Humans evolved from small social tribes that ranged from roughly a dozen individuals to tribes upward of 3 or 4 dozen individuals. From that very basic starting place as a species, social groups and tribes grew to be possibly as large as 250 individuals until eventually humans began to cultivate crops, live in a single place, and form larger communities. Much of our modern psychology as humans seems to still be connected back to these early days when humans lived in small tribes or small communities. This historical time stamp in our psychology creates a lot of challenges for living in large technologically advanced societies.
Our societies today are held together by what Yuval Noah Harari calls imagined orders in his book Sapiens. Imagined orders are ideas, concepts, and constructs that we as a society agree to. They anchor the institutions we build, the interactions we have as individuals and groups, and how we organize our social world. Without them, we would be in chaos and wouldn’t be able to cooperate on a global scale, or even a national, regional, or local scale. Indeed, I think Harari would argue, we couldn’t live together in social groups of any size if we could not coalesce around imagined orders.
Some primates are able to live in relatively large social groups with some level of complex political and social interactions, but physical force and violence often play a role in how order is maintained. Consequently, that is a limiting factor for how large a social group or tribe can become. Our early human ancestors solved this problem by inventing imagined orders. Early religions and social practices allowed groups and tribes to adopt customs and beliefs that everyone could (more or less) agree to. This set the foundation for human institutions to order life without resulting to violence (at least not all the time). As far as we have come in terms of technology and our knowledge about ourselves and our universe, we still rely on imagined orders to keep our society in order without resulting to violence and genocide.
When writing about imagined orders and using the concept of human rights as an example, Harari writes, “we believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.” Whether the order we believe in is the Divine Right of Kings, human rights, capitalism, or whatever you want to call the economic and political system of modern China, there is no objective truth and reality at the heart of the system. There are ideas and concepts that are intuitive, that are agreeable to some extent of the population over a certain range of circumstances, and that help people live and cooperate within a society. Without imagined orders we wouldn’t be able to trust strangers, wouldn’t be able to coordinate actions, and wouldn’t be able to exist in complex societies. Imagined orders help us construct a world where we can live together in a mostly peaceful and cooperative manner. We can change what we believe and why over time, but we need to have some agreed upon and (mostly) accepted imagined order around which we can organize ourselves and our societies.