The Building Blocks of Society

What is the fundamental unit of society?written by Nathan Richardson
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Recap of the series so far

I have a thought to share related to government and legal philosophy. First, though, there is a caveat. I’m not a political science major, and I know there are a lot of complexities that I haven’t fully learned about. There may be some oversimplifications in this post, but bear with me as I try to use gospel principles to shed light on “the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land.”1

Two Common Philosophies

I once heard Terry Olsen make a great point about civilizations. He explained that many characteristics of a society’s culture and laws depend on how they define the basic unit of society. Different definitions can be found depending on the philosophy espoused. When asking about the basic unit of society, two common answers come to mind:

“What is the basic unit of society?”

  • “The individual”
    This could be labeled individualism, “the belief or assumption that the rights, freedoms, and privileges of individuals should be given higher priority than the rights of society or groups.”2 In this philosophy, personal and governmental decisions prioritize the individual.
  • “The state”
    This could be labeled totalitarianism. The purposes of the state supercede the needs of its members. Concerns of the individual are superseded by the state and the perceived good of the collective. Personal and governmental decisions prioritize the state.

The problem with the first answer, individualism, is that it denies or ignores some of the basic obligations and duties members of society have towards each other. Any obligation is seen as hampering the individual’s quest for self-fulfillment, and thus duty to other members of society is often felt to be a burden. For example, according to Wells and Burr, an extreme individualist point of view might maintain that the government “should share in the responsibility of child rearing in order to free parents of onerous responsibility.”3  Likewise, when aging parents are no longer able to support themselves, extreme individualism could lead one to shirk responsibility to care for one’s elders. The social responsibility of caring for children or parents may be seen as a hindrance to the pursuits and aspirations of the individual.

Such a society would be like a building constructed from wooden blocks. Certainly the structure can be formed and reformed over and over again, and a piece that was used as a foundation stone at one moment might become a capstone at the next. But on the other hand, the structure is limited in the number of shapes it can take—either a vertical box-like skyscraper, or a tapering pyramid-like structure. For another thing, it is unstable and weak—a gust of wind or the brush of a passer-by could topple it. A society built on this philosophy lacks cohesion, because people can’t depend on each other to fulfill unexpected obligations, especially in times of trouble like famine or war. Individuals do not take others into account in their decisions. So there’s flexibility, but not the strong interpersonal connections needed to survive adversity.

The problem with the second answer, totalitarianism, is that it often results in decisions that hurt people in order to preserve a governmental organization. For example, abolishing property through communism means that no one can achieve wealth, not that all can achieve it. In addition, a society that assumes that the state or society as a whole is preeminent may not allow individuals to adapt to their specific needs and circumstances. For example, educational programs designed to meet the needs of a state, and tailored for the masses, may not suit the unique circumstances of the individual. Or they might force people into a career path with no alternatives, treating them like cogs in a machine. In these settings, individuals are often asked to conform to the masses.

Such a society would be like carving a building out of a solid block of wood. While it can take many conceivable forms, once the form is carved, it cannot be changed. It is strong—there can be loyalty, dedication, etc., in such a society (think North Korea). However, a portion of wood at one place in the building cannot be moved to another place. A society built on this philosophy lacks flexibility, such as in the potential for improving one’s situation through social mobility, or tailoring an educational program for a child’s specific needs. Governments do not take individuals into account in their decisions.

So the question is, how should we define the basic unit of society? If we’re going to go about improving and benefiting society, it seems like one of the first steps would be defining what it is made of. What is the “stuff” of society? Individuals, the state, or something else entirely? And the definition we choose will greatly affect the type of society we can build, and whether it will be adaptable enough to deal with changes in life but strong enough to weather adversity.

The Proclamation on the Family

As usual, the answer (or the beginning of one) can be found in the restored gospel. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” makes many intriguing statements with profound implications that are easy to overlook. One of those statements addresses the question that is raised in this article. The very last words of the proclamation are a call to “strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”4 Thus, in answer to the question previously asked, “What is the basic unit of society?” a third option exists:

  • “The family”
    The restored gospel informs us that the needs of families should be considered foremost in any decision, whether personal or governmental.

I have not fully considered the ramifications of this answer, but I think it is no coincidence that the proclamation on families offers it. Who knows what differences there might be in the laws we consider, pass, and enforce if we thought of the basic unit of society as the family, rather than the individual or the state? How would that affect our personal decisions when operating within those laws?

Through the rest of this series, I’ll explore some of the potential implications of making the family the building block of society. For example, choosing family as a better answer than either individual or state raises at least one obvious question. I’ll explain what the question is next time.

  1. D&C 88:79 []
  2. Gawain Wells and Wesley Burr, “The Proclamation and the Philosophies of the World” []
  3. Gawain Wells and Wesley Burr, “The Proclamation and the Philosophies of the World” []
  4. First Presidency, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.“ []

References

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comments so far
  1. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)

    Marriage is designed to establish a new unit of jurisdiction and governance. The family is intended to be the primary source of teaching individuals regarding God, fellow man, service, love, forgiveness, and all of God’s laws. No institution can adequately replace the family in accomplishing the teaching of these principles.

    The family is ordained of God. It is the most important unit in time and in eternity. Even before we were born on the earth, we were part of a family. (Handbook 2: Administering the Church, ch 1: Families and the Church in God’s Plan)

    Man was never intended to be alone:

    The Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. (Genesis 2:18)

    Just some thoughts to ponder as you continue to build on this concept. I look forward to more.

  2. Thanks for all those fantastic quotes, Gabriel. Those will be very relevant to what follows.

  3. I like where you’re going with this. Looking forward to reading more. I’m in the middle of a blog post on politics in the Book of Mormon, so this was timely!

  4. Hi Nate,

    I’m really glad you guys have got this awesome blog up and running again.

    I have a question I would like to ask you about the blog. When you get a chance, do you mind emailing me at the email I registered with? Thanks.

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