Retirement has given me way too much time to think about questions that have no answers. I find myself waking up at odd hours to mull over issues I am clearly incompetent to resolve–something I rarely did when work-related tasks occupied my thoughts.
Earlier this week, I woke up in the middle of the night and returned to one such question–a question that has frequently bedeviled me: what do we humans owe each other? That is, what are our basic, unavoidable obligations to our fellow humans?
I suspect that the people refusing to be vaccinated against COVID triggered this particular visit to that question, but the question itself is considerably broader. It seems to implicate the Golden Rules. Note plural.
The rule as I learned it was in the negative: if it pisses you off, don’t do it to someone else. (Okay, okay–the text actually reads “What you yourself hate, do to no man.” Or, presumably, to no woman.) The rule as it is commonly recited in the U.S., however, is framed as a positive: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
So–what’s our basic obligation to other people? To refrain from behaviors that are hurtful or damaging to them? (Doesn’t that require some awareness of their specific fears and/or challenges?) Or are we obliged to do affirmative things to help others, based upon what we would want those others to do for us? (And if that is indeed our obligation, what if the things I would like to have done to or for me are things that would royally piss you off?)
It’s a puzzlement….
And what about government? America’s founders knew what they didn’t want their new government to do–in the Bill of Rights, they crafted a system of negative liberty. Government was supposed to butt out of our moral and intellectual decision-making and respect our personal autonomy–our right to self-govern. (Well, it was a right of White Male property owners, anyway….) When the Great Depression came along, however, Americans decided that government has some positive obligations as well.
Americans have been arguing about all of that–about what government should and shouldn’t do– pretty much forever. It’s a central preoccupation of this blog.
Legally, at least, we start with “live and let live.” So long as your behavior isn’t harming me, you are entitled to do your own thing. Sounds simple and straightforward– but then we realize that the definition of “harm” is very hotly contested.
I don’t think your decision to read that dirty book affects me, but the guy down the street is convinced that by both your willingness to read it and your support for the publisher by purchasing it, you are, in fact, committing social harm–that you are polluting the culture and that affects us all.
I believe that having to inhale your passive smoke in my favorite bar is a tangible, demonstrable harm, but you believe the decision to smoke and endanger your own health is entirely yours to make, and you further believe the bar owner has the right to decide who does what in his establishment.
And don’t get me started on vaccinations….
My middle-of-the-night (why can’t I just go back to sleep?) conversation with myself recognized that modern realities have altered the obligations we owe to each other–we are more densely packed into our cities and towns, more connected to each other by virtue of communication and transportation technologies, and immensely more interdependent in a multitude of ways thanks to the operation of all contemporary economic systems. (Jeffersonian agrarianism was something of a fantasy even in his time, and it’s even more untenable now.)
Even if we leave government out of the equation, and just concentrate on personal responsibility, both of those Golden Rule formulations require a certain degree of judgmentalism. How do I identify the less obvious harmful behaviors I need to avoid?(Other than the more obvious stuff–don’t lie, cheat or steal, don’t injure or kill–the whole question gets very slippery)…On the positive side, what if am I doing unto you something I think is positive, but it’s something you don’t want done unto you? (I can’t help thinking of the moral scolds who want to control and direct my most intimate behaviors and beliefs “for my own good…”)
My apologies for sharing my stream-of-consciousness internal debate. Mark it down to retirement-related dementia. I’ll return to more concrete and timely concerns tomorrow.
Other people who wake up in the night read a book, or have fantasies about sex or money. Obviously, there’s something very wrong with me….