People often have different viewpoints on important issues. One such difference comes from alternative ways of looking at the relationship between people and the society they live in, using the words ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’ quite differently and resulting in different political philosophies:
- Society can be seen as a number of separate individuals, referred to here as ‘individualists’, who each want as much freedom as possible. They are concerned with freedom as liberty from interference, and they see fairness as a right to keep what they have earned. This focus leads to a desire for a limited State, lower taxes, a rejection of the idea that others can make claims on them, and an emphasis on individual responsibility.
- Alternatively, society can be seen as a body composed of interdependent people who want to ensure that everyone is looked after – a viewpoint which is termed ‘collectivist’ in this book. Collectivists see freedom as the opportunity or “capability” to pursue a fulfilling life; they see fairness as the apportionment of shared costs – of public goods and services, and support of the needy – with some recognition of people’s ability to pay: usually through taxation.
The resulting differences in attitudes to governance are examined in more detail in later chapters; the purpose of introducing them at this stage is to illustrate the fundamental nature of some disagreements in a society. In this book it is argued that there is merit in both these philosophies – the collective needs of a society and the perspective of the individual should both be considered – and most people’s views encompass aspects of both. For analysis purposes, though, it is easier to treat them as opposing viewpoints so that the tensions between them can be clearly understood.
Different cultural backgrounds also account for variation in people’s attitudes and values. Individuals also vary in their tolerance of change and their openness to new ideas and experiences. Human beings are so complex, and there are so many sources of difference, that the term ‘inherent diversity’ is appropriate. There will never be uniformity in people’s views, so negotiation is essential.
Despite people’s differences, there are many widely-shared values in any society which help to bind it together. There is widespread agreement upon what is acceptable behaviour between one person and another. Almost everyone prefers law and order to be maintained (although there is scope for disagreement about the enforcement of moral codes). A collectivist has no more reason than an individualist to welcome unnecessary State interference; they would disagree, though, about the necessity of some State involvement. An attempt has been made in this book to highlight the areas upon which disagreement is inevitable.
Most of this book’s research material comes from Western writers, but it has tried to avoid the error of assuming that the West knows best. It has attempted to be even-handed on the relative merits of different political systems, sources of moral values and political ideologies. It has not tried to define how people should govern themselves – it is offering a way of identifying issues and arguments. Its criticisms are directed against uses of power which are to most people’s disadvantage.
© PatternsofPower.org, 2014
 Amartya Sen defined “capability”, in chapter 11 of his book The Idea of Justice, as “the opportunity to fulfil ends and the substantive freedom to achieve those reasoned ends” – where the term “ends” means whatever is important to a person (the quotation is from p. 234). In the footnotes to that chapter he refers to several other books on what he describes as “the capability approach”.