Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Owing Society

We do not owe society anything.

If I borrow something from you, I owe it back to you. The idea that you owe something to "society" means that you borrowed something from that society. But what can that even mean?

The idea that the rich owe society something stems from the belief that economics is a zero sum game. It's not. The wealth creators do not borrow anything, but are creating value. Thus, they contribute to society. It would be like borrowing $10 from me, then insisting that I owe you $5. We do not hear anyone speaking about how novelists owe society anything for the novels they write. Why not? Because it becomes obvious nonsense. The novelist does not take anything out of society that requires any pay back -- but they do produce something that contributes to the society.

The fact of the matter is that one cannot owe society anything. One can owe particular people. So there is also a problem in anthropomorphizing society and treating it as teleological. From this perspective, saying someone owes society is just plain speaking nonsense.


JWO said...

This article has a lot to say about that:

Troy Camplin said...

Great piece. Thanks for directing my attention to it.

Stephen Berer said...

Troy, I respectfully disagree. Society, like community is based on mutual benefits. Our society commits itself in an untold number of ways to our benefit and protection. And we, as individuals, must repay that benefit if our society, and our individual relationships to it, are to remain healthy.
Troy, the foundation of your philosophy/politics here is selfishness. Don't you think a better foundation might be generosity?

Troy Camplin said...

First, society cannot "commit itself" to anything, as it is neither a conscious nor even a teleological being. This is my primary objection to saying we "owe" anything to society.

Second, arguing that we don't owe anything to society is not an argument against generosity. It is an argument that we need better arguments for generosity than by anthropomorphizing society.

Third, if you are talking about mutual trade, where both people are better off, then neither party owes the other anything. If you are talking about gaining wealth in other ways, though, one can make the argument that others are owed -- just not society.

Society is what emerges from the interactions of various human beings. It is an ateleological process, and cannot be owed anything. This is not an argument for selfishness, nor is it anti-social. To insist we owe society something is to argue that society is teleological. Thus, the people in it have to be subverted to the goals of that society (really, the people in charge of the government -- there is also the problem of conflating government and society inherent in this problem), and thus dehumanized. That is anti-social.

It is not generous, or social, to give away other people's money. That is what people really mean -- to take others' money -- when they say those people "owe" society something.

I am all for generosity. It just needs a solid foundation in something real. Owing something to an unconscious, ateleological process is nothing to try to found an argument for altruism.