by Laurenc DeVita
A friend and I have been arguing over the relationship of the individual to society; where does freedom lie? Is it inherent in the individual, or is it bestowed by society?
Though I have argued that the individual is primary, and all rights emerge as a natural part of earthly existence, and my friend has argued that our value comes as part of the collective, in truth it is a false dichotomy; humanness comes of individual action in a collective; neither view is complete without the other.
First, the collective. Humans are a group animal; one human without a family, clan, tribe or other collective is not a valid concept. Some sociological theorists have posited that even our identity exists primarily in social space; our identity is a “social address”. Everything about us identifies our location in social space, our language use, culture, manner of dress, expressed values, all identify us to ourselves and others. Sociologists have a good chuckle over psychologists, who believe in a will o’ the wisp, the abstracted human. Individual humans are hardly able to exist without a collective to relate to. A hunter may wander alone for days or weeks, seemingly isolated, but he or she talks to themselves, they imagine gods or spirits around them, they talk to animals, and when they meet another human they are thrown back into their culture as they attempt to communicate. A wandering hunter who knows and belongs to a tribe can survive, whereas for many tribal people, and even for Shakespeare’s Romeo, banishment is death.* The individual without the collective is nearly meaningless.
However, the collective itself relies on individual humans, and it needs them to behave at least somewhat selfishly. There is no such thing as a “collective” without individuals; a collective is nothing more than individuals who agree to act cooperatively for the benefit of selfish individual needs. The collective lives as long as we associate; when we abandon it, it dies more swiftly than a lone human. Further, while cooperation might seem to be at the heart of the collective, it actually arises as a dynamic steady state that is powered by constant power struggles between individuals and small groups within the collective. Competition and individual survival power the collective.
Most societies have cultural values which recognize the relationship between the individual and the collective. In India, for example, loyalty to one’s caste is still very important. One goes to great length to demonstrate one’s loyalty to the values of the caste. In the United States, we take more of an individual stance, and many believe that the government provides rights to the individual, in exchange for patriotic participation.
Some claim that the Constitution guarantees nothing to the individual, only to the government and the states. For that view, all freedom springs from a document somewhere in the government. I was born a cowboy in the American West; I believe that all humans are born free, intended to live a self-sufficient lifestyle, and I participate in a group effort only so long as participation furthers my individual freedom. Some accuse me of being a follower of Ayn Rand, but that is not the case. Rand was wholly individualist, selfishness in the extreme. I fall well short of that, and help my neighbors without expectation of direct benefit, but assume that I will enjoy a diffuse benefit down the road. Instead, I view the fetish for the collective to be first of all a ruse, and second, it seems to me to be an unnecessary dependence on the system, a system that is perpetually flawed since it doesn’t represent everyone equally. The comfortably middle class often adhere to the government, since it works for them. A poor person of color might have more allegiance to a gang or clan than to the government, since government doesn’t perform nearly as well for them.
So, how to suss out where freedom lies? Human social interaction, and the collectives that arise from it, are dynamical systems. As with all dynamical systems, it is useful to discuss “degrees of freedom”. In statistics, “freedom” means the ability to vary, and degrees of freedom is a way to study the system as a whole. That works very well for our discussion of the individual. An individual’s participation in the collective depends on, I’ll suggest, four variables: personality, cultural values, degree of reward from participation, and alternatives to participation.
Individual freedom doesn’t derive from the group, as some claim. People are born free, but dependent, and that dichotomy lives with us. It doesn’t spring solely from the individual as I claim, either, since total freedom is banishment, death. However, people participate variably. Looking at the social system, we see that some individuals have more ability to vary than others. In the words of the immortal Mel Brooks, “it’s good to be the king”. The king is very, very invested in the system, and uses the power he accumulates to see that culture promotes participation; he makes sure key people benefit from the system, and he insures that participation in the system is mandatory. In this way, the king maximizes his advantage.
I began my political life during the area of Vietnam. In the American Western culture I came from, a man kills for defense of his family, his possessions, himself or to protect the nation from threats. In that culture, only a slave kills for someone else. Vietnam threatened none of those things.
We can thank, and curse, John Stuart Mill, a 19th Century civil servant and one of the leading social philosophers of his time. Mill made contributions to social and political theory which remain useful today, and he contributed to the European understanding of the limits of political power, and discussed the extent of individual liberty. We understand that other cultures had discussions of this sort hundreds of years before, and their formulations don’t always agree with Mill. However, for European nations like the United States, Mill made a significant contribution to the idea of liberty.
Mill is also the father of modern liberalism, and he and a slightly older philosopher and family friend, Jeremy Bentham, proposed “utilitarianism” sometimes called “consequentialism” which remains central to modern liberalism. I’ll suggest that political collectivism springs from Bentham-Mill liberalism. Let me be clear: I’m something of a liberal myself (though according to some an “Ayn Rand liberal”). Further, I know few people more dedicated to social equality than devout liberals. All things considered, if I had to assign a label to my politics, it might be “liberal”, but I don’t have to, so I won’t.
Do what you should do, don’t do what you shouldn’t do. J.S. Mill
Liberalism the way Bentham and Mill practiced it, gave root to secular humanism, which I’ll address below. Bentham is known for the definition of right as the greatest good for the greatest number. That liberalism sees the interconnectedness of humans, and posits that when we do something harmful, even to ourselves, we harm everyone. Liberals don’t believe in spanking children, or taking advantage of the poor, or treating women, homosexuals, or other discriminated groups poorly. All humans have value; every human life is important.
Secular humanism is a religion founded on those principles. “Good without God” is a secular humanistic motto. The term “secular” is supposed to divorce the practice from religion, but to a sociologist, secular humanism functions completely as a religion. Instead of God, secular humanism deifies humans, particularly the ideal human. Like the Christianity it attempted to replace, secular humanism tries to define a moral code and through persuasion or coercion, get people to agree. It posits experts, scientists, authorities, and just governments. Like Christianity before it, a person can only find salvation, or completeness, through its practices.
In particular, Bentham, in order to ensure that salvation could only be reached through human intervention, insisted that there is no such thing as natural rights, the rights the founders spoke of in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, endowed by the Creator and inalienable. Natural rights are built into the person; we are free in the way most mammals are free: we eat and live as best we can. That is the very kind of chaos that Bentham felt lead to beast like behaviors. Only humankind, only the organization of rational people guided by the credo of the best good for the most people could free us of the sin Christianity failed to cleanse. We recall how important science was during this time, it was the time of the rise of science and the theory of evolution. Nature, we were beginning to think, always progressed, even if there is some back-sliding. All nature was, we started to allow ourselves to believe, always tending towards us, we were the epitome.
To be clear, I’ll take living under secular humanists over living under fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist anything. However, I’m not fooled by the illusion. “Greatest good for the greatest number” is a nice ideal, but that’s all it is, and often times no one knows what the greatest good is. Further, this rationale, in a government, leads to the worst kind of oppression, the oppression that denies its oppressiveness, the Nanny rational: it’s for your own good. Under secular humanism and modern liberalism, the individual is badly evalued. Other people will always be more important than you are; it’s the tyranny of the many over the few. You have to do it; it’s best for everyone. You don’t want to stand against everyone, do you? The Nanny rationale intrudes into the very fiber of our lives in a way the Medieval church only wished it could. No part of our lives, or our deaths, isn’t grist for the humanist mill, not our families, not even our deaths.
The nasty little secret of SH is that Secular humanists are no less likely than those of other religions to make value judgements others have to live by. There is no good that doesn’t fit their formula, and they are steadfastly and devoutly ignorant of the harm they do. The torments of the inquisition pale next to the drugging and questioning of the social worker or psychologist. Tyranny always pretends for the best. Appealing to what we all know is true, against what we all know is corrupt, is how Nanny works, and we know what Nanny knows.
Bentham called the idea of natural rights preposterous; I call the idea of the state as the source of liberty preposterous. Christianity denied animals a soul; secular humanism denies animals a will. Personally, it seems to me we went from being made in God’s image, to the being the image of God. It’s somehow become our responsibility to cure everyone of everything. We give them treatment, and if they return to “sin” it’s their fault, we made the power and mercy of the state available to them. Denying animals will and denying humans the natural rights of animals puts the state in complete control of the person, a horrible nightmare. Christianity forbade suicide because it was the person making a decision that was God’s to make. Secular humanists deny this most basic right because it steals the decision from medical science.
Again, to put things into perspective, we owe much to the philosophy of Mill and Bentham and contemporaries.
But I continue to see the individual as essential for, and primary to, any group, and certainly any religion or administration. We have a right to live that supercedes the bureaucratic manipulations, rights which are truly rooted in the competition, and cooperation, that is our nature. I suppose we could phrase it like this: Good without Nanny.
*Ha, banishment! Be merciful, say “death,”
For exile hath more terror in his look,
Much more than death. Do not say “banishment.”
Romeo and Juliet, act 3 scene 3