he get to have fun all day on my dime while I have to work hard and be responsible?”
I find that re-framing questions like this in practical terms, however, is extremely helpful. What I mean by this is that, in all honesty, it can be hard to conceptualize a large “society.” What is a society, exactly? I think this is a good question to start with. I personally think of a society as simply an aggregate of people who form ordered communities. As someone who adheres to a process-relational understanding of things, I see societies everywhere; as one might say, they go all the way down. According to Whitehead’s view (one that I really like) the fundamental elements of reality are aggregates of actual occasions of experience. These interdependent drops of experience form societies and become increasingly complex, so much so that biological life as we know it eventually emerges. We can view the human body as a collection of many interdependent societies (one cannot not neglect the health of the heart if one cares about the well-being of the larger self), and extrapolating from this we can view the world itself as a nested collection of ordered societies. Perhaps the society that contemporary people are most intimately familiar with is the family.
Families are small societies; they are a collection of interdependent people who form a whole. Families, although they can can take very different forms (e.g. single parent families, same-sex parent families, foster families, adopted families, etc.) have order and governance to them, i.e. families organize themselves and conduct themselves in various ways (e.g. some families are very top-down and authoritarian in nature, while others are perhaps more liberal, democratic, and/or relational, etc.). Despite the type of model a family uses to govern itself, though, one common cultural value families typically share is that families (adults in particular) have a personal responsibility (something conservatives and libertarians LOVE to talk about, btw) to take care of each other, especially their children and older relatives.
I’d like to emphasize and explicitly make two important points here: 1) societies are interdependent; the things we do affect others and vice versa, and 2) because of this we have a personal responsibility to care for each other. I’d say this value (the mandate to take personal responsibility for those who are considered “family”) is pretty ubiquitous in our Euro-American culture, AND I argue that families are dependent on one another or, as Whitehead argues in the quote above, they require a social background of which they themselves are a part. (Hopefully it’s pretty clear where I’m going with this.)
To use a personal (and again very practical) example, my spouse and I have two children; one is 5 years old and the other is 9 months old. My kids are dependent on my spouse and I in many, many ways; in fact, they’re both too young to do most things on their own. Now, if either of my kids are sick or injured and have to miss school or day care this affects me, personally, because I have to miss work to take care of them. Zooming out quickly to our larger societal view, we can see how this smaller, intimate example translates quite nicely: to put it in very selfish, myopic terms, the best way to take care of myself and make sure I’m doing all the things I need to do is to make sure the people around me are doing ok too. So, I take care of my children, nurse them back to health so they can leave me alone and return to the things they enjoy doing and/or are required to do.
Returning to the conservative/libertarian argument above, i.e. that people who contribute nothing to society are a drain and don’t deserve to be helped, we can again use the small society called the family to show how this argument is just plain ugly. Our kids contribute nothing financially to our household; because of their young age they can’t labor to produce anything useful, or even help with household chores. In fact, they actually make MORE work for my spouse and I by making one hell of mess! One might say kids are nothing but a burden in this sense, a drain on our small familial society. BUT, my spouse and I take care of our kids because we, again, have a personal responsibility to do so. We co-created these children, and are responsible for rearing them and teaching them. But looking beyond this narrow, individualistic perspective, my spouse and I take care of our children because we love them and we realize that they’re a part of us on some deep intrinsic level. Yes our children are dependent on my spouse and I but we’re dependent on them too, for our very identities! They’re part of our very being, they make us who we are and, indeed, we literally and concretely would NOT be the same people without them.
Now I am not trying to infantilize people with my examples here, I want to be very clear about that. The hypothetical example of the lazy person who doesn’t want to get a job and instead wishes to drink beer and play video games all day is not a child and may or may not be capable of “working.” The fact that our hypothetical person drinks beer all day does indicate to me that something is wrong, however, and that that person may have some substance abuse problems, in which case that person may need some additional care and help in order to be a better citizen and healthier human. The point I’m trying to make is that people typically have reasons for doing the things they do, being the way they are, and winding up in the positions they’re in. If we’re going to make assumptions about people (which are unavoidable on some level I suppose) my inclination is to assume that the situation is more complex than I know. Period. And until I can understand a situation better my default position should be what I just described: I have a personal responsibility to take care of people in my society, even if I don’t know them because a) their well-being is tied up with mine and b) it’s the morally just and virtuous thing to do. We’re dependent on the people around us and when we take care of others we’re actually, at the same time, taking care of ourselves. In my opinion, this principle is embodied the best in Jesus’s mandate to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors (even if we don’t know them!) as we go about loving ourselves because, in large part, we’re dependent on those neighbors just as they are dependent on us and, after all, they make us who we are.