Department of Philosophy
The Value of Social Unity
Bowling Green State University
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 set into motion a number of events, many of which are ongoing. For example, had those attacks not occurred, the United States would probably not have participated in and to a great extent organized the invasions of two sovereign countries: Afghanistan and Iraq. Even if those invasions had gone ahead, without the attacks of September 11, it is almost certain that we would have seen a much greater level of protest against them than has been in evidence so far.
Additionally, within the United States unprecedented measures have been taken in order to fortify internal security: the passage of the Patriot Act, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, are two examples. These also have been accepted with a noticeable lack of vigorous debate. One of the main reasons given for the absence of dissent is that at times like these, the country needs to stick together, to present a united front and to be firm of purpose. In short, there is a perceived need for social unity. But why should we value social unity? Should it outweigh other concerns, such as the individual liberties of privacy, free speech and freedom of association?
There is another debate in which social unity plays a prominent role, namely, the one concerning questions of whether, or to what extent, a society ought to be united in terms of its constituent cultural and ethnic groups. How much should cultural differences be stressed, for example? It has been argued that emphasising such differences only serves to divide and weaken a society. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, minority groups, particularly those from middle-eastern cultures, have been under some pressure to show themselves to be U.S. citizens first and, for example, Lebanese second. To give another example, close to my own heart, in Aotearoa/New Zealand, those who advocate greater autonomy for the indigenous people, the Maori, and greater recognition of the status of its culture and language are sometimes accused of sowing the seeds of disunity within the society at large.
In this paper, I examine some of these questions, beginning with the arguments that might be given for valuing social unity. I shall begin my discussion of unity by distinguishing between a number of ways in which something can be unified. Then I look at the different stances that have been adopted with respect to it. I begin by looking back to some arguments in favour of unity. I then set out some anti-unity arguments found in the views of liberal theorists.
1. What do we mean by social unity?
Unity can take many forms. I shall mention three here and focus on two of these. One form might be called jurisdictional unity, where parts are jointly under the authority of some external force. I am thinking here of the way the “unitary social or public structures” of a state, to quote ChandranKukathas, unite a disparate population through various administrative units. Imagine the case where a group of nomadic tribes live in a certain area and another people takes control of their land by way of a war, or some such means. The invading power then sets up forts and administrative centres throughout the region ranged over by the nomads and proceeds to rule them. This could be quite benign, as in the case where the foreign power sets up schools, hospitals, power stations, and so on throughout the area, along with law enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, the overriding image I have of such a conception of unity is one of a net overlaying an area and all that lives within it.
Second, there is the sense of fellow-feeling or social solidarity to use ChandranKukathas’s term, which is felt by people who have some sort of bond which unites them. This makes them feel that a special relationship obtains between them and others who feel interconnected by way of these bonds. This bond may be on the basis of some physical characteristic that they possess, as was described above, or it could be a common history, or a shared preference for a sports team. There are almost limitless possible causes. Whichever is the case, it must be acknowledged and endorsed by the individual to some extent. One does not feel solidarity with others unless one wants to. I shall call this form of unity social solidarity.
A third form of unity is that of the cooperation of different elements in a larger project. This bears a similarity to a conception of unity found in aesthetics sometimes known as “unity in variety.” This is the achievement of unity within an artistic work among various distinct elements. The larger the number of elements that are successfully united, the greater, ceteris paribus, the art work is considered to be. I call this cooperative unity.
Of these types of unity, which should we be most concerned with in the present context? If someone were to advocate greater social unity, which form of unity would be the most desirable for a political society? I would argue that the two types of unity usually thought of as the most desirable in a political context are cooperative unity and social solidarity. When thinking about issues of national unity in times of external threat, it seems that what we want is to close ranks and to work more closely with each other toward the common goal of collective security. When we are concerned about the effects of cultural diversity, we are also worried about the effects on social solidarity.
What is the relationship between social solidarity and coopertive unity? First, it is clear that social solidarity would assist cooperative unity. For people to be able to work together with others, to make sacrifices for them if necessary, it is undoubtedly easier if the others are seen as part of “us.” In fact, external threats seem to facilitate social solidarity: there is nothing like having a common enemy to unite previously disparate groups. It is almost as if it is like a biologically-determined response that enables cooperative unity easier. That cooperative unity in turn makes us more able to resist the external threat.
Does the relationship work the other way around? In other words, does cooperative unity enhance social solidarity? The more I work together with a group and the more contact I have with them, it might seem that I would come to identify with them more closely. Is this the case though? Later, I shall present some arguments against this view. First, I shall consider a number of arguments for valuing both kinds of unity.
2. Pro-Unity Arguments
The first argument in favour of unity that I will examine is its perceived tendency to enhance stability. Now, it might be argued that stability is not good in itself; a stable Nazi regime would still be an evil regime and one that ought to be ousted. Other things being equal, however, stability is generally seen as something of value. Evidence of lack of stability would include social turmoil and upheaval accompanied by widespread insecurity and frequently, violence. In a stable society, one would observe orderly transitions from one governing body to the next.
The Balkan states since 1990 could serve as a paradigm example of an unstable group of societies. One could argue that the post-Tito Balkan regimes have been less successful than his socialist state was on the grounds of the widespread mayhem and instability that have plagued the region since his death.
A second instrumental argument for why unity is valuable can be found back in Plato’s Republic. The argument concerns the strength of a society to resist external threats from other societies. In Book Four of Republic Socrates argues that wealth and poverty should be eliminated from the polis. Adeimantus misunderstands Socrates and asks how a polis without wealth would be able to defend itself against a wealthy enemy polis. Socrates replies that a polis which is internally divided into rich and poor, and further into sub-groups within these, is weaker than one which is more united. A divided polis was vulnerable to a clever enemy who could exploit their divisions, perhaps by making a pact with one faction against another, and thus weaken their opponents.
This idea of “divide and conquer” is well-known, but it applies not just to external threats. The less closely united a society is, the more vulnerable it is to internal threats as well. Fiji comes to mind as a country that is radically divided internally between two almost numerically equal groups of indigenous Fijians and immigrant Indians. Within the indigenous group, there are hard-line groups, with leaders like SitiveniRabuka who, as a colonel in the Fijian army, led a coup against a popularly elected government in 1987, and “failed businessman” George Speight, who attempted another coup in 2000. There are also more conciliatory groups among the indigenous Fijians, but these do not hold sway over the more radical groups. These various social fissures within the Fijian society have led to considerable turmoil and resulted in a state of internal paralysis in 2000 when Speight and a group of gunmen invaded the Fijian parliament and took Prime Minister MahendraChaudhry and other Members of Parliament hostage. Such were the internal divisions that several months passed before any decisive action was taken against Speight and his cohorts.
A third instrumental argument for unity concerns the fact that a political society is to a large extent a cooperative enterprise; it involves people coordinating their actions. As anyone who has participated in a team sport knows, a team is more than just a sum of its parts; much depends on the effectiveness with which the players can cooperate with each other. An important determinant of this is the degree to which a “team spirit” exists. This is very like the idea of social solidarity.
It might be objected however that a disanalogy between the sports team and a society is that the former has a goal or purpose, whereas it is not clear that the latter does. Someone like Aristotle would have thought that a society does have a goal. He begins The Politics by asserting that the polis, as a type of community, exists in order to achieve some good. What this good will be depends on the type of polis it is; for instance, an oligarchy will aim for a different good than a democracy would. In what Aristotle regards as the best sort of polis, true aristocracy, the end is the eudaimonia—the flourishing or happiness—of its citizens. He describes this sort of polis as a “community of equals, aiming at the best life possible.” In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the best sort of life consists largely in the cultivation of a virtuous character, and also in enjoying certain external goods. Aristotle also regards the polis as a compound; a combination of simpler substances which form a more complex substance. As in my sports team analogy, compounds do not retain the properties of their constituent parts; rather, they acquire new properties in virtue of those parts’ combination. He writes “a state is not a mere aggregate of persons, but, as we say, a union of them sufficing for the purposes of life.”
Some societies would not fit this description of Aristotle’s ideal polis; for instance, the goal of the Taliban society might be to serve the will of God. A society like contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand does seem to aim toward the kind of goals Aristotle describes; namely, to give the citizens the best sort of life possible. So if there is a common goal, it would seem that greater unity would assist the cooperation necessary to achieve it.
If the common goal is to give the citizens the best sort of life, this could introduce a fourth instrumental argument for unity; namely, economic advantages that could come from unity. This principle is in evidence all over the world at the moment, as seen in such agreements and cooperative ventures as the European Union, NAFTA, AFTA (the Asian Free Trade Area) and CER (the Closer Economic Relations agreement between Australia and New Zealand). These are all motivated by the notion that through cooperation and removing barriers to trade between countries, economic benefits will follow. Greater efficiency in distribution of resources and economies of scale are other economic benefits that might follow from increased unity. Granted, this is not social solidarity, but these forms of cooperative unity may well build feelings of social solidarity.
A related fourth argument is that not just economic benefits could flow from closer ties between the two groups. In an argument similar to Mill’s for diversity of thought and discussion, greater unity could provide each group with more opportunities to have access to the different resources possessed by the other group, to experience alternative ways of acting, of organising society, and of the “surface” elements of culture, such as the arts.
At an earlier stage in the country’s history, there would have been clear examples where the two groups each possessed resources of which the other had need. For example, the Pakeha had muskets, iron tools, blankets and so on, while the Maori were numerous enough to control access to the land, the trees needed for ship repairs, food sources and so on. Now, however, it seems that the Maori as the Maori have little that the Pakeha as the Pakeha want and contrarily, that the Pakeha as the Pakeha have little that the Maori want. Possession of the latest technological developments is no longer exclusively under the control of the Pakeha; rather, they are “in the world” for all to obtain. Similarly, Maori no longer control access to the country’s natural resources. What do the Pakeha have to offer the Maori that they do not by now already have, and vice-versa?
Firstly, as individuals, each person within the country still has certain needs. Some of these needs will be best met by being a member of that country. Any individual, be they Maori or Pakeha, has to buy milk, have a job, play on a rugby team and so on. In doing so, they will transact with others, both Maori and Pakeha in all likelihood, offering their particular talents or goods in return for what the other has. These individual level transactions will bring people together regardless of what the groups per se do.
Secondly, I have argued elsewhere that one example of a way in which the Maori may have something to offer the rest of Aotearoa/New Zealand is through some innovative approaches to criminal justice, such as the offender’s family being involved in settlements reached. On the other hand, the Pakeha may have some ideas that could benefit the Maori in the same context; a concern has been expressed that some of the traditional Maori practices of shaming wrongdoers do not always respect what the Pakeha tradition sees as basic human rights. Similarly, it may be argued, somewhat controversially, that traditional Maori culture has benefitted from exposure to the largely women’s rights movement and this was not something which originated within their own culture. Another example can be seen in the area of natural resource conservation where the Maori, like many other indigenous peoples, have developed ways of interacting with the natural environment in a less destructive way than the Pakeha culture often does. The Pakeha may have a great deal to learn from them in this area as well. Thus, a Millian-style argument could be made which holds that by being involved with each other on a regular and close basis, the two groups stand to benefit by being made aware of options that they would not otherwise have considered.
Thirdly, there are perhaps a few less tangible goods that the groups can offer each other; these are what I earlier referred to as the surface aspects of culture, such as artworks, music and dance. The importance of these should not be underestimated. During the Rugby World Cup, one of the most memorable sights was the New Zealand national team, known as the All Blacks, performing a traditional Maori war dance, or haka, prior to each game. To many from Aotearoa/New Zealand, this stirs more pride and patriotism than the somewhat turgid national anthem ever could. In addition to providing a source of pride they also add a distinctiveness to the national image that differentiates Aotearoa/New Zealand from Australia, South Africa, Canada and other countries colonised around the same period. Thus, there are a number of mutual needs that each group can help the other to meet.
A final argument that could be made in favour of unity is that there is something intrinsically valuable about a group of people who share a bond of solidarity or who cooperate together in an enterprise. The problem with making such an argument is that it is difficult to support other than on the grounds of personal preference. Thus it falls prey to the same objections as the intrinsic value arguments for diversity and uniformity. Still, the instrumental arguments above have some persuasive power, so let us now examine some of the counter-arguments; that is, those against unity.
3. Anti-Unity Arguments
a) The Moral Priority of the Individual
The first argument against unity I shall consider is one that was by ChandranKukathas; namely, the essential disunity of human society in one key respect; that it is comprised of individuals who are fundamentally just that: individuals. This idea underlies Mill’s Harm Principle, according to which
the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. ... The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
From this, Mill and Kukathas can be seen as part of the same liberal tradition to which Hobbes belongs, where social unity is something imposed —voluntarily or otherwise— on pre-existing, free individuals. Of course, an argument like this will have little persuasive power for someone like Iris Young, to whom this way of thinking is an example of the liberal humanist error.
b) The Power of the Unified Masses
As with his concerns about uniformity, another troublesome aspect of social unity for Mill was the insidious influence of public opinion, whose force was growing ever stronger in Britain’s burgeoning democracy. Once, reformers sought to protect individual members of society from the rapacity of monarchs and baronial classes, but now that society had reached a stage at which it governed itself, Mill argued that the new threat came from the collective, unified force of its members. This threat came not only from society’s appointed functionaries, but even more strongly from the force of collective opinion: the people themselves had the potential to be tyrants. In this way,
[society] practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.
It is therefore necessary to guard against this
tendency of society to impose ... its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
Mill was not alone in fearing the power of the masses. Benjamin Constant was also greatly concerned by the danger of unifying the power of the state; even when entrusted to the hands of “the people.” For Constant, it created
a degree of power which is too large in itself, and which is bound to constitute an evil, in whatever hands it is placed. Entrust it to one man, to several, to all, you will find that it is equally an evil. ... There are weights too heavy for the hand of man.
In his own lifetime, he had seen the result of such a concentration during the period following the French Revolution known as The Terror.
More recently, Kukathas has voiced worries about unified power. As I mentioned earlier, he makes a distinction between unitary social structures and social solidarity. Unitary social or public structures include formal arrangements that act for or on everyone in the society, for example a state-run education system.
His qualms about society having a unity of formal structure are a version of the central liberal concern described by Mill and Constant. Unity of structure implies centralisation of control, which in turn is often associated with a concentration of power. As we have seen, liberals like Constant have traditionally been very wary of concentrated power, in whatever hands it lies. Kukathas clearly feels the same way. In reply to the view that “unitary public structure” in forms such as public education is needed by a diverse society in order to protect that diversity, Kukathas states that “[u]nitary structures concentrate power and make it more likely that power will overreach itself.”
Kukathas raises another related objection to unitary social structures. This objection might also be shared by someone like Iris Young, who is concerned at the way the dominant group sets up the rules according to which society’s game is played. A high degree of unification of public structures could, in Kukathas’s view, result in one cultural group entrenching itself in a position of power over other groups, thus actually creating less favorable conditions for diversity to flourish. Suppose we are to have one judicial system, but suppose there are more than one cultural group in the society, each of which has its own conception of justice. If we are to have one judicial system for the whole country, then the dominant or majority group, which are often the same, are likely to have their view of justice used as the standard for all. This could conceivably give the members of the majority group an advantage over other groups, to whom its concepts are alien.
c) Proximity Increases Friction
The other version of social unity distinguished by Kukathas—social solidarity—is something like the feeling of oneness or connectedness that people engaged in a shared enterprise often feel. Social solidarity, with its notions of shared desires for a harmonious existence and the desirability of coming together to engage in dialogue, may be feasible when the rifts between the parties are not deep. Paradoxically, however, according to Kukathas, trying to foster this kind of unity among people can sometimes have the effect of disuniting them further, as they are forced to confront the unpleasant reality of those that were previously more abstract entities. To use a domestic parallel, many a well-intentioned soul has realised, as their fragmented family sits in tense silence around a festive turkey (Julie and Bob having just ended their shouting match with Dad by slamming the door as they left) that sometimes everyone is much happier when they remain on opposite sides of the country. Rather than attempting to bridge gaps between groups, Kukathas thinks “[a]n easy tolerance of differences into whose deepest character we choose not to inquire may, in the end, make for the least conflictual and disunited society.”
This brings us back to a point alluded to earlier in the paper, namely, the question of whether cooperative unity aids or hinders social solidarity. Kukathas would seem to be arguing here that it might actually hinder it. By being more closely involved with people, we may come to see their foibles, and in general, the less pleasant aspects of their character in more detail than we would wish and in doing so, feel further divided from them than ever.
In the remainder of this paper, I shall examine some other arguments that might be made against cooperative unity on the grounds that it diminishes social solidarity.
Why Cooperative Unity Doesn’t Lead to Social Solidarity
The first argument is one that arises partly from the point made by Iris Young. When the dominant group that exercises a hegemonic influence over a society decides that cooperative unity is needed, for example in order to oppose an external threat, this may have the effect of exacerbating the alienation felt by the members of minority groups within the society.
The second is that if a dominant group acts in ways that many of its own members strongly disapprove of, then those disapproving members may wish to distance themselves from the society through feelings of shame, repugnance and the like. It may even be the case that some of the actions by the dominant group that cause this reaction are ones purposefully intended to strengthen cooperative unity.
Social solidarity then is something that seems to have greater value than cooperative unity. Measures taken in order to strengthen cooperative unity may in fact weaken social solidarity, which in turn feeds back to weaken cooperative unity. A government which desires social unity would do well to curb its efforts to strengthen cooperative unity outright and instead focus on strengthening social solidarity. A key question that then emerges is whether social solidarity is something that can be deliberately created. Will Kymlicka has argued that it cannot, although he does think that one possible source is pride in one’s group’s achievements. If a government wants people to be proud of their country, then it could be argued that they need to perform actions that will be the source of pride. This could be from achievements such as a celebration of cultural diversity in the case of Aotearoa/New Zealand or of diversity in opinion in the United States.
4. Summary and Conclusion
I shall briefly summarise the main arguments for and against unity presented in this paper. On the positive side, firstly, unity contributes toward social stability. Secondly, a unified society creates greater security against external and internal threats. Thirdly, unity enhances the ability of a group to achieve a common goal; in this case, making the lives of the citizens as good as possible. Fourthly, unity could bring economic benefits from reductions in barriers between groups, economies of scale and greater efficiencies in distribution of societies goods. Fifthly, unity could provide greater opportunities to experience alternative and valuable ways of living, forms of art and so on. Finally, unity could be regarded by some as having intrinsic value.
The first argument against unity is that “humanity” is not fundamentally a unity. Rather, it is made up of discrete individuals who might act collectively but who remain essentially individuals. Secondly, there was the view shared by Mill, Constant and Kukathas that unification creates a power that has too much potential to be used to bad ends. The threat this poses to the individual outweighs any potential advantages. Thirdly, Kukathas argued that unitary public structures have the effect of reinforcing the dominant position of the most powerful groups in a society and diversity might be reduced. Fourthly, it might be the case that in trying to force groups to come into contact with each other, in the hope of cultivating social solidarity, one actually estranges them further, as they realise how large their differences are. Fifthly and finally, I examined the view that even if greater unity was desirable, it cannot be engendered where there is no good will or, in Kymlicka’s view, sense of shared identity, on which to build.
Both sets of arguments have some persuasive power. Apart from the argument for the intrinsic value of unity, all of the pro-unity arguments seem reasonable. This is good, as it means that we do have some reasons to attempt to reconcile unity and diversity.
On the other hand, some of the anti-unity arguments are rather dubious. The first argument about whether humans are fundamentally individuals or fundamentally social seems akin to a “chicken or egg” argument. Depending on one’s particular prejudices, it could be argued with equal force in either direction.
The second anti-unity argument, that unity of public opinion or structures represents too great a threat has some force. However when political systems are in place to guard against this kind of threat, such as the division of powers we see in many democracies, the open press we have and so on, the danger might be kept within reasonable limits. This is not to say that we should be complacent about it, but if significant gains might be had from greater unity, then the risk may be acceptable in a democracy such as Aotearoa/New Zealand.
The third anti-unity argument, that it can reinforce the dominance of a group like the Pakeha in Aotearoa/New Zealand, is a good one in my view. This is something that will need to be attended to if, as I plan to do in Part Two, I am contemplating taking measures to enhance unity.
The fourth anti-unity argument I find unconvincing. While it might happen that bringing groups together shows them how different they really are, I think it could just as easily work the other way. Some anecdotal evidence from my own experience in travelling in many countries and among many cultures is that the more I get to know a different group, either the more similar I find them to myself or the more I can understand why they are the way they are. Again, this is an argument that could probably be made just as well in either direction. I think the real challenge comes in the fifth anti-unity argument. Is it possible to create unity, conceived of as social solidarity, when it does not already exist?
Kukathas The Liberal Archipelago, 18.
 Plato, Republic, 422a.
 David Keyt, “Three Basic Theorems in Aristotle’s Politics” in A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics ed. David Keyt and Fred D. Miller, Jr. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishers, 1991), 124.
 Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle, trans. Ernest Barker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), 1328a 23-36.
 Ibid, 1328b 18.
 Mill, “On Liberty,” 73.
 Benjamin Constant, “Principles of Politics Applicable to All Representative Governments,” in Political Writings, trans. and ed. Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 176.
Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago, 23.
 Ibid, 18.