The Open Mind VII – the One and the Many

All previous rounds in this series can be found at the right of the horizontal drop-down menu above.

Think of this as a consideration, inviting more consideration, based less on a claim than on a question:

what is the proper relationship between the one and the many?

“Proper” here might refer to ethics, logic, practicability. I have said more than once, perhaps at some point on this blog, that had l lived during the nation’s early years, I would have been a Federalist. That shouldn’t strike as surprising given my leanings. But here I correct myself. I think I have been wrong to say so. I think in saying so I have imposed my contemporary political self on another time and world, whereas other elements of myself would have felt much differently. (If all we are is our political selves, we are poor creatures.) One should not be – experience oneself – a Yankee in King Arthur’s court, but English; otherwise, why travel? Given what I know of my other selves, in the world of the founding, I now think it more accurate to think I would have been a Jeffersonian. Of course, many of us are some of each. I am. But why, projected back in time, the change?

Number 21 in my Principia Liberalis stated,

Technology increases affective connections, which are loosened by the distance that technology narrows. The greater the affective connection, the greater the sense of mutual moral responsibility. Notions of discrete and separable, autonomous individuality, neither responsible to nor the responsibility of others, are irreversibly challenged by population density and technology, and the increased effect of human actions on other humans. It is necessary to define what core autonomy need be protected, as an essential human good, but earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.

At this moment on some other populated planet elsewhere in the universe, some kind and loving living creature may be dying an awful death. We cannot know of it, so we can have no affective response and no moral obligation. In 1799, a person might lie dying of his wounds from animal attack in the woodlands of what would later become Tennessee, but the merchant in Boston would not know of it, and could feel and be obligated to that life’s end no more than we to life on an unknown planet. Once we know, the relationship is altered. We may still lack the power to alter events, but to varying degrees in different individuals, an affective response is produced. And once we might have the power beneficially to intervene?

Beneficially matters. Once we might have known of calamity transpiring at a distance, but lacked the means to intervene in time. Such, once, would have been news of genocide in Africa. Now we have, materially, the means, but politically the ends may be varied, unpredictable, and consequential. Still, we face, each time, the question, when once there would have been no question.

Were I a free black man traveling in rural western Pennsylvania in 1805, stopping in a tavern for some food and drink, I would have taken it as the way of the barely connected world had the owner despised my color and turned me a way. There might be no other business for thirty miles, he might just as easily have been a farmer, and there was no physical community to which bear responsibility even in theory. If I were desperate and in fear for my life before I might reach any other source of provision, I might assault the owner, even kill him if I thought my life depended on it. Once distance is bridged and the physical reality of community is literally pressed upon us, the consequences of the behavior of others become real and even personal. We have an interest where once there was none. Build a four story home on a ten acre property? Feel free. Build it on the lot next to mine where once I had a view of the ocean and now I will not – I care. Deny to some from prejudice an otherwise public service, and you are no longer a tree falling unheard in the forest. The forest is now the other members of your community, and they hear you.

It is not accidental that differences along these lines often emerge from the openness or density of the nation’s region we live in.

In late April, not long after the last Open Mind, ShrinkWrapped made a couple of posts that prompted my thoughts anew on this subject. In Rediscovering the Wheel he wrote,

America is the world’s first and greatest nation dedicated to the proposition that the individual counts for more than the identity of the collective (tribe) from which he emerged.

In Sail Away, he offered,

The 1880s appear to be a Golden Age because people lived unencumbered by the thousands of laws and millions of pages of regulations which seek to define every aspect of our lives.  And for those for whom even the 1880’s were too stultifying, there still existed the frontier.

1880 was not a Libertarian paradise; too many had their horizons too constrained by custom and law.  Yet the 1880s also were a time when those who were most free appear, from here, to have been more free than most of us today.

Shrink’s partial lament invokes the close of principal 21:

earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.

That might be lamentable; it might not. If you are the homeowner lamenting the prospect of losing your ocean view, when you’ve been there for twenty years beside the older two story structure, and you bought the home, in part, for that reason and are about to lose a hundred thousand dollars in the resale value, you may well be happy about all those damned building codes. If you are the purchaser next door, you might wonder what happened to that free country you once lived in. For starters, it became more densely populated.

I wonder, first, what Shrink means, exactly, when he writes of a nation in which “the individual counts for more than the identity of the collective”? Does he mean something as extreme as Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead? I suspect not, but I’m unclear. It was crucial, of course, that Rand made Howard Roark an architect. Destroy your paintings, your books, your musical compositions before completion if you like – they are yours to do with as you please. A work of public architecture becomes enmeshed in contractual requirements and public promise, however; the Courtland housing project that Roark blows up is even a government housing project. Yet Rand thinks the creative designer of the project, as an individual, counts for more than the collective and gives him the moral right to destroy his public creation.

The word “collective” is a demon word on the Right, and I don’t write to defend it. I am not a “collectivist” by any kind of political definition. But community is one kind of word for collective, as are government and nation. A sense of mutual moral responsibility forms in its affective ties the conceptual bonds of community, collectivity, even if, walking through the day, one conceives of oneself alone and apart. I am too much of an individualist myself ever to wish to subsume myself in any collective, and while government regulation can inflame me too, I am glad when it is there to save my – alas, hypothetical – ocean view or ensure that no restrictive quota is permitted to deny me, a Jew, a graduate education at Columbia University, when once it might have.

One contention I will offer from all this is that I think the opposition of the individual to the collective, broadly understood, is mistaken. People on the Left may accept it as much as those on the Right. We accept the opposition because we persist in understanding the terms as oppositional, and so understood, they will be.  I said in number 18 of my principles

The greater the justice, the greater the harmony. All oppositions are not enemies; the reconciliation of many oppositions leads to greater harmony and greater justice.  This does not mean that all claims are valid, all positions legitimate, or that all demands should be met: many claims, positions, and demands are themselves unjust and destructive of harmony.

Certainly, if I very nearly define collective interest as the enemy of individual rights, then I will inevitably receive acts taken in the interest of the collective as transgressive of my individuality. I can similarly so define the assertion of any absolute individuality as an offense against the collective interest, and so each will be perceived. But is it not possible, without the conceptual predispositions, to sometimes understand the protection of individual autonomy as not just a necessary acquiescence of the collective to the need to balance contending interests, but as a benefit to the collective? Is it not possible to conceive the fulfillment of a collective need as an enhancement of individual experience? I think it is.

In my second quote from ShrinkWrapped, he acknowledges that what might seem in ways a golden age for some was also an age when

too many had their horizons too constrained by custom and law.

Still, he says

Yet the 1880s also were a time when those who were most free appear, from here, to have been more free than most of us today.

Leaving aside the meaning of “free” here, which would appear to be “absence of restriction,” how should we balance these two observations? Should we, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence of the same, if we could place ourselves there, will the recurrence of the 1880s – assuming we are not among those whose horizons are “too constrained”? Is the misery, then, of the nearly completely conquered and deculturated American Indian, the poverty and disenfranchisement of African-Americans still beset by virulent hatred, the KKK, and lynching, the squalor and torturous working conditions of the urban industrial laborer – is all that worth the freedom from government restriction for those who enjoyed it in a better life?

Is the United States we live in today a lesser place than the nation it was then? We know what we have to live with from day to day, as only so much can be done at a time. But how much disadvantage for some should we assent to, even will, in that Nietzschean sense, for the advantage of others?


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17 thoughts on “The Open Mind VII – the One and the Many

  1. Mr Adler,

    Interestingly, I think this whole debate hinges on one of Shrinkwrap’s comments which you quoted: “America is the world’s first and greatest nation dedicated to the proposition that the individual counts for more than the identity of the collective (tribe) from which he emerged.”

    Here’s why: the USA was the first nation ever to be founded on the then revolutionary idea that people did not need kings or clergy or anything other than their own conscience to tell them what to do or what was right. It was and remains a noble aspiration for all the flaws: at that time the idea that people had no need of a king was almost unthinkable. That people from non-European cultures were equally capable was even more radical – and yet the founders of this nation debated that question before finally accepting a compromise – presumably on the part of the anti-slavery debaters with the hope that they could convince the pro-slavery faction at some later date.

    The belief that people aren’t necessarily bound to the tribe of their birth but are free to choose their tribe (or nation) is I think at the heart of the USA’s uniqueness. The underlying assumptions of the USA (and, to the best of my knowledge, only the USA) appear to me to be that individuals choosing to cooperate towards a common goal will always prevail over people who act because their rulers tell them to do so; and that power flows from the individual up, not the leader down (this may be what Shrink meant).

    In practice what I think this means is that Americans tend to be both highly civic-minded (the sticking point from the comments seems to be where individual choice should be overruled by government fiat – not that there should be no government fiat or no individual choice) and independent. To much of the rest of the world, that’s a contradiction (so sayeth the displaced Australian – and Australians tend to embody that same paradox in a rather more subversive fashion).

    So, after that nice long ramble, I guess the summary has to be “it depends”

  2. But that’s just it, copithorne, how do we cooperate for the general good? That’s what we’ve been debating. Too bad you came late to the show. People have divergent interests. You are not going to get everybody to agree that a this policy or that is for the general good, and especially if a particular concept of the ‘general good’ is against the interests of an individual. How do you get cooperation?

    Well, you could have an all-powerful all-caring government telling everybody what to do and FORCE them to cooperate. That’s what they tried in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It’s called totalitarianism.

    Or you could have free trade and the free exchange of ideas. That seems to work pretty well. We didn’t get to be the most prosperous nation on earth by forcing people to cooperate. Maybe there is an ‘invisible hand’ after all. When I go to the local store we’re friendly to each other. He wants my money and I want his goods or services. He may be a different race, a different culture, have a different religion but we get along because we both want the same thing. There are no laws, no interfering government telling us to be nice to each other.

    Bill Clinton and others may talk about how were are all ‘one nation’ but look at Obama, he’s done more to divide the nation than any president in history–picking fights with just about every group that doesn’t go along with his big government policies. As his good friend and president of SEIU, Andy Stern, said, “If they don’t respond to the power of persuasion maybe they’ll respond to the persuasion of power.”

  3. To my mind, it is going to be too confusing to appeal to morality.

    We need each other for everything. It takes five thousand people to allow me to have a cup of tea in the morning. There is zero prosperity and zero comfort without collective enterprise. If you don’t believe me, get off our internet and spend a day trying to grow wheat with your handmade tools and come back and let us know how it goes.

    The questions that drive our politics need not be moral. What is going to promote prosperity? And more than prosperity, what is going to help create a nice place to live? A healthy environment? A vibrant culture? A future for my children? Lower crime? What is going to promote happiness?

    I think Bill Clinton expressed the philosophy of the Democratic party when he said we are one people, one nation and we go up or down together. That sure makes a lot more sense to me than thinking it would be appealing to return to the 19th Century.

    In my experience contemporary conservative politics involves projecting a disowned super-ego onto ‘the left’ and then doing battle with that projection. So, to bring morality into it is waving the bloody shirt, as we can see from the response.

  4. Here’s a quote from Thomas Sowell in an article titled, “The Real Public Service.” This has a bearing on how best to render aid or service to our fellow citizens.
    “Those who have helped the poor the most have not been those who have gone around loudly expressing “compassion” for the poor, but those who found ways to make industry more productive and distribution more efficient, so that the poor of today can afford things that the affluent of yesterday could only dream about.”

    Read the whole thing here:

  5. Wacky Hermit,
    Beyond the psychological problems of laws *compelling* social obligation is that, once such laws are in place, they become a system to be gamed — and people do game them. Moral affect becomes moral hazard, and our legal system (and, I suspect, any legal system) is poorly equipped to deal with it. Even if everyone knows someone is simply dumping their personal responsibilities onto society so they can spend all their own time/money gratifying their desires, proving as much in a court of law is another matter. And because all the “aid” comes from the faceless “government” or “society,” (rather than through personal interaction with those members of the community providing the aid) it’s easy for the social dropout or welfare addict to forget that it’s their fellow citizen paying for their lifestyle out of their own labors. Gratitude for help received, and the associated sense of reciprocal responsibility to make good use of a second chance, is replaced by a sense of entitlement and a demand for more.

  6. Wacky Hermit,
    What a great explanation of the varying reasons why laws or regulations can never solve the problem that life is unfair.

    One must first be responsible for taking care of him/herself. When marriage happens that responsibility expands. When the blessings of children are added to the mix, the responsibilities to care for others expands even more. If individuals take care of themselves, their immediate family, and have time, energy, or money left over to lend a hand to near relatives or neighbors it may (I say may because it doesn’t always turn out well) improve people’s lives around you. To try to say every person has a responsibility to “give back” is a nice slogan but, in practice, it is not so practicle. It also doesn’t answer the question of why are there people who need help? If everybody should “give back,” why are there people who are needy?

    I am watching Bill Gates efforts to use his fortune to improve the world with interest. I keep seeing announcements of millions of dollars for this project and that. I have yet to see an announcement that his money has actually solved a problem for good. I am hoping to see such an announcement because it will mean that throwing money at a problem might actually work. I would rather see him donate his money to help Third World villages drill water wells and buy goats, sheep, and cows. That might allow for villagers who can use them to become more self sufficient. But that’s just my mean-spirited, conservative inner devil talking. :>)

    Helping large groups, classes, or nations is hard, mostly unsuccessful work. Look at the money we have poured into Haiti, the Gaza Strip, and other Gap areas around the world. Little progress to show for it. If trying to help people showed more successes, no one would be against it.

  7. Hagyan,
    You’re right. I’m looking for something that is “meta-“, but based on reason rather than belief.

    Reflecting further on Jay’s trying to use “affective connections” as a basis for morality, it just occurred to me that basing one’s morality on affects would inevitably lead to the corruption of a society. If you have to appeal to people’s affects in order to convince them to act morally, then you will end up constantly trying to trick them into feeling this way or feeling that way, rather than trying to present rational arguments to them to convince them of your case. And isn’t that precisely what Hamas and the so-called Peace Boats did when they tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza?

    The pro-Palestinians manufactured an incident, worked with the mass media to promote a certain perspective on that incident, and thus attempted to trick the world into feeling a certain way. Public forums are no longer the site of rational arguments, but rather venues in which a rhetoric of talk, pictures, and video are presented to evoke pity or anger. One can go as far back as Hitler’s September 1939 attack on Poland to see the same process: he manufactured the attack to make it look like exactly the opposite happened; German soldiers were disguised in Polish military uniforms so that the world would think it was the Poles who attacked Germany. Again, the intent was to have the world feel pity for Germans and anger towards Poland.

  8. I learned the hard way that you cannot live solely for the benefit of others. I tried it, and I became physically ill. To some degree, you must look after yourself, tend to your own needs, cultivate your dreams, and build something you find worthwhile. But neither can you live solely for your own benefit, unless you’re perfectly happy being a paranoid caveman clad in the skins of animals you’ve killed yourself.

    Somewhere in between is the happy medium, and I imagine that its exact location is different for everyone. I do all right spending a lot of my time in service to others, so long as I have at least an hour a day and one day a month, plus hygiene time and sleep time, to do things just for myself, like reading blogs or sewing for my own satisfaction. My husband, on the other hand, struggles to spend 8 hours a day helping customers. When he gets home from work, the rest of his time must be “me time” and most days he can scarcely spare a few minutes to read the children a story. (Lest you think he’s lazy, we think he might have undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome; he finds social interactions, including with his family, horribly draining.)

    This is why liberty is so important. Any time one’s obligations to the community become codified into law, they inevitably will clash with people’s individual tolerance for self-sacrifice. Minimal obligations, such as not murdering others, will clash only with a few terribly selfish people. But large obligations, like funding teapot museums or subsidizing failing schools or paying for every senior’s medicine, will inevitably clash with the self-sacrifice tolerance of an increasing number of people. Increase the obligations so much that a critical mass of people finds them disagreeable, and you get a revolution.

    The liberal or progressive point of view, when well-articulated, seems to revolve around the concept that the individual should have an obligation to society, and most people believe this is true to at least some extent. But whether that normative statement should translate into laws *requiring* people to follow through on such an obligation is an entirely different question. It’s made particularly problematic by the fact that people are physiologically capable of giving only so much to others.

  9. Gloria,

    Isn’t ShrinkWrapped’s (tacit) ontology “completely materialistic”, too? If so, it would seem that you’re gunning for a “fundamental flaw” (to use your term) that’s meta to the liberal-conservative division, and thus could offer a lot of bang for the buck.

  10. Gloria,

    I wish you’d expand your last paragraph into a book! (But anyway: thanks.)

    In the meantime … you wrote: “It is instructive for me, as an atheist, to see that a completely materialistic ontology is fundamentally flawed logically and empirically.” This sounds to me like you’ve been able to generalize from AJA’s “materialistic ontology” to all such ontologies, or at least a significant class of them. Could you sketch out the argument?


  11. You set at odds things that need not be. You place on one hand the misfortune of the indian, the black man, and the industrial laborer, and set it against the benefit of the rest on your other hand. So I ask the very question you brought up – why do you call these things necessarily opposites? Was the indian conquered because there was no law restricting a free white man from doing so? Does the black man suffer poverty and hatred because there are now laws against it, or despite them? Does the industrial laborer have lower wage because there is no law that he needs higher, or because much of it disappears into tax?

    There are naturally some clear questions of the individual right versus the good of the collective – the house with the oceanside view, or perhaps a farm where we need an interstate to boost commerce and communication. But even as you say that many things are held opposites that need not be, you point to several examples where you hold individual freedoms opposed to the good of the “other”, and they need not be opposed.

    Finally…let us separate intentions from actions, policy from reality. Despite all the hypothetical questions above, subsidies and land grants haven’t bettered the indian, racist laws favoring blacks haven’t improved their lot, and minimum wage laws don’t help the industrial laborer when it just gets people laid off. Even better, let’s look at gun control: A perfect example of individual rights to weapons, necessarily opposed to collective restriction of those rights for safety. It would make a great debate, except that…it doesn’t work anyway. What’s the use of asking whether to favor the individual over the collective, if even that won’t help either side?

  12. The “proper relationship between the one and the many” was Plato’s question. He was reflecting on “the one” which was the idea of Goodness and how we could connect that idea to its many manifestations. In other words, how do we connect the Idea of The Good to the mundane examples of good in our world.

    When you discuss the one and the many, however, you move from this important philosophical and moral question to the merely empirical observation that affective connections are related to moral responsibility. Your observation about affects being connected to responsibility is a factual claim. And it is wrong. It is quite possible for individuals to have very strong affects about something, yet bear zero moral responsibility.

    Affects are feelings, sentiments. Affects are those feelings aroused in the mammalian limbic system. They are natural, in the sense that we as mammals have them when certain conditions obtain in our environment.

    Our culture teaches us how to handle our affects when they arise in us. So, for instance, caregivers may praise us when we demonstrate suitable affects upon our viewing another child who is hurt. We learn that this particular affect is one that we may maintain, rather than subdue. Our caregivers also teach us how to control and subdue other affects that arise in us. Although I may get angry when hit by another child, my caregiver teaches me to tamp down that angry feeling. The reasons for controlling and getting rid of the feeling may vary. Maybe the other child hit me by accident or maybe my culture takes the stance that all violence is wrong in principle. The point here is that nothing follows from the empirical fact that we all have affects. A claim of what SHOULD be the case cannot arise from considering what IS the case.

    Whereas affects are natural givens, a “sense of moral responsibility” is a cultural invention. We see this distinction in our empirical world in animals. All mammals (but no reptiles) have affects. (Reptiles have no affects because they don’t have a limbic system.) But the only mammals that have “moral responsibility” are humans. Animals have no sense of The Moral, or as Plato called it, The Good.

    You have presented us with a philosophy which tries to connect affects (an aspect of the natural world) with a phenomenon, moral responsibility, which does not and cannot be described as a natural phenomenon. In sum, you have tried to naturalize morality or ethics and that is both logically and empirically impossible. The natural sciences can explain affects, but they cannot explain moral responsibility. My feelings about something have nothing to do with whether or not I am responsible or should be responsible for that something.

    Your particular discussion of the one and the many, however, is extremely useful in understanding the liberal position on many things. You have presented a naturalized ontology of the world. I suppose one could say it is a completely materialistic ontology. It is instructive for me, as an atheist, to see that a completely materialistic ontology is fundamentally flawed logically and empirically. I don’t think I have to turn to the idea of God, however, in order to explain how and why it is necessary too have a “sense of moral responsibility.” I think such a “sense” can be argued for on the basis of reason.

  13. Jay,
    Several years ago, our daughter was living in a condo in Seattle. It was in an area frequented by homeless people. One day, as we were walking to get to the entrance, a down and out Indian approached us and asked for money for food. I felt sorry for this poor wretch and gave him $10, hoping he would buy himself some food. About two hours later we heard sirens and saw an ambulance pull up in the street below the condo. Looking out, I could plainly see that the poor man I had given money to was being placed in the ambulance. Whatever he had bought with the money had evidently not been food. A bottle of wine, a hit of speed, some uppers, or ?? Whatever it was my magnanimous gesture had enabled him to injest something that put him in the hospital. My feeling of being a good samaritan, turned to one of guilt.

    I have also had experiences with family members where I have attempted to help them and found that my attempts to help did not change their circumstances because they needed to change their fundamental attitudes before they could rise out of their problems.

    I recently read a book, “DARK STAR SAFARI” by Paul Theroux. Theroux is no wild-eyed, evil conservative. No, he is a liberal with good credentials to that effect. His book was about his travels from Cairo along the spine of Africa to Capetown. If you like travel books or are interested in Africa, I recommend it. Theroux had been in the Peace Corps in Africa in the 60s and was eager to see how much progress had been made since he was there. What he saw was that the combined efforts of the UN, NGOs, and missionaries has saved many from starvation and disease. However, he also saw that the common people had, for the most part, become welfare dependents on those relief agencies. He saw no chance for any change without the governments reforming from kleptocracies, dictatorships, and tribal fiefdoms. Further, he saw little chance of such reforms with the do gooders unwilling to address those issues. His conclusion was that the Africans are worse off today than 50 years ago.

    What I have tried to do is counter some of your theory, which sounds very moral, upright, and just, with actual life experiences in which I have found that helping people that we see as needy is not always easy. straightforward, or even the right thing to do.

    I aver that SW, my daughter (a psychologist), and all those like them do more to help people truly overcome their problems than all the government programs anyone can dream up. Just giving people money or passing laws does not solve the problems. If it did there would be no poverty in the U.S.

  14. I think as a matter of religious belief, or general morality, other people’s problems are our responsibility. We certainly live in a shrunken world, not a sparrow falls that it is picked up as a Fox News Alert. We can feel the pain, and witness the suffering of those thousands of miles removed in HD by streaming video. We can care, and many religious traditions say we should care, about others.

    The real question really amounts to: Should the government force us to care? Should government appropriate the fruit of our labor to help people we don’t know and don’t care about? Should government be used to make life fair for people? Should my money be taken and used to feed an obese welfare queen who’s addicted to drugs and can’t figure out how to use contraceptives?

    I would say that as a matter of principle conservatives believe that there are definite limits to which government can or should be used to smooth out life’s wrinkles for other people. I think most conservatives would agree that really needy cases should be helped: nobody should be allowed to starve on the street, and emergency rooms should not turn away sick patients because they can’t pay. I think there is broad agreement on that.

    Of late some welfare state advocates have gone so far as to push for government funding of sex change operations for prisoners and free Viagra to medicare recipients. Worse yet are laws designed to make things fair for minorities by means of racial discrimination. Liberals are constantly pushing for restrictions on free speech in order not to offend the sensibilities of protected groups.

    In effect many liberals appear to advocate not only taking our money but our rights as well in the name of fairness. Ultimately all this nanny state stuff erodes our freedom and puts us on the road to fascism. Fascism with a happy face, of course.

    But not only does unrestricted government interference in people’s business (all for the best reasons) lead to tyranny, but it is extremely counterproductive. The “Great Society” spent hundreds of millions to elevate the poor and what did we get? Crime-ridden ghettos with alarming murder rates.

    The Good Samaritan gave of his own free will. He was not forced to give to every bum, drunk, addict or petty thug that came along. If he had he would soon have been picked clean and the spirit of giving would have soured within him. It would have turned him into the Bad Samaritan.

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