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Aims Of Society

( Originally Published 1915 )

Social Ideals. Social ideals are programs for the improvement of human association. It is a necessary outcome of its mode of evolution that society is perfect neither in structure nor in action ; and because of the imperfect articulation of its parts, there is a tremendous waste of mental and physical energy in the adjustment of its relationships. Since education is frequently defective, legislation partial, and religion tainted with bigotry, hypocrisy, and superstition, absolute justice is unknown except in theory ; perfect cooperation does not exist ; and liberty frequently is but the opportunity for a man to enslave himself. Society, however, is never wanting in reformers who, seeing these defects, raise and advance the standard of perfection by pointing out the ideal of social action. And although his plans may not always be adaptable to the conditions surrounding them, the service of the idealist is most valuable in demonstrating how far social practice falls short of ideal aims.

Revolutions, political upheavals, social agitation, and the propaganda of special systems or creeds all are backed by social ideals ; for somewhere in the midst of the movement, or behind it, is a prophet or philosopher pointing out the defects and calling the group to adopt a new plan. But these very agitations and programs of reform raise such questions as the following : What is the purpose or aim of society? What conscious purpose should society set for itself, towards which its leaders are to direct the social development? There have been a number of answers to these questions.

The Greatest Good. It has often been stated that the aim of society is to promote social well-being ; and if we can reach a proper conclusion in regard to social well-being, we shall be satisfied with the statement as it stands. Now, granted that social well being results from the most efficient exercise of the functions of society and the harmonious development of its members, it does not necessarily follow that social well-being means the largest amount of wealth, the greatest intellectual development, the most advanced religious thought, the best aesthetic culture, or the greatest moral force. But possibly all of these in certain combinations are included. in the idea.

If we accept the oft-quoted statement that "the aim of society is the greatest good to the greatest number," we are, until we define what constitutes the greatest good and the greatest number, still as far from the truth as before. The greatest number must, of necessity, apply to the future as well as to the present ; for society is a continuous quantity perpetuating itself by the replacement of individuals as they disappear. As for the greatest good, the term may mean physical well-being, happiness, usefulness, culture, or the wealth of a community ; but no one of these things, taken singly, can insure the greatest good to society. Under certain conditions, moreover, the greatest good may mean one thing ; and under other conditions, entirely different things may seem the desirable ones. At one time, for example, the greatest good for the greatest number will be gained by an extension of economic opportunity ; at another, by political security ; at still another, by advance in culture. And in obedience to this principle, the freedom of the individual will be curbed in the interests of group solidarity at such times, for instance, as in war ; yet under other conditions, the individual will be permitted to express his individuality. In the ideal society, therefore, the term means all these things.

The Utilitarian Theory. The doctrine that the object of moral conduct is to promote utility began with the Greek moralists, who identified utility with happiness. Since that time, as its different advocates have approached it from different points of view or considered it under varying conditions of society, the theory has undergone many changes. First it was considered merely from the standpoint of the individual, but later the idea was extended to include social utility. In its modern conception it is defined in terms of social progress. But as a perfect society cannot be considered apart from individual activity, of what value is utility of any sort unless it increases the happiness of the individual and gives greater freedom of active service? If the utility theory is to be accepted, there-fore, it must be considered as both individual and social.

Nature of Happiness. If by the word happiness we mean the happiness of individuals that compose. society, then the term, considered in its nobler sense of social adjustment, must rise above mere pleasure, as defined in the doctrine of hedonism. But since the keenest enjoyment of life must be one of the accompaniments of a perfect society, happiness, which is based on contentment alone, is not the true aim of society ; for many of the non-progressive peoples who have scarcely entered the pale of civilization are far more contented with their lot than are the cultured races who have the very highest degree of social development. If, however, in the idea of happiness we include a multiplicity of desires for a higher life and the means of satisfying them, we have a tolerably correct expression of the aim of society.

Is the Aim of Society Fixed and Unchangeable? In the discussion of social aims, we can find no fixed ideals of social life or structure to which we may conform. Society never becomes entirely conventionalized nor wholly petrified; its growth is never completed. Since, therefore, so long as men will utilize the forces at hand, society will perpetually reproduce itself, the real, the final aim of society is normal progress. If there is an equilibrium of social forces, if society is balanced in all of its parts, if the social organs are well developed and well articulated so as to afford each individual the greatest freedom and at the same time the largest opportunity possible, and if the whole is moving steadily toward a more harmonious condition of things, society is progressive. And this normal progress is all we can hope for or be sure of, and indeed, all that we really desire. For if we were to have a completed society, growth would cease; and not long after the cessation of growth, decay would set in. Although people sometimes act as if society had reached a stage where it could maintain itself without any effort on the part of its component individuals, there has as yet been discovered no process by which society will run itself according to hard and fast rules. There are many forces, it is true, which are seemingly more or less constant. But we must always be prepared for the shifting of these forces ; for the bringing forth of new standards of law, government, morality, religion, and, indeed, life ; and for society's constant adaptation to these various ideals or standards. Moreover, one of the most potent of these forces is the individual with initiative, who may turn the stream of social development into entirely new channels in a lifetime. And when society begins to realize itself, when it becomes conscious of satisfying its own desires and aims, it has advanced very far in the higher development of social life.

The Immediate Social Aim. Society's aims change with its development. Growing, as it did, out of primitive man's instinctive feeling, or conscious perception that association aided in his individual survival, it was society's early aim to survive as against competing groups. That aim remains dominant even yet ; the immediate aim of every society is survival. Who has ever heard of a state, a church, or a political party, which, after saying to itself, " Now my work is done ; the purpose for which I was organized can be better served by my death than by my continuance," then proceeded to put itself out of existence ?

But the determination of a society to survive as an organization depends for its strength upon how fully its component members believe that its continuance insures their welfare. This feeling, while of primary importance, is greatly strengthened by many others, which, having their origin in love of home, familiar institutions, customs, and ideals, it is to society's interest care-fully to foster. Such, for example, is the tender sentiment for " the fatherland," for " the land of the free and the home of the brave." Society's first incentive, then, for providing for survival is the desire among its members for the undisturbed enjoyment of their particular mode of life, customs, ideals, and the realization of their national and individual ideals.

From the more strictly functional point of view, however, the purpose of society is to provide the objective conditions under which the individual may secure the most adequate self-expression that is, to insure for him his most perfect adjustment to his social environment. These conditions Giddings has called the " proximate ends " of society. They include provisions, by the political system, for the security of life and property ; they include provisions for insuring to each member equal political rights, equal justice before the law, equal economic opportunities, and similar cultural advantages.

The Ultimate Aim of Society. But the securing of these objective social conditions is not, after all, the ultimate social aim. The ultimate aim of society is the creation of social personality. Says Giddings : " In thus creating personality, society converts mere evolution into progress. Evolution is integration and differentiation ; it is correlation and coordination ; it is not necessarily a betterment of conscious existence. Evolution is also progress when each unit of the integrated mass or group becomes an end as well as a means." 1 This social personality enables an individual to fit in perfectly with the objective conditions of existence, enables him to cooperate with others in so molding the social structure that the self-realization of each is assured. Society, therefore, gives the individual the guardian-ship of government. It does not aim, of course, to make all individuals equal ; but it does aim, as far as the establishment of social order will permit, to give the same opportunity to all. Society may, indeed, go a step farther. It may furnish the individual with the means for self-improvement; it may offer him help and encouragement in his own redemption. Under such circumstances, society will not only promote justice among men ; but by providing means for education and various forms of cooperative help, it will enable the individual to reach a high state of culture.

Nor must society neglect man's development through association. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which man draws his culture or development from others. His mental capacity, his material prosperity, his religion and his art, come largely from association. Thus while we are working to build up the individual by giving him room for action, we must not forget that we are also providing for his increased development by promoting various social activities.


ELLWOOD, C. A. The Social Problem, Chap. I, and pp. 189-196.

FAIRBANKS, ARTHUR. Introduction to Sociology, p. 174.

GIDDINGS, F. H. Descriptive and Historical Sociology, pp. 522-540.

KIDD, BENJAMIN. Western Civilization.

MACKENZIE, JOHN S. An Introduction to Social Philosophy, pp. 238-295.

SMALL and VINCENT. Introduction to the Study of Society, p. 72.

WARD, LESTER F. Pure Sociology, pp. 555-575.


1. Point out the aims of the following societies in your community: a church, a social dub, a commercial club, a literary circle, a debating society, a political party. Point out the aims of the United States government.

2. Show how a government which did not help to increase the wealth of its citizens would be justly looked upon as inefficient.

3. Under what circumstances might its policies, while not increasing the wealth of the nation, yet increase the general welfare of society?

4. Suppose a society, like that of these United States, should pursue a policy which would deny to the poor the opportunities that it accords to the rich. Would its aim be the general welfare? Why? Suppose that it denied to the rich man the same opportunity to exercise his abilities that it affords to the poor man. Would it be advancing the general welfare? Why?

5. Show why our ideals of what a society should be lead us to oppose "graft" in government.

6. Indicate how the spending of such vast amounts of money on education contributes to the welfare of society.

7. What social aim is satisfied by the provision of public playgrounds and social centers?

8. Carefully examine the government of your village or city and indicate as clearly as possible just what social aims it is trying to realize.

9. Why, since they afford pleasure to some people, do gambling and vice not accord with the aims of society?

10. Cite two instances that show how social ideals rather than economic interests or physical environment dominate social development. (See the reference to Ellwood.)

Outlines Of Sociology:
Psychical Activities

Social Control

Aims Of Society

Ideals Of Government

Control By Force

Educational Method

Social Inequalities

Ideal Of Justice

Estimation Of Progress

Nature Of Social Pathology

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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