Fundamental Questions

Maybe it’s old age, or–even more likely– my growing concern that I may be watching human civilization disintegrate around me, but I increasingly find myself mulling over what i call the “fundamental questions.” How should humans live together? What sorts of institutional and governmental arrangements are fairest? What sort of society is most likely to facilitate human flourishing? What sort of economic system might ensure the subsistence of all members of a society without depressing innovation and productivity?

These aren’t new questions. But for those of us with grandchildren who will have to navigate this increasingly chaotic and angry world, they are critical.

Aristotle described the good society as one that encouraged and facilitated human flourishing. It’s been awhile, so I no longer recall how–or whether–he defined “flourishing,” but I can’t imagine people flourishing (however defined) under a system that ignored the requisites of what we call the common good.

I favor John Rawls’ approach to questions of the common good. Rawls–the pre-eminent political philosopher of the 20th Century–begins by insisting upon a “veil of ignorance.” The veil of ignorance is a scenario in which  individuals are placed behind a metaphorical veil that strips them of knowledge about who they will be and where they will live; they cannot know whether they’ll be rich or poor, talented or not, brilliant or mentally disabled, healthy or sickly, etc. From behind that veil of ignorance, the individual must design a society that they  would consider to be a just one no matter where they landed and no matter what their personal attributes.

The goal of the veil device, rather obviously, is to encourage respondents to think deeply about the structure of society, and to ignore to the extent possible the influence of his/her actual attributes and situation.

If Rawls is a bit too theoretical for you, several years ago my friend Morton Marcus penned a more accessible but no less important set of questions. Morton distilled the study of economics and economic systems into the question “Who Gets What?” In that essay, he pointed out that social and material goods are allocated in a more complicated fashion than most of us recognize. Depending upon the good being accessed, it might be allocated on a “first come, first served basis” or via the force/authority exerted by one’s government or family. The allocation might or might not be tied to merit–or at least, what society at a given time regards as merit.

Morton’s exposition was lengthy, but its major contribution consists of the reminder that “who gets what?” is a question that permeates our social and legal relationships and involves multiple decisions by government and the private sector.

Humans have a habit of thinking that the culture into which they’ve been socialized is “natural”–it’s “the way things are.” When “the way things are” is challenged– by technology, displacement, social change, whatever–most people will dig in, defending our world-views and beliefs about the way things should be. Typically, we believe they should be the way we think they’ve always been–the familiar cultural touchstones to which we’ve become accustomed and with which we’re comfortable.

What if we used these scary, unsettled times to consider what human flourishing entails, and to think about the kinds of systematic and social supports that would encourage that individual flourishing?

What if we responded to the uncertainty and chaos in Washington, D.C. and around the globe by purposefully retreating behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and trying to envision the outlines of a better, more just society?

What if we didn’t respond to uncertainty and fear by clinging more tightly to what we know, to our fears and prejudices and ideas about what constitutes merit, and instead pictured different ways of allocating goods, of answering the question “Who gets what?”

What if?


  1. What is the tipping point necessary to achieve common agreement among sufficient number of well intentioned people to live in the questions posed by Sheila: How should humans live together? What sorts of institutional and governmental arrangements are fairest? What sort of society is most likely to facilitate human flourishing? What sort of economic system might ensure the subsistence of all members of a society without depressing innovation and productivity? … without compelling urgency to answer to ensure the answer is better than now?

  2. Your “fundamental questions” feel very Socratic to me: How should humans live together? What sorts of institutional and governmental arrangements are fairest? What sort of society is most likely to facilitate human flourishing?. The best questions we can ask ourselves and each other are these open-ended, thought-provoking inquiries that have no “right” or “wrong” answers. This is where religion so often fails us—by offering mind-numbing “certainties” over the creative energy of seeking.

    In addition to our fear of uncertainty and aversion to change, one of the most limiting beliefs people have is that we live in a zero-sum world where more for you must mean less for me. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of humanity is our imagination, creativity, and curiosity leading to endless discoveries and innovations. There is no end to what we can accomplish together with cooperation.

  3. Until / unless we can all get on the same page with our beliefs, ideals and goals we will never be able to cooperate and accomplish anything together. Throughout history small groups of people have been able to achieve such cooperation and thus achieve some success, but all have been short lived… think New Harmony, Indiana.
    Perhaps the place to begin today is with the basics, as in do we still believe in democracy? If we can’t get on the same page with that question we need not move onto the next questions.

  4. Sheila Kennedy: ‘How should humans live together? What sorts of institutional and governmental arrangements are fairest? What sort of society is most likely to facilitate human flourishing? What sort of economic system might ensure the subsistence of all members of a society without depressing innovation and productivity?”

    All of life needs sunlight: Plants convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis.

    And water: Water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface and is required for many processes in the body

    And air: All animals, including humans, need air to survive

    And habitat: Different species choose different habitats

    And food: Living organisms need energy for growth, reproduction, locomotion, and movement

    Other needs that all living things have included:
    Protection from predators and the environment
    Specific structures designed for specific functions

    Humans are life, so our needs are the same as all other animals; we need all of life to flourish around the globe if we are to also.

    However, for humans alone, we have set up a civilization that we have become entirely dependent on to provide all human needs for everyone, one way or another. Civilization is a set of rules, organizations, and infrastructure under human control to provide for each other.

    Our species of so many individuals now will only live happily on the planet when we start to accept that forcing others to see the world as you and I do, through means other than our language, does not work. Never has, never will. The biggest impediments today to achieving a satisfactory life for everyone are religion and nationalism and the distribution and allocation of resources due to cultural/racial/gender/intergenerational competition.

    Can we stop doing what’s killing us?

  5. “What sort of economic system might ensure the subsistence of all members of a society without depressing innovation and productivity?”

    We are gradually being forced into the “cashless/checkless” financial control by banks, forewarnings in the 1950s and 1960s are now our future. Going “paperless” is more and more becoming required rather than an option. My VISA credit card came due to renew in May; I opted NOT to change to the “cash back” system as I use it for emergencies and repairs on my 70 year old house and 27 year old car plus a few Amazon purchases. In August I received 5 pages of information and instructions for my new “cash back” credit card which would arrive in October and that my current card would be deleted whether or not I activated the new one. I do not have and do not want a debit card; we are also being forced to function electronically in all areas of our lives. What is left for us to do for ourselves when the cell phones can do it all? What happens if your lose you cell phone or it is stolen? The security on those cards is based on our signature proof, which too often must be written with a finger. My credit cards were stolen and used for hundreds of dollars when I was attacked on my own driveway; had picture ID been required, businesses would immediately have known that 27 year old Lindsey Jones was NOT 77 year old JoAnn Green. It took 5 m months to clear my credit rating due to the lack proof of ID.

    All personal information is on the Internet; about 3 weeks ago my I.U. Healthcare Billing Department notified me they had been hacked and personal information of a few thousand patients had been stolen, mine among them. Last week I was notified by my 23andMe (DNA) account that they had been hacked, including my information. I received that membership as a gift and agreed to it because they guaranteed they do not sell or give away persona information. We must already know how to use these cell phones when we receive them; they do not come with instructions. Order cable TV and they ship the boxes to your home with “easy to follow instructions”. This is a very intricate and involved process which is time consuming and not “easy”.

    Big Brother ruling us is detrimental to any society flourishing; especially during this political world of Gestapo control in all systems by the few over the many in Congress as it “trickles down” into and rules our daily lives. No wonder we are all a bit “testy” in our dealings with one another. We are denied the opportunity to accept or deny control of our lives.

    Laurie’s reference to “…our fear of uncertainty and aversion to change,…” omits the changes forced on all of us, most come without “easy to follow instructions”.

  6. First, humans are the most populous mammal on the planet. There are more humans than there are rats… though some would contest that distinction.

    Next, humans evolved societies as small tribal units who fought other tribal units for resources. Those early humans were not sophisticated enough to appreciate “zero sum”. Then, humans discovered agriculture and surplus. That led to the invention of economics which allowed the small tribes to become bigger via having plenty in hand without having to move about. The surplus then became the purview of tribal leaders who doled out their largesse as they saw fit. That’s when the strings became attached.

    Here is the most telling comment from the essay – in my opinion: “The goal of the veil device, rather obviously, is to encourage respondents to think deeply about the structure of society, and to ignore to the extent possible the influence of his/her actual attributes and situation.”

    The operative words are “think deeply”. When you have a species that uses its brain to make tools of survival – and killing/war – deep thought goes by the wayside. Do we see any Republicans doing any “deep thought” for the general welfare of society in our country? Easy answer: NO! Why? Because they are being owned and operated by the lords of the realm who control the money. This isn’t very different from say, 8,000 years ago.

    Those behind the veil should present a system where the general welfare is the outcome, not zero sum or profits before people. Marx had the right idea, but his communistic ideals had to be enacted by the primitive humans not sophisticated enough to think deeply about the actual meaning of the concept.

  7. JoAnn, you are not alone in those conform or else situations. Thanks for putting it all out there; you are speaking for millions.

  8. It seems many of us need to find an easy, inexpensive way to chill for a time. Raise your hand if you feel a bit overwhelmed by everyday life🖐. We’ve had a tumultuous start to our 21st century. Change comes faster than it ever has, and most of it seems to be isolating. We need to get away from our phones, tablets, laptops etc. and leave the bad vibes behind for a time. Talk with some real live people.

  9. Thanks Theresa; the thought of AI taking over because we aren’t allowed to think for ourselves is frightening. My coffee pot tells me when to clean it, my phone tells me when to charge it, my living room TV, if I have been on one channel too long asks if I am still watching and the bedroom TV asks if I am still with them. The TVs turn themselves off if I don’t answer fast enough. Buy and sell cars on your phone, appointments with your doctor on phone or computer; why get out of bed in the morning.

  10. Sheila – we all await your upcoming dystopian novel!

    Hopefully it will deal with the rapid erosion of decency, kindness, respect, caring, sharing….not likely when the mantra is “do what you want to do”, “believe what you want to believe”….

  11. I think Marx did lay it out there, but the thirst for power and control spoiled it.
    Tesla put it out there, that electricity ought to be available for everyone with no price tag, as it is a fundamental aspect of the world, but it got “incorporated.”
    I’m no philosopher, but a classless society, in which everyone works for the common good, to everyone’s benefit sounds good to me. But, the cynical part of me suggests that this kind of system would eventually become victim to predation of one sort or another, over the long haul…decades and centuries, including from within. Someone with a pathological bent, which would give him/her the extra motivation, and accompanying energy, would seek to twist things around for her/his own benefit, and the subsequent dynamics would spoil the original endeavor. Work to prevent that from recurring would have its own deleterious effects.
    We need to accept that change is inevitable, and try to work to maintain, or come back to some sort of equitable balance; “equitable balance” being the looong term goal.

  12. Heather Cox Richardson’s posting for 11/5/23 highlights some of our country’s attempts to create a more equitable society in the early 1900’s.
    As FDR worked in that direction, those who, like “Rocko” in “Key Largo,” who simply wanted “More!” set up to defeat the entire New Deal, and are still working at it.

  13. Unless there is ever a one world government, I don’t see a future for mankind in the end. We will probably destroy ourselves, one way or another – and actually planet earth would be a better place.

  14. There have been, as you point out, Some small scale attempts to build stable equitable communities. One of the most significant was/is Mondragon. It was a democratic capitalism system that respected everyone in the city and in the production of goods that sprang up in a city in northern Spain (Morton Marcus is much more knowledgeable about it than I). It began ,I think, prior to WW2 and picked up after the war. It was a great success until the 80’s when it began to unravel. I don’t know where it is by now. The model looks excellent. It decided to enter international production etc. Eventually they could not compete in world wide vampire capitalism. I have not looked into its condition since 2000. Regardless of success or failure it is worth study. It was at one time one of the largest producers of appliances Europe.

  15. To expand a bit (or a lot) on Vern’s suggestion of agricultural surplus > The Tigris and Euphrates valleys gave us more than Abraham of Ur and the Twelve Tribes. It gave us the most important revolution of the many we have had, the Agricultural Revolution. Till then, prehistoric humans were stuck with what we see today among other animal groupings, i.e., the search for roots and berries 25 hours a day with no time for the niceties of civilization, like building cities, philosophizing etc. One must first eat.

    Domesticating agriculture and the surplus thus engendered allowed humans to have the time to urbanize, contemplate, build cities, invent religion to explain the inexplicable, and later, Greek thinking and the engineering marvels we have today, but unfortunately, such “freedom” also allowed in their day Alexanders, Caesars, Stalins, Hitlers, today’s Trumps and the excesses of virtually untaxed runaway capitalists, the latter, in my opinion, the basic problem “free” societies face today in trying to keep their disintegrating societies together as Sheila identifies today in which the “common good” is not a goal but a joke dreamed up by corporate apologists.

    My fellow contributors seem to treat the problems Sheila has posed today from an economic stance, as I am wont to do, and in such connection I direct their attention to the works of the world-renowned French economist, Thomas Piketty, whose four books I keep at bedside, three of which are of original works and one of notes from his other essays and lectures. He spends considerable time in his books discussing the problems of the taxation of inherited wealth and wealth per se and their connection (if any) to relative merit in terms of productivity and fairness in sharing with those whose labor created such wealth and the societies that provide the legal and social settings for such capitalistic endeavors.

    Warning: Piketty’s last book is entitled “Time for Socialism.” I disagree in the faint hope that the present system can be reformed and thus am not inclined to throw in the towel just yet, as Piketty apparently has, and if and when I throw in the towel there are other “isms” subject to modification available for a reasoned choice. We already have an admixture of socialism and capitalism in this country; perhaps more emphasis on the socialist side of this equation at the expense of runaway capitalism fashioned on a genuine definition of the common good would suffice. Perhaps not; it’s a political choice, one not likely to be embraced by MAGA Republicans.

  16. You probably won’t be surprised when I add that none of these suggestions include having an important role in society, empathy and compassion toward our neighbors. We can continue to discuss the merits of socialism or capitalism, BUT men have been in charge the whole time. That toxic masculinity must be defeated. Then murder rape and wars would end (maybe).

    Let’s let women take over. Problem is, MEN won’t let them!

    Everything is exhausting anymore. The almighty dollar is King. I’m too tired to come up with anything else.

  17. Among the great problems facing mankind today are the distribution of the land, the preservation of the land in good condition, and the wiping out of poverty among all the people, and the putting of all members of human society on an equal level. The Jubilee law illustrated how these vital problems will be solved.

    “The Jubilee year was one of release, of liberation. It took care of all these unfortunate developments, for in that year all such Israelite slaves were to be set free. All ancestral estates that had been sold were to be returned to the rightful owners, and families were to be reunited. As for the land itself, the Jubilee was a year of rest for it. Every seventh year was a sabbath year for the land, when it must lie fallow. The forty-ninth year was thus a sabbath year, but in addition to that the fiftieth year was also a sabbath year for the land, so that it got an extra year to revitalize itself. What grew of itself could be eaten, but it must not be harvested and stored up. Thus not only did the Israelites have a chance to recuperate materially and start out on a new basis, in possession of property and on a level with their fellows, but also the land had an opportunity to build up its productive strength again. “By God’s blessing for their faithfulness,” the forty-eighth year would have yielded such a rich harvest that it would provide food for three successive years, till they reaped the crops they sowed the next year after the Jubilee.”

    Any member-state of the Council of Europe, is obliged to conform to the Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 9 of the Convention reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change ones religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest ones religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

    All this being said, the outline for a better society has always been there, but humanity refuses to follow any sort of law or teaching that would impinge on their greed and desire to teabag their enemies. Or maybe we could say perceived or manufactured enemies.

    There is much much more to changing a world than just talking about it. It takes an entire personality and culture change! And most people don’t want to be bothered with anything that far down the road.

    I can smell the crashing and burning from the window in my study area. It never had to be this way, and yet here we are.

  18. The problem with Rawls is that there is no veil. The other problem with Rawls is that he imports a justification for inequality with the assumption of some kind of natural law that requires inequality. His difference principle can be satisfied with Jeff Bezos throwing a penny to the least well-off.

    If there is anything “natural,” it’s the inherent us-them dichotomy that is supercharged with hormones like oxytocin and cultural norms. Oddly, asking whether an “other” likes broccoli seems to break the spell. The fact that these “Uses” and “Thems” can turn on a dime is a blessing as much as a curse.

  19. To JoAnn’s point, in a recent AARP bulletin was a list of 100 benefits available to older adults in this country. Going through the list revealed how technology has overtaken us as each benefit required access to the web, everything online, all the time.
    It is elitist, exclusionary and segregating all at once when you recognize who is most likely to be on the outside looking in. The poor and elderly, the very audience being addressed by the article, must have the resources and access to gain those benefits. Income and infrastructure limit access for both groups.
    There are many times of late when I feel that I am captive to media, for information, communication and entertainment. It gets to intrude any time it wants while I am constantly encouraged to look! see! respond immediately! and pay! with few options to slow down, think, accept or decline the intrusion on my own terms.
    AI scares me most of all because it limits my ability to trust, a critical component of building a common good. Absent trust in others and aware that my trust is being tested often without my knowledge or cooperation, basic survival and primal instincts kick in as fight, hide or flight are all that is left. Oh, what a world!

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