The Individual and Society

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:

Of course there are various steps that society might take to prevent people engaging in these clearly dangerous activities alongside restricted or deprioritised access. Education, perhaps aggressive and targeted, would be a key component, as might heavy taxation. But perhaps a very effective driver of change would be to combine education with treatment. Mandatory attendance at smoking cessation classes, personal targets and progress assessments might all be used…

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.

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4 Responses to The Individual and Society

  1. Anonymous says:

    The social contract- bedrock of socialism. Unfortunately as an individual you don’t sign any contract and there is no identifiable society with which to negotiate.
    What the social contract and its supporters like Dr Sheehan really intend is that you and I should be managed and controlled by invoking an abstract entity (society) where our individual goods are grouped together into a “common good” by an elite group of individuals who claim to know better what is good for us than we do ourselves. An individual can’t expect his own small desires to compare to the importance of this monolithic common good if it is taken at face value. It is only by confronting the individuals behind this imagined common good that any progress can be made.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t it just the ultimate in hypocrisy that those people who constantly witter on about “society” – what “society” needs, what “society” wants, what “society” should do – and who seek to subjugate the individual for the “good of society” always and without exception, seem to think that “for the good of society” they should be able to impose their own – individual – views, opinions and dogmas on the rest of “society” itself?

  3. Frank Davis says:

    There was one of them on Radio 4 PM this afternoon, saying how ‘society’ should change its attitudes to drinking, smoking, etc. It was, of course, just his own opinion.

  4. Frank Davis says:

    I think that what gets up my nose about all these people is that they seem to think that their views about ‘society’ are established facts, which ‘everybody knows’ and about which there is no argument. And this isn’t true. It never has been true.
    But then, that’s what gets up my nose about smoking, passive smoking, global warming, and just about everything that passes for ‘debate’ these days.

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