The Open Mind VII – the One and the Many

by A. Jay Adler on June 7, 2010
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All previous rounds in this series can be found at the right of the horizontal drop-down menu above.

Think of this as a consideration, inviting more consideration, based less on a claim than on a question:

what is the proper relationship between the one and the many?

“Proper” here might refer to ethics, logic, practicability. I have said more than once, perhaps at some point on this blog, that had l lived during the nation’s early years, I would have been a Federalist. That shouldn’t strike as surprising given my leanings. But here I correct myself. I think I have been wrong to say so. I think in saying so I have imposed my contemporary political self on another time and world, whereas other elements of myself would have felt much differently. (If all we are is our political selves, we are poor creatures.) One should not be – experience oneself – a Yankee in King Arthur’s court, but English; otherwise, why travel? Given what I know of my other selves, in the world of the founding, I now think it more accurate to think I would have been a Jeffersonian. Of course, many of us are some of each. I am. But why, projected back in time, the change?

Number 21 in my Principia Liberalis stated,

Technology increases affective connections, which are loosened by the distance that technology narrows. The greater the affective connection, the greater the sense of mutual moral responsibility. Notions of discrete and separable, autonomous individuality, neither responsible to nor the responsibility of others, are irreversibly challenged by population density and technology, and the increased effect of human actions on other humans. It is necessary to define what core autonomy need be protected, as an essential human good, but earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.

At this moment on some other populated planet elsewhere in the universe, some kind and loving living creature may be dying an awful death. We cannot know of it, so we can have no affective response and no moral obligation. In 1799, a person might lie dying of his wounds from animal attack in the woodlands of what would later become Tennessee, but the merchant in Boston would not know of it, and could feel and be obligated to that life’s end no more than we to life on an unknown planet. Once we know, the relationship is altered. We may still lack the power to alter events, but to varying degrees in different individuals, an affective response is produced. And once we might have the power beneficially to intervene?

Beneficially matters. Once we might have known of calamity transpiring at a distance, but lacked the means to intervene in time. Such, once, would have been news of genocide in Africa. Now we have, materially, the means, but politically the ends may be varied, unpredictable, and consequential. Still, we face, each time, the question, when once there would have been no question.

Were I a free black man traveling in rural western Pennsylvania in 1805, stopping in a tavern for some food and drink, I would have taken it as the way of the barely connected world had the owner despised my color and turned me a way. There might be no other business for thirty miles, he might just as easily have been a farmer, and there was no physical community to which bear responsibility even in theory. If I were desperate and in fear for my life before I might reach any other source of provision, I might assault the owner, even kill him if I thought my life depended on it. Once distance is bridged and the physical reality of community is literally pressed upon us, the consequences of the behavior of others become real and even personal. We have an interest where once there was none. Build a four story home on a ten acre property? Feel free. Build it on the lot next to mine where once I had a view of the ocean and now I will not – I care. Deny to some from prejudice an otherwise public service, and you are no longer a tree falling unheard in the forest. The forest is now the other members of your community, and they hear you.

It is not accidental that differences along these lines often emerge from the openness or density of the nation’s region we live in.

In late April, not long after the last Open Mind, ShrinkWrapped made a couple of posts that prompted my thoughts anew on this subject. In Rediscovering the Wheel he wrote,

America is the world’s first and greatest nation dedicated to the proposition that the individual counts for more than the identity of the collective (tribe) from which he emerged.

In Sail Away, he offered,

The 1880s appear to be a Golden Age because people lived unencumbered by the thousands of laws and millions of pages of regulations which seek to define every aspect of our lives.  And for those for whom even the 1880’s were too stultifying, there still existed the frontier.

1880 was not a Libertarian paradise; too many had their horizons too constrained by custom and law.  Yet the 1880s also were a time when those who were most free appear, from here, to have been more free than most of us today.

Shrink’s partial lament invokes the close of principal 21:

earlier stages of political relation, of individuals to each other, and of individuals to the commonweal, will not be recovered.

That might be lamentable; it might not. If you are the homeowner lamenting the prospect of losing your ocean view, when you’ve been there for twenty years beside the older two story structure, and you bought the home, in part, for that reason and are about to lose a hundred thousand dollars in the resale value, you may well be happy about all those damned building codes. If you are the purchaser next door, you might wonder what happened to that free country you once lived in. For starters, it became more densely populated.

I wonder, first, what Shrink means, exactly, when he writes of a nation in which “the individual counts for more than the identity of the collective”? Does he mean something as extreme as Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead? I suspect not, but I’m unclear. It was crucial, of course, that Rand made Howard Roark an architect. Destroy your paintings, your books, your musical compositions before completion if you like – they are yours to do with as you please. A work of public architecture becomes enmeshed in contractual requirements and public promise, however; the Courtland housing project that Roark blows up is even a government housing project. Yet Rand thinks the creative designer of the project, as an individual, counts for more than the collective and gives him the moral right to destroy his public creation.

The word “collective” is a demon word on the Right, and I don’t write to defend it. I am not a “collectivist” by any kind of political definition. But community is one kind of word for collective, as are government and nation. A sense of mutual moral responsibility forms in its affective ties the conceptual bonds of community, collectivity, even if, walking through the day, one conceives of oneself alone and apart. I am too much of an individualist myself ever to wish to subsume myself in any collective, and while government regulation can inflame me too, I am glad when it is there to save my – alas, hypothetical – ocean view or ensure that no restrictive quota is permitted to deny me, a Jew, a graduate education at Columbia University, when once it might have.

One contention I will offer from all this is that I think the opposition of the individual to the collective, broadly understood, is mistaken. People on the Left may accept it as much as those on the Right. We accept the opposition because we persist in understanding the terms as oppositional, and so understood, they will be.  I said in number 18 of my principles

The greater the justice, the greater the harmony. All oppositions are not enemies; the reconciliation of many oppositions leads to greater harmony and greater justice.  This does not mean that all claims are valid, all positions legitimate, or that all demands should be met: many claims, positions, and demands are themselves unjust and destructive of harmony.

Certainly, if I very nearly define collective interest as the enemy of individual rights, then I will inevitably receive acts taken in the interest of the collective as transgressive of my individuality. I can similarly so define the assertion of any absolute individuality as an offense against the collective interest, and so each will be perceived. But is it not possible, without the conceptual predispositions, to sometimes understand the protection of individual autonomy as not just a necessary acquiescence of the collective to the need to balance contending interests, but as a benefit to the collective? Is it not possible to conceive the fulfillment of a collective need as an enhancement of individual experience? I think it is.

In my second quote from ShrinkWrapped, he acknowledges that what might seem in ways a golden age for some was also an age when

too many had their horizons too constrained by custom and law.

Still, he says

Yet the 1880s also were a time when those who were most free appear, from here, to have been more free than most of us today.

Leaving aside the meaning of “free” here, which would appear to be “absence of restriction,” how should we balance these two observations? Should we, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence of the same, if we could place ourselves there, will the recurrence of the 1880s – assuming we are not among those whose horizons are “too constrained”? Is the misery, then, of the nearly completely conquered and deculturated American Indian, the poverty and disenfranchisement of African-Americans still beset by virulent hatred, the KKK, and lynching, the squalor and torturous working conditions of the urban industrial laborer – is all that worth the freedom from government restriction for those who enjoyed it in a better life?

Is the United States we live in today a lesser place than the nation it was then? We know what we have to live with from day to day, as only so much can be done at a time. But how much disadvantage for some should we assent to, even will, in that Nietzschean sense, for the advantage of others?


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