Our fundamental need on the psycho/social level of existence is to participate meaningfully in the social life of our communities as self-directed moral beings.


The Connection with Health

The ecological perspective teaches us that when we look for the conditions that make for health or illness, we must examine not just the inner workings of the isolated organism, but also the transactions between the organism and the environment. For human beings the most significant transactions between the person and his or her environment take place in social institutions – the work-place, the school, religious organizations, special interest groups, the family, and institutions set up to provide support to those with special needs. Obviously these diverse types of social organizations require very different structures and procedures. But perhaps there are generic evaluative criteria that must be applied to all human institutions if they are to create the conditions for social, psychological and physical health.

Human beings are social animals. We need to belong. We have an equally fundamental need for self-direction – for autonomy. These two principles – sociability and the need for autonomy – constitute the fundamental and irreducible polarity of our existence.


To totally sacrifice either aspect of the fundamental polarity of our natures leads to the psychological, the social, and at times the physical death of the person. By combining the principle of autonomy with the principle of sociability, we can see that our fundamental need on the psycho/social level of existence is to participate meaningfully in the social life of our communities as self-directed moral beings.

Too often people feel that they are forced to choose between belonging and autonomy. A healthy social order will not require such a choice. When the individual’s need for autonomy comes into conflict with the demands of a society, it is never an equal battle. The physical power of the society is always overwhelmingly superior. In addition, people need the good opinion of their fellow citizens, and this gives the social group great psychological power as well.

Finally, there is a peculiar bias that almost always comes into play in any conflict between the individual and society. It is assumed that the society stands on the high moral ground. I refer to this bias as “peculiar” because only a moments reflection will make it clear to any thinking person that the truly great atrocities of humanity have always been perpetrated by social groups – most often nations. Of course individuals may also infringe on the rights of their neighbors, and restraints must be placed upon them when they do so. But the bias in favor of society in cases of conflict is in no way justified. Each situation must be examined on it’s own merits.

Because the polarity of autonomy and belonging is so fundamental to human life, the issue of creating human institutions that insure a good balance between these needs is connected to some degree with every issue on this site. Individuals must be treated with equality, they must be educated in schools that respect their needs for autonomy, and their rights to free thought, free speech and free association should be protected by international law. The form of governance or social organization most likely to ensure the equitable balance of belonging and autonomy is democracy. One can think of democracy as being a mean between two extremes: totalitarianism and chaos. In a totalitarian social structure there is little or no participation in decision making. In a chaotic structure everybody is making decisions, but the process is not orderly. It lacks effective processes for negotiated solutions where conflicts exist. In a democratic social structure one finds orderly and participatory patterns of decision making and planning that reflect and embody the fundamental sub-values of democracy:

  • Control by the majority.
  • The participation of all people in decision making on all levels.
  • Protection of the rights of minorities.
  • Open unfettered debate on all issues.
  • Respect for individual differences.

On the level of institutional life, perhaps the most salient analysis of the totalitarian structure is to be found in Goffman’s concept of the total institution. The democratic alternative could be best described, perhaps, as a participatory pattern of administration. In a participatory system all the people who live in a particular social space participate in creating the norms and goals that structure the situation. Our challenge is to move away from the dehumanizing structures found in total institutions and toward the humanizing practices found in participatory structures. These themes will be explored as they pertain both to the institutions of society that have mandates to care for vulnerable or deviant groups, and to the regular institutions of education, government and business that carry out the day to day functions that are necessary in any society.

It is sometimes argued that democratic ideals are nice in theory, but that they are not efficient in practice. Throughout this section we will be looking at examples that challenge this pessimistic assumption. There is evidence that democratic social structures are not only more humane, but in the long run, more efficient as well. By relying on democratic institutions we will educate our children better, provide for a higher level of health care, deal with those who deviate from society’s norms in a more rational and less expensive way, and create and distribute the goods and services in society in a more effective manner.

Connections to Other Topics

The relative weakness of individuals in relationship to their societies has a number of ramifications that are explored in various places on this web site.


The ecological perspective provides us with the awareness that the health of individuals must be examined in the larger social and environmental context. The human rights section emphasizes that a strong commitment to human rights is absolutely imperative if the need of individuals to be morally self-directed beings is to be protected. History shows us that in the absence of such protections governments tend to tread heavily upon the rights of individuals.


The school is of special importance for the development of individuals. Many people have observed the similarity between and average school and a prison. Children are not in school out of choice. In school they are controlled and strictly regimented. The over-riding virtue they are taught is obedience. Children have no input into how they spend their time or what they study. In theory they may be taught democracy, but in practice they are taught totalitarian control. That “normal” schools should in large part fit Goffman’s definition of “total institutions” should give us pause. Democratic and participatory alternatives are available.


In the section on democracy we show that democratic principles must be brought to apply to all the social forms we create – to businesses, families and schools no less than to the governments we elect.


Totalitarian institutions want to enforce conformity and they endeavor to force all human beings into a single template. More humanized institutions are needed if we are to protect the diversity and cultural pluralism are realities.

Human Rights

Human rights – both the right to be left alone and the right to the basic resources for health and happiness – must be protected in every society. Even in democracies most of the institutions that regulate daily life are rigidly hierarchical and non-democratic in nature, and individual individuals are weak in relationship to these institutions.

What Can Be Done?

If we are serious about developing humanized institutions in our society we must begin where we live. First, what about the family or the group of significant others with which we live? At this point of history is surely goes without saying that women as well as men should have an equal say in decisions. But what about children? Are their thoughts and wishes consulted on all important family matters? Or what about people who have been labeled as mentally ill, or retarded or as deviant in some way? Is it possible that some of the difficulty that these people might be experiencing is that they are regularly dis empowered?

Then one can look at the schools and religious institutions with which one is connected. It is generally an unquestioned assumption that these institutions should be run along authoritarian lines. Can something be done to challenge these assumptions? Could more progressive school programs that involved the children in decision making about their education be implemented if you were on the school board?

The issue of workers having some say in the places where they are employed has experienced serious set backs in recent years. Non-unionized workers may be called “associates” in businesses that wish to add a little window dressing to their work places. But if workers have no unions they will have no power, and they will be treated accordingly. So there is plenty of work that needs to be done on that front.

Finally, of course, the issue of election reform needs to be addressed. If elections are for sale to the highest corporate bidder, we no longer have a democracy.

In short, if we care about social arrangements that balance the need for belonging with the need for individual autonomy and moral self direction, we must begin where we live, and insist that all our social arrangements become infused with the spirit and practices of democratic living.