Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Man as Social Animal

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.


Sackerson said...

Tired, but should open dialogue.

What is the unit of society? Is is the physically separated individual, or some group, or the whole community? Dangers inherent in each definition, but individual freedom more a modern one. One thinks of Greek tragedy, where the sin of the king results in divine displeasure visited on the whole city; or on one's descendants, as e.g. Exodus 20:5 - "I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me." Today in Western society that seems unreasonable, but we have to remember that that's our current cultural outlook, not the only possible one.

Also, action has meaning in context. Defying social norms - like Voina's recent sex stunt in Russia - can be not a private self-indulgence but a deliberate public challenge welcoming a reaction and showdown.

JS Mills' live and let live approach requires a degree of laidbackness that he himself said only some societies were sufficiently advanced to provide. Again we then try to apply this to all societies everywhere, so that e.g. we are asked to disapprove of Ecuadorian restrictions on journalism, although (I understand) the Fourth Estate there is much closer to being able to call for revolution than here in Britain. If Daily Mail articles could and did call up rioting in the streets, how far would we defend Press freedom (unless we were the revolutionaries and it suited us?)

I have a bit of a poke at self-styled libertarians sometimes, simply because I think their thinking is often simplistic. They tend to become uncomfortable on issues like example and influence, and the harm to third parties that are frequently the side-effects of self-indulgence.

I'm not preaching - I have as many weaknesses and addictions as the next man - but I'm not satisfied with Gordian answers to philosophical questions. And too often the debate turns into some unthinking labelling of myself - as awkward a person as you might wish to meet. As I've said before, scratch a libertarian...

By the way, that's not a go at you, either.

Vincent said...

One could get deeply stuck in side issues here, but I’d like to enter a plea for pragmatism, and list three factors which necessarily affect the legality of what people do in their own homes not bothering anyone else:

1) What laws are enforced, and how, is a matter influenced by resources, and will lean towards (a) easy-to-catch targets (b) attempting to trap or prevent illegality at the source

2) What food products, drugs or practices are disapproved or made illegal will inevitably be affected by burdens on government expenditure resulting from practices which result in work for the National Health Service

3) What freedoms are protected or infringed is a matter for the imperfect outcome of the democratic process. This is why we are constantly bombarded by publicity in favour of minorities.

I don’t think there was any need in your piece to define what you mean by drugs. But there was a need to define freedom, as in “freedom from …”

The most important freedom, it seems to me, and perhaps the only one we ought to be talking about, is freedom from oppression. But then we need to define oppression. It doesn’t mean people disapproving of homosexuality or Islam, for example. It is surely an important freedom to disapprove of whatever we wish to, so long as we behave decently to others. But an example of oppression would be the fear of leaving Islam because the Koran says the penalty is death, or at least persecution. Also forced marriages, honour killings and the general threat of violence, and lack of any open unambiguous condemnation of same by the religious leaders. Not that I mean to pick on Islam. I just live very near the mosque.

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CIngram said...

I would never call myself a libertarian, partly because it would appear to mean that I subscribed to a specific series of beliefs borrowed from other people, open to interpretation by opponents, and closed to analysis by the membership. My beliefs, such as they are, and imperfectly and incoherently formed as they may be, are mine alone. And I'm not a druggie, either, which perhaps I haven't yet stated explicitly. (I'm not interested in anything that doesn't involve malt.) But I do place great value on personal freedom, because I have observed that the kind of people who want to limit my freedom are not usually to be trusted with something so important. And those who have the power to do it certainly aren't.
But what I do affects others. More than I would like to recognise. So they will try to influence or control my behaviour, and I will try to resist being influenced.

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to lay down any general principles that are applicable to specific cases. All societies are different, although all have some things in common, including the fact that they are societies, that is, groups of people interacting with and affecting each other, and they have to find rules which allow them to work together. Individual freedom often isn’t that important.

What is the unit of society? It isn’t really the individual, not unless he chooses to be, and it isn’t easy, emotionally or practically, to remove yourself from society completely. It is a swirling, inextricable mix of individuals, families, intersecting groups and the community as a whole, which interacts in turn with other communities. To identify a unit whose good should be sought above all others is not, I think, possible in any absolute sense, but restrictions on freedom should have some kind of raison d’être that is definable and arguable.

It is certainly possible to harm by example, the mediaeval church made a big thing of scandal, and the Catholic Church still does, but to judge the effect on others as harmful requires a belief that the status quo of social norms is the best possible situation, or is at least a local optimum, as it were, from which any variation will be unstable. This isn’t necessarily true. Being deep in the country and out of touch with the world (mainly through choice, in fact; the isolation is more an excuse than an explanation) I don’t know who Voina is and I’m not up to date on the state of Ecuadorian press freedom, but I think I understand what you mean. I have always argued that anyone who acts freely must answer for the consequences of their actions. Freedom brings responsibility, which is why many people are rather afraid of having it.

I think my main beef with the way restriction of liberty works in practice, and I’ve been thinking a great deal about this recently (without necessarily getting anywhere) is that it is not ‘society’ that restricts its own freedom for its own good, but a small subset of society, one which tends to consider itself outside the society it rules, which imposes those restrictions, with little reference to the people thus imposed upon or to society as a whole, but rather to their own advantage. ‘We’, by which I don’t mean the British in particular, but people in general, are forbidden to do a large number of things for reasons that are of no benefit to us or to society as a whole.

It’s all terribly complicated, about sums it up. But I like to pick at the threads to see what happens. It won’t come unwound, but we might learn a little more about the topology of the knot.* Perhaps it is just in the nature of social groups to be in constant, mostly tacit, negotiation , so that the details of the organization can change without it all breaking down.

*Brought to you by the department of tortured metaphors

CIngram said...


All three of your points are valid, within the pragmatic approach you take. The problem is that they describe the way things are, but gve little insight into whether it is how they should be or how we might find and practise a better way. Freedom is a very slippery thing to define. Leave me alone, I shall do what I want, goes nowhere and immediately runs into contradictions and clashes.
Even freedom from oppression only works as a starting point if we can agree on what oppression is. The same arguments could be made by an imam for punishing apostacy and adultery as we hear advanced to justify all kinds of prohibitions among ourselves- the good of society, social stability, free-for-all, whatever next if we allow this? I don't know if those are the arguments used to defend the punishments you mention, and of course I'm not suggesting they're good ones, but they could easily be made. And suddenly there is no oppression, just a necessary restraint upon society. At least, that could be the perspective of those who make the rules.