Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A potential difficulty for any AT society revisited

In my latest post on this issue (here) I identified a thorny problem in the ideal society we should all be striving for (yep, I’m universalist like that), as there was an inherent difficulty reconciling the required openness of every small social unit (phratria) so they were effectively limited in their ability to encroach on the liberty of their members with their freedom to dictate their own rules according to any tradition they identified with, many of those traditions being pretty authoritarian and definitely non-open. To put it in more precise and recognizable terms, what do I think should happen if a gay couple wants to settle in a phratry that professes to enact the social teachings of Jesus Christ of the Latter Days Saints Church (or of the Catholic Church, for that matter)? Such teachings include the condemnation of homosexuality, the lack of recognition of homosexual weddings, the prohibition of adoption by homosexual couples, etc. In effect, the rules of the group would impede the normal flourishing of the gay couple as long as they wanted to flourish as gays, and saw the free expression of such feature of their lives as essential to their well being, as (if the attitude of a vast majority of gays in Western nations towards the public expression of their sexual preferences is any indication) they are very wont to do. It doesn’t take great wisdom to understand that what the group wants is to be able to effectively discriminate against the gay couple’s preferences, as indeed they may want to discriminate against a much vaster number of preferences that their belief system considers plain wrong or abhorrent (with a vocabulary of older times they would describe it as “morally” wrong, something our secular culture has great difficulty dealing with), so arguing against them that those preferences are just a matter of personal choice between consenting adults that can cause no harm to the rest of the community would likely not cause much effect.

I feel the need to insist in a point I’ve previously made: for liberal, secularly educated readers, this is a hard argument to follow, as the dominant reason they have been indoctrinated by (and I know “indoctrination” sounds like a harsh word, and may make some assume I’m somehow disparaging them for that or calling them dupes for not realizing how their supposedly enlightened and universal value system is as much a product of their age and upbringing as any other in the history of humanity… let’s just say at this point this is not my intention, or not yet at least) makes them think human beings are infinitely pliable creatures, so whatever values they decide to adopt can only be arbitrary social constructions, and thus the only sensible policy is to live and let live (may be with a modicum of extra care for children and other historically oppressed minorities due to their limited agency, but anything beyond preventing the most blatant abuse would already be patronizing and to some extent demeaning). I’ve noticed that kind of person always reacts with surprise (and lack of understanding) to the fact that some people may still think that values can have an objective existence, regardless of how many people consider them valid or true (they, as the other side, tend to label people that hold beliefs different from theirs, including beliefs about beliefs, as “bigots”, by the way), and through the belief in such values stubbornly hold opinions that may be contrary to the majority’s consensus.

The problem is, only by nurturing communities that can indefinitely avoid such consensus can we hold our hopes of going beyond the three iron rules of desiderative reason that are the ultimate cause of our current predicament. What I want my readers to consider is that you start (innocently enough) thinking that values are complicated stuff, and that really history teaches us that they can come in any shape, color and flavor, so most likely they are social constructs through and through and not to put much stock in them. So from there you necessarily go to the proposition that, as values are arbitrary, there is only a minimal set that should be honored (based on our biology, or our understanding of natural selection, or what positive science has taught us –all circular constructions to boot, but I won’t dwell in that for now): things like not causing unnecessary pain, fairly reciprocating and letting people conduct their lives as they see fit as long as they don’t cause unnecessary pain either (at least to people lacking the maturity or the lucidity to accept it consensually). But in a social world were only those things are valuable and meaningful (acting now as a synonym for “important, worthy of respect”) we end up fairly quickly in “only pleasure is valuable/ meaningful” (because any other pursuit is founded on a social construct/ is arbitrary/ is finally a lie), which is another way of saying “the only end of life is to satisfy desires (as we desire that which we think will give us more pleasure)”… and of course if we think this of ourselves, we will also think that of everybody else, and we will create a society where only social position counts, where such position is determined exclusively by how much money we have. As experience teaches us, such society is low on trust and commitment, and requires enormous amounts of work to function properly (or as close to properly as it can get). In such society everybody ends worse off, as that work is unavoidably taken by flawed human beings that end up sucking more collective resources than what they enable to be produced, and distributing them according to their whim (but rarely in ways that benefit the majority of those involved in their creation).     

If we want then to avoid such slippery slope, we need to respect not only the liberty of individuals to pursue their lives’ interests as they see fit, including their liberty to discard every value except the minimal set agreed upon by liberals, but also the liberty of groups to embrace more restrictive sets, and to enforce them in public life, at least within certain boundaries. What boundaries are those? Well, the universal rights we defined as non negotiable (here) are a good starting point again, so our religiously inspired community not only can not, obviously enough, burn the gay couple (that seems quite a low bar to set, doesn’t it?), but it can not use any kind of force or physical coercion against them, it can not deny them the same means of subsistence they provide any other citizen (my cherished UBI), they can not bar them from running for office if they choose public officers through elections (although experience shows that religious people of those persuasions are not very inclined to vote for openly gay candidates). But on the other hand, the community can not be coerced in “accepting” them, can not be coerced in giving them a status similar to heterosexuals in their teaching, can not be coerced in giving them the same standing and legal benefits they choose to bestow in heterosexual couples beyond the basic means of subsistence, can not be coerced to create quotas for them if they have representative institutions… Because trying to force the community (any community) into accepting the universal set of values we happen to cherish results in getting us back into the anomic, dysfunctional set of values we defined at the beginning of our manifesto as the core cause of all modern maladies.

So the best we can hope for is to keep a necessarily unstable balance between individual rights and what we may call “groupal” rights (rights of the group, which in modern liberal theory are not that different from “tribal” rights that may be bestowed in non-majority communities within a given polity in recognition of the noxious influence that their assimilation willy-nilly in the greater community may have, even recognizing that those tribal rights may in some cases imply than the individuals within the tribe may have less freedom than their peers outside it). The extent to which groups (in our case, the phratria) can impinge in their members’ choices about how to live is however limited by the always existing possibility of such members leaving for greener pastures if the imposed rules (that in theory should have been freely accepted) become too rigid. Some groups credo will be, no doubt, downright obnoxious and beyond distasteful for the majority of humankind (like the white supremacist example we offered in our previous post), but accepting the existence of such islands of bigotry still seems like a small price to pay for an overall freer existence for all (freer, that is, from the invisible fetters of bending all of one’s will and one’s time to the three uncompromising commandments of current rationality). Of course, that is under the assumption that not all the phratria will be formed by self-segregated bigots, differing only in their persuasion and the identity of the features they shun and despise, and that there will be enough liberal, democratic phratria for everybody to find their place under the sun in a welcoming, accommodating group of fellow humans. If that is not the case, the ideal AT society we are proposing may end up being a varied menu of equally unappealing choices where some people just may not find any group willing to accommodate them where they could truly fit and prosper. Being myself quite the special snowflake (as I mentioned in a previous post, a Marxist –from Groucho, not Karl- who could never belong to a club that accepted people like himself) I don’t think I’m blindly asking my fellow citizens to accept a compact that would go better for me than for them (rather the opposite, it is the odd ones like myself who are at a greater risk of ending out of any major compact, ill-fitted and unwelcome in any polity), and so feel legitimately entitled to forge ahead with my proposals.

As an afterthought, an interesting and dystopian possibility is that the groups with the most fanatical, most retrograde views prosper (in the sense that their members find their lives so much more fulfilling that it still pays for them to transmit such gift, and keep reproducing at or above replacement rates) while the freer, more enlightened ones dwindle and finally wither away. As long as they are allowed to do so of their own accord, without any neighboring group attacking, conquering or imposing their will on them and taking advantage of their latest days frailty (something that would be a historical novelty, by the way, as a growing polity has always found it irresistibly attractive to plunder and submit any neighboring state or tribe that grew significantly weaker than itself), let it be so. 

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