I’m still puzzling over the various essays and arguments by professional antismokers over the past few days. One common feature to them seems to be an idea that society has a right, and perhaps even a duty, to intervene in the lives of its individual members to correct aberrant behaviour. Thus Dr Mark Sheehan wrote in a recent Oxford University online debate:
There’s something that’s gone unstated here, and it’s Dr Sheehan’s assumptions about what is meant by ‘society’.
There are two broad views about society. The first is that which Margaret Thatcher famously expressed when she said, "There’s no such thing as society. There are only men, women, and families." This is a robustly individualistic view of life. There are just individual people, and that’s all there is to it.
The other view is almost the complete opposite, and it might be expressed by saying something like, "There are no such things as individuals. There is only the society to which they belong, and in which all individuality ultimately becomes dissolved." In this second view, which seems to be the way that many socialists seem to see life, society is all important. Any individual is part of the greater body politic, and his or her destiny is wrapped up in the society to which they belong. In this view, individual people are like the cells in human bodies. There are countless billions of them, each of which are individual living creatures, growing and reproducing and dying, but together they serve to make up the organs of the body – the bones, blood vessels, muscles, heart, lungs, liver, and so on – and it is in this social unity that they combine to form something that is greater than any of them: the human body. So, in the same way, human beings who unite together to form societies form part of a greater collective than the mere individual. And it is within that society that individual humans find their true meaning and purpose. The socialists of the sort I’m talking about are people who see themselves primarily as part of the greater organism of human society, to whose greater will their individual nature should be subservient. Such socialists are like cells in a body which have just realised that they are kidney cells or bone cells or brain cells.
So which is it? And how might we know?
I guess my own view on this is that there may well be a human superorganism that is made up of countless humans. But if there is, then I as an individual human can’t know anything about it. Or, I can no more know anything about it than the individual cells in my body ‘know’ that they are part of that body, and have a job to do within it. I don’t think they know any such thing. It’s my guess, but I suspect that the cells in my body are just living independent cell lives no different from any living cell – such as a bacterium – living outside any plant or animal body. The business of any cell is to live its individual cellular life, and not get above its station. And the business of an individual person is to just get on with living their own individual life, and not pretend to identify with a human ‘society’ that they can never fully understand.
In this manner, I can accept the socialist idea that there’s something called ‘society’ to which we all belong, but I can in the same breath reasonably assert that I, as a mere individual, can never really know anything about it, except to guess its existence. Human ‘society’, the hypothetical greater collective, is something best left to itself. Society can do whatever it likes, but I must do what I like. My lot is that of being an individual, not of being a society of such individuals, and I should mind my own business rather than foolishly try to mind anyone else’s business.
In this manner, after contemplating the lofty vista of a human society – a sort of Leviathan made up of individual people – I can return to living my individual life. Indeed, I ought to do so.
And I can use this argument to vigorously attack anyone, like Dr Mark Sheehan, who starts talking about what ‘society’ should or shouldn’t do. For Dr Sheehan has no more idea of what this ‘society’ might want than I do. His guess is no better than mine. But I simply have the honesty to admit that I don’t know anything about this ‘society’ or its aims and goals, and never can know. It is sheer conceit on the part of Dr Sheehan and his ilk to pretend that they know more than I do, and to feel able to pontificate about what ‘society’ might or might not want, or what ‘society’ might or might not be able to do.
So he can just bog off. Which is what 85% of the participants in the debate thought too.