Drifting off to sleep last night I wondered vaguely if there are any absolute principles that every society can or should share. It is a very much more difficult question than I first assumed.
Let us take one principle which seems to be common enough: that order is better than chaos. But the moment you take it an inch further you are faced with secondary questions: eg, is the order of North Korea, perhaps the most regimented society on earth, better than, say, the Wild West, where many men carried guns and where, to some extent, each gunslinger felt entitled to enforce his own view with his Colt 45? Koreans are taught that their state is ordered by a semi-divine family which no Korean can or should even question. Granted that there were stage coach and bank robberies west of the Mississippi, most of us in the western world have a romantic view of that world of individualism and self-reliance. For myself, Dodge City beats Pyongyang. The order of North Korea is not worth the price that Koreans pay.
Equality is a principle which is fiercely debated. Again, for myself, except for the principle of equality before the law, which is sacrosanct, equality is an absurdity, only ever achieved by levelling downwards. Even equality before the law is problematical. Do muggers and rapists have equal rights with other citizens? We spend billions of pounds on our criminal justice system, examining every case to determine whether or not X is indeed a mugger or a rapist.
Is it equality to allow a rich man the right to hire better defence lawyers than a poor man?
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This admonition has not stopped us from treating others in ways which would outrage us were we the victims. Does it apply equally to men and to women, to all races, to children as well as to adults, to the unborn? You will get lip service paid to the principle by many, perhaps most, and still find yourself endlessly disagreeing as to how it should be applied. Chattel slavery exists and has done for almost all human history. I have just been reminded that Kant’s Categorical Imperative formulates the Golden Rule in philosophical terms.
You would like every other human on the planet to be extravagantly generous to you – me too. Which of us applies the Golden Rule like that? Do our obligations to our nearest and dearest apply equally to the stranger within our gates and to strangers outside our society? The question answers itself.
We are perhaps as far from answering my original question as ever in our thousands of years of history.