What is the measure of a society ?
I ask this question because there is a maxim that says "a nation is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens". This is from Hubert H. Humphrey and the full quote is :
"The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."
However, I find this highly problematic. Not because I think we should treat our "most vulnerable citizens" badly, but because we're supposed to take this as the measure, the moral test, of a government or nation.
But charity, since this seems to be what we're talking about here, cannot be a moral test. While there are plenty of reasons to give to charity, there is no challenge in giving money per se. The challenge is creating resources and making them available to all. That is what runs progress, not charity. We are only able to help the least fortunate amongst us because we have the resources to do so. Despite the rantings of some left-wing extremists (I'm looking at you, Peter Singer), we don't need to kill our crippled and aged any more.
Furthermore, isolating one segment of society as a standard has perverse consequences. In this case, victimocracy is the rule. If only the unfortunate and victims are to be reified, then everyone will want to be classified as an unfortunate and a victim. Sexism, racism, classism are resurrected and marshalled as arguments for victimhood. There is a synergy between this and democracy as well - democracy balkanizes society, making the rhetoric of victimhood possible, and even desirable. Victimhood, therefore, becomes the cement that unites a segment against others in social warfare.
And once again, individuality is subverted to this culture of collective victimhood. It is not specific individuals who are victims, but a race, a gender, a class, a nationality, a language. Therefore neither actual evidence of victimhood, nor the individuals or individual values, are relevant. Rather, the interest of the culture of victimhood are paramount. We observe this, for example, in "blacks" telling other "blacks" to be more "black" and to adopt arbitrary cultural patterns against their individual values. This "ideal profile" of the victim exists in all victimocracies, although it can be more or less specific.
The lesson here is that concentrating on one specific area as a standard inevitably has perverse consequences, and is anti-dialectical.
On the other hand, saying that the measure of a society is how it treats itself is tautological and unmeasurable, simply because there are so many contexts in which people deal and trade with each other. Does the measure of a society depend on how I treat my neighbour ? This may seem trivial unless one remembers that society is nothing more than the organization of individual action. So the way I treat others is definitely part of "how we treat each other".
Because of the extent of the problem, it becomes tempting to use a single statistic, or a combination, as a standard. But which do we use ? Homicide rates ? GDP per capita ? Ratio of population in jail ? Contributions to charity ? Level of corruption ? All of these statistics have obvious merits, but not any single one gives us a good grip on the problem.
I would submit that a good standard must start from the premise that there are basically three ways for people to deal with each other :
* On a voluntary basis (trade);
* Coercively, through government power (statism);
* Coercively, on an individual basis (crime).
The standard of a society should perhaps then show how much the people in a given society use crime to arrive to their ends, as well as government power, and add up the two.
However, there are no easy measures of either. For example, the United States has the highest ratio of citizens in jail, but much of this is due to the War on Drugs, which attacks voluntary action as well. Also, the variety of political systems makes a single measure of political participation dubious, and there's likewise no easy way to measure government intervention in social affairs (even though we already have many such measures on the economic side). Perhaps if we had such ratings, the calculation would be easier.
Ultimately I would submit that right now the measure of a society is not something that is wholly important at the moment, and that maxims such as the one I quoted before serve the role of political grandstanding and doubletalk more than it serves clear-headedness.