Bruce Lawson’s personal site

The pre-requisites of a civilised society

I was musing about what criteria you’d need to fulfill to call a society truly civilised. Here’s my starter list.

Equality under the rule of law

This means guaranteeing rights for all, regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, religion etc. But it’s not just about protecting the traditionally disadvantaged; it also means that those traditionally above the law are no longer unaccountable, so no more special privileges for the rich, the titled, the freemasons, friends of MPs etc.

Total separation of religion and state

Religion is a private matter and, of course, everyone should be absolutely free to privately follow whatever religion they want. No religion should be favoured or protected by the State. The State should not fund any religious schools. No-one should have any part in any legislative or judicial process simply because they have a role in a religious organisation (so, for example, Church of England bishops should no longer have an automatic right to a seat in the House of Lords). Religion should not be taught as fact in schools (understanding comparative religions is an important part of citizenship.)

Education and medical care should be free at the point of delivery

Because that’s obvious. Education empowers people, and that is the ultimate aim of a civilised society. It’s also a prudent economic investment for the future. I feel strongly about this; the only way I was able to go to University is because my tuition fees were paid by the taxpayers, and I had a full grant (of about £2000 annually, if I recall correctly) that helped me pay my living expenses. Because of my university education, I have a higher earning potential so I now pay more tax.

Denying someone medical care because they don’t have money is antithetical to civilised society.

Abolition of all hereditary titles and privileges

This includes all aristocratic titles, and monarchy.

1% of GDP reserved for foreign aid and overseas development

I’ve plucked the figure of 1% out of the air. This applies only to wealthy, developed countries, of course. For the less well-off countries like Pakistan and India, they should abolish stupid nuclear weapons programmes in order to feed all their citizens (and receive no outside aid until they do).

Abolition of the death penalty

Because “killing someone is so bad, if you do it, we’ll kill you” is a logical absurdity. It’s also immoral.

Penalties for corruption by public officials should be double that for public

A member of the police, a judge, or an MP who commits a crime connected with their office should receive double the punishment that a member of the public would receive. (Linda rightly points out that this seems incompatible with the earlier “Equality under the rule of law”, but it’s because the crime is greater when committed by someone in a heightened position of trust.)

Legal programs for assisted dying

With proper safeguards, of course. (I have no idea what those safeguards would be.)

Freedom of expression

Anyone should be allowed to say anything as long as it doesn’t incite violence. The law shouldn’t be able to censor someone just because they hurt someone else’s feelings (see my post Should My Tram Experience woman be arrested?). Freedom of the press is vital, with necessary safeguards for protecting privacy: if Dwayne Footballer is shagging Jordan Boobmodel, there is no justification for invading their privacy and running such a story. Just because some prurient anecdote might interest some of the public, it doesn’t mean it’s in the public interest to run the story.

The aim of government isn’t to “rule”; it is to competently and transparently administer a nation to ensure all citizens have equal opportunities by ensuring laws and regulation protect all citizens, and to redistribute wealth to ensure everyone has adequate food, medical care, shelter and education so they can participate in society.

What have I missed or got wrong? And does any society exist?

13 Responses to “ The pre-requisites of a civilised society ”

Comment by T R

The only one I don’t agree with is assisted dying, because it would help to create the idea that someone SHOULD kill themselves when they want to die naturally. “killing someone is so bad, but if you get old, it’s easier for everyone if you just kill yourself.”

Comment by Pete

Re. Overseas aid: I’d suggest civility sees past the moronic expenditure on weapons by countries whose people are starving, and aid is provided to those affected regardless. (Whilst highlighting out the absurdity, of course).

Comment by Andrew

On free education: The problem is when you went to university, far fewer people were doing it, so we could afford to subsidise those who did to a far greater extent. I’d be very happy with making higher education free provided that we stop offering it to people who aren’t going to have the higher earning potential as a result. My university has a team of people that tours the far east recruiting overseas students who pay around £15,000-£25,000 a year, and it’s no surprise which students are the most dedicated. On a macro scale, subsidy reduces perceived value and so encourages wastefulness.

I don’t see what’s wrong in principle with the current UK system. Part of the cost is paid by the state, and part is paid by the student once they’ve graduated and can afford it. If they never get to the point of being able to afford it, they never have to pay, and the state pays the whole lot. The risk the student is taking is that their income boost as a result of their studies may not be as large as they’d hoped, so they might end up worse off overall as they still have to pay back their share of the cost, which will depress their income for possibly many years. But the state is taking the lion’s share of the risk.

What the split is between the student and the state, and the practical mechanics of it is endlessly debatable, but I don’t think it should be completely free.

I also think we should keep the Monarchy, but only for ceremonial purposes. And I guess you’re not opposed to individual, non hereditary honours such as knighthoods for exceptional achievers?

Otherwise you’re bang on the money. Especially on international development and separation of religion and state, and India and Pakistan’s idiotic nuclear and space programs.

Comment by R G

You should start your own country and take e erroneous who agrees with you there, some of these ideas are logically untennable. Nothing is “free” but has to be paid for by someone. Free education and a lack of incentives for excelling will breed mediocrity. A lot of students who are given a free education will not appreciate it and won’t work to take advantage of it. I’m not sure how you plan to pay for all those free doctors too. These are super socialist ideas that have been tried before and failed…go ahead and try it on your own. I’d love to see how long a new country like that would last.

Comment by Charlie

You’ve missed out the democratic process.

A couple of comments:
“free at the point of…” is principally fine but you may need to have some market elements in practice to avoid writing blank cheques beyond the budget. Ie. providing liver transplants to unreformed alcoholics. There is also an argument for making people aware of the cost of things and requiring a contribution gives them value in both senses of the word.

It’s also almost unavoidable to have services with optional extras as people will want them and find a way to get them. Much better to plan for it. That said I definitely think that education and basic health care should be free for all.

Foreign aid is often a disaster and dwarfed by remuneration from ex-pats. Much better to have reasonable trade policies to prevent cash-crop monocultures and subsidy-driven dumping of overproduction.

Public officials should be punished for their crimes as would members of the public. You might want to introduce some new crimes for holders of public office but this should be tempered by understanding the principles of representative democracy: if you make holding office too risky you will probably make even less attractive for members of the public. Term limits might be an idea or rating.

One thing I would like to see would be better law-making and this would include sanctions for elected representatives drafting shoddy laws, of which there have been far too many in the last 25 years, often tied to pet projects related to short-term electoral success. This would raise the importance of a good civil service in helping a government administer.

Comment by Chris Hunt

Your Freedom of Expression point seems rather confused.

“Anyone should be allowed to say anything as long as it doesn’t incite violence,” but “if Dwayne Footballer is shagging Jordan Boobmodel, there is no justification for invading their privacy.” Is that a second limit on what can be said or not? What about the privacy of what MPs spend their expenses money on?

I’d be happier with leaving the first sentence of this passage untramelled by supposed considerations of privacy. What the press should not be allowed to do is print stories that are UNTRUE. If footballers do not wish to see their sordid deeds dragged through the press, stop doing them.

Comment by Anthony

I say we abandon the supersized government and corporate structures we have. They are too large to work for people as they should. The structures encourage greed and the power hungry, empire building, narcicistic, spin doctor, vomit inducing leaders we elect – always from the same amorphous pool of people who study mass deception and secrecy. We need to get rid of money and downsize not supersize! Its time to stop beleiving we are more than just a part of the natural world on this planet. We may have intelligence beyond our fellow animals but this should help us see that the world we have created for ourselves and our children is a nonsense. Where are we going? Whats the end point? More and more people more and more structures of control more and more food – more planets to sustain us? taking over the universe? For what? A simple existence is under rated. Its how humans survived and existed for millions of years (depending on whether your religious beliefs allow you to accept science). Stop the frickin ride I want off! – sorry in a ranting mood today

Comment by Mr No.

A comment at
I like the general thrust of where you are going.

Some musings on the subject, with the acceptance that there maybe some small contradictions, and that these would be worked out in any major defence or thesis on the topic.

Equality of opportunity and treatment (how people treat others)

Minimal differential between “poor” and “rich” (access to resources)
Minimal differential between powerful and non (that is, power over others)

Basic income for all

Equality regardless of innate characteristics (i.e. no racism, sexism, and similar)

Recognition and acceptance of sexual preferences. (Though, just because I recognise and accept a preference for small children, doesn’t mean I have to accept that they can be raped. Informed and enthusiastic (and preferably articulated) consent is still required, which small children probably can’t give or articulate.)

Acceptance of all consensual relationships (if you want a relationship with three, or four, or ten or fifty others, it ain’t my business, so long as all involved want to be).

Freedom, to the extent that it does not infringe the freedom of others.

The recognition that children are not only not the property of their parents, but fully fledged individuals in their own right, with their own wants, desires and needs. And that, certain practices are harmful for children, including religious, racist, sexist (etc.) indoctrination, and should not be allowed to continue.

Comment by Algy Taylor

Generally agree with everything there, except maybe:
“Legal programs for assisted dying” – I’m not against it, but I’d also not say a country was uncivilised if it didn’t have such a scheme.

I’d also say that any government should be entirely accountable to the people which it governs.

Comment by Bruce

@Andrew said ” The problem is when you went to university, far fewer people were doing it, so we could afford to subsidise those who did to a far greater extent.” That’s true, and I’ve no problem with University being harder to get into. (I know that, as a kid from a poor family, I would not have been brave enough to go if it had meant my signing up to £30K+ debt to do so.)

@Charlie said “You’ve missed out the democratic process.” Yes, I did. It is an absolute pre-requisite, as is independence of the judiciary.

@Chris Hunt said “Is that a second limit on what can be said or not? What about the privacy of what MPs spend their expenses money on?”

There’s a difference – MP’s expenses are paid by us, so there is a legitimate public interest in publishing that story. Dwayne humping Jordan is a private matter.

“If footballers do not wish to see their sordid deeds dragged through the press, stop doing them.” – dangerously close to “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to hear”. Extra-marital sex isn’t illegal, or misuse of public funds so it’s not right to invade their privacy and write about it.

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