Individuals and Society

It is very common today to find people advocating political solutions to problems (imagined or real). For example,

Problem:
Lot of people take to smoking
Solution:
Tax tobacco products heavily, Ban the portrayal of smoking in cinema, Punish celebrities who dare to smoke

Problem:
High incidence of fatal accidents on roads
Solution:
Make it mandatory to wear helmets while driving

Problem:
Low representation of women in parliament
Solution:
Make it mandatory for political parties to field women candidates in a certain percentage of constituencies.

and so on.

The implicit premise leading people to advocate such ‘solutions’ is that human behavior is primarily conditioned or determined by social circumstances and so the way to solve problems is to frame the right rules, to nudge people in the right directions. This premise is false. Society is merely a group of individuals. It is individual thoughts and actions that determine the course of a society, not the other way round. In fact it is redundant to talk about individual thoughts or actions. It is only individuals and not society that can think or act. Social conditions do have an impact on individuals’ decisions but the choice to act in a particular way ultimately lies with the individual.

Although it is easy to see that the fundamental power of choice lies with individuals, it is a fact that a large number of people do go through their lives like automatons, passively accepting widely held beliefs and acting accordingly. It is this that tempts people to advocate political solutions as a short cut to change peoples’ beliefs and thus their behavior. Further any attempts to implement political solutions makes a society more authoritarian and makes more of its members passive automatons. What then keeps such attempts from being successful? It is the fact that all human achievements are the result of the power of choice. As the number of passive automatons in a society increases, the achievements of its members shrink. Ironically those who believe that social conditions determine human behavior are the ones who do not understand the value of a society of free and independent men.

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11 Responses

  1. So you are saying that society is just a consensus of widely held beliefs? Society also produces narrowly held beliefs, society is the collective which you are a part of, anything you might deem unique or individual apart from society comes from where, yourself? You base your ideas from what? Yourself? Where did you learn to philosophize? Probably from another philosopher, you learned to think from another thinker, you learned to talk from another talker, you learned to type from another typer, whether it be in person, through instructions written by someone, etc. we are all one, whether one beliefs it or not. So do you think we are really free and INDEPENDENT or rather, interdependent?

  2. beliefs, no pun intended, actually it was an accident, sorry.

  3. Antonio,
    Certainly I didn’t originate all my ideas. Nor did I discover all that I know on my own. But my knowledge can be called knowledge only to the extent that my mind understands and interprets it. The discovery might be someone elses but the understanding and interpretation has to be my own. Same is the case with my ideas. I didn’t originate all my ideas. But unless I am able to apply them to concrete situations, those ideas are useless to me. And applying ideas requires a very good understanding.
    Further the power of choice lies with me. I judge which ideas to explore further and which ideas to accept. My judgement is indeed independent. No one can force my judgement. The only way anyone can influence my judgement is by arguing for his ideas, which I must judge.
    Most importanly, since it is only the individual mind that thinks, any progress, any new idea (whether incremental or original) comes from individuals.
    Of course, living in a society provides inestimable benefits by way of knowledge, ideas and scale. But these benefits are conditional on the recognition that the root of all knowledge and ideas is the individuals ability to think and judge. In a society whose members do not recognize this, these benefits erode over time as people are prevented from acting on their own judgement.
    It is precisely because the benefits of living in a society are immense that it is important to protect the freedom and independence of individuals to act on their own judgement. That is what I meant by my last line in the post “Ironically those who believe that social conditions determine human behavior are the ones who do not understand the value of a society of free and independent men.”

  4. But this is the main thing, you K.M. you are society.

  5. I am not talking about how you choose to use that information and what you understand for it to be knowledge, the way you think is not in question here, why do you think this way is the question, what conditioned your mind to think a certain way? Society did. Whether it is an attempt to break away from preconcieved notions and form your own judgement or to further improve upon existing ideas. You don’t have to be forced to think the way you do, but you are certainly influenced and accept the way you think from something that appealed to you, through force or not. Ask yourself, what are my ideas and trains of thought, if it has nothing to reflect itself upon. Society is needed to reflect itself and give itself identity. You are you because you base yourself on what another self is. Individual thoughts are interdependent, we are all just different shades of the same color, but the color remains the same. A SOCIETY of free and independent men are free from what? Each other? Not so. Why do you choose to write in this language? Is it convenient for you? Have you ever questioned using this language? You use it because you must function in society. So then you are not “free”, you do it with consent but if you break off no one will understand you until you SOCIALIZE with them and agree on a form of communication, your freedom is an interdpendence. For only being free for yourself is a slave to yourself. Its a paradox. New ideas were always there, they are just being discovered. Social conditioning does determine human behavior, the question is to what extent.

  6. Antonio,
    First let me ask a question to which I want an unequivocal answer
    Does man have the power of choice?
    If the answer is yes, then ultimately every man decides for himself. The thoughts of others around him are merely the reality in which he operates and his mind is ultimately independent. Being influenced by an idea not originated by you is no different that being influenced by the evidence of some physical phenomenon. Both must be interpreted and understood independently.
    If the answer is no, then you believe in determinism and no debate is possible between us since I do not.

    Second you said,
    “Ask yourself, what are my ideas and trains of thought, if it has nothing to reflect itself upon. Society is needed to reflect itself and give itself identity.”
    I am not sure what you mean? Can you clarify?

  7. I do believe in determinism. I must say though because your definition of altruism was defined without any citation, I’m assuming you have your own version of determinism as well. Do not confuse determinism with fatalism, IF and only IF you believe we have no influece on the future, that I do not believe. However, it is defenitely plausible that our past and present decisions (choices) spark unintended, undetectable, and unseen reactions throughout the ever-present future which is beyond our control because we didnt know 100% of the ramifications in the first place and at the time. Why do you think they call foresight 20/20? Then end result, the consequences, the effects we would be quick to call “fate” or “destiny” or whatever word you would call it in your case, thinking we had no control and it didnt matter, sure it did, you had the power, just not the awareness. Tending to think choice comes automatically with perfect information and perfect awareness is not the truth, so how can we expect to have 100% control of our lives if we don’t have 100% awareness of our surroundings at all times and 100% perfect information to make perfect decisions. that 1% lack of awarenss could be the difference between you walking into your home alive and a stray bullet hitting your skull from a new year’s party celebration 1 mile away without even knowing it. You could call it many things, chance, fate, destiny, it doesnt matter, everything is preconcieved, whatever you want it to be. I believe anything is possible, so that makes the inevitable anything. I don’t mean to say the future is a set way, it is whatever you make it out to be with the information you had at the time so when the future is unveiled you try to understand why it came out to be this way instead of saying I had no control. That to me is determinism.

  8. Antonio,
    I take it from your reply that you do believe that man has the power of choice and you also accept that the future depends on the particular choices that we all make. Of course, we are not omniscient and cannot fully predict the way our choices will play out. Regardless of the lack of omniscience, it is our individual choices that determine the future. I believe you agree so far.

    Individuals make choices based on their beliefs (true or false) and their knowledge (complete or incomplete). These choices are responsible for shaping society. Any successful attempt to change society must target either people’s knowledge or their beliefs. What do you object to in this?

  9. I already told you what I object to this. Yes we have the power of choice but I disagree with you that it is solely our INDIVIDUAL CHOICES that DETERMINE the future. There are hundreds of factors left to be calculated in what determines the future, choices and chances from other “individuals”, society, natural cycles, mother nature, etc. Determinism takes everything into account not just the narrow spectrum of an individual to determine the future. I told you that we must try to understand why the future came out to be a certain way because it doesnt always go according to plan, regardless if we chose a certain way.

  10. But I also beleive man doesn’t have the power of choice. If this seems irrational to you, that is fine. Everything in life is a paradox. Like I said before, everything is interdependent, nothing is independent in and of itself, same goes for choices. Please read the posts I put up earlier and you should have come to the conclusion that I think we do and we don’t.

  11. Antonio,
    Sorry for the delay in replying.
    It might be correct to say that something is a paradox. But everything is a paradox? A paradox is a statement that is counter-intuitive but true. If everything is a paradox, where did you get your intuition from?
    Would you care to enter a debate about this? If so I will frame a short position to start off and we can take it from there.

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