From Socrates’ questioning of all assumptions to Rorty’s assumption that nothing is beyond questioning, the history of philosophy can give the impression that little progress is ever made in reflecting on how we should live. But the intellectual journey from Thomas More’s communal utopia to our communitarian conception of synetopia would suggest that, provided the process of questioning is systematically linked to the formulation and revision of the way we live together, we can improve society over time.
Questioning the claims and commands of those who expect others to accept them is essential if the misguided and devious do not slip through along with sound assertions and orders. However, such questioning must be anchored to objectives that can be genuinely shared by all involved, and these would have to revolve around a combination of their personal and collective wellbeing. It also has to be carried out in a robust and responsible manner so that bad reasoning and inadequate evidence are challenged, while lessons learnt are retained until they are superseded by better explanations or new findings.
The development of the synetopia thesis has been driven by adaptations to shared experiences of what helps and what hinders the cultivation of cooperative problem-solving. Collaborating under conditions of equal respect and mutual support, people achieve far more than they ever could as isolated individuals, or worse, as enemies who plot to undermine each other.
Of course it is possible that some people would prefer to go with their own inclinations, however irrational or repugnant these may strike others, even if it means that other people’s wellbeing could be adversely affected. In some cases, even their trade-off to gain some gratification at the expense of other aspects of their lives may appear absurd to other people. But as Wittgenstein might say, the differences between such people and the rest of us are foundational – in the sense that they cannot go any further beyond the bedrock of justification. We may prefer to cooperate so as to maximise our personal and mutual good in harmony, but there are those who would rather follow their own short-term desires irrespective of any wider consequences; inflict pain on the innocent; build empires by subjugating the powerless; lose themselves in mind-numbing addictions; boost their low self-esteem through bullying; enrich themselves by deceiving the trusting; or indulge in personal obsessions with no thought for anyone else.
The ultimate difference is that while we can reach out and invite others to join us in what are genuinely common endeavours, the variants of self-centred exploits cannot be presented as a philosophy that is open to all.
In other words, synetopia is where reciprocity is taken seriously (see: ‘Reciprocity & Progressive Communitarianism’). Throughout history, as this ethos evolves, cooperation expands and diverse strands of joint deliberation and democratic power sharing come together to form a worldview directed at the building of inclusive community life (see: ‘Communitarians: an introduction’; ‘Cooperative & Communitarian: a common heritage’; and ‘The Radical Communitarian Synthesis’).
When it is applied to the functioning of local and national government, it generates further learning on how inclusive communities can be developed and sustained (see, for example, ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment'). This in turn helps to inform the formulation of ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’, which provides a general framework for assessing what needs to be improved.
The reasoning that underpins the synetopia thesis that mutual questioning and systematic cooperation will help advance us towards better human conditions is set out in detail in the following books:
• Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics & citizenship (Macmillan 1998): a comprehensive statement of the core principles, and their justification and applications. Reviews of the book can be found here.
• Progressive Politics in the Global Age (Polity 2001): a collection of writings by European and American thinkers on progressive communitarianism.
• Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle (Birkbeck 2015): an exposition of the barriers to the development of more inclusive communities, and how they were overcome over the past centuries.
• Responsibility and Personal Interactions (Edwin Mellen Press 1990): a detailed study of how our responsibility to one another is connected to the type of personal interactions we seek to sustain with others in society.
• Punishment, Excuses & Moral Development (Avebury Press 1996): a collection of communitarian writings on what judgement and response would be appropriate in relation to the behaviour of other people.
If your university or local library has a copy of the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences (2nd edition; James D. Wright, editor-in-chief; Oxford: Elsevier; 2015), then you can access a useful summary of communitarian ideas in the article, ‘Communitarianism, sociology of' (by Henry Tam, in Vol. 4, pp.311-316).