Today, I’ll give a list of functional components of personality, at least as it seems to me. Call them “functionable” instead if you like.
These are personal functions that go beyond the narrower western idea of immediate personal responsibility for personal choices. The validity of some choices can be affected by external circumstances and common needs. Around the world, the idea of a “mooch” seems to be a much bigger deal, inciting indignation leading to personalized rage, than it usually is in modern western culture. It is often put in religious terms (what “God” wants) but used to be phrased in secular ideas like “class warfare” or even national destiny. It tends to invite authoritarianism if not recognized in time.
So, if we want to keep a reasonably free and open society, we have to recognize what is on each and every one of us.
In this piece, I’ll refer to the individual as “you”. That’s the impersonal “you” or “vous” in French, not “tu”. Understand that these are assertions, essentially in subjunctive mood. Foreign languages have a lot to teach us about how to express things.
“You” will learn to meet the real needs of others in a social environment, usually at first the family you are born into. This is not something that waits until you cause children to be born. In many families, you might start with aging relatives (eventually your parents) or younger siblings. Gradually, you move out and address real needs in various other communities, dealing with their own norms. You won’t hang around them just to cherry pick.
Indeed, most of us accept the idea of parental authority to the point that the child needs to learn skills (and self-discipline) to make a living first and how to make choices in a consequentialist world. But interdependence goes beyond that, to accepting the idea of what it means to belong to a social unit. It may mean living in close proximity to others that sometimes one might not have chosen. It means accepting help as well as giving it.
“You” don’t have a right to pretend to be “better” than those in y0ur cohort just by avoiding the risks that they face.
Interdependence requires that “you” develop some judgment in when to “take care or your own” first and when to branch out of your safe zone culturally. But the world should not be “us v. them”.
As an individual, you may benefit from the family and surrounding environment (country) that reared you. But you also bear some personal moral responsibility for what the society you depend on does.
This idea is sometimes put in terms of political participation and voting for the most responsible candidates (and supporting these with taxes). Why that is valid, another component is sharing the risk that your family and other groups above it (country) incur. We are used to separating this out with the idea of uniformed military and law enforcement, who knowingly take more of the risk. That separation, sadly, is not absolute. The controversy over the male-only military draft and various (family and academic) deferment systems of the past illustrates the point. It’s important to understand this history. The fact that, in more rural areas, firefighting is “volunteer” makes us ponder this point. Civilians can find themselves within the sights of the rage of others. On a certain reality level, however rarely and tragically, sometimes civilians “pay” for this with their own lives. (“It is what it is.”)
Capitalism and a money system allows people to separate their “wealth” from the labor that earned it, at least temporarily and situationally. Capital therefore gives people the flexibility to innovate, gradually raising standards of living for others around them (sometimes “trickle down” does indeed trickle). Absolute socialism or communism has the problem that political structures really can’t do a very good job of allocating wealth by need “fairly” and destroy the desire to innovate. “According to needs” is much easier to assess in a local environment, starting with “natural family”.
That said, most “successful” people have to realize that they have sometimes benefitted from the unseen sacrifices of others in the distant workplace. That’s like saying, “Most people walk in the direction they’re heading.”
So, “you” have sometimes exploited others without fully realizing it.
“Equality” is a very loaded term. Generationally, it is logically impossible. Biologically, it’s impossible – and sometimes the actions of others make it worse (like the recent lead poisoning issue). Equality before the law should be attained, with respect to traits that do not really matter. Race is absolutely irrelevant as to personal worth in every area. Religious practice is a personal matter to be left alone. Sexual orientation is a matter usually irrelevant in every area except reproduction.
So who we think about others as individuals, given circumstances, becomes an issue.
The only resolution is that “you”, once able to do so, will gradually restore toward equality by giving back to others, sometimes in personal ways as well as with money – more or less a payback for what was done for you, even before you were aware of it. The world is changing in this respect. Today, “raising up” someone who previously could not contribute as an independent adult is considered a virtuous activity, that “sells” and is popular. But that was not the case in the world in which I grew up. That is a big cultural perspective change for me to deal with.
Freedom really depends on people taking this challenge up in a personal way, so that government does not have to do as much in allocating finite resources among the needy in maintaining a safety net. This is a heart of conservative thought. And much of this develops in the traditional family at first.
Imagine the impression our world makes on people who grow up in authoritarian cultures with lower living standards. The inequality and evasion of shared risk creates a world that doesn’t make sense to them, and they cannot compete in a world of hyperindividualism. No wonder some want to join gangs or, worse, militant groups like ISIS.
In my young adulthood, I encountered this kind of anger, more from people on the secular radical Left. I did “spy” on meetings where radical people said that sitting on (unearned or inherited) hoarded wealth was stealing or a crime, and that expropriation by force could be appropriate.
However, as Eric Hoffer pointed out back in the 1950s, the concerns about inequality go beyond just incomes or unearned unequal wealth. The very idea that one person can view himself as superior to others in the group is anathema. Belonging to, and accepting the goals of and sharing the perils of the group, especially when a “cause” or mass movement, becomes a moral virtue in itself. This observation links back to demands that everyone accept interdependence within the group (the first topic).
This is the most difficult point and central to everything. “You” can’t count on the “system” to protect you 100% of the time.
I have great respect for the idea that people should be able to defend themselves and others if challenged, but as a policy matter access to guns is still a bit of an open issue with me.
More relevant is the ability to take care of oneself and others in more primitive circumstances, the “doomsday prepper” idea. That would even subsume fining a new meaning for one’s existence in a world where one’s props had been taken away, either by natural forces or by others (enemies).
But what strikes me as the most critical part of resilience, beyond interdependence as above, it the ability to make and sustain personal relationships (and find new directions) after being maimed or disfigured in a way that would normally challenge the idea of being loved at all.
During the Vietnam era, I used to say I did not want to come back if maimed (I escaped having to go), and other people said that, too. But one can see how saying that simply makes people even more inviting targets for enemies. (Relevant post here, Aug. 12, 2014). My own father’s proverb from the 1950s, “To obey is better than to sacrifice” seems particularly disturbing now.
Of course, I can “screw up” and throw everything away by poor choices or behavior. But the idea of having it yanked away by force over the indignation of someone else is disturbing in ways “you” won’t recognize until you have to face it.
The usual notion is that “you” don’t have to worry about what happens after you’re gone. Now, I think there are good reasons to think there is an afterlife of some sort, and you will know what is happening and may regret not being able to do anything about it (unless being reincarnated – “born again”).
But the way “you” use resources can be viewed as a moral issue. If you are single, living close to work, biking or using public transit are all morally preferable. Renting a car alone and driving long distances might not be tolerable forever – unless we can go to completely green energy.
All that said, I think we can innovate our way around these problems – to have clean energy, with an infrastructure to support the mobility people want to go with it, and a much safer and more resilient power grid (and communications grid – the Internet).
We’ve had a technological civilization that allows someone like a good life, partially on the backs of others, to flourish for maybe less than a century. What will things look like in 100 years, 1000 or 10,000, or even one billion? How far into the future does this matter? Maybe when I go, I do find out. Time in the afterlife may behave very differently than it does on this plane. Some day, future generations will have to find other planets for homes, and will have to deal with the moral problems of handpicking people for the journeys. People may have to sustain themselves for generations on a spaceship ark. Life could become much more collective again.
And my genes, and the legacy of my parents’ marriage, will not be part of it, since I am an only child.
(6) REVERENCE FOR LIFE:
The obvious concern is, of course, abortion. But that really lets a lot of us off easy. It could never affect me, right?
The deeper point is the value of life that has been reduced in potential, by natural accident, tragedy, or the actions of others. How important personally is the life of someone with Alzheimer’s? In the past, we didn’t have to think much about that question, but today people live much longer, so we have to deal with a new generation of dependents that did not exist much in the past.
A more divergent point considers non-human personhood. At last one other groups of species, dolphins and orcas, seems to have risen to about our level of self-awareness. Orcas can’t make tools, and may have a much more distributed sense of personal consciousness than we do.
And one day, we may have to deal with how we value intelligent life that did not originate on this planet. It could even be here without our recognizing it.
(Published: Thursday, March 24, 2016, at 3:30 PM EDT)