Giving new scope and breadth to the concept of l'esprit de l'escalier (insert accents according to taste), I return to the subject of freedom, as discussed here and especially here a few months ago. The specific subject then was the freedom to take drugs. I don't miss that particular freedom, but some do, and the laws that restrict it affact all of us. The following series of posts are mostly about freedom in general, from various perspectives, in no particular order. There is some overlap and doubtless a certain amount of rambling and waffle. Intelligent comment and constructive abuse would be most welcome
Man is, biologically, a social animal. This is inescapable and any discussion of the use of the human will must bear it in mind. We live in groups and the behaviour of each affects the rest. Also, societies do not trust those who live outside them for any reason, through choice or otherwise, and will often try to force such people into a controlled place within society.
Those who live alone and on their own resources can legitimately claim that what they do affects no one, and that society therefore has no business telling them what to do. A schoolteacher or policeman or doctor on the other hand, whose function affects other people profoundly, can expect society to control his actions much more closely. The anti-drugs laws, however, and the arguments that surround them, tend not to address the probable consequences of drug-taking on others in any specific case, but either consider the possible effects on society in a general way, or the possible or probable effects on the user.
Society can legitimately claim, on the other hand, that it needs to protect itself from those who might harm it. It is less clear why it should feel entitled to protect its members from themselves. It is worth pointing out that, anthropologically speaking, the concept of individual freedom is little valued and often completely unrecognised, suggesting that freedom may be biologically meaningless, a product of the human mind like many other concepts.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t important to us. Immortality is biologically meaningless, but most of us want it. Morality itself almost certainly has no basis in biology, and must be a product of the non-biological part of our humanity. But morality is so important to us that we regularly kill people for being less morally enlightened than ourselves.
The responsibility or authority of society over its members exists, de facto, de jure, de naturae. But what are its limits? What do we even mean by drugs? (I’m cheating here, I know, but at some point we will need to provide a definition and a list, and it will be more fluid than we imagine.)*
When I say ‘we’, there is the big problem of who ‘we’ is. In free, wealthy societies, we are all used to having the time to care about these things and to being able to have an opinion on them. This leads us to believe we are part of that ‘we’ that determines how things should be. Most of us are not. Those who make the decisions neither know nor care what we think. ‘We’ do not decide. ‘Society’ does not decide.
Human society is much more complex than that of any animal, and our capacity for analysis is far greater, allowing us not only to manipulate people by the invention of new ideas, but also to manipulate many things that arise directly from our very nature. In a gorilla tribe, there is an absolute leader, who has power while he can retain it, a power sometimes exercised savagely, but a corresponding responsibility, which, if not discharged, will result in the end of his leadership. He is a tyrant in some ways, but one who is tolerated. And gorillas never question the idea that society exists to serve and protect its members. Gorilla leaders are not capable, as we infer from their apparent intellectual capacity, and observe directly from their behaviour, of abstracting the concept of society from the individuals who make it up, and so giving value to and seeking to promote only the ‘good of society’ at the expense of the people who form that society. It takes human intelligence to do that, human stupidity to believe it, and human evil to put it into practice. Though many of the higher mammals like a bit of pointless brutality now and then, continued and organized brutality for our own good and the good of society is something uniquely human, obviously so as it needs to be rationalized.
It is very difficult to get away from the idea that society must be a certain way or it will cease to be anything at all. Much harm has come from this blinkered vision, the inability to understand that societies look to stabilize themselves. When they go completely to pieces it’s usually because of a very determined effort on the part of someone outside it. The BNP seems to think that British society will end if we let the immigrants get above themselves, or indeed, exist at all. There are those who think that any social unit other than husband, wife and progeny will destroy stable basis of society. Socialists/liberals think that unless the rich are taxed out of existence they will build a wall around the poor and send in dogs to eat their babies while laughing maniacally. Greens think that everything will break down unless we stop doing all the things we’ve been doing for less than 200 years. The Taliban and their brothers in spirit, the religious police of Iran and Palestine seem believe that if people are allowed to do anything their own way, or to have any fun at all, society will collapse. I exaggerate only slightly, perhaps.
Some people who feel this way may have less noble reasons for their fears but for many it is simply the fear that change must inevitably lead to instability and breakdown. On occasions those fears turn out to be true, but very rarely. Human society is very stable because it’s the way we are. It absorbs and adapts to change. Letting people do things is not necessarily the end of the world.
*The government is well on its way to prohibiting fat, using the methods, if not actually the same law, as has been used on tobacco and drugs. The French government many years ago decreed the use of otherwise perfectly legal, indeed normal and beneficial, substances, to be a criminal offence in sporting contexts. The US anti-doping agency, of which I was unaware until a few days ago, is a government body which appears to have given itself power to dictate the results of cycle races held in France. We don’t get to say what counts as a drug, is the point.