Constructing a Social System Theory

This essay presents and critiques the social system theories presented in the “Sane Society” by Fromm and the “Ethics for the New Millennium” by the Dalai Lama. Both Fromm (1990, p.3) and Dalai Lama (1999, p. 2) indicate dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in society. Having indicated what is wrong with society, they posit social theories that seek to clarify what a healthy society could be like. They further outline clearly what would happen for a healthy society to be realized.

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Although they use different concepts, Fromm’s social system theory is very similar to the Dalai Lama’s theory. Fromm (1990, p. 23) premises his theory on the fact that human beings are not driven basically by instinctual passions. This is a departure from Freudian psychology that saw human acts as purely informed by instincts. For Fromm (1990, 15) freedom is central to the true nature of human beings. This is why he moves away from the deterministic view of Freud. He agrees with Karl Marx that social conditions could easily stifle individuals’ capacity for initiative or creativity (Fromm, 1990, p. 78). However, he departs from this view by positing that human beings are capable of transcending the social conditions (Fromm, 1990, p.270).

He theorizes that freedom is often too challenging thus people always seek to escape from it (Fromm, 1990, p. 152). Some have escaped exercising their freedom by subjecting themselves to the dictates of authoritarian systems. Social Systems help many to hide by dutifully following set dictates. People become cultural slaves who are not capable of independent thought or decisions. When systems become too authoritarian or stifling, people turn to destruction as a way of dealing with the frustrations (Fromm, 1990, p. 165).

Rather than embrace responsibility which necessarily comes with freedom, people resort to either destruction of the other or self. These escapades only serve to alienate human beings from themselves (Fromm, 1990, p.191).

Fromm understood society to be generally insane. Although in varying degrees, all people in society behave irrationally. Fromm’s assertions were informed by what he had observed in a capitalist society (Fromm, 1990, p.209). This led him into theorizing that a socialist society is saner than a capitalist one (Fromm, 1990, p. 246). Sanity in society can only be achieved when all people learn to trust and have faith in fellow human beings. Fromm envisages a class less society like one posited by Karl Marx as solution to most societal problems. The class based society only teaches dominance and submissiveness. As long as dominance and submissiveness are the mode of operation, freedom is not exercised (Fromm, 1990, p. 83).

Key to moving from a class based society (insane) to a society (sane: class less), Fromm (1990, p.333) posited that rational leadership is necessary. He observes that the leadership in a class society is inhibiting i.e. it strives to keep people in the lower classes. The only way to maintain one as a subject is making sure he or she does not gain capacity. This, Fromm argues, is irrational as it causes much dissatisfaction in society. Rational leadership is altruistic as opposed to irrational leadership that is antagonistic. If leadership is rational i.e. altruistic and not antagonistic, Fromm (1990, p.339) is of the mind that human beings can happily subject themselves to such a rule.

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The book “Ethics for the New Millennium”, as stated by the Dalai Lama (1999, p.1) himself, is an attempt to construct an ethics that would generally be acceptable to the whole of humanity. He aims at presenting an ethical base that does not require any metaphysical consideration before committing to it. Dalai Lama (1999, p. 19) explains in the second chapter of the book that religious based ethics no longer has appeal in the world. Many people no longer look at religion favorably.

Basing his arguments on ethical postulates of other philosophers, the Dalai Lama wants to present a simple road map to happiness. He argues that happiness is the goal and end to which all human beings aspire (Dalai Lama, 1999, p. 4). The desire for happiness transcends cultural and religious consideration. He further notes that there is much unhappiness on earth especially among the urban populations (Dalai Lama, 1999, p. 4). This condition of much unhappiness the world over could easily be averted if only people behaved in an ethical way. He draws distinction between positive ethical conduct and negative ethical conduct.

According to Dalai Lama (1999, p. 21), positive ethical conduct should be a key concern of any religion. However due to human selfish interests, much of what is done in the name of religion is not motivated by a religious end. The true religious end, according to Dalai Lama (1999, p. 22), is the freedom of the soul. The Dalai Lama (1999, p. 37) argues very convincingly that spirituality is not the same as religion. Although acknowledging the importance of religion, he posits that spiritual awakening is possible without any form of religious conversion. Ethic is thus framed to be a spiritual quest that all human being share (Dalai Lama, 1999, 38). This is because being good or ethical conduct is at the heart of finding happiness in life. Happiness is naturally the ultimate quest of all living human beings.

After framing the basis for an ethics, the Dalai Lama moves on to frame what this universal ethics is. He defines happiness and its enduring quality as opposed to cheap pleasure that may as well result in pain (Dalai Lama, 1999, p. 49). The Dalai Lama ethical considerations, for those who understand the Nichomachean ethics, are an exact replica of the ethics of Aristotle. Just like Aristotle, the Dalai Lama (1999, p. 123) argues for moderation in what he refers to as the compassion mean. Positive ethical conduct based on compassion is a mean of extremes (Dalai Lama, 1999, 124). There is need for continence i.e. controlling emotions but at the same time giving them due consideration. Like Aristotle, the Dalai Lama (1999, p. 102) posits virtue as the way to happiness. Here again the idea of the Aristotelian mean can be discerned when the Dalai Lama (1999, 103) considers the extreme emotions that influence behavior.

The way of virtue is not an easy one. However, through compassion, the Dalai Lama argues, it is possible. The virtue of compassion calls for constant discernment (Dalai Lama, 1999, p. 145). One has to discern what is good for self but most importantly what is right with others put into consideration.

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Both the Dalai Lama and Fromm posit that society is not healthy. For the Dalai Lama (1999, p. 3), this is occasioned by preoccupation with external acquisitions. Fromm explains that society is not sane due to irrationality that inhibits personal freedom. Fromm posits that the perfect achievement for a human being is the productive orientation. The Dalai Lama (1999, p.5) posits that the ultimate goal of a human being is happiness. Although using different words, the two theorists seem to refer to the same state of being.

In life, Fromm (1990, p. 63) posits a number of orientations that people exhibit. An individual either exhibits a purely receptive orientation, exploitative, hoarding, marketing or productive orientation. People who operate from the receptive orientation think they have no control whatsoever about what happens in their life (Fromm, 1990, p. 63). They accept whatsoever comes their way passively. Those who have an exploitative orientation believe only in using others or grabbing from others. Their preoccupation is with how to acquire control over the other or the other’s property. Those who have the hoarding orientation are stingy and think only in terms of how to amass. Their preoccupation is on how to get everything for themselves. The marketing orientation is exhibited by those who see everything in the form of a bargain (Fromm, 1990, p. 64). The exchange value is what matters to such people. What matters is what would help the individual gain a more favorable valuation in the eyes of others. For this reason, people become obsessed with fashion, body sizes, education levels etc.

For Fromm (1990, p. 65), the healthy personality is the one with a productive orientation. Such a person according to Fromm is unmasked. He is free and does not allow self to be enslaved by anything. Such a person has total appreciation of his or her nature as a human being. However, his or her nature is a positive condition for freedom rather than enslavement. His or her only desire is the freedom of everyone. Such a person is guided by love and wishes only to affirm and nurture all that is. He or she seeks loving transformation (continuous improvement) as opposed to fear based conformity (Fromm, 1990. p.65). He or she is assertive and not aggressive or submissive.

The Dalai Lama (1999, p. 1237) says that happiness is achieved through compassionate action that informs continence. Happiness as a state fits perfectly into Fromm’s state of productive orientation. This state is characterized by contentment. The state comes as a result of internal processes rather than external manipulations, conformance or enslavement. It is as a result of self appropriation and being sincere and truthful in the face of situations.

The Dalai Lama posits the virtue of compassion as the key characteristic and way of happiness (Dalai Lama, 1999, p. 124). Fromm posits productive love as the way of the productive orientation. Proper relationships are those based on productive love. Love affirms the other’s freedom. Love interprets own freedom as responsibility. Once again, the two theorists seem to be referring to the same thing using different words or phrases. Productive love is not manipulative and controlling towards the other. Compassion is about treating the other with love.

Despite a few contestable points, the two theories make enough sense. They all are based on observable social conditions. Fromm theory is informed by the socio-economic context of his time. At that time, the tension between capitalism and socialism was of great interest. Fromm attempts to show the ills of capitalism but his positing of a qualified socialism as a solution is not well refined. Like many socialists, he does not manage to account for the strong points of capitalism but rather dismisses it as merely based on irrationality (Fromm, 1999, 217). He posits that the productive orientation characterized by rational choices would not approve of capitalism (Fromm, 19990, p.276). However, this seems to be a mere supposition that has no evidence. One would argue that if all people had a productive orientation then they would have no problem with being creative and reaping from own creativity. It, therefore, would appear that Fromm’s treatment of capitalism is somehow simplistic.

The Dalai Lama’s “Ethics for a New Millennium” makes sense. It is a good approach to the issue of conduct. However, as Singer (1993, 285) indicates, the connection between happiness and ethics is highly questionable. Although all people desire happiness, it does not follow that all who live a virtuous life are happy. Virtue or ethics does not explain life frustrations (Singer, 1993, 281). It is true that happiness is an inside job as it is ably argued out by John Powell (1989). However, I am of the view that happiness is more as a result of appropriating all and making sense of one’s life than being clear about how to act. Virtue can be clear to an individual, however, the individual remains frustrated due to other factors. Take the example of the farmer in a third world country whose plants are ravaged by worms and he or she cannot afford to feed his or her family. What kind of moral consideration would lead to his or her happiness? Although virtuous living enhances one’s self control and general acceptance in society, happiness is not entirely dependent on virtue (Coppleston, 1999, 131).

Both Fromm and Dalai Lama have plausible theories but as I have indicated, in a nutshell, they seem somehow simplistic in their approach to given issues. Fromm does not convincingly present the issue of humanistic socialism being the solution to social problems. The Dalai Lama posits a proposition that would only work if personal conduct were the only reason why people are unhappy (Dalai Lama, 1999, p.4). In my view, it would not be proper to take the complacency exhibited by people in rural areas as being happier. Many people in agrarian rural areas may not have many problems but considering the socio-economic trends sweeping the world, those people had better wake out of slumber and start working as to guarantee a better future for their children. If they do not do that, the once complacent rural areas are likely to become havens of poverty due to population increase and other changes.

Of the two, Fromm’s analysis seemed more thorough and exhaustive than the Dalai Lama’s analysis, in my view. Fromm captures more social dynamism as elaborated in the different orientations than the Dalai Lama. In departing from the two, one would do well to borrow from the idea of productive love (Fromm, 1990) or compassion (Dalai Lama, 1999, p. 123) but go further as to ground why people should be compassionate in the first place. Have there not been cases of many exploitative people who are happy?

In my own view, it would be helpful to treat morality per se as to understand the grounding of the need to be compassionate. Maybe the idea of the Golden rule would suffice as a general principle that all people would accept. Then other principles e.g. the utilitarian principle could come in to ground the need for original consideration in different circumstances as enabled by personal freedoms (Jacobs, 2002, p. 46). Then the social systems theory would be of more substance if it considered ways of effecting the changes.

To effect any change, one would have to design and organize for change with tipping point’s clearly mapped (Gladwell, 2000, p.19.). Tipping point is a phrase that was coined by Gladwell (2000, p. 11) to refer to moments in the process of change where the process becomes irreversible. This moment is arrived at when a critical mass has been achieved. A critical mass according to the Pareto principle is reached once at least twenty percent of a population is converted (Lewis, 2004, p. 64). As per the Pareto principle, 20% is the threshold number to seek for social change to gain exponential momentum. The tipping point is also described by Gladwell (2000, p. 13) in terms of a boiling point. It is at this point that the process begins to yield physical recognition or pronounced effects (Gladwell, 2000, p.12).

Therefore, any good social system theory would have to bear in mind and map for tipping points. Change is often resisted because it means breaking away from the established status quo. In the world of today, it would be of interest to think through on how human beings can move beyond individualism, as discussed by Luke (2006. p. 58), towards more grounded humanistic considerations. In the face climatic changes (global warming), globalization and its effect, imbalanced world political economy, unwavering religious extremism etc, a social theory that helps people appreciate the social dynamics that influences their world views would be of relevancy (Mcfate, Lawson, & Wilson, 1996. p. 49). Such a theory would have to endeavor to look into critical or sensitive areas such as historical injustices occasioned by self aggrandizement and grandiose social thinkers (Torpey, 2003. p. 117). It would also for example examine the application of certain concepts e.g. religious concepts like “revelations” and “miracles”. One assumption for such a theory would be that a consistent understanding of revelation as used over ages would help appropriate “religious truths” (Kraft & Bassinger, 2008. p. 68). The appropriation would help towards more positive co-existence on earth.

This essay considered the social system theories posited by Fromm in “The Sane Society” and the Dalai Lama in “The Ethics for the New Millennium” The two theorists identify what they consider as main cause of unhealthy society. Fromm identifies irrationality that alienates people as the major cause of unhealthy society. The Dalai Lama identifies immorality as a major cause of turmoil in society. Based on the identified causes, they develop social systems that are aimed at fostering productive love for Fromm and compassion based ethics for the Dalai Lama. Their theories are good; however, they leave gaps that need further development. Fromm does not deal exhaustively enough with the issue of capitalism. The assumption that virtue guarantees happiness, as posited by the Dalai Lama is questionable. This gives room for development of a new social systems theory that would deal with fundamental issues like morality per se. Having dealt with the fundamental issues exhaustingly, a social system theory that addresses issues like general historical injustice based social inequality, environmental issues, religious tolerance and how to approach global developmental goals, is a possibility.


Dalai Lama, H. H. (1999). Ethics of the New Millennium. New York: River Head books.

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Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. London: Little Brown.

Jacobs, A. J. (2002) Dimensions of Moral Theory: An Introduction to Metaethics and Moral Psychology. 2nd Ed. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kraft, J., & Basinger D. (2008). Religious Tolerance through Humility: Thinking With Philip Quinn. Hampshire: Ash gate Publishing Ltd.

Lewis, P. J. (2004). Project Planning, Scheduling, & Control. India: McGraw-Hill Education, Pvt Ltd.

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McFate, K., Lawson, R., Wilson, J. W. (1996). Poverty, Inequality, and the Future of Social Policy: Western States in the New World Order, Russell Sage Foundation.

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