What So Many Believers Get Wrong about Faith, and Why

I recently watched the exchange between Colbert and Gervais about the existence of God and how it is possible to prove that it exists (or not). As such, I’m once again disappointed by public figures – who hold sway over public opinion – and their inability to argue intelligently about such matters.

The debate between the religious and the secular has been raging for quite some time now, and more than ever the former are desperate to demonstrate that what they believe is true. And why shouldn’t they? They’re certainly being challenged by the secular community, especially the scientific community which continues to discount some of the historical “truths” found in various religious tomes. And this is to say nothing of the call of Logic and Reason, too, which demands that all be subject to enquiry, determining the veracity of propositions and conclusions, and deeming “worthy” that which should be accepted by enlightened minds.

One example of this conflict involves the age of the Earth. Using the Bible’s chronology, some interpreters have put the literal age of the Earth at between 5 and 10,000 years old. However, scientists in the fields of geology and planetary physics have determined that the Earth is, in fact, 4.5 billions years old. Without going into detail about why, other than science operates by a more demanding methodology and that the nature of both the Old and New Testaments are problematic/dubious, this author will state justifiably: the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

Science, for quite some time, has been encroaching further and further into the belief systems of religions, and the reaction is not surprising at all. But what’s behind it? Ultimately, I think it a two-fold process relating to both individual psychology and systemic preservation. As regards the first, the individual believer must preserve the integrity and legitimacy of the self and their belief in the religion. For the individual wants to think of his/herself as a rational agent that came to believe in something genuine and real. To challenge a belief system in the way science often does not only threatens the rationality of the system but the individual his/herself. A challenge like the one science creates by positing differing narratives of the Earth’s age, for example, makes the religion’s account wrong; but also the believer of that religion foolish for believing in something obviously and verifiably wrong.

But there is also something deeper happening within both the system and the believer: a heretofore solved crisis is resurfacing, threatening the livelihood of the system and the existential peace enjoyed by the believer. In effect, what a truthful account does when it contradicts a religion is demonstrate how the latter is wrong. Eventually, if enough contradictions occur, the belief system dies – for it has no demonstrable value, at least when it comes to explaining that which is verifiable. “That which is verifiable” is an important qualifier, one to which this author will return. As it pertains to the believer, having the belief system shown to be false, especially as it concerns something as profound as metaphysics and ontology, creates a palpable and profound fear about one’s self, its relation to the Universe, and its ultimate fate within it. These are not insignificant personal issues that most must struggle with at some point in their life; or at least have resolved by adopting (and, though, less adamantly pursued: adhering) to a religious code. The stripping away of the psychological comfort provided by the answers religion provides – contradictions demonstrated by science – create an existential crisis of the highest order. Imagine coming to understand that all you once believed was a lie. This is the effect of the dissonance between belief systems and facts that contradict certain empirical elements of those systems.

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That all said, this is not quite the point worth mentioning. The real point – the reason for this author’s disappointment in celebrities, or the debate in general, was articulated best by Christian intellectual, T.S. Lewis. But before I paraphrase (I can’t seem to find the source of the exact quote despite my best efforts), a few definitions will help to clarify.

The OED defines the following:

Belief1) the mental action, condition, or habit, of trusting to or confiding in a person or thing; trust, dependence reliance, confidence, faith 2) mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, as true, on the ground of authority or evidence; assent of the mind to a statement, or to the truth of a fact beyond observation, on the testimony of another, or to a fact or truth on the evidence of consciousness 3) the thing believed; the proposition of set of propositions held true 4) a formal statement of doctrines believed, a creed

Fact – 4) something that has really occurred or is actually the case; something certainly known to be of this character; hence, a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or a fiction; a datum of experience, as distinguished from the conclusion that may be based upon it

Faith – I. belief, trust, confidence 1a) confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine b) belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority 3) belief in the truths of religion; belief in the authenticity of divine revelation (whether viewed as contained in Holy Scripture or in the teaching of the Church), and acceptance of the revealed doctrine

Science – 1a) the state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied 2a) knowledge acquired by study; acquaintance of or mastery of any department of learning b) trained skill 3a) a particular branch of knowledge or study; a recognized department of learning 4a) in a more restricted sense: a branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which include trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its domain

To summarize (using the most relevant definitions to the discussion here): there are significant differences between a belief and a fact, and between faith and science. A belief is an acceptance of a proposition as if it were true, while a fact is a something that actually is true. Similarly, faith is a belief in a particular proposition or series of propositions, while science is method of studying propositions to determine their veracity and the general laws that may govern them. Fundamentally, what faith entails is the blind belief in something higher than one’s self, and science is the method of investigating what is observable, measurable, and testable in order to approach truth.

Paraphrasing Eliot (poorly): If religious beliefs were to ever be known as scientific facts, then it would not require faith to believe in it; but would, in fact, destroy the faith in those propositions of belief. What is true and known does not require believing in it (or faith in it); for if something is known, it is – no belief or faith is necessary. This is the significance of religious faith/belief – this is why it takes faith to believe in it. To remove the unknown, replacing it with factual certainty, renders such a gesture meaningless. The true believer can never know for sure, for if she did she wouldn’t need faith.

That said, it is also worth mentioning that faith and science deal in two very distinct arenas. Faith deals with matters of spirituality, and given the nature of spirituality – a realm of souls, gods, immaterial forces – science can never deal with those aspects of humanity. For there is no observable soul, or god, etc to observe, measure, and test. However, when it comes to everything else that is observable, measurable, and testable – like the age of the Earth, for example – science will continue to reign supreme.

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So. Can we stop having these inane “debates” in such a way that intends to prove one way or another whether or not God, or any other immaterial phantoms, exist definitively? I’m not against a good round of hypothesizing, philosophizing, or debate; but it’s the desperation – founded upon profound ignorance – of demonstrating some finality regarding the issue that irks this author. Again, faith in a higher power (i.e. God) isn’t something that requires empirical justification – to do so is not only impossible but it completely misses the point of having faith. However, faith has its own limitations, and where it stands in contradistinction to the proven methodology of science in physical reality it should stand down, accept verifiable facts, take itself less seriously, and realize what it’s all about. Humility is instructive for us all.

The Metaphysics of E=mc^2

 

E=mc² is probably to most well-known equation in the world. But do people really know what it means. And are they aware of the “spiritual” implications of this simple yet profound expression?

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Let’s start with the science. This equation expresses the concept known as the mass-energy equivalence. Simply, it means is that any amount of mass has an energy equivalent. E in the equation means the energy of a physical system, be it a single atom or a collection of atoms; m is the mass of that physical system; and c is the speed of light in a vacuum (which approximates to 671 miles/hour or 186,000 miles/second – the fastest speed there is).

In words, e=mc² means that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. In practical terms, the equation means that if one were to take any mass and speed it up to the speed of light times itself, the result would be a release of energy. This is what happens in a nuclear explosion – a small amount of uranium is converted to energy. For example, the bomb (codename: “Little Boy”) that was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, had 140 lbs (64 kg) of Uranium-235 and produced a blast yield of 15 kilotons of TNT (only about 2 lbs of it actually contributed to the blast/energy yield!). The deaths that resulted from the blast are estimated between 90,000 and 146,000 people, half of which occurred immediately, the rest over the following months and years. This should be an indication of the amount of energy contained within a small amount of matter.

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Now, let’s approach this equation from another angle. First, mass is a property of matter (M). Matter is nothing more than the substance(s) of which any object is composed (excluding some other energy phenomenon like light or sound). While there are some exceptions (but that is unlikely to change the thrust of this essay), everything that exists (observable, physical objects) in this Universe is composed on Matter. So, mass is effectively synonymous with matter. In this way, E =mc² becomes E = Mc².

This slight change starts to bring into focus the spiritual aspects of this equation. Basically, the equation states that all Energy in the Universe is super (ridiculously, almost incomprehensively) fast moving matter. But let’s rewrite the equation to make things even clearer: M= E/c². Matter – all the atoms that make up this Universe: the stars, the planets, the oceans, land, air, plants, animals, and even human beings – equals concentrated energy in super-slow motion! We – everything that is this Universe – are all energy in myriad forms.

But there’s more. The First Law of Thermodynamics – a version of the law of conservation of energy – demonstrates that energy can neither be created nor destroy, only transformed from one form to another.

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From these two laws we can deduce three important conclusions. First, as the various Buddhist schools teach: we are all one. As Sosan, the Korean Zen Grand Master, put it: “Here from the very beginning, there is the One thing, constantly lucid and mysterious, it has never been born and it has never died.” Similarly, Hui Hai, the Chinese Zen Master states: “Mind, Buddha, and living things do not differ from one another.” The idea that all things, living and otherwise, are one and the same becomes more than some spiritual perspective given the science laid out previously. We are all made of the same material and this collection of matter/atoms is, in reality, one whole entity, of which we are merely a part. It is similar to the various cells in our individual bodies that collectively give rise to our individual bodies and, consequently, our conscious selves. Like those individual cells, we individual beings are part of something much larger -and about as aware of It as the cells of our bodies are of the organism they comprise.

In this way, individualism is an illusion. Experimental cognitive psychologist, Bruce Hood, describes this illusion as:

… experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity.

What Hood is stating is that our individual identities do not exist without the brains to which that are necessarily attached. These identities constitute the phenomena we come to understand as reality but, as Hood points out, are not so given the larger Reality in which we exist and that exists independently of ourselves. But Hood’s exposition is limited to the psychological-perceptual. The Universal Reality described by the science in the introduction is much the same. We are all one colossal energy system, and the physical individual entities that arise from it may be differentiated in form but not in substance. So, in this way, these distinctions are not as singular as they may appear.

Second, the law of conservation of energy confirms the idea of reincarnation. That said, it is only the physical. i.e. that part which consists of atoms, that is eternally reincarnated and transformed. For example, the atoms that existed in stars billions of years ago are those that make up our planet and all the living things on it, including ourselves. Similarly, when our bodies die and decay, the nutrients and atoms that make up those corpses are reincorporated into the ecosystem, nourishing life further: the atoms and molecules making up those bodies break down and are absorbed by soil, consumed by bacteria, worms, fungi; plants then consume those nutrients, which, then fuel and make up the animals that eat them, and then the organisms that eat those, and on ad infinitum – the circle of life and death.

However, this reincarnation does not apply to the self – that epiphenomenon of a functioning, holistic information processor we call the brain. Our selves have no physical basis on their own – this is the crux of the illusion, Hood argues – but rely upon the brain for its existence. When the brain ceases to function, so does the self. This cessation of function is commonly referred to as death. The beginning of that function is called birth. It should be noted that there are two deaths and two births: one of the physical organism and one of the conscious self.

Which leads to the third: birth and death, too, are themselves illusions of sorts. As established previously, energy can neither be created nor destroyed; as such, birth and death, for both physical and psychical phenomena, are really just transformation. Human consciousness, in all its categorizing glory, makes these distinctions of beginning and end, but these distinctions only work on a certain level, and do not exist outside the level on which those distinctions are made. In other words, it is useful for us to make these distinctions but in the grand scheme of things they become meaningless. To demonstrate: do any of us make these distinctions of individuality and meaning when it comes to colonies of ants, or the individuals that comprise that colony? Does – or can – the Universe, and the energy system it truly is, make these distinctions for human life in the vast 14-billion-year expanse of space-time?

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It is tempting to gravitate towards pessimism given this information but it not meant to be so bleak. It is certainly humbling, but there is optimism in such an understanding. Because, ultimately, we are part of something much greater than ourselves, something (almost?) incomprehensible and yet tangible. Further, we will be part of it always: a life everlasting. And that our self, our awareness of our place in it, is nothing short of miraculous. For we exist (despite the staggering odds against such a likelihood)! We get to witness this awesome thing we call Reality/Universe, and we get to be a conscious and active part of it. We are the gospel of this magnificent yet elusive revelation, as brief and inconsequential as it ultimately may be.

Literally, Socialism, and the Need for a Dictionary in American Discourse

Oxford-English-Dictionary-001

A recent article by the Economist magazine has exposed Bernie Sanders for what any of us familiar with the meanings of words is: NOT a socialist. Despite the obvious reasons why Sanders is not a socialist, there are many who – despite the clarification in the article – still insist that Sanders is, indeed, a socialist in the proper sense of the word. What follows is a delineation of terms (including “socialism”), a look at this phenomenon of semantic confusion, and a prescription for correcting it and, ultimately, improving not only linguistic precision but political discourse.

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A few years ago, I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the word “literally,” defined as, “in the literal or strict sense,” has come to mean its exact opposite: “in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.” This means that the word “literally” now literally means “figuratively!” Why? No doubt it is because it has been largely and continuously misused over time as a filler word in the conversations of most people. If it is in the nature of language to change, why is a semantic shift (a reversal) like this so irksome – and dangerous?

The most obvious problem with a reversal like this the confusion it creates. What does a person mean when they use a word like “literally” in a conversation? While context and common sense can go a long way in determining which meaning is intended, there are other instances where this is not so. The most recent example is the use of the word “socialism” vis-a-vis Bernie Sanders’ political stance.

Socialism is defined as, “a theory or system of social organism that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.” The key feature of economic -isms is who controls the means of production: in socialism, it is society as a whole; in capitalism, it is private individuals/corporations. While it is difficult to distill comprehensive and variable economic systems in a sentence, these are the essential features of those words and so anyone who claims to endorse the philosophies which those words represent must, at least, meet such basic criteria.

So, do the policies Sanders’ propose meet these basic criteria? The answer is a resounding “no,” even according to Sanders himself. In an interview with Amy Goodman, Sanders was asked to define what he meant by “socialism.” Sanders replied,

Well, I think it [socialism] means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.

What Sanders describes is not socialism, proper – where society controls the means of production – but a more fair and equitable form of democratic capitalism. In fact, he has said outright that, “I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street, or own the means of production.” So, Sanders is not a socialist according to the original meaning of the word; he is, in fact, a capitalist. The problem, though, is that he gives his own definition of the word, “socialism,” and if we accept and use it the way he does then, technically, Sanders is a “socialist,” but only according to this new definition.

Back to the confusion of contradictory definitions: is Sanders a socialist or not? According to traditional socialist philosophy in which society owns the means of production, “no, Sanders is not a socialist.” However, if we take his Jeffersonian-esque interpretation of democracy as a definition, then, “yes, he is.” But are the electorate making this significant distinction between socialism proper and Sanders’ version of it when “debating” his presidential bid and the policies he advocates? There are plenty of indications that the vast majority of Americans are not. But, ultimately, does this matter?

In short, yes. First, words have meaning, and when those meanings change so much that they no longer mean what they originally did, or worse: the exact opposite, then effective communication becomes all but impossible. Second, semantic shifts of the type that have occurred to “literally” and “socialism,” can be used in ways that can confuse, mislead, and deceive. A perfect example is the negative labelling of Sanders as a “socialist.” Such a label turns off many potential supporters because of the connotation the word has received due to the history of the Cold War. That said, the word “socialism” underscores the major political shift Sanders does endorse, so it does indicates a “revolution” in political goings-on that Sanders’ promises if elected. In this way, the obfuscation is strategic, even if somewhat disingenuous. In these ways, political discourse becomes double speak and there is a real danger that, if we’re not vigilant, it devolves into duckspeak.

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In conclusion: Sanders is not a socialist in any meaningful sense; he is a democrat and a capitalist, by his own admissions. Furthermore, words have meaning and we who use language have the responsibility to protect the integrity of those meanings. Though, we must allow for – and adapt to – the inevitable evolution of language when those changes do not degrade communication. The best way to do this is to know the meanings of words and to insist upon clarification and discipline when using language. And the best way to know these meanings is to read the dictionary, regularly. Look up words not known; refresh understanding of words that are known; and build vocabularies on a daily basis (David Foster Wallace went so far as to call the dictionary one of the, “great bathroom books of all times”). In this way, human communication, thought, and socio-political processes can improve in ways that will benefit us all.

Conspiracy Theories vs Conspiratorial Politics

eye

Rereading Jeffrey McKenzie Bale’s Ph.D dissertation, The “Black”  Terrorist International: Neo-Fascist Paramilitary Networks and the “Strategy of Tension” in Italy, 1968-1974, has inspired this post. It provides a much-needed distinction between the elaborate fables of conspiracy theorists and a common feature of modern politics. In this way, maybe public discussion of political events can take a more nuanced and thoughtful consideration of goings-on in the world.

Bale’s impressive and extensive research into an incredible conspiracy opens with such a desideratum. He has to convince the reader that he’s not some paranoid quack but instead a serious historian. The problem, he rightfully acknowledges, is that the subject matter is often deemed deranged interpretation and marginalized, instead of being understood as historical fact that the evidence supports. In order to assuage the skeptics, he lays out the following before presenting the well-documented evidence.

The defining feature of a conspiracy theory, Bale states, is the essential belief in the “existence of a ‘vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character,’ acts which aim to ‘undermine and destroy a way of life.'” Moreover, conspiracy theories have a few more defining features. First, is that the alleged conspirators are usually considered to be evil incarnate. Second, that the conspiratorial group is considered monolithic, relentless, and unerring in the pursuit of its goals.

The third feature is that the conspiratorial group is considered omnipresent; the fourth is that the group is thought of as omnipotent. And, finally, that these conspiracies are the motive force of all historical change.

Before, listing the differences, Bale points out that the word conspiracy comes from the Latin word to conspire which literally means, “to breathe together,” and he points out that there need be nothing sinister in such an act – that it amounts to nothing more than a meeting between people. “Thus,” he writes, “every times officers of a company participate in a board meeting to plan a marketing strategy they are ‘conspiring,’ and in this sense there are literally millions of conspiracies occurring every single day.”

In contrast to conspiracy theories, conspiratorial politics – those activities of actual political groups, clandestine or otherwise – share the following, contrary features. First, members of conspiracies are human and contain the range of human features. Second, covert politics is anything but monolithic – “at any given time,” Bale writes, “there are dozens if not thousands of competitive groups engaging in secret planning and activities… in order to gain some advantage;” and even within these groups, there are differences of opinions and goals as evidenced by factions.

A Third feature is that the operational sphere of any conspiratorial group is restricted in time and space. There is no single conspiratorial group that spans more than 100 years that operates towards the same ends as when it started – the world, people, and goals change. The final characteristic of political conspiracies is that they are narrow in scope, restricted in their effects, and of limited historical significance. This last condition, however, carries with it a caveat. Namely, that if the conspirators are powerful political figures, the effects of the clandestine activities can have a profound effect on history. False flag operations such as the Mukden Incident, The Reichstag Fire, or the Gleiwitz Incident, to name but a few, are perfect examples of conspiratorial politics that have had a significant impact on history.

So what’s the point of all this explication? To make the distinction between conspiracy theory and conspiratorial politics. The former is an imaginative indulgence which may or may not contain some elements of truth; the latter is an ubiquitous political reality, one in which various groups vie for power or the expression of their myriad agendas. And how could we think differently? As Bale puts it, “How, indeed, could it be otherwise in a world full of intelligence agencies, national security bureaucracies, economic pressure groups, secret societies with hidden political agendas, and the like?”

The (Aristotelian) Art of Democracy

justice-is-blind

Aristotle is an incredibly important democratic thinker, and probably the very first. Much of Western political tradition is owed to him, and there is great value in re-examining his ideas in order to better inform our present. There is a great deal to cover so this author will briefly outline Aristotle’s theory on democratic rule in order to provide the foundation necessary for the main argument of this post.

First, Aristotle asserts that man is a “political animal” (Book I, chapter 2). By this he means that humans have a natural tendency for society. Individual man and woman come together, they form a household; several households come together to form a village; and these several villages come together to form a city, all for the sake of self-sufficiency. (For ancient societies, the city was the equivalent of the state or nation, and so the reader should not limit the city to what is typically thought of as a city but should include nation-states). But, as Aristotle admits, other animals do this, too. So what makes man unique? What separates the human animal from the other social animals? He argues that it is humankind’s perception of, “good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort].” It is these perceptions that give humankind the ability to live well, not merely survive. And it is to this end: to live well, that humankind should and must strive in order to maintain its unique ontological position. He goes so far to say that an individual who, “is incapable of participating or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city and so is either a beast or a god.”

The next few books of his Politics investigate the proper functioning of the household and its parallels to the proper functioning of government, i.e. the management of the city. He also outlines three basic forms of good government: kingship, aristocracy, and polity; and their corrupt counterparts: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, respectively. Without getting bogged down in theory, suffice it to say that the first three are just and good because the government rules for the benefit of all; the last three governments rule for the advantage of those who rule and so are unjust and bad. It is worth noting that Aristotle’s conception of democracy is different from our contemporary conception. By democracy, Aristotle meant mob rule of the generally poor masses. Our contemporary conception of democracy – that form of government by citizens who have the ability-potential to rule collectively for the benefit of society – is what Aristotle calls polity. In this essay, I will use democracy in our contemporary conception of the word (what Aristotle refers to as polity); and when Aristotle uses the word, the reader must remember that he speaks of mob rule.

Though Aristotle was very distrustful of mass rule, he reluctantly concluded that the polity would best be able to inculcate justice and humanity and thus preserve the city and mankind because it is the most moderate form of government (Chapter IV, chapter 2, section 2). But it wasn’t polity alone that ensured and protected the justice of the city and its inhabitants. For it is possible that a polity could easily become corrupt and devolve into one of the perverted forms of the government. In all of the good forms of government there is a foundation and guide, and justice is this guide. For Aristotle, the “political good is justice,” what he calls the, “common advantage,” or the well-being of the whole society (Book III, chapter 12, section 1). Aristotle continues, stating that laws are the operational manifestations of that justice. If justice is maintained, then good laws will follow and a king, an aristocracy, or a polity could properly rule according to the laws derived from it; if justice was absent, then the laws would also be unjust, and government would misrule, becoming corrupt, and the people with it.

Aristotle writes:

One who asks law to rule, therefore, is held to be asking god and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast. Desire is a thing of this sort; and spiritedness perverts rulers and the best men. Hence law is intellect without appetite (Book III, chapter 16, section 5).

For Aristotle – as most of Western philosophical tradition – Reason is the domain of Justice and as such is best able to identify and articulate it. The laws that govern both the government and the city it manages are to be derived through Reason. It needs to be stated that both Justice and Reason are thought to emanate from some source, what Aristotle called the Prime Mover, or what has been traditionally – and problematically – referred to as god. This premise (or conclusion, depending on the direction in which it is argued) is not without its problems and is in need of reconsideration for a variety of reasons, but that is another subject altogether. For now, it is enough to say that the laws of a (just) city derive from a higher source and that Reason is the means to access this source. And to reiterate: accessing this higher source through Reason is what makes us uniquely human.

Now that I’ve outlined a very truncated primer to Aristotle’s democratic theory, I can proceed to the main argument. But, again, some context is necessary, first.

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There has been much talk in that past few years of economic inequality, prosperity, the proper role of government, and who is best to lead the U.S. starting in 2016. But this author asserts that these issues are ancillary to the true issue: is the U.S. just? – is it being ruled justly? – how can we know for sure? – and, what can be done about it? There are a myriad of ways to address these questions – and that need to be – in order to fully answer and resolve them; however, for the sake of concision, this essay will focus on the economic aspect given its salience and relevance in contemporary times. Focused in this way, the questions become: is the U.S. just in domestic economic matters (production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services)? Is the social economy being governed justly? How can we know? If so, how do we continue such rule? And if not, then what can be done about it?

This essay attempts to answer the easiest of these questions through the lens of Aristotle’s democratic philosophy. These questions then become: “Is the U.S. economically just?” and “How do we know?” Let us begin with Aristotle, who writes of material/economic justice and how it does not work:

What, then, ought one to say is the extreme of injustice? Again, taking all [the citizens] into consideration, if the majority distributes among itself the things of a minority, it is evident that it will destroy the city. Yet it is certainly not virtue that destroys the element possessing it, nor is justice destructive of a city; so it is clear that this law cannot be just… But is it just, therefore, for the minority and the wealthy to rule? If they act in the same way and rob and plunder the possessions of the multitude, is this just? If so, then the other is as well (Book III, chapter 10, sections 2-3).

What Aristotle describes here are two (of the three) corrupt forms of government: oligarchy (the rule by the rich) and democracy (the rule of the masses/mob). He concludes that it is as unjust for the masses to plunder the possessions of the rich as it is for the rich to plunder the possessions of the masses. He concludes that if one is just, then so is the other; in other words: neither is just. In fact, both are extremes of economic (re)distribution and as such necessarily unjust. And the discussion of the extremes bring into the discussion of the mean, or moderation.

The “mean” is an important concept for Aristotle. He argues that moderation is virtue, and that extremes are vices. He writes:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate to both produces and increases and preserves it. So too it is, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, become in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean (Nichomachean Ethics Book II, chapter 2).

Similarly: for Aristotle, excessive wealth or poverty destroys virtue and ultimately the citizen and the city. The cardinal virtue at threat here is Justice, which – defined by Aristotle as the “virtue characteristic of partnerships” (Book III, chapter 13, sec 3) – is the proper governing-goal of a city. And as mentioned earlier, neither too much can be allowed to the wealthy elites or too little to the masses – and they are not allowed to plunder one another. Both are destructive of virtue and ultimately justice. This is easier to understand when one considers that being just individually means participating in Reason so as to develop individual virtue. If one hasn’t the means even to eat, or has to endure excessive hardship to merely survive then it is difficult, if not impossible, to allot time to such lofty activities [Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is most instructive here] – such a restriction is to deny the individual of what makes one human.

For Aristotle, the concerns of both classes – the wealthy elites and the un-wealthy masses – must be taken into consideration and managed appropriately. In other words, proper government must balance both the needs of the masses and the needs of the wealthy. For Aristotle, this is the art of democratic rule: moderation.

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This analysis begs several questions. Is the U.S. moderate in its economic distribution? Is the U.S. ruled moderately with the interests of the wealthy elites and the masses appropriately balanced? What is the appropriate balance and distribution of wealth, exactly? Here, Aristotle gives few specific instructions. For each city/nation is different and its laws will necessarily reflect these differences; although, their pursuits of justice will/should remain identical. Given this lack of specificity on Aristotle’s part, however, it is still possible to answer such questions.

Of all the data and the methods available to us for answering these questions, the first this essay will focus on is that of economic productivity relative to income. The rationale is as follows: as a nation gets richer, those who work more often or harder to increase national wealth should see concomitant raises in personal income. It should be noted that these 2 indicators are but one way of measuring this question and in no way should be construed as being complete or total, but it will shed some light on the matter.

The Economic Policy Institute published a study in 2012 that looked at, among other things, these data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They found that from the year 1979-2007, income gains from the increase in productivity and GDP have gone primarily to the top 1% of families. In fact, 59.9% of the gains went to the top 1%, with 36.6% going to the top 0.1%, and a mere 8.6% of these gains to the bottom 90%. In this same time frame, total productivity has increased by roughly 70%. However, the average hourly compensation has only increased by about 34%. Keep in mind that increases in productivity prior to the early 70s rose commensurately as hourly compensation in the previous decades. Since 1973, however, hourly compensation has stagnated while productivity has increased. What happened to all the ever-increasing income (roughly a difference of 35% of output/income that hasn’t been given in terms of wages to the workers who are actually producing goods and services)? In short, the owners of the capital – the 1%, but really the 0.1% – have been collecting it all for themselves. So the question: is this fair? Or rather: is this just? Does this distribution take care of both the wealthy elites and the masses of workers in ways proper for each?

The other metric this essay will use to help answer this question is inflation – the rising cost of goods and services over time – relative to income earned. Using data from the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics the inflation rate from 1979 to 2007 is 196.34%. (This means that over an almost 30-year period, something that cost $5 in 1979 cost $9.82 in 2007.) Similarly, median household income in 1979 was $50,342 and in 2007 it was $57,717 (both figures are measured in 2015 dollars). This is a median household income increase of 13.65%. Compare this to the 196.34% increase in the cost of living – a difference of 182.69%! It is difficult to imagine that such a difference is just in any meaningful sense, let alone allows for the masses to maintain a standard of living reflective of the wealthiest nation on Earth (without going into debt, that is).

Granted, this is only one way of looking at the question, and any single analysis cannot provide a final determination for a question this complex. That said, there are other similar trends that underscore systemic disequilibrium: decreasing employment and social benefits; weakening of labor unions; increased prevalence of lobbying for rich corporations; increased prevalence of legislation benefitting the very wealthy; increase CEO pay relative to average workers (which increased almost 800% from 1980-2010 while the typical worker only saw a 5.7% increase over the same time); an effective corporate tax rate in the teens, and sometimes zero or even negative; subsidies for wealthy corporations, the most recent being the bank bailouts which highlight an exceptionally hypocritical – if not a contradictory and simultaneously self-destructive – “capitalist” ethos that governs those “too big to fail;” as well as a continued lack of meaningful and aggressive oversight of financial institutions and processes, to name but a few.

* * * * *

So what does all this mean? First, that is important to always define terms and concepts. Aristotle’s conceptions of “democracy,” “justice,” and the “mean” aren’t typically what come to mind when one comes across these words. Despite the non-association, most people would probably agree that an important element of democracy is balancing the various interests of a nation, particularly the wealthy and the masses; that justice is – or at least should be – a concern of the state; and that moderation, or the mean between excesses, is an ideal to which an individual and nation-state should strive.

Second, that the analysis presented in this essay illuminates some disturbing trends. One, that despite an ever-increasing level of productivity, wages and income for the vast majority of workers in the US have effectively remained the same for the last 40 years. Two, that until the early ‘70s, productivity and worker compensation rose together; after that, productivity rose and compensation leveled off. Three, inflation, too, has increased non-stop. Four, that inflation has vastly outpaced what little increases to income there has been since the ‘70s. All together, what emerges is a picture of a socio-economic system that since the 1970s has rewarded the wealthy disproportionately more than the masses despite an ever-increasing level of productivity.

If Aristotle’s notion of balancing the interests of the wealthy against those of the masses is sound policy, then what is clear is that the U.S. socio-political system is out of balance, in favor of the wealthy. The conclusion implied here is that a re-redistribution is necessary in order to bring the system back in to balance. As mentioned earlier, this is but one analysis, and that many more are required to verify this phenomenon and conclusion. Also, mentioned, however, is that there are a myriad of social, political, and economic phenomena that have been taking place that, collectively, support this analysis and conclusion. There is, also, no shortage of data and studies confirming what has been concluded in this essay so verification will not be a difficult task. What is difficult is deciding how to rectify the problem. But the political solutions tend to fall into one of two camps: policies that directly benefit the wealthy (with the hope/assumption that those benefits will “trickle down” to the masses), or those that directly benefit the masses (which are often qualified in ways that show deleterious effects upon the wealthy’s ability to benefit the whole [economy], usually by not being able to create jobs): the qualifications for both solutions – that is, the way they are framed – are indicative of a power-structure at play that goes a long way in explaining why conditions have gotten to the point at which the U.S. finds itself currently.

Third, it should be clarified that while a re-redistribution – or a rebalancing, to use Aristotle’s language – does entail an equalizing it does not entail and equalization. In other words, a re-redistribution does not mean that all are now millionaires or that everyone has the same amount of income and/or wealth; instead, it means that, for the vast majority of people, their compensation in income is brought up to levels commensurate with current levels of productivity, national wealth, and standards of living – in other words: what they have earned through their collective work over the last four decades. As Aristotle maintains: for the sake of civil society, the property of the wealthy must be maintained and not pillaged, but so, too, must be that of the masses. It follows that if the masses have been plundered – as the data suggest – then their property is to be confiscated and returned.

In conclusion, the answer to the question – “Is the U.S. economically just?” – is “No.” Increases in productivity and inflation have outpaced income for the vast majority of U.S. citizens and both domestic and global trends do not support the interpretation that this is some unfortunate accident. (And the means by which this redirection of wealth has occurred would be an interesting topic for another essay…) For the sake of good empirical procedure, this essay encourages further analysis, but this author is certain these conclusions are easy to verify given the decades of previous research, analysis, and policy recommendations.

The U.S. is at the tipping-point of a phenomenon 40 years in the making – 20 of which has been spent forewarning the arrival of this point. Will its democratic government rule justly, bringing the nation back into balance? Or will it continue to unevenly stack the scales, threatening the foundation of its polity?

Liberty’s Folly, Part I

liberty ashamed

Now it must be granted that folly is a disease of the soul, and of folly there are two kinds: one is madness, the other stupidity. So when anyone suffers at all from either of these, it must be termed disease; and pleasure and pains that are excessive must be set down as the greatest of diseases of the soul. For when a human is overjoyed or suffers in a contrary way from pain, and hastens inappropriately to seize the one while fleeing the other, he can neither see nor hear anything correctly, and he goes crazy and at those times is least able to partake in reason. – Timaeus (86B-C)

This post is the continuation of the previous “What is Liberty Without Duty?” post. It begins from the conception of liberty as civil liberty, also articulated in the previous post. For sake of clarity, the definition of liberty is reasserted here, quoting John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government:

“…freedom is not, as we are told, liberty for every man to do what he lists: but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowances of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.

Liberty, then, is the ability to do what one wishes within and according to the laws established by society, and applicable to all within it. For freedom from the arbitrary will of others necessarily entails the establishment of civil society which itself entails collective subjection to the rule of law. Natural liberty – the freedom to do whatever one will – is appropriate in the lawless state of nature, what Locke also calls the state of war; in society, then, natural liberty is exchanged for civil liberty and the rule of law. Where in the former, men were subjected to a chaotic state of nature, men in the latter condition are subjected to lawful government. It is ironic in a sense that men are always subject to some necessity “higher” than himself – so be it – but man is able to choose under which he will live. Man’s nature is such that civil society is best for him.

Locke also says, “We are born free, as we are born rational;” however, this freedom is conditional – for he continues, “not that we have actually the exercise of either: age, that brings one, brings with it the other too.” Locke goes on to describe childhood and the inappropriateness of giving children the freedom that is proper to adults. He states:

The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst the brutes, and abandon him to a state as wretched and as much beneath that of man, as theirs.

Locke is in agreement with Plato. There is a necessary precondition that must be met before an individual can become free. For both philosophers, exercising reason (in the philosophical sense: Reason) is this requisite. Locke thinks that childhood (and madness) disqualifies one from properly exercising reason and freedom; Plato thinks it is folly (madness or stupidity) and excesses (of pleasure and pain).

It is easy to understand why children cannot exercise reason and, thus, cannot be considered at liberty. Madness, too, people understand – and in a court of law, those who are insane are not responsible for their actions and are dealt with accordingly. However, “excesses” are much more difficult to understand, at first.

Plato, in the quote earlier from Timaeus, states that the excesses of pleasure and pain reduce one’s ability to be reasonable; and without reason, one cannot be free. That said, is it enough to simply be able to reason that makes one free? Can not a reasonable man justify immoral actions? Can the selfsame man not make immoral laws? – laws which do not infringe upon the liberty and property of others directly, but which reduce over time (or even immediately) in a justifiable manner one or all of the assets of a civil society, as Locke describes it: “comfort, safety, peaceable living one against another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it?”

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As mentioned in the previous post, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, in his Social Contract added another element to the social contract and the civil liberties that derive from it. Namely, moral liberty. For him, the state of nature, where man is free to indulge in any action, no matter how obscene, is comparable to indulgence – doing whatever one feels, submitting to appetite and desire at the expense of restraint and virtue. He writes, “the mere impulse of appetite is slavery; while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” Again, restraint – for the common good (and in this instance the individual good) – is liberty; yes, it is a restraint, but liberty is an ironic restraint: an exchange of total freedom and chaotic-anarchy for civil liberty and legal order. So the same for moral liberty, which Rosseau, and many other prominent philosophers would argue, is the real foundation for meaningful liberty, and a liberty that ultimately protects civil liberties and social order.

Aristotle, too, talks of excess and virtue. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that virtue is, like reason and liberty: “… by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity.” For Aristotle the mean is virtue; and excess (or deficiency) is vice. So, for example, courage is a virtue – the mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness. Cowardice was a defect of courage and rashness was an excess – either extreme negates the virtue courage. He writes:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate to both produces and increases and preserves it. So too it is, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, become in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

While the excesses of pain and pleasure make one unreasonable because Reason is overwhelmed by either emotion, the excesses (or defects) of virtue, i.e. moral liberty, make one incapable of exercising that liberty because moderation, which is the means to virtue, is “destroyed.” This ethical failure, as a result, disqualifies one from moral freedom and liberty – the true foundation of a civil society.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Part II of this post will give some examples of using reason to infringe upon liberty according to an a-ethical conception of the social contract so as to illustrate the necessity of ethics as part of the social contract and civil liberties. Further, it will give some of the problems of excess and how they negatively impact civil society, and will ask some difficult questions. Lastly, it will address potential remedies for the excesses of and deficits of Western civil society.

Link

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This post is a long time coming, and a desideratum in today’s political dialogue. As usual, we begin with (OED) definitions.

First, Liberty:

  1. exemption or release from captivity, bondage, or slavery
  2. exemption or freedom from arbitrary, despotic or autocratic rule
  3. natural liberty: the state in which everyone is free to act as he thinks fit, subject only to the laws of nature. civil liberty: natural liberty so far restricted by established law as is expedient or necessary for the good of the community
  4. the condition of being able to act in any desired way without hinderance or restraint; faculty or power to do as one likes
  5. (philosophical) the condition of being free from the control of fate or necessity
  6. unrestrained action, conduct, or expression; freedom of behaviour or speech, beyond what is granted or recognized as proper; license
  7. privileges, immunities, or rights enjoyed by prescription or by grant

As is evident, liberty is varied in meaning. I think it safe to say, however, that most understand liberty according to the first definition – the most basic form of liberty: freedom from objectification, the reduction of a rational subject to an thing of ownership.

The second definition, too, is well understood; however, this definition poses problems for a few reasons. First, the key words, arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic – these words indicate that not all rule denies people their liberty, or at least a specific kind of it. Only arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic governments can be considered liberty-denying. Other forms of government, as definition three infers, can restrict some liberty without being guilty of any of these three qualities.

The second problem stems from the first in that – human perception being subjective – some people will contend that government, despite its legitimacy – especially the form(s) with which they do not agree or like – is arbitrary, despotic, and/or autocratic. This is most evident in some forms of anarchism, in which all government, no matter how well-regulated by the rule of law and the people it can be, will always be: despotic (perhaps the phrase, tyranny of the majority encapsulates these extreme anarchist views). However, there are many political factions within the U.S. political system today that seem to stretch this conception of “despotic” and promise greater liberty in order to curry support for their agendas.

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The third definition is based on much enlightenment political theory. In fact, these definitions can almost be taken verbatim out of Rousseau’s Social Contract:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.

Let us draw up the whole account in terms easily commensurable. What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. If we are to avoid mistake in weighing one against the other, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will; and possession, which is merely the effect of force or the right of the first occupier, from property, which can be founded only on a positive title.

We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty. (Book I, chapter viii)

According to this, man, in the state of nature is free to do what he wills, whenever he wills it, however he wills it because there is no legitimate restrictions upon his liberty. However, when man enters society, he forfeits some of his liberty to a legitimate government in exchange for safety, social well-being, and civil liberties; he concedes that he has bears responsibility for his actions and society – this is what is known as the social contract.

However, there is another element to liberty that Rosseau articulates that often goes unmentioned, and that takes precedence over political/civil liberty: moral liberty. For Rosseau, and many pre-enlightenment thinkers, too, it is moral liberty that made one a free, enlightened individual. Indeed, very few today would consider an addict to be free in any meaningful sense (although, and strangely enough, [s]he may have been free to choose to try the drug the first few instances – which calls attention to the process of moving from liberty to servitude); and indeed an addict is not free because the addict is at the mercy of his/her addiction, incapable of choosing not to use – they are in bondage to the drug, a slave to it. And the same can be said of addictions beyond the realm of illegal drugs – think: food, alcohol, cigarettes, etc; compulsions, obsessions, and impulses, too, rob an individual of his/her agency. This is why many holy men, monks, priests, etc practiced lives of self-denial. And it is no wonder that this hard-earned liberty is attained by so few – usually the spiritual leaders of great renown.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The fourth definition begins from the natural liberty of the third definition and leads into the sixth. Simply put, according to this meaning: liberty is acting in an way one chooses for their self.

The fifth definition shares some of the same meaning as the previous discussion on moral liberty.

The sixth definition is probably the second-most important definition (behind the third) in terms of political implications. For it lays out that – and we must deduce that this is the case only in a civil society where civil liberties are granted in exchange for natural liberties – that there is such a thing as too much libertytoo much freedom. In the state of nature, theft is acceptable (in fact, it doesn’t even exist because “theft” is a moral, civil liberty construction) because there was no legitimate authority to reasonably stop it; however, in society, as a result of the social contract, theft is against the law because it violates the liberty (specifically the property rights) of another. The freedom that is acceptable in a state of nature is no longer acceptable in the civil state, and exercising this former-natural liberty is an excess within the legitimate confines of civil liberty. This excess of freedom is known as license.

A prime example of the seventh definition (as well as the first, second, third, and sixth) is most-easily identified in arguments laid out in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution of the United States. Unalienable rights which are self-evidently true are granted to us as rational, civil agents – and these documents confirm these privileges.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Second, Freedom:

  1. exemption or release from slavery or imprisonment; personal liberty
  2. exemption from arbitrary, despotic, or autocratic control; independence; civil liberty

The rest of the definitions of freedom are almost as exactly as identical to those as liberty. I think it fair to say that freedom, for the political-theoretical purposes of this post, is synonymous with liberty. And enough has already been said about liberty.

Third, License:

  1. excessive liberty; abuse of freedom; disregard of law and propriety

There are other definitions of the word license; however, they are of little use to this discussion. This one definition here gets to the heart of the matter concerning this discussion: that liberty exists, that it is legitimate, but that it also, in a civil society, needs limitations to protect the individual (in more or less ways, depending) but, especially, the rest of society, of which the individual is a part. Embedded within the social contract, within civil liberties, is the stipulation – an obligation – that an individual be responsible with their freedom.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The foundations for liberty are well established, and now clarified; what is left to do is debate and engage in order to create the kind of civil society we as a people want to have. What remains are a few thoughts for consideration.

First, whenever someone talks about “liberty” in a political, economic, or social sense, it is imperative to ask, “Which do you mean?” The necessity for this is obvious now: for there are so many conceptions, and they’re not always mutual exclusive or inclusive; and this is to say nothing of the new meanings being created by modern context. Furthermore, it is standard operating procedure for politicians, pundits, and other opinion makers to double speak and otherwise confuse the meaning of their words so as to fool people into agreeing with them. We must be very wary of this practice, especially today.

Second, the conception of civil liberty – those which contemporary societies laud – emphasize the community over the individual by nature and definition. Being part of society and community is so good (and some say: inherent to our natures) that the individual is subservient to it. Indeed, the social contract is nothing but an articulation of this dynamic. Yes, the individual is important (to varying degrees, depending) but not so much more important that one can benefit at the expense of the whole. In fact, the individual has a duty to society: not to harm but protect it. Crime is a violation of this contract; although, it is important to remember that laws don’t always suffice in articulating moral or civil transgressions or enforcing the individual’s obligation to the group.

Today, the conception of “liberty” and “freedom” inverts the social contract; it raises the individual above the whole, glorifies him/her, deifies him/her; it seems to dismiss that the individual is but a part of the whole, is molded by it, and benefits greatly from it (with its public schools, infrastructure, legal and penal systems, etc, etc). Perhaps this is part of why society is “breaking down:” too many people are more concerned with themselves than they are the communities which raised them like their own parents, allowing them to survive and flourish.

Third, what do we do about the excess? the too much freedom/liberty: the license? and what about, as contemporary thinkers are wont to describe it, the negative externalities? What do we do with individuals, as a society, who cannot or will not restrain their destructive, often immoral, yet perfectly legal, behaviors? This important and controversial question will be the subject of a subsequent post, as this one is already too long. Instead, I leave off with the apropos musings of John Milton; a few lines from his sonnet, On the Same:

That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,

And still revolt when truth would set them free.

Licence they mean when they cry liberty;

For who loves that must first be wise and good;

But from that mark how far they rove we see

For all this waste of wealth, and loss of blood.