Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ideal of Civil Society, Poverty and Happiness

By Jamil Matalam
Ateneo de Davao University

The ideal of a civil society—a society of rational exchanges of thoughts about social welfare and a government under the rule of law— is thought by many to have much of its origins in the Western civilization. It presupposes two intrinsically related things: “free citizens”, those that are not in bondage of slavery; and a democratic regime. They have to be citizens because the idea of a right is involved, i.e., as a member of the society they have loyalty and have concern about the life of the community and society. They have to be free because they do not represent the interests of their “masters” but the welfare of all, a sense of neutrality and retreat.


There has to be a democratic regime in order for a social structure that allows exchanges of thoughts about pertinent social matters are instituted and established. The presence of these things gives way to the establishment of rational political exchanges in a society. Without a sense of freedom, a citizen is not capable of rational deliberation because they are under the grips of the interest of their masters, knowingly or unknowingly; their acts and motives are suspect. Hence, they are incapable of viewing the matter rationally for their lack of autonomy; they do not speak for themselves but for someone else. Without a democratic regime, there would be no fora and social structures for rational exchanges of ideas. The civil society is a free, democratic and rational society.

In an impoverish society there could be no ideal of civil society because poverty is unfreedom. Poverty lay not only in our lack of capabilities but also in our being an easy prey to the wills and interests of the powers that be; to be under the sway of things. It is the lack of real autonomous actions that really makes a person poor. For instance, I may be capable of casting my vote in an election and even provide a justification for it, but it does not follow that I did the same in freedom. In doing it I may have acted in behalf of a principal, known or unknown to me, instead of my own interest or of all; I simply advance the interest of a master. It is this idea of poverty as unfreedom—slavery—that militates against the ideal of a civil society. This is because rational actions can be done only through an autonomous act. It cannot be done under the sway of a master. In a rational deliberation a person confronts his/her very own self before pursuing an action; the autonomous self has to first make its inclination. A poor person is just incapable of such autonomy because poverty grips him and refuses him reason. It tells him to succumb or perish. A poor person, a slave, is driven by appetitive and irrational impulses by the fact of his being poor. He thus become an easy prey for those who are greedy and has malicious intents; and when he has been gripped by it its shackles are difficult to remove. If rational and free actions are rare even in affluent societies, then they are difficult, if not impossible, in an impoverish society. The roots of poverty, deep it may have burrowed, must be uprooted.

The ideal of civil society, if it is to be composed by free citizens, is more characterized by “happiness” rather than affluency. The two are not synonymous or intrinsically related. Affluency is a material and technological condition whereas happiness is a state of being or personhood. In an affluent society, for instance, masters and slave still exists as in the case of an impoverish society. Affluency therefore does not guarantee rational and free actions, our happiness; at most it could only provide the material condition for happiness. A free citizen is a happy person because he is an autonomous self, and thus capable of rational deliberation. They are the ideal or happiness (eudaimonia) of the human person. Many has commented on ancient Greek theory of happiness as the achievement rational being, our true self as distinguished from other beings, the definition of humanity, but have taken slightly the clue that this was meant to be as autonomy. Our happiness, the aim or end of our human being or life, the philosophical life as the ancients call it, is autonomy. This was also what the ancient Chinese Sage alluded to when he wanted to each a man how to catch a fish rather than give him, he wanted that man autonomy. Our every human endeavours and efforts must be directed in the achievement of this aim. We must not lose sight of our aims for human autonomy or happiness; everything else is but means to this end.

The task therefore of those who would like to build the civil society, the very definition of human society, is the development and promotion of human autonomy. Human development, if it aims at our happiness, must work towards the achievement of our autonomous self and not be limited with the goal of an affluent society, lest we falter on our true ends and may be taken by the seeming from the true. But the task is no easy one; freedom requires great efforts and pains, especially considering that we now live in a different world from the ancients. With this, the question of human autonomy or freedom also had taken a new philosophical plane and requires renewed philosophical quests and debates. Philosophy therefore must assert anew its role and involvement in the efforts of human development.