Physics has moved from a study of directly observable phenomena to a dual study of the very large and the very small. At one end, scientists observe the cosmos, black holes and gravity with ever more powerful telescopes. At the other, they search for the particles and waves that are the ingredients of electrons, protons and neutrons and thus of everything else.
There is a similar move we need to make in how we think about the social structures we are building. Let us not focus on where we are in the system, let us instead think about the Large and Small. In this case:
Large: What do we want from the universal systems of human interaction? What is our take on the structure of morality, how we share resources and power, how we make decisions? How can we think about all of this in a way that is divorced from the impact of these decisions on our own day to day lives?
Small: How can I reflect on myself and my view of others? How can I recognise my strengths, biases, flaws, humanness and what do I know about how and why they arise? Can I continually grow my ability to accentuate those strengths which bring harmony and positivity to the world? Can I observe my biases and flaws without succumbing to them? What is needed for me to understand my humanness, and how it impacts those around me?
The Large and Small are often invisible to me and are well ignored in my day-to-day life, but they frame my actions, my work, my relationships. The challenge for me, for all of us I think, is to invoke some combination of Rawls (again) and the Buddha to undergo this dual line of inquiry into how what we do fits into our views of the Large and the Small.
Physicists are continually searching for a way to bring together the theories and observations of the very large and the very small. The hunt for the unifying theory is still on.
Is there an elusive grand unifying theory of humanity? Is there some way to organise ourselves such that we are creating a world which allows each of us to flourish but is able to cope with our flaws and biases?
Socialist approaches seem to focus on the Large. They are lovely theoretical systems that we can buy into principles of. What they do not account for so well, in my humble opinion, is the Small – they do not allow for pragmatic responses, our biases, our competitiveness. And so shortly after they are established they collapse.
Capitalist approaches seem to be the opposite. They are aligned with the Small and much of our base instincts. They encourage our individuality, for better and worse. They foster collaboration when there is mutual interest. They are therefore robust. But it is less clear to me how capitalist approaches fit with the Large. Do they pass our Rawlsian challenges? I’m not so sure they do. Many are left behind, with little opportunity to flourish.
We have tried things in between, tried to find the unifying theory, with some success. European “Social Democracies” are perhaps the best examples. But they have applied in specific pockets of the world that have been culturally homogeneous for a long time as well as being very rich, and even these are being tested today.
Is there a grand unified theory of humanity? I don’t know, I wonder if anyone does. But given where we are, it must be worth exploring.