Nietzsche on the Origin of Justice

Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society – Western Society of  Criminology

Similar to the sentiment found in Hobbes’ Leviathan, in section 92 of his 1878 work Human, All-Too-Human, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the concept of what is just correlates from mutual agreements between persons.  Hobbes calls these agreements covenants, Nietzsche refers to it more pointedly by stating that, “the initial character of justice is the character of a trade,” and “justice is repayment and exchange on the assumptions of an approximately equal power position.”  Furthermore, Nietzsche follows Hobbes’ thinking that the root cause driving mankind to establish such ties is the desire for preservation, “Justice naturally derives from prudent concern with self-preservation.”  However, despite agreeing with Hobbes’ position on the natural origin of justice, Nietzsche differs sharply from the English philosopher in his analysis on man’s comprehension of justice.

Whereas Hobbes deems man as a rational animal, and his desire to forge a community, and maintain it justly, as the natural extension of his intellectual fortitude, Nietzsche has no such respect for human intellect.  He states, “In accordance with their intellectual habits, men have forgotten the original purpose of the so-called just, fair actions, and for millennia children have been taught to admire and emulate such actions.”  But if the origin of justice resides within man’s natural instinct for self-preservation, then–according to Nietzsche–it is by definition that just actions are egotistic.  Yet, mankind has forgotten this.  Instead, what one sees is the propagation of the idea that just actions are the result of selfless impulses, causing this false sentiment to be heralded in ever higher esteem as it gets passed on through the generations.  As this false notion of justice becomes more ingrained, individuals add value to this baseless sentiment, causing the morals of society to be founded on a flimsy structure of self-delusions, causing Nietzsche to declare: “How little the world would look moral without forgetfulness!”

The problem with what Nietzsche states here is the dubious premise he starts out with when he declares, “Justice (fairness) originates among those who are approximately equally powerful.”  However, it can reasonably be argued that, rather that originating amongst equals, the concept of justice traces its origin to the very presence of power inequality.  In an aristocratic system, justice is meant to preserve the hierarchical order by keeping the non-aristocratic masses content enough to not rebel.  In a democratic system, justice is meant to uphold the universal application of the nation’s laws, without regard to one’s individual power or influence (remember we’re speaking ideally here, not in practice).  In either case, justice did not originate among the equally powerful out of a fear of mutual destruction, but out of the sentiment that if a society is to function on all levels, some institutional gestures must be made to protect individuals from the influence of power disparity (even if such gestures are only superficially enforced).

Nietzsche’s point about justice being an extension of man’s egotistic instinct for self-preservation is still viable within this setting, however the strength of his assertion concerning the character of justice being a character of trade becomes problematic, since in the two examples above justice is not a mutual trade amongst equals but a bridging amongst societal antipodes.  It is true that justice can be an understanding between those of equal power, however the premise that this is the origin of justice, as opposed to being merely a derivative (or subset) of a broader notion of justice, is a matter that needs to be demonstrate, rather than simply granted as a given.

Truly, Nietzsche’s greatest blunder here is that he abandoned one of his own core principles; he attempted to give an absolutist answer to an issue that is largely provisional.  All-too-human, indeed.

Bibliography

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All-Too-Human. Section 92, “Origin of Justice.”

All quotes used are taken from Walter Kaufmann’s The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2000 reprint, 1967 original), pages 148-149.

Examining Rousseau’s Thoughts on the Significance of Children’s Tears

Crying is an infant’s native language, and tears are the syntax by which he first learns to articulate himself to the world.  At least, so much is true for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his groundbreaking thought experiment, Emile, attempts to give insight to the proper way of rearing a child to adulthood.  The significance of an infant’s tears is held to be most seminal in their early occurrences, as they will serve to determine the infant’s initial experience with a secondary person.  And, even more importantly, the reaction of the caretaker to these first cries will be the formative influence on the child’s future relations and expectations within society.

Infants are naturally subjective thinkers; having to learn about external objects and secondary persons through their repeated interactions with them.  The method by which all children eventually achieve an understanding of the other is through movement, or as Rousseau puts it, “It is only by movement that we learn that there are things which are not us, and it is only by our own movement that we acquire the idea of extension.”[1]  Nonetheless, this ability to use motion as a means to relate to our surroundings is a learned trait, hence the newborn infant suffers a great discomfort as he experiences a need to know and grasp the objects around him, but has to rely on others—constituting more exteriors he is also quite ignorant of—to satisfy this need.  The child is conflicted between the highly personal world he experiences, and the dependence he has for others to satisfy his needs; and “this is the source of children’s screams.”[2]  Tears are the words by which children make their needs intelligible to the world.  But because the infant is much closer to the nature of man, than the grown and corrupted adult, the language utilized is simple and basic, where all ills and discomforts are vocalized as pain.[3]  Although, Rousseau’s philosophy adamantly insists that man is a solitary being, self-sufficient by nature, here he does admit that in the earliest stages of life a person is in need of others for survival.  However, this apparent contradiction can be rectified by emphasizing the role self-preservation plays in Rousseau’s natural man.  An infant cries when he is in need of something, experiencing a specific discomfort, never to arbitrarily bond with his caretaker; his tears are an indication of a matter that he needs taken care of, not a want for pampered attention.  For if the latter was true it would stifle the solitary disposition of the newborn man.  A gross impossibility, since freedom is Rousseau’s man’s primary need.  Hence, it is not the cries of a child calling to satisfy his basic needs that set him on the path to social degradation, but the improper response rendered on to them by his misguided caretakers.

It is a natural phenomenon of modern childrearing to zealously fret over a child in order to prevent any harm from coming to him, only to cause him the greatest long-term harm conceivable in the process; a dependence on servitude, and an unnatural yearning for domination.  “As long as children find resistance only in things and never in wills, they will become neither rebellious nor irascible and will preserve their health better.”[4]  Unfortunately, this lesson is easily ignored, and children are nagged over under the false impression that providing for children’s needs entails accommodating their whims as a servant.  Rousseau urges on parents and caretakers to recognize the ills of this trend as a primary cause for the softening of societal children, in comparison to their more rural counterparts, and recognize how with every pampering, coddling, and needless fussing, a further step is taken to rob the child from becoming a wholly well-adjusted adult.  Tears originate as a means for children to communicate some legitimate distress they may have, but, “if one is not careful they soon become orders.”[5]  This is where man’s fall from the natural order starts.  Man has no need for the concept of servitude, either to serve or to be served, thus any implication to the contrary (including a constant yielding to his arbitrary wishes during infancy) immediately acts to take man away from his natural disposition.  Thus, it can be said that our entire notion of social relations is perverted because our caretaker’s lacked the patience to distinguish between our inherent needs for preservation and our acquired wants for dependence.

As stated previously, a child learns about his surroundings through movement, implying that he must be given the upmost freedom to roam and experience the environment around him.  Rousseau insists that exploration is natural for an infant, and gives the example of a child stretching out his hand to reach a far off object (page 66).  However, because he is incapable of estimating the distance of the object, his attempts to reach the object fail.  Now, the child will cry and scream in anger, not because he does not understand his own external relation to the distant object, but because he wants to will it to him through sheer force.  When such a situation arises the proper response is to ignore the child’s tears for obedience, as it will teach him immediately that he is not the master of those around him, nor can he command inanimate objects to obey him.  This sort of disciplining is also important as it will eventually lead to a general decrease in the amount of tears as children become “accustomed to shed them only when pain forces them to do so.”[6]

Although tears are clearly a natural mode of communication for children, the ease by which they are misused, and the potential dangers this leads to if the behavior is left uncorrected, is the formative cause of society’s degradation.  Rousseau argues that children’s dependency on other’s to satisfy their needs is a weakness, aggravated by the servile response of their caretakers, and that in this weakness “is subsequently born the idea of empire and domination.”[7]  When children learn from early on that their every whim can be satisfied through fury, rage, and temper tantrums, a dangerous precedent is set for how they will interact with the world as adults; they will grow accustomed to the servitude bestowed on them in infancy and through it develop an unrelenting demand for submission from their fellow man, who may or may not reciprocate kindly to the demand.  A struggle for power is thereby established amongst individual persons, each vying for dominance over the other, which will reflect in the despotic mores of society.  And man’s natural solitary state will be lost to the vices of anger, conceit, control, and power; otherwise known as the despicable world we are living in.

Emile is not meant by Rousseau to be a serious manual on how to rear a child from infancy to healthy adulthood, it is a philosophical reflection on how man has fallen to the state he is in, and how this fall begins with the first sounds we make.  Like man, the tears of children start out innocent, used to satisfy a natural need, but excess indulgence leads to the corruption of this natural feature, thus allowing man’s ominous passions to arise from it.  These passions corrupt precisely because they are unnatural, and due to the fact that society is built on these unnatural responses, the degradation is further agitated by each subsequent generation that is nurtured in the civilized fronts of existence.  And if the dilemma is to be remedied, then it must begin at the first whimpering made.


[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile, translated by Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1979), p. 64.

[2] Rousseau, p. 64.

[3] Rousseau, p. 65.

[4] Rousseau, p. 66.

[5] Rousseau, p. 66.

[6] Rousseau, p. 69.

[7] Rousseau, p. 66.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Depravity of the Human Animal

Gullivers-Travels-Drawing-Etching-IAFOR - The IAFOR International  Conference on the Social Sciences – Hawaii (IICSSHawaii)

The great feats of reason and resourcefulness of mankind is a cherished topic in literature.  Innumerable tales have been written (and will continue to be written) testifying to the way in which our ability to rationalize and contemplate the reality around us definitively separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (indeed, some might even say, gives us dominion over it).  In defiance to this sentiment lies Jonathan Swift’s 1726 adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels, whose title character (Lemuel Gulliver) starts the story as an optimistic representation of human ingenuity, and finishes as a bitter misanthrope, disgusted at the innate depravity of his species.

Gulliver’s Travels is made up of four different voyages taken on by Lemuel Gulliver, an honest, kindhearted English ship’s surgeon, who has a tendency to find himself in fantastical situations and lands every few years.  The adventure most recognizable to the popular audience is probably Gulliver’s first voyage to the land of Lilliput, where the inhabitants stand only six inches high (the memorable depiction to readers is the part of the novel where Gulliver is lying down on the beach, bound down by billions of tiny ropes, as hundreds of miniature people are surrounding him).  The impression of Gulliver in this first story is that of a curious and reasonable man, who genuinely cares about the well-being of all human life he comes into contact with (from the very small inhabitants of Lilliput, to the gigantic natives of Brobdingnag he encounters on his second voyage).  However, a vital turn in the narrative occurs in Gulliver’s fourth and final voyage, when he finds himself stranded on an unknown land inhabited by an extraordinary race of intelligent horses (referred to as Houyhnhnms) who possess a superb capacity to reason (surpassing, in Gulliver’s opinion, even that of the human species he belongs to).  The Houyhnhnms are not the only inhabitants of this unmapped land; there also exist a species of savage humanoid creatures called Yahoos, which are used by the Houyhnhnms in similar fashion to how Gulliver’s society uses barnyard animals.

Gulliver’s immediate reaction towards the Yahoos is to deny that such an obvious brute could be a member of the human species.  Being devoid of this sort of sentiment about human dignity, the more rational Houyhnhnms easily point out to Gulliver the anatomical similarity between himself and the Yahoos, forcing the narrator to reflect:

The beast and I were brought close together, and our countenances diligently compared, both my master [referring to the Houyhnhnm who takes Gulliver into his dwelling partly out of an anthropological curiosity to learn about (what is to him) the “peculiarly reasonable Yahoo”] and servants, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo.  My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure (pg. 249).

Thus, Gulliver is forced to admit to himself that he does indeed share a biological tie with the savage animals of this undiscovered land.  Yet, this does little to sooth the repugnance he feels towards the Yahoos (of which he now knows himself to be one; no matter how tamed and civilized of a variant):

Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at the time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitivity being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in this country (pg. 250).

Noteworthy is Gulliver’s mention that “at the time” there existed few greater lovers of mankind, because it foreshadows the shift in sentiment the character will experience towards not just the Yahoos of this land, but the human species as a whole.  However, first one must explore how equally amazing Gulliver must seem to the Houyhnhnms, giving that there only exposure to humans are the Yahoos; whose intellectual capacity Gulliver’s “master” describes as, “the most unteachable of all brutes” (pg. 254).  To the dominant species of Houyhnhnmland, a Yahoo who possessed the ability to reason and communicate [with some struggle Gulliver eventually manages to learn the Houyhnhnm language] is perplexing beyond belief.  This gives hope to Gulliver that he can demonstrate to the noble Houyhnhnms that he is of a different disposition that the brutish Yahoos of their land, as he tries to satisfy his master’s curiosity by offering extensive descriptions of the various facets of civilized human society.  Unfortunately, this does little to dissuade the apparently obvious physical resemblance between himself and the Yahoos in any meaningful way.  The narrator’s Houyhnhnm master even goes so far as to point out the practical imperfection of Gulliver’s human form in comparison to both the savage Yahoos and his own horse-like shape:

He said I differed indeed from other Yahoos, being much more cleanly, and not altogether so deformed, but in point of real advantage he thought I differed for the worse.  That my nails were of no use either to fore or hinder-feet; as to my fore-feet, he could not properly call them by that name, for he never observed me to walk upon them; that they were too soft to bear the ground / He then began to find fault with other parts of my body, the flatness of my face, the prominence of my nose, my eyes placed directly in front, so that I could not look on either side without turning my head; that I was not able to feed myself without lifting one of my fore-feet to my mouth; and therefore nature had placed those joints to answer that necessity (pg. 261-62).

The importance of this exchange on Gulliver’s perception of humanity, and its place within the natural world, cannot be overstated.  Undoubtedly, Gulliver has spent his whole life with the presumption that the human form is the epitome of natural perfection (or, if not complete perfection, as close as any living being could ever hope to get).  Now, under scrutiny of an animal as distinct in form from humanity as any other creature, but whose ability to reason rivals the most educated of the human specimen, Gulliver is faced with the innumerable faults and imperfections of the human body–essentially shattering any inherent exceptionalism the man may have still held for his own species.  [This critique about the human form may have been one motivation for Jonathan Swift, a devout Anglican clergyman, to publish his book under a pseudonym, as it might have blasphemous implications to imply that man is no different/less perfect than any other animal.]  Moreover, the Houyhnhnm is so unimpressed by the human form, that he finds it impossible to imagine such a creature rising to any level of dominance and civility in any possible environment, due partly to the distrust we garner from other animals:

He observed every animal in this country naturally to abhor the Yahoos, whom the weaker avoided and the stronger drove from them.  So that supposing us to have the gift of reason, he could not see how it were possible to cure that natural antipathy which every creature discovered against us (pg. 262).

But more so due to the great cruelty human beings exhibit towards there own kind:

The Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals; and the reason usually assigned was the odiousness of their own shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves (pg. 280).

It is therefore established that, without ever even having laid eyes or possessing any prior knowledge of human societies, this Houyhnhnm still managed to deduce through the sheer use of his innate reason, how the deadliest predator to man, is man himself.  Furthermore, he points out to Gulliver that the roots of the conflict amongst the members of the human species are trivial conceits over inconsequential vanities that no other living being would bother quarreling over.

Unlike the human society Gulliver came from, the Houyhnhnms have no concept of politics, religion, art and literature, or tribal affiliations (though, according to Gulliver, there does seem to exist a social hierarchy amongst the Houyhnhnms, akin to a caste system); nor can they contemplate the need for such things.  It is for this reason that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master remarks that “instead of reason [humans] were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices” (pg. 267).  The human development of government and law to mediate our daily affairs is to the Houyhnhnms further indication human nature is antithetical to proper reasoning faculties:

That our government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature (pg. 279).

Houyhnhnms live in an anarchistic social structure; there are no formal laws, but there is complete orderliness, maintained by the animals’ unwillingness to be stirred by emotive factors when it comes to evaluating the reality of life.  They have no interest in deceit (lacking a proper word for lying or evil), and while they do express joy, friendship, and hatred, they do so without the indication that there lies any deeper meaning behind their emotions besides a reaction to the workings of the natural world.  Thus, to the Houyhnhnms, the great innovations of human intellect–created to shelter, protect, inspire, and entertain us–are testaments to out depravity; our inability to be satisfied with what nature has given us.  We need a supervising authority, because we cannot trust ourselves to behave orderly.  To Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master, human gluttony is an ideal indication of our shortcomings as a species:

For if [the Houyhnhnm said] you throw among five Yahoos as much food as would be sufficient for fifty, they will, instead of eating peaceably, fall together by the ears, each single one impatient to have all to itself (pg. 280).

My master continuing his discourse said there was nothing that rendered the Yahoos more odious than their undistinguishing appetite to devour every thing that came in their way (pg. 281-82).

The reader must keep in mind that Swift’s novel is written as a satire against the conceit of his own society, thus the prose often takes on a hyperbolic tone whenever Gulliver affirms the reasonableness of the Houyhnhnm species.  The purpose of this is more than likely to further point out the contrasting flaws of the human animal, when forced to look past its self-credited righteousness.

Gulliver’s time spent with the Houyhnhnms causes him to development an intense hatred of not just the Yahoos of this unknown land, but humankind as a whole.  He sees human interests as being predominantly preoccupied with vanities and trivialities, whereas the Houyhnhnms concern themselves with more virtuous pursuits:

As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with the general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions of ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it (pg. 288).

How exactly the Houyhnhnms manage to maintain this level of ultra-stoicism, is left rather vague by the author, but a possible explanation is presented by Gulliver:

It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain, and beyond our knowledge we cannot be either.  So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown amongst the Houyhnhnms (pg. 288).

The Houyhnhnms do not muse or speculate about abstract mental concepts, therefore they possess no means by which to fall prey to ideological quarrels.  This causes Gulliver to pine for the tranquility enjoyed by his hosts, and emulate their behavior for his own betterment.  He has no desire to return to human society, and be surrounded by vain Yahoos (let alone interact with them).  Even the very knowledge of his Yahoo nature stirs in him shame at belong to this repulsive species:

When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than my own person (pg. 300).

Unfortunately for Gulliver, the Houyhnhnms eventually concluded that the innate nature of the Yahoos renders them an unteachable brute, thus to have him live amongst the Houyhnhnm as an equal would be unimaginable.  However, since Gulliver has demonstrated some capability of reason, he was potentially even more dangerous on account that he might be inclined one day to organize the Yahoos against the Houyhnhnms.  Thus, he was exhorted to leave Houyhnhnmland and return to his own place of origin, which he did–begrudgingly.  Upon his return to England, Gulliver is a shell of the humanist he was at the onset of his first voyage; disgusted at the sight of his own kind, and unable to bring himself to bear the stench and presence of even his own family (who to him are now no different from any other Yahoo), he finds some level of peace conversing to his horses (whose anatomy fondly reminds him of the Houyhnhnms), living his life with the modest goal “to behold my figure in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature” (pg. 317).

As mentioned earlier, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s is a work of satire, and should be read as such.  The obvious criticism of human conceit and vanity is the most overt message contained within Gulliver’s final voyage, but what needs to be mentioned is also the apparent lifelessness that comes along with the Houyhnhnms’ dedication to reason.  Devoid of emotional appeals, they do not quarrel, but they also lack imagination, and insight no aesthetic inspiration.  So, to me, the subtler point found hidden in Swift’s prose is that even if the impossible was to be done, and the depravity of human nature could be overcome, and man could learn to be as reasonable as the noble Houyhnhnm, if we remove ourselves of the very facets in life that give us the most meaning and value–despite their contributions to our faults and irrationalities–will we also be giving up the very things that make us human to begin with?

Bibliography

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver’s Travels, (Signet Classics: NewYork), 1726.  1960 reprint.

The Inevitability of Obedience

If you have children, or if you spend a significant amount of your time around children, you understand the importance of instilling the concept of authority in a person’s development.  A four year old has no point of reference why s/he shouldn’t be allowed to eat cake for breakfast, and your rationalization that it will prove to have negative consequence for her/him down the line is bound to ring hollow, since–from the child’s narrow perspective–all such arguments filter down to the old parenting byline, “Because I said so.”  You’re not going to get far trying to convince a person with yet-undeveloped reasoning faculties about why it is/isn’t reasonable to do X,Y, or Z.  Hence, it is simply more effective to refer to one’s higher authority on the matter:  “I know best, because I’m the parent/adult and you are not,” or (in childspeak) “Because I said so.”

If you happen to be the child in this scenario (as most of us at some point undoubtedly have been), you will eventually learn to obey such commands for no other reason than that you’ve being ordered to do so.  Just from a survival standpoint, it is far more pressing for you to know not to do something (like wander onto moving traffic) than it is to understand why you shouldn’t be doing something.  (The latter may be part of the lesson, but the former is really where the emphasis will lie.)  It is for these sort of reasons that the function of authority, and its practical influence in one’s daily life, doesn’t require much explanation; you’ve grown up with it, and (the argument can be made) managed to survive comfortably this long because of it.

Whether we like it or not, this shows that there exists a practical place for a select dose of commanding authorities (and by extension coercion) to direct our decisions for us.  This is an unavoidable outcomes of being social organisms; no matter how much one might wish to philosophize it away, some base sort of authority will always exist as long as society involves a large group of people interacting with one another (i.e. as long as society exists–period).  While you might readily think of yourself as a self-sufficient lone wolf for rejecting some traditional source of authority, you will–and you do–obey the basic authoritative entities of your society, because if you won’t/don’t you’re almost certainly reading this from a jail cell right now (where you also have no choice but to obey an authority; whether it be the prison’s or the prison’s gang hierarchy).  From a Hobbesian perspective, one could summarize this in terms of the individual accepting some rudimentary coercion on her/his person from society, for the sake of the benefits that is offered by obeying the authorities of said society.

A dilemma occurs, however, when we conflate the idea that legitimate authorities exist and exhibit a noticeable level of coercion over our decisions [and how this is unavoidable], with the fact that not every pronouncement made under the guise of authority is worth obeying.  You shouldn’t question your parents’ authority if they tell you not to walk onto moving traffic, nor should you readily dismiss a physician whose telling you that you run the risk of only having under a year to live [though you should probably confirm the diagnosis with a second, third, and fourth doctor, just for the sake of certainty].  But what if a parent asks you to do something that you know to be ethically unsound (and potentially criminal)?  What if a physician uses his position of authority to prescribe to you cures to ailments you know that you don’t have?  Do you question, or obey?  If the Milgram experiment is to be believed, you (and I) will most likely obey the orders of recognized authority figures, for no other reason than that we recognize them as authority figures.  There just appears to be a cognitive misfiring in our reasoning here, where no matter what our personal conscious tells us, we are still more than ready to set it aside for the sake of satisfying the command of a perceived greater entity’s demands.

The large part of the history of the modern world is one in which individuals struggled for the privilege to have, and to freely voice, a dissenting opinion to the power structure of the society they reside in.  Although many would disagree (for varying reasons), in the First World much has been put into legislation to protect the individual’s right to voice dissent.  (You may still not have any alternative than to follow the rules you openly dislike, but you are legally able to say you dislike them; often people overlook how the presence of the former does not necessary undermine their right to the latter.)  The issue of whether it is enough to simply be able to speak one’s disdain for an existing authority structure, while still having to obey the rules decreed by this authority, is (in my opinion) not so much an unanswerable conundrum, than an answerless one.  Because society is largely–or wholly–a collection of guidelines by which its members are to loosely–or strictly–orientate their actions and interactions, it is pointless to demand for an authority-devoid social structure to be constructed for the sake of some idealized hope for absolute equity amongst the various social structures that make up society [show me any group of people, and I will find at least one individual among them whose decisions are being coerced by the influence of some quasi-authority base or another].

This is why the oft heralded call from more…oh, let’s call them…”politically passionate” members of society to question the current power base, and defy authority-at-larger for the sake of [insert noble cause], usually begins to decay even before the marker scribbles on the first protest poster dries.  Despite what common wisdom would have us believe, most people aren’t all that stupid when it comes to this sort of stuff.  And they can tell that a call for the undermining of one authority, is almost guaranteed to result in a replacement rather than removal of coercive forces; implemented by the very people most vocally complaining about the current authorities (it is quite apropos to note how sociopolitical revolutions tend to end in a transfer of power, and never an all out dismantling of it).  The reason for this is that the emergence of authorities is not a corruption or degradation of society–it is society.  It may not be a desirable consequence for some, but something being undesirable doesn’t make it any less true, or practical.

My purpose here is neither to inspire public outrage nor complacency toward authority figures.  It is to get the point across that there are certain traits which are too imbedded in the human psyche to be cast off with a nifty awareness campaign, or full-blown revolution; the instinct for obedience to an authority structure is one of them (no matter how loosely you wish to define your favored authority source).  Hence, while it is important to focus our energy on learning how to critically scrutinize between the contending authorities vying for our obedience, it is equally vital for us to recognize that we are bound to listen to someone’s authoritative claims no matter what our broader stance on the concept of authority happens to be.  Accepting this shortcoming in our reasoning faculties may or may not help us detect the charlatans and demagogues in our midst, but it is a much more productive step for honest discourse that dreaming of benign revolutions and advocating for some undefinable social “great awakening” that defies practical feasibility.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: Justice, and the Social Contract

Frontispiece of The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes Drawing by Abraham Bosse

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is arguably one the most influential works of political philosophy since Plato’s Republic.  In the book, Hobbes sets out to demonstrate how, and why, man has come to create social and political structures, in concurrence with other men, and thereby buildup the pillars of civilization and modes of governance.

Hobbes’ central premise is that, absent of social structures, humans occupy a realm called the state of nature.  Such a state is a lawless, cruel, savage plain of existence, in which the primary instinct of all living creatures (including man) is solely to survive.  However, man—being a rational animal—realizes that the greatest method to satisfy the survival instinct is to try to avoid the brutal pangs of the state of nature altogether, and the only natural means by which he can do so is by seeking security and protection in greater numbers; since the strength of a group will always be immensely more powerful than the strength of the individual.  Furthermore, to ensure stability and efficiency of such a system, the members of the forged society must agree to a certain set of covenants–the social contract that is to be followed by all individuals within the group–that are to be followed by all persons who wish to remain within the protection of the greater community, or risk being exiled back into the savagery of the state of nature.

A reasonable challenge to Hobbes’ program is to inquire about the exact means by which a society (or, commonwealth, as he calls it) is to enforce the covenants of the community; namely, how justice is to be established and ensured.  Hobbes, himself, acknowledges the importance, “that man perform their covenants made:  without which covenants are in vain, and but empty words.”[1]  For Hobbes, the issue of justice is rather simple, if there exists no covenant between individuals, then, “no right has been transferred, and every man has right to every thing [i.e. the state of nature]; and consequently no action can be unjust.”[2]  On the other hand, “when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust:  and the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of covenant.”[3]  The agreed upon social contract is the foundation upon which Hobbes rests his political theory.  In absents of such covenants, lawlessness reigns supreme, and justice is an incoherent premise.  But, once covenants are made among individuals, and a commonwealth is formed, the perimeters of what is to be just, and what is to be unjust, are established, and a failure to follow the decree of the covenant, renders one’s actions unjust by definition.  However, that also leaves open the question of how, exactly, the consequences of the individual’s actions are to be determined by the commonwealth.  Hobbes’s answer is unapologetically authoritarian:

Therefore before the names of just, and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power, to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their consent.[4]

A proprietor is needed to maintain the covenant, without which justice cannot exist in a commonwealth.  As far as Hobbes is concerned, all these components are dependent entities, and inseparable of the existence of a functioning commonwealth (i.e. a society).  For, it is by agreement of their covenants (the entering into the social contract) that the individuals grant the establishment of the commonwealth, and from there, also consents to the power of a proprietor, to employ social cohesion on the members of the community and give legitimacy to the rules of the covenant.  “So that the nature of justice, consisteth in keeping of valid covenants:  but the validity of covenants begins not but with the constitution of a civil power, sufficient to compel men to keep them:  and then it is also that propriety begins.”[5]  Thus, the establishment of a powerful sovereign, of a centralized governing body, is the natural extension of social covenants, and communal living in general.

Although Hobbes’ reasoning is not difficult to follow, one more issue still remains: what about those who reject the seriousness of the covenants?  Is it not imaginable that certain individuals, acting in their self-interest, will enter and break covenants as the mood strikes them; undermining the basis of justice?  And if enough individuals in the commonwealth follow this example, will not the entire social structure become flimsy, and the administration of justice become unmanageable for the proprietor (i.e. the sovereign) to perform?  Hobbes has a harsh reply to this mode of questioning, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no such thing as justice.”[6]  For those who do not take the covenants of the commonwealth seriously, Hobbes does not take seriously.  He argues that such individuals—the fools—have no difficulty seeing the benefit of covenants when it serves their immediate interest, but only refuse to oblige by them when it seems that the rules will refuse them a particular instance of gratification.  Yet, it is by this very admission of the need for covenants to give legitimacy to issues of justice, “He [the fool] does not therein deny, that there be covenants; and that such breach of them may be called injustice, and the observation of the justice.”[7]

Seeing as how Hobbes maintains that absent covenants, men stand alone in the realm of nature, where just and unjust do not exist, the conclusion he derives for those who break covenants is that they forfeit any reference to justice itself.  Therefore, this individual, who steps out of the covenant has lost the protection of the commonwealth, which is still governed by the merits of the social contract they have agreed to uphold, “therefore he which declares he thinks it reason to deceive those that help him, can in reason expect no other means of safety, then what can be had from his own single power.”[8]  And, since no man can truly know the depth of the dangers that may lie ahead of his solitary existence, Hobbes would ask the fool, is it not more reasonable to follow the decrees of the covenant in favor of momentary self-interest, because the greater strength and security of the commonwealth in comparison to the individual is guaranteed to offer a higher rate of survivability for all its subjects?  Because, given the savagery of the state of nature, the fool, “if he be left, or cast out of society, he perisheth.”[9]

Having settled the issue of how to define justice, Hobbes turns to the question of morality.  Namely, even if the stipulations of the covenants a commonwealth is governed under are legitimately just, how does one determine whether they are moral?  Hobbes approaches the matter by first defining what is meant by moral, “moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good, and evil, in the conversation, and society of mankind.  Good, and evil, are names that signify our appetites, and aversions.”[10]  In other words, morality does not exist independent of human desires and inclinations.  In this sense, Hobbes is rejecting the notion of an absolute morality as unfounded in human nature.  Whatever public consciousness might persuade man to think of his morals, the historic reality shows that convergences on moral issues are not self-evident across customs, or across times, “Nay, the same man, in divers times, differs from himself; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth good, what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth evil.”[11]  Hobbes argues that since one individual’s opinion on what is moral rests equally against another individual’s opinion of what is moral, the state of nature, being devoid of justice (as argued above), will never allow for a peace on the matter, hence war will be the natural consequence.  However, man does not want war, as it runs counter to his instinct for security and preservation; thus, man can agree that the opposite of war, peace (even if not absolute), is objectively good; as are the means of achieving peace.[12]  To Hobbes, performing covenants is the best means to escape the state of nature, the consequence of war, and establish a coherent concept of justice.  Therefore, the question of what is to be deemed moral, is inherently correlated with what is considered just: obliging to the covenants of one’s commonwealth is the greatest good that can be done for oneself, hence (granting Hobbes’ premises) it is morally sound.

[1] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ch. 15, “Of the Laws of Nature,” Touchstone (New York: 1997), p.113.

[2] Hobbes, p. 113.

[3] Hobbes, p. 113.

[4] Hobbes, p. 113.

[5] Hobbes, p. 114.

[6] Hobbes, p. 114.

[7] Hobbes, p. 114.

[8] Hobbes, p. 115.

[9] Hobbes, p. 115.

[10] Hobbes, p. 123.

[11] Hobbes, p. 123.

[12]Hobbes, p. 124.

The Unavoidable Necessity of Conformity

Conformity is a dirty word to most ears, because as most of us see it individualism is the sacred ideal for which we must strive, and to which we owe every great social advancement.  The message is clear: individualism good, conformity bad.  And nice, personable celebration of our inherent uniqueness we can all conform rally behind in union.

However, I have to admit that I’m a bit puzzled by the knee-jerk reaction people have towards conformity.  After all, isn’t out conformity to societal norms the means by which society even exists?  Isn’t our willingness to conform to the practices of individuals that preceded us the means by which culture is maintained?  And isn’t our occasional willingness to break away from what we perceive to be the wrongdoings of our predecessors a reflection of our conformity towards the rightness of some other ideal or cause?  So you’re wearing clothes that set you apart from others in your community, thereby showing your individuality.  Great, but aren’t you still conforming to the practice of wearing clothes?  Putting on pants isn’t something that’s innate to people, it is something we are conditioned to do (and, I think, for good reasons).

My point in this post is not to claim that conformity is good, it is to claim that conformity is unavoidable.  You will conform–and you do conform–to something or another (I know I sure as hell do).  But I don’t understand why this should bring despair to anyone.  I don’t see why the fact that we enjoy and take part in activities that we are introduced to by others (people or society at large) should be instantly seen as a sign of a weaker mind.  As long as you, as an individual, truly do like what you’re doing and how you look, isn’t it still an expression of your individuality; even if it is contained within conformed perimeters?  Because, if we are honest, everything we do is causally dependent on the situations and actions that preceded us, thus we are by necessity going to conform in one way or another.

I understand the need we have to assert our individuality, but it’s silly to be so obsessed with being original and enjoying things that only belong to the fringes of pop culture simply because it gives you the right to claim a sub-culture as your identity, unless you are genuinely interested in said sub-culture.  I think that what most people imagine when they hear conformity is submission; the submission of one’s personhood to another.  This is a frightening prospect, so we design clothes, dye our hair, change our speech pattern, and write blogs to show the world that we are individuals, standing apart from the herd.  Now, if we could just get all those other bastards to stop copying us–those damn conformists!

On Respecting Parents and Valuing Children

Most people agree that respect is something that needs to be earned not commanded; unless, of course, you’re a parent.  Parents consider it a given that their opinions are to be considered innately infallible to their children, and thereby are to be honored by fiat.  The message is clear:  Parents are to be shown respect, simply on account of being the parents, while children have to earn respect through persistent acts of good-works.  The rationalization many parents make for this hypocrisy is that by virtue of having made the children, they are entitled to a certain degree of adoration from their offspring.

I’m disturbed by how many accept this non sequitur of an explanation.  It is true that a person’s existence is wholly dependent on her parents’ existence.  However, how does this fact lead someone to conclude that a child ought to respect her parents, just because they are her parents?  The sentiment appears to be that a child is indebted to the parents for granting her life, but at which point exactly, prior to having been born, did any child ever ask to be given this grand gift of life.  Because, by necessity, the decision was entirely one-sided.  Hence–keeping in mind that no child asks to be born–if parents are permitted to claim that they have earned the respect of their children on account of having made them, why aren’t children permitted to claim that they, too, have earned the respect of their parents on account of having made them parents to begin with?  After all, individuals cannot be parents independent of having children (either biologically, or through adoption).  Therefore, the respect parents wish to reserve for themselves by right of being “creators of life,” holds no true bases in logical discourse, since children can also be said to be creators; creators of parenthood itself.

Now, the question that a reader might be wondering is, do I think that parents are due any respect whatsoever?  My answer is yes, parents are due all the respect they have rightfully earned through their actions.  I have little care or regard for those who respect their parents for no other reason but that they happen to be their parents, and when I encounter such individuals it immediately tells me just how much respect their own parenting skills deserve.  Respect, like love, cannot be commanded by virtue of authority, it must be earned.  Otherwise, all you’re doing is partaking in emotionally blackmailing your own children; to which the only respectable response can be undying resentment.

The Value of Humility

In real life, people have forgotten how to respond to compliments.  Tell someone that you like his new haircut, and he’ll respond by telling you how much he hates his uneven ears.  Tell someone else that you love her new dress, and she won’t fail to remind you about the extra 5 pounds she’s carrying.  It makes me wonder how exactly these people respond to criticisms, if a courteous gesture causes them so much self-deprecation.  It also makes me wonder what the cause of this hyper-humility is, and what value it could possibly have for people.

I accept the notion that showing modesty, in terms of refraining from arrogant conceit, is a positive attribute.  However, I reject any implication that a person should look to counter every flattery made towards her/him by divulging an unpleasing flaw about her/himself, as if kind words were in need of a sacrificial offering.  If someone pays you a compliment (even if it’s just for the sake of being cordial) the only response you owe is a polite smile, followed by a simple, “Thank you.”  No more, no less.  There is no need for you to disclose any physical or personal shortcomings you may have, as this is sure to turn a nice gesture into an awkward situation.  But everyone already knows this, yet people still insist on turning innocent compliments into moments of redundant scrutiny of their own person.

There is a sense of masochism about the whole thing.  But, I suspect, not for the obvious reasons.  If you notice, every time a person tries to rebuke a compliment by revealing an embarrassing flaw, the one doing the initial complimenting immediately begins to offer up more praise to the poor bruised thing, until one trivial comment has been turned into an endless sea of adoration on behalf of the insecure soul.  Some are said to have a messiah complex, well I propose that even more have a martyr complex–in which affection and respect is gained not by any positive achievement, but through failure and humiliation.  Where a constant mode of self-flagellation takes the place of self-improvement; where compliments are sought by the virtue of one’s faults, rather than one’s merits.  After all, why else would someone willingly point out their flaws to casual observers, unless s/he knows full well that polite decorum demands pity on a insecure mind?  Perhaps this is an example of what Nietzsche had in mind when he spoke of the slave-morality affecting modern man; though I see no reason to suppose that this trend does not trace back to the antiquity of out species, for as long as man has been man.

And maybe we all just need to practice accepting compliments with a simple, “Thank you,” without fishing for further compliments thereafter.

Exploring Violence in America

“Why is violence so rampant in American society?”  That is the question I often hear expressed concerning the apparent brutality that exists within the American psyche, especially in comparison to its equally economically developed first world countries.  It is a particularly difficult question to address as its phrasing seems to demand a conclusive answer on a topic that is ripe for hasty generalizations and personal biases on the part of the individuals interested enough to even tackle the issue.

I think that it needs to be remembered how the U.S. is not really one cultural block, as much as a collection of various (often contrasting) cultural sentiments.  By which I mean, it would be a mistake to think of any one cultural expression/norm as a reflection of the American mindset (and one should be weary of any public figure who insists otherwise), because the propensity by which any such cultural expression dominates will by necessity vary greatly between different geographic areas in a country whose landmass spans from one ocean to another.  For example, sociopolitical beliefs and preferences will diverge greatly between Americans living in California, Texas, Vermont, and Michigan.  Moreover, even within these contrasting states it is not unusual to find enclaves of population whose cultural mindset is contrasting enough to make them seem like foreigners to each other (i.e. the cultural difference between San Fransisco, CA and Sacramento, CA, or Odessa, TX and Austin, TX, is prominent enough despite both of the paired cities being located within the same states).  Given all of this, it is possible that the perceived violence attributed to the United States as a whole might simply be the result of a few concentrated areas of violent activity fostering the impression of a more hostile society, which may not be altogether warranted.

Though an appealing hypothesis, it still fails to account for the fact that the U.S. actually does have a higher rate of violent activity, even after one factors in populations size and population diversity.  The undeniable truth is that, on average, we are a more violent country than a great deal of other first world countries.  One can even go further by saying that the mindset of the United States appears to regard a certain form of social turbulence as culturally healthy, in ways that other similarly developed countries do not.  This is actually not as absurd of a position to take on the matter as one might initially think.

The United States, for the majority of its history as an independent country, was composed of uncharted–essentially lawless, since sitting laws could not always be enforced–territories.  Essentially, the image of the wild west is a reality that is barely only a little over a century old in a large segment of the American population.  And although these areas have by now been modernized and incorporated under the rule of enforced law, in many ways the appeal of the rugged, self-governing gunslinger has remained ingrained in the romantic sentiments of many people (including people who have no realistic interest in emulating such a harsh reality).

This is possibly best characterized in the popular prominence of a gun culture in many sectors of American society (a very unique feature amongst first world democracies).  Whichever side of the debate you fall on (either favoring more gun regulation or less), it is undeniable that there exists within many segments of the U.S. public a distinct self-identity with one’s right to carry firearms, as well as firearms in general.  As someone living in the South, this is not at all surprising considering how the mere possession of guns for a long period of time beneath–and west of–the Mason-Dixon Line made you the law in a local region.  This mindset that unless the individual retains the right to–if the occasion demands it–keep order and safety by any and every means possible (including firearms), the common citizenry is put into a disadvantaged position to combat against lawless disorder, is still seen as particularly relevant in the eyes of many Americans (whether the alleged perpetrators are common criminals or overreaching governing authorities).  And it is within the context of this mindset that the appeal of identifying with the vocal gun culture resonates with so many Americans.

But is the influence of this gun culture a contributing factor in the proclivity for violence often identified with American society?  I personally see no clear answer to this question, as it’s highly dependent on one’s presupposed opinion on the matter.  My goal on stating the above isn’t to find a solution or compromising in the gun regulation debate, it is to point out that–within the context of a generalized American society–violence is not always categorized with malicious tendencies.  In fact, a prominent premise among advocates for less gun regulation is the claim that it is necessary for good and law-abiding members of society to use violence to protect themselves from the same society’s bad and lawbreaking members (this is also a mainstay theme in most Hollywood action movie plots).  Thus, one could argue that this lack of a reflexive repulsion towards violence amongst many Americans (this includes both those for and against more gun control)–where the act of resorting to violence is more often than not valued in accordance to the consequences it brings, rather than its adherence to an ethical principle–goes far in fostering to the rest of the world an impression of the U.S. having a rampantly violent culture.

“But why on earth would you want to leave such an impression?”  Would be the follow-up question I imagine being voiced from those residing outside the U.S. border.  The only truthful response I can give to this is that, as a collective culture, Americans don’t really care what impression they leave on the rest of the world.  Because there exists another, complimentary, mindset within most of U.S. society–and I’m speaking as a naturalized American, who matured through his adolescence in America, and went through the American education system–which is:  As the United States of America, we are the standard by which we judge the world, not the other way around; for no other reason than that we are the United States of America.

So, if the rest of the world judges us as violent (justifiably or not), we’ll simply claim it’s a testament to our nation’s individualism, without losing a moment’s worth of sleep over it.  Come to think of it, that’s probably the same response we would give to explain our abysmal test scores in comparison to the rest of the world.  Well, at least we’re consistent.

The Measure of a Man

Leonardo da Vinci: Art, Family & Facts - HISTORY

One hundred years from today, I will be long dead.  This is a fact whose veracity exists completely independent of my attitude or concern towards it.  Before I am accused of youthful nihilism, let me make it clear that my guaranteed death sometime in the coming decades does not cause me much grief, or fear, or pessimism; after all, the way I see it, once I’m dead I will not have the capacity to even care one way or the other.  The only intent I have with mentioning my own mortality is to focus my young mind on the way in which individuals are remembered by succeeding generations.  Or, more fittingly, how they are not remembered.

In history, very few individuals are ever really remembered.  If one was to compare the names of individually known figures, to the names of the unknown masses, the former would not even tip the scale in ratio to the latter.  Which is why, I suppose, we have a tendency to often define eras and concepts in history by the measure of their most imposing personalities (i.e. Pre-Socratic philosophy, Napoleonic Era, Darwinian science, Keynesian economics).  In times where no single individual can quite reach the notoriety needed to be the zeitgeist’s neologism, the individuals who make up the era are left to be defined by the perception later generations have of them as a collective mass (i.e. the Dark Ages, where any individual accomplishment that may have been produced is overshadowed by the popularly understood inaction of the historical era as a whole).

This bit of information leaves me with little doubt that, as a content member of the unknown masses, the faults (and, of course, the strengths) that will come to define the age I happen to live in, will eventually be the standard by which future generations measure my merits and contributions as an individual (on account that my individuality is entirely tied in to the merits of the social structure I happen to have been born into).  This means that just as we today may pitifully look back at the anonymous peasant of the 11th Century–who thought the sun revolved around the earth and that witches were ruining his crops–long after I am dead, I will continue to exist in the consciousness of the yet-to-be-born public, as a pitiful, anonymous representation of all the bigotries and delusions that are too prevalent in my current society for me to even fully acknowledge; regardless of whether I personally subscribed to such sentiments or not.

Some might see this as a compelling reason for why one must speak out against perceived errors of one’s day, but I’m skeptical to how much of a deterrence this has against the prevailing generalizations of history.  Certainly speak out when you see fit, new media forums have made that easier now than ever, and the chance exists that your voice will stand out from the crowd.  But it should be kept in mind that back in the 11th Century, there must have been at least one peasant who did not hold to witchcraft as a plausible phenomenon, and perhaps didn’t even subscribe to a geocentric model, but her/his voice is still irrelevant to the greater historical narrative of her/his social era.  Because even when dissenting voices are acknowledged to have existed within the nameless public, they are usually treated by history as minor anomalies in the larger framework.

Maybe this should give us reason enough to collectively strive to do better as a society, so that the faults of our generation don’t become the eventual measure of us as individuals.  But such worries can seem almost too laughably idealistic to even the most astute observer (how on earth can we correct faults we don’t even notice we have, yet?).  Not to mention, this is only a concern to me because I’m still alive (and plan to stay so for some time to come).  If I was dead…well, I refer the reader to my statement on mortality at the beginning of this post.