One of the oldest questions in philosophy is: how should we live?
On some reading of the history of philosophy, we are no closer now at finding an answer than when the question was first widely discussed across the ancient world two and a half thousand years ago.
But this is a misleading picture, reinforced in part by the common fascination with pointing to the differences between thinkers rather than paying more attention to their shared ideas.
Let us look again at the challenge before us: How should we live in relation to each other when there are divergent views and preferences? How should we organise social relationships and power structures? What would be the most desirable approach to adopt in governing our institutions?
One of the first things we may notice is that there is in fact a substantial consensus on what should guide us in working out our responses to these related questions. Admittedly this consensus does not cover individuals who are dismissive of ethical concerns for other people – they care only for their personal gratification, and regard any negative consequences the pursuit of their own interests may have for others as purely something to ignore if at all possible, either by having enough power to ride roughshod over others or by deceiving others into thinking they are not doing anything to encroach on their wellbeing.
For the vast majority of people, the guiding principle they should live by cannot be clearer – namely, the Golden Rule of Reciprocity. The selfish fringe may lack empathy for the feelings of other people, but humankind in general recognise that they should do to others as they would have them do unto them. It is true that not everyone lives up to this maxim all of the time, but it is the basis of our conscience in distinguishing what is to praise and endorse, and what is to blame and curtail.
Not only is the Golden Rule of Reciprocity embedded in the moral code of every civilization, it is reflected in the social interactions of human groups for thousands of years – people hunting and gathering food together and sharing them out without a few taking a disproportionate share while leaving others to starve. Developmental psychology has found that children instinctively share with others without discrimination, and expect to be treated on equal terms whenever they carry out tasks with others.
Even after the emergence of exploitative hierarchies, which enabled self-centred oppressors to take unfair advantage over others, the cultural judgement as indicated in literature and history shows disquiet over such oppression, and yearns for a more inclusive path.
Some authoritarian leaders have tried to justify their seizing greater power and wealth on the grounds that it is supposedly better for everyone. But studies comparing reciprocal cooperation with elite control have consistently found the former is incomparably better for everyone. From business productivity, workplace satisfaction, to conflict resolution and game theory analysis of divergent strategies, the findings all point to the superiority of reciprocity.
In practice, what actions and arrangements will lead to greater mutual benefits has to be ascertained through a reciprocal process of critical assessment. Since no one can claim that he/she is uniquely infallible and everyone else must accept whatever he/she declares to be true, an open exchange of evidence and reasons, backed by a shared commitment to consider arguments on an objective basis, is necessary to test proposals and revise them where appropriate. Even where some people may insist they are speaking for God it is obvious that there is no guarantee that the person is not delusional or mistaking evil commands from whatever source as the authentic voice of their deity.
Drawing on the centrality of reciprocity in ordering human interactions and the need for cooperative endeavours in establishing the reliability of claims and proposals, a group of thinkers have over time developed what has been termed the outlook of progressive communitarianism, which encapsulates these ideas in three core principles (see ‘Communitarians: an introduction’):
• The principle of cooperative enquiry
• The principle of mutual responsibility
• The principle of citizen participation
The first two principles deal with how people should work out what beliefs they can count on, and why they accept their responsibility for helping others as they would want others to help them, respectively. The third requires any decision that affects a group of people be subject to the deliberative input of those people.
Progressive communitarianism is the articulation of reciprocity as a guiding philosophy. It is neither authoritarian nor anarchic, but radically democratic in its emphasis on equal respect and opportunity for all concerned to participate in assessing beliefs and making decisions. It is not nostalgically conservative in rejecting new practices, nor is it casually iconoclastic in attacking past customs; but simply concerned with reforming what on the available evidence can become better. It neither romanticises any particular community as the source of all values, nor glorifies unencumbered individuals as bearers of inalienable rights to do whatever they want; but regards human relationships as full of potential for mutual enrichment provided the governance arrangements in place facilitate their development.
For an introduction to the kind of governance proposed on progressive communitarian grounds, see ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’.