Monday, December 12, 2016

We Must All Do More as a Society

"We must all do more as a society."

We have all heard that statement before, but what on earth could it possibly mean?

First of all, a "society" simply cannot "do" anything at all. It is incapable of action. Society is a complex network, a human environment that is a result of human (inter)action that in turn creates the conditions for further human actions. It makes as much sense to say that a society ought to do something as it does to say that the tundra ought to do something.

We typically hear this statement when the person really means, "The government needs to do more." More what? More of whatever that person's pet project for humanity is, of course. Of course, "the government" is really just a set of institutions equally incapable of action. It is necessarily people--in each case--who will be doing the acting. In the case of someone working in and for the government, that person has the ability to use the threat of force to accomplish his or her goals. And yes, any time someone uses the word "must," they mean "or else."

A good, a virtuous person should completely rephrase this to read, "Each of us ought to do X so that we can accomplish Y." This allows the action to be voluntary, it puts it in properly moral language (the moral "ought" rather than the forced "must"), and it allows each person to judge the efficacy of the proposed solution and the desirability of the goal itself.

I would propose that the kind of people who make statements like "We must all do more as a society" are in fact completely uninterested in letting anyone make those kinds of judgments. They are so certain of their rightness that they believe that everyone else ought to be bent to their will. But are they in fact so certain? If they were in fact certain, wouldn't they trust that the truth, beauty, and justice of their proposal would carry the day over time? Is it insecurity about one's own moral judgments, or is it impatience (an unwillingness for it to happen "over time")? Vice simply piles on vice, it seems.

While each individual society does in fact have an effect on the choices and actions of its members, it is still only the members themselves who can act, who can do anything. And as they act, they change the society, the environment in which they act. But in the end, only individuals act. And if you want to change something about society, don't ask for it to do something it simply cannot ever do; rather, persuade each of the members of that society to act, to change that society.

And never, ever confuse the government with society--that's much like mistaking the eyebrows for the head.
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