Friday, August 31, 2012

In Practice

If it is the case that it is never society as a whole which acts in these matters  to protect itself- that is, its members- but a small group of people who have acquired the power to tell society what to do (whether or not they claim to act on behalf of and for the good of that society), then the only a priori legitimacy they can claim for restricting the freedom of others (if indeed they feel the need to justify themselves at all) is the net good that the constraints bring about.

The more I think about this, the more I realise that my point of view owes at least as much to practical considerations derived from empirical observations of the effects of legislation as to the first principles of moral philosophy (perhaps if I knew what the first principles of moral philosophy were I might try to apply them).

It becomes necessary, therefore, to look at the practical effects of such constraints and prohibitions. Not that politicians are much interested in this kind of thing; after all, one dead child in the Daily Mail carries more weight at Westminster than all the freedom in the world. But it gives us a chance to anchor all the theory in reality.

It is common knowledge that the prohibition of alcohol in the United States was largely ineffective in terms of its own stated aims, and socially calamitous in terms of the crime and economic damage it inflicted on the country. It is generally accepted that the long term, international prohibition on many narcotics has resulted in vast human misery and organized violence on a massive scale, while only having a small effect on the consumption of these substances. Widening the scope, prohibitions on gambling led not to an absence of gambling but to colourful characters in pubs and down alleys. Attempts to eradicate homosexuality in Iran have led only to numbers of young men swinging from cranes. Attempt to prohibit fun in Afghanistan have led to more wedding parties being gunned down by terrorists who feel they have right on their side. The urge to control at all costs can do far more damage to society than freedom ever has.

Unfortunately, common knowledge it may be, but it isn’t easy to pin down the facts. There are many reports and analyses of Prohibition, and some conclude that it did reduce the problems caused by alcohol, and that the crime associated with the period was not a direct result of the law.
In practice, it’s all terribly complicated. But in theory, I’m right.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Existence of Leaders

The reality is that there will always be leaders, and their attitude to those over whom they have power is not guided by the conclusions of moral philosophers. Those who can gain power will want it, and those who have power will exercise it. There is no point whatsoever in speaking of right and wrong, in trying to determine what they mean in any given situation, in analysing what the laws should permit or forbid, except as an academic exercise or, in the case before us, as a rhetorical or dialectical tool in the constant battle to stop those who have power from using it. They might be swayed by it, they might not.

Because there will always be leaders, who will act in their own interests, those who are not able to exercise power to the same degree have to protect themselves as best they can. One of the weapons they have is their own freedom. Not just using it well, but defending it at every turn, exercising it and being seen to exercise it by the leaders, making it an object of reverence, taking the rhetorical battle to those who would diminish its importance, and having them explain themselves.

This is only possible where the government is prepared to recognise the importance of personal freedom at all, and will be, or must allow itself to be, drawn into the rhetoric of freedom. Many governments, historically and currently, would be bemused by the very idea that their subjects could have such a thing as freedom, could act independently of what they have been instructed or permitted to do. One of the great things about democracy, for all its defects, is that it requires governments to recognise the rhetoric of freedom as part of the political process. Totalitarian governments do not have to do this. It’s one of the ways we recognise them.

It is, therefore, important to oppose on principle any restriction of freedom, to demand that it be explained and justified, and to extract a high political price, in support or acceptance of legitimacy, for any imposition upon our freedom. This is true of even the most justifiable impositions. Few people would argue that others should be free to commit murder, just in case they themselves wish to commit it at some point. Nevertheless, the right to defend ourselves from murderers has been arrogated to the state by itself. An individual cannot himself punish a murder committed on his property, nor, any longer (I’m thinking of Britain, Spain and the US- this last based more on watching Westerns than anything else), can a town, collectively, act against those who commit murder within it*. Although we are happy enough to give up the freedom to murder, the freedom to act against murderers has been taken away by the government and put in the hands of its appointed agents. We may agree that this is a good thing, a better guarantee that most murderers will be caught and only real murderers will be punished, and that therefore the restriction on our freedom is justified, but in exchange for that restriction we should demand that the actions of the government in acting against murderers be perfect, and they should know that we are checking and will hold any failure against them.

*The village I am writing this in, like many in Castille, still has its ‘picota’, also known as a ‘rollo’, basically a stone column that served as a gallows. It was permanent and usually stood in a high, visible spot (ours, for some reason in beside the river, but most of the ones I have seen, and quite a few still stand, are up high). It was a symbol of the right of a town, a right recognised by the crown, to defend itself on its own terms. Judgement was by the whole town (well, the committee of burgesses, basically the adult males). There may have been errors, demagogues, petty vengeances and other problems, but society as a whole took the decisions, not some outside agent appointed by the state. However expert and well-intentioned those agents are, they are not society, they are not the town and they do not genuinely represent its interests or its wishes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Freedom as Humanity

The ability to exercise our will freely is one of the things that makes us human. We consider animals to be enslaved by their instincts and passions, we recognise that the oppressed victims of tyrants and dictators are treated by them as less than human, we similarly recognise that actual slaves have been deprived of their humanity by being traded and forced to live at the whim of a master. We ourselves want to do what we want to do, and resist external attempts to restrain us.
Since it is not an easy matter to set out explicitly, at least not in a way that will be accepted by those who dislike and distrust other people’s, and possibly their own freedom, why it is important to those who do value it, and why they defend it so assiduously, another approach is to take the fight to them. Have them defend their supposed right or entitlement to deprive others of freedom.
In other words: Who are you to tell me what to do? This is a perfectly reasonable question, after all.  If someone is to presume to dictate what I can and cannot do, I want to know why. That someone else might harm society by doing what I am doing is not necessarily sufficient. It needs to be shown that I will harm society by doing what I am doing, or might want to do.

A society is perfectly entitled to defend itself from threats and harm (and it is on precisely that principle that I believe in capital punishment, in the right circumstances), but a component of that society has the perfect right, which perhaps someone from outside it does not, to challenge the process chosen, whoever makes it and with whatever authority.

Societies of all kinds tend to choose repression as the easiest way to contain internal threats. All behaviours which might cause problems, whatever constitutes a problem in the minds of those who exercise power, even just mentally, is first met with prohibition. It really is the easiest way, and it is natural to us to forbid, or to call for others to forbid, any kind of behaviour or practice which we do not understand or which we find threatening. There will be those who will be sure to present it to us as threatening, for reasons of their own. Money, vindictiveness, ignorance, fear are often motives for adding a voice to the call to forbid and control. It doesn’t make them right.

Something which is genuinely harmful to a society can, then, be legitimately suppressed by it. And so once again the question, the specific question we started with, is, does the freedom to take intoxicating or noxious substances cause sensible harm to other members of society, or to society as a whole? The answer here is almost certainly yes, it does, in some cases and to some degree. Does this permit the repression of the freedom of society as a whole in a large area of actions? No, it doesn’t. It requires society, or those who act in its name, to identify whose freedom it needs to curtail, and in precisely what areas.

What, then, is the cost of suppressing it? Very high indeed, in some cases. The cost to the individual may be high purely in personal terms, in that he places great value on his freedom to perform that particular act, or in economic terms, in that his livelihood depends on his being able to do things in a certain way, or being free to choose how to do them. These consequences are very rarely taken serious by governments, who only think in very broad terms.

The more I think about this, the less I understand the argument that the government, which means no more than those who have gained power, can arbitrarily restrict the freedom of the governed. Society, when it is genuinely acting as a whole and for its own good, is very limited in what it can legitimately do in this regard. A government, however apparently benign and however chosen, is above and outside the society formed by the rest of us, and acts only to benefit itself. It should not be permitted to control us on general principles, unexamined by the broad base of those affected by its decrees.

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.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Questions Stupid and Un-Stupid

A stupid question, a really stupid question, is one you don't want to know the answer to. To ask about something because you don't know, or don't understand, shows ignorance, not stupidity. To ask about something when the answer is before you and you would be expected to have seen it, shows distraction, and possibly lack of intelligence, but usually it isn’t the result of genuine stupidity. To ask about something you would be expected to know or understand as a part of your basic education or attention to life may attract comment, but if you are trying to correct that deficiency it is not stupid to ask.

No, the really stupid question is the one that thinks it is a triumphant critique, which expects no answer and believes none to exist, but is based on an ignorance and lack of understanding which it explicitly refuses to recognize or correct.

The canonical example, or at least a good example, is 'If we're descended from apes, how come there are still apes?' This is not a stupid question if you are confused by the apparent ambiguity of the terminology and are looking for an explanation. It is a stupid question if you imagine it will overturn, of itself, nearly 200 years of work on evolution.

Talking of which, I’m reading Darwin’s ‘Voyage of the Beagle’. It is absolutely fascinating, an adventure story full of cowboys, Indians, wild animals, sea monsters, bloodthirsty rebel leaders, lands that can kill you without warning with water, drought, mud, rocks, fire or ice, and all of it accompanied by an indefatigable thirst for biological, geological and sociological observation and experiment. He asks questions about everything, and he finds the answers. He never stops. I imagine there must have been a few conversations along the lines of: CD, 'What's that curious creature with a red crest, webed feet and the essential morphology of the Passerine order?' Passing Gaucho, 'It's a... "biiird".'

Every insect, every bird, every reptile and mammal, every river, every aspect of the geology of the area he sees is identified, described, its habits and type noted in detail, every curious or unknown aspect of its behaviour is the subject of experiments, local people are consulted on it for any further information they might have, samples are sent to experts in England for their comments. It is an amazing story of a small part of an amazing life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Moral Fashion

We, collectively (there is really no such thing, but most people seem to assume there is), do not learn new things about what is good and what is not good, what is right and what is wrong. Fashions in ideas, in morality, change, they evolve in the zoological sense, but they do not progress in the political sense, they do not move towards any particular goal (of enlightenment). Today we (that is, those of us who live in a certain society, or kind of society) are told that we must accept, or that we do accept, certain ideas as true and good, that those who do not accept them are unpersons, to be despised as insufficiently transcendent in their goodness.

England can be a bewildering place at times. You can be all but thrown out of polite society a club for not condemning vehemently something which nobody would have thought twice about the previous week. Politicians, broadcasters, people whose existence is noticed in the media or who have a position of responsibility, can find themselves condemned, pilloried, ostracised and summarily dismissed because they expressed an opinion or just used a word that someone else was able to take advantage of. Politics, even at the everyday social level, can be a nasty business, and what is right today can be made wrong tomorrow, retrospectively, by the use of the power of the voice.

In these cases specific ideas of right and wrong are deliberately changed, usually for bad reasons, but there is also a great deal of the social equivalent of genetic drift involved. Changes come about by statistical perturbation, and are incorporated into, or rejected by, the individual’s moral framework, and so become a part of the social morality against which we will be judged, and to some extent judge ourselves.

It is hardly surprising that religions can accumulate enormous temporal power, since they offer eternal life, strong personal identity and moral certainty. These are pillars of our psychological strength, because biologically we are social animals and consciousness of our own mortality requires us to reason our way out of the dead end.

Thus religion offers much more stable ideas of right and wrong than normal social exchange, because while the latter is highly fluid and has no meaningful reference points other than its own immediately prior form, the former takes an external and timeless reference and keeps track of itself over periods as long as possible or useful. Social morality, even where it is used to gain control and power, has no real purpose except synchronic cohesion.

It doesn't matter if it changes with time, as long as there is a single recognisable form at any particular moment.

We are used, historically, to the idea that people from different countries, especially those with sharply contrasting cultures, will want to murder us. We don’t even bother to think of it as wrong. But those who murder or mutilate their own children are in quite a different category. In general those who slice off their daughter’s clitoris, sew up her vulva, or murder her for ‘company-keeping’ as Doucie Davie Deans calls it in the Heart of Midlothian, do so because they believe that what they are doing is right. There is no point trying to explain why we believe these things are wrong. We can only insist that they are wrong, act in consequence, and wait for the idea to be slowly accepted. Those who are closest to us, in other words, must be morally assimilated. That is, after all, who concepts of morality have always changed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


There is a feeling I look for, at some time, every summer here. There are moments out on the hills when nothing moves, and there is no sound. When the sun burns down out of a sky that’s almost white, it’s 40º in the shade- not that there is much shade- and the air is so completely still that the odd bushes and blades of corn look painted on the background. When the rabbits are hiding in the ground, the birds have gone to find a leafier place to keep cool, the insects are buried and quiet, and the whole world, dry, rocky, barren, empty as it is, is mine. Nobody else wants it then, and I could be alone in the world. It has to be at a high point on the land, where you can command a distant horizon, and know that everything you see for miles around you is silent and empty.

When such a moment coincides with feeling physically strong, untired by the effort behind me and undaunted by the miles ahead, confident and optimistic, the only living creature that wants to be there, it is all mine.

The road is life, and this is one of the things that make the road worth walking.

Monday, August 13, 2012

On Guilt

Guilt is an artefact of the human psyche. This seems fairly clear. It is not in itself an external construct, but something that comes from within us. We are social animals, it is in our DNA as it were. What we call guilt is doubtless a mechanism by which our mind recognises when we have acted against the interests of the group.
The thing is, the acts and circumstances which guilt reacts to and attaches to do not seem to be, in general, specific, that is, they are not naturally within us, in our DNA. Most of them are created socially, consciously even, and may often be individual, and unconscious, arbitrary.
This has serious consequences for those, probably a large minority, if not a majority, who are not in full control of their minds.

The existence of guilt causes complications when it is possible to recognise and analyse it with the conscious intellect. Because it is in our mind we treat it differently from the body parts, and we want it to be important.

We analyse it, we use it, we abuse it, we fear it and suffer from it, we invent

Feeling guilty about something gives information about who we were brought up with. It tells us nothing about the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of the act we feel guilty about. This is clearly true because guilt may be felt by one person for doing someth ingwhich another one would feel guilty about not doing. The same person can feel guilt for doing at one time in their life something which they would feel guilty about not doing at another time and in the same situation. Guilt is something we all feel but it attaches to things not for fundamental reasons but because it is told to. It can be anything.

What we feel is a cultural or social invention. Because guilt itself is a part of our nature we need to find something to attach it to, and the environment we are brought up in provides this, in the same way that it provides a broader set of norms with which we determine what we hold to be moral or immoral, right or wrong. We may be happy to accept those norms, some people are comfortable enough to live their whole lives with the morals they learnt as children. Others learn new ideas about right and wrong, or they fashion their own from what they can take from around them.

Guilt, however, can be felt when going against an idea of right or wrong that you once held, or that was once held by those around you, but that you no longer hold. You may do something you believe to be right (or not wrong), but feel guilt because you would once have thought it wrong.

In other worlds, a sense of guilt tells us nothing useful, not even whether we ourselves believe we are doing wrong. We need to think more deeply to determine where an act within a situation lies in the framework of our own moral understanding. If we have one, that is, which can stand up to the pressure of detailed scrutiny without collapsing into incoherence or self-justification.