(published in Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, v.35, No.1, Jan 1971, pp42-49.)

L. David Roper, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Physics, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia. Dr. Roper graduated with honors from the Oklahoma Baptist University, Shawnee, Oklahoma with a degree in Physics and Mathematics and received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from M.I.T. in 1963. He is the author of the book The Dirac Delta Function in Physics published by the Commission on College Physics of the American Institute of Physics.

Every group of people which desires to achieve certain goals arranges these objectives in the order of their importance to the group. The hierarchy of importance and even the goals, themselves, are not always clearly stated or consciously known, although they determine the actions taken. Individual members of the group will have at least slightly different ideas about the relative importance of the group goals, and may effect changes in them in the course of time, particularly in a semi-democratic group (actual democratic groups are few in number) through influence, eminence or leadership. The individual member also rearranges his goals without clearly realizing it. Careful study of the words and deeds of a given person over a lifetime shows that his hierarchy of values often fluctuates erratically.

This paper is an attempt by one individual who is a member of many semi-democratic groups, one of which is a nation, the ultimate of which is at present the world, to formulate clearly what (s)he feels should be the most important goals of any of these groups and to give a rationale for their order of importance.

I. Fundamental Principle: The Right to Exist

The fundamental property of a group of people is the fact that a group does not exist without people. Therefore, our fundamental principle is that people are the most important element of any society, not possessions. (Of course, possessions are associated with people; we shall deal with this relationship later.) A priori, there is no reason to say that one individual is more important than another. Also, there is no a priori reason to say that one group is more important than another. Therefore, we can restate our fundamental principle as follows. The most important goal of any group should be to guarantee the existence of each member of that or any other group. Admittedly, the fulfillment of this goal is a formidable task, and even if such a goal were wholeheartedly pursued, failure to achieve it would undoubtedly be constant. But this difficulty is true to a greater or lesser degree of any goal. In contrast to this concept of the most important goal, it appears that the goal of most groups is to guarantee the existence of the group, not necessarily all individuals in the group, let alone all individuals in all groups. This is why wars are fought. If the reader subscribes to the latter statement of importance rather than the former, (s)he will disagree with almost everything that follows.

The maximum deprivation that an individual can experience is the denial of his existence, the taking of his life. The simplest application of our fundamental principle would be that an individual or group cannot kill any individual for any reason. A man's possessions can be returned after being stolen, a man's health can often in some measure be restored after being taken but, so far, no one has found a way to return a man to life after his life has been snuffed out. Our fundamental principle rules out capital punishment in a society. How then should a society treat an individual who it thinks has killed another individual? This problem is treated with sensitivity by Karl Menninger in The Crime of Punishment (Viking Press, 1968). Application of our fundamental principle necessitates that such an individual must be constantly watched by some agency of the society to insure that (s)he does not kill again. I shall deal later with how such a person should be treated while being watched.

When a society clearly states that its most fundamental goal is the preservation of individual lives, particularly by means of statements of strong commitment by its leaders, it will undoubtedly affect the actions of its individual members. There are many recorded instances of how the attitudes of a few strong members of a society can greatly affect the attitudes of the entire society. The existence of large numbers of individuals killing other individuals in a society is in some measure the fault of the society and its leaders who have not clearly stated or shown by deeds their belief in the dearness of life.

Patrick Henry's famous statement, "Give me liberty or give me death!" has been used by many to justify killing people in "defense of liberty." Henry did not say "Give me liberty or you shall die!" even though (s)he may have felt that way. A person may feel that freedom, love, or some other thing is more important to him than life, but (s)he should not assume it is so for any other person. Also, it is not clear that killing has solved problems better than any other less lethal methods, such as passive resistance. A strong society wholly committed to preservation of life and also to preservation of freedom should surely have a profound moral effect on all societies.

II. Right to Health,

Once a person's existence has been guaranteed, the next most important thing to him is a healthy body. If a person has to spend every waking hour searching for food, (s)he has little time to worry about freedoms of any kind. If a person is constantly in anguish due to disease, such as cancer or mental disease, or due to accident, (s)he is not terribly concerned about tyranny of either the right or the left. Therefore, our goal of second importance for any group is that every member of the group and any other group should be guaranteed adequate food, shelter, and health protection. This protection, of course, includes protection from physical or mental injury inflicted on a person by another person or group of persons. When society is reasonably assured that a person is guilty of having contributed to the injuring (or killing) of another person, that person must be watched by some agency of the society to insure that be does not do it again. While being watched be must be treated with undiminished respect for his life and health for several reasons, three of which are (1) (s)he is still a person, (2) (s)he may not be guilty, and (3) (s)he will not develop respect for other people if be is not treated with respect. This last reason is an important part of the process called "rehabilitation." The fact that rehabilitation is practiced to a very small degree in any existing society does not speak well for our concern for either the health of the accused or his possible future victims.

More and more we are realizing that our continuing good health is closely related to the preservation of nature. Certainly many alterations of nature benefit man, but we now know there are always many "side effects" of any intended beneficial alterations, which may be greatly detrimental to our health or even to our existence on planet Earth. Recent studies show that man's good mental health depends on his having close communion with other elements of the natural world, such as trees and animals. Therefore, a society whose major concern is the life and health of individuals will be very cautious about alterations of nature. Keeping population density low would be a great help in this regard.

An American automobile manufacturing executive has been quoted as saying "It is not clear that reducing highway carnage is a necessary goal or definitely in the public interest. Moreover, it is hardly sensible to adopt a policy that lives and limbs are priceless." Obviously this person does not put life and health ahead of economics in his hierarchy of group values. Unfortunately, he is not in a small minority in the United States, although many do not so blatantly state their views. You will find several with this view by merely asking your friends, "Should police shoot to kill (or maim) when a robber is fleeing with stolen goods?" The actions of many large companies attest to their relegation of life and health to low importance, as evidenced by numerous newspaper and magazine articles about dangerous toys, appliances, foods, cars, etc. More disturbing is the fact that many "representatives of the people," both elected and appointed, also act as if life and health are of low importance by their support of economic interests above issues of life and health. As a society becomes more and more democratic, governmental officials of necessity become more people-oriented; but no society has yet reached a high degree of democracy.

III. Right to Freedom

When a man feels assured of continuing life, food, shelter, and health, his thoughts turn to less basic needs. Most people would probably list their next desired goal as personal freedom. However, observation of human behavior might put desire for stability on an even par with desire for freedom. People will often sacrifice their freedom for security, both emotional and financial. There are other desires that would be high on many personal lists; e.g., sexual pleasure, group esteem, accomplishment, etc. Many of these would be achieved by a redirection of society's goals as outlined above and by a high degree of freedom. Also, an uncompromising goal of increasing freedom would lead to a stability not of class or privilege, but of maintained freedom. So we choose as our goal of third importance that every member of the group or any other group be guaranteed maximum freedom, restricted only by the attainment of the first two goals and fair compromises when other persons' freedoms are contradictory. Certainly a man who enjoys brutalizing others cannot be allowed complete freedom to do so, because of our first two goals. Deciding who shall be allowed to drive automobiles in crowded cities is an example of contradictory freedoms requiring fair compromise. Such compromises will become more and more prevalent as we crowd ourselves closer and closer together in cities. It would appear that a goal of maximum freedom would necessitate a policy of population control and de-urbanization.

Freedom has many aspects and meanings to many people: freedom of expression, freedom of knowledge, freedom of movement, freedom from boredom (which has to do with health), etc. It would appear that the most fundamental of these is the freedom of expression. Many other freedoms are automatically derived when freedom of expression, both written and spoken, flourishes. This is evidenced by the fact that tyrannical groups spend their greatest effort in suppressing free expression. A truly free society will actively encourage expression of diverse views. Applying this test, we readily surmise that there has never been a truly free society, much less one existing now.

A serious goal of freedom of expression for all people, instead of merely for the powerful or the articulate, would demand increasing democratization of societal legislative and administrative actions. Modern communications technology in an advanced society makes it possible for elected representatives to receive opinion polls on all major legislative issues. Eventually, the representatives would be responsible for intelligent discussion of all aspects of major issues, at least, but the final decision would be made by the people. As with all freedoms, only those who would bother themselves to take advantage of it would have this freedom. Careful planning with a knowledge of human behavior and a goal to include all could undoubtedly involve many more people in decision processes than are now involved. Increasing democratization has the interesting side effect of increasing the stability of a society. People are much more content when they feel that they have an influence on how their society is operated, even though it may not be true to the degree they feel it. Greater utilization of communications technology would allow some current administrative actions to become democratic actions, and would allow wider knowledge of administrative actions. For example, in such a society, such actions as police conduct, that can be tyrannical if not constantly watched, could be monitored by any individual who cared to do so.

Close to the importance of freedom of expression is the freedom of knowledge, or freedom of information. When opportunities to obtain the truth about any subject and to speak and write of such truth are unflinchingly kept available, there are few other freedoms that do not automatically follow.

Any society seriously interested in guaranteeing freedom of expression and freedom of knowledge for all persons will be a society placing great emphasis on liberal education where all views, however repulsive, are allowed to be heard and openly discussed. It will be a society which makes great efforts to collect information and to make all information available to all persons to aid in purchasing goods, in judicial proceedings, in legislative actions, in police actions, and in all other decision processes. Again all existing societies fail in these matters, some more than others.

Another important freedom is the freedom of privacy, or right to privacy. This appears to be closely related to an individual's mental health. There is often a conflict between some goal listed previously and the right to privacy. If another individual's life or health are at stake, then privacy takes second place. When it is another individual's freedom that is in conflict with the privacy of an individual, then democratically formulated rules, often arbitrary, must be used.

The above principle of right to privacy indicates that no society should regulate individuals' private actions that do not harm other individuals. As a specific example, societal rules should not exist to regulate whom a person can or cannot marry or with whom (s)he can or cannot have consenting sexual intercourse in privacy.

It appears that many of our freedoms become jeopardized when population density is very high. Common sense as well as recent scientific studies indicate that men and other animals cannot maintain their health, particularly mental health, when they are living very close together. Besides the poor health and lack of joy often accompanying it, crime becomes more obvious with increasing population density. Simple freedoms of movement, privacy, etc. are frustrated. It is difficult to give any reason, other than economic, why people should be so densely clustered. A society intensely concerned about the welfare of all individuals, and society as a whole, would probably try to decentralize industry so that people would not be "forced" to live in densely populated areas.

IV. Right to Accomplish

When a man is assured of continuing life, health, and freedom, his next most important, perhaps unconscious, desire is probably to feel his life has meaning - that (s)he is accomplishing something worthwhile. So we set down a principle of right to accomplish. This right, in practice, would involve a society in providing educational opportunities and vocational guidance for all individuals There is little doubt that a society strongly emphasizing the goals listed above, through its policies and the public statements of its leaders, will have many of its members strongly motivated to help accomplish those seemingly impossible goals.

V. Right to Possess

In previous paragraphs we have disparagingly spoken of economics and economic interests in a society. Apparently man has powerful vestiges of his animal ancestry in his territorial (or possessional) impulses. (See The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey, Dell Paperback, 1966.) Even as we suppress or redirect the animal instinct to kill, in deference to the importance of a single individual's life, we must suppress or rearrange man's possession impulses in accordance with our hierarchy of values outlined above. The latter we are just beginning to do. The survival of man depends upon our learning to value individual lives above individual or group possessions.

We must, of course, admit that many of the goals listed above are difficult to achieve without a healthy economy. There must be food to eat before one can eat. However, there are no natural laws of economics that rule out a healthy economy when achievement of these goals is actively sought. In fact, the economy is a very important tool to achieve these goals. There are hints that the most stable economy may be achieved by a society with this hierarchy of goals. For example, it is well known that inflation almost always is caused by war, which is usually the result of a societal goal of putting maximum importance on possessions or power, not people.

A man's good mental health seems to depend to some extent on his having possessions. We now promulgate a principle of an individual's right to possess goods, with at least two provisos: (1) Other persons' claims to life, health, and freedom are always more important; (2) the population density must be low enough to allow all people, in principle, to own the goods in question. For example, if one million people live in one square mile, ownership of land by individuals in the square mile should not be allowed. Since it is impossible for all individuals in the group to own some of the goods (the land), the only fair way is for the land to be owned by the group as a whole. This adds one more small reason, to the reasons listed above, regarding the urgent need for not allowing populations to become dense and for de-urbanizing densely populated areas that presently exist. Strong societal rules keeping population density below a healthy level are necessary.

We must touch on the thorny question of "What should a society do when it is thought that one individual has stolen another person's possessions?" We have already ruled out killing him, or maiming him, or taking away his freedom. The rational thing to do is to relieve him, if possible, of what (s)he has stolen or of some of his own possessions as compensation for the loss of freedom and additional loss of possessions experienced by the second individual. If (s)he has stolen because be is hungry, then serious adherence to this goal hierarchy will place the burden of the blame on the society. The principle of reparation has been used in some countries, but not widely.


There are many circumstances for which the principles delineated above do not yield clear-cut methods of procedure. However, many circumstances occur daily for which these principles do yield methods of procedure contrary to the methods that are now used. It would appear useless to discuss borderline circumstances in terms of the validity of the general principles until the clear-cut cases are dealt with first.

Rather than meandering along in a haphazard way, it is desirable for a society to have a clearly stated hierarchy of goals, which it may want to revise from time to time. Then the merits of all actions of the society would be judged as to how they work toward achieving the goals.

An attempt has been made here to give a somewhat rational ordering of importance of such goals. The developed semi-democratic countries of the world are certainly in the position to adopt such an order and thus accelerate the process of democratization. They are also in a position to help underdeveloped countries accelerate in the same direction. In fact, accomplishing this end may be the only hope for the survival of man.