Friday, November 2, 2012

Humans in Society

Imagine three people naked and separate in the woods.  They have nothing with them, no one with them, no starting point.

One recognizes his coldness and gathers wood, and struggles for a spark, until he has a fire.

Another recognizes her hunger, sharpens a rock, and kills an animal for food.

A third recognizes his thirst, and searches far and wide for water, until he finds a spring.

The first is warm, but dies of thirst.  The second is full, but dies of exposure.  The third is slaked, but dies of starvation.

But if instead the three meet, and recognize what each the other can bring, what each the other needs, and what they themselves have and need, they can share one to the other and live.  The water carrier is fed, the hunter is warm, the fire-builder does not thirst: this is society.  

When humans come together and agree that they will do better together than alone, we build a social contract.  Perhaps I can build my own fire, grow my own food, and find my own water; perhaps so can you; but I will eventually sleep, and my fire will go out.  You will walk alone, and so you will meet the tiger alone.  The hunter who has fed herself will get too old to hunt.  So we agree: I will find food, and you will find shelter, and she will find skins, and they will keep watch in the night, and we will survive together.  None needs be starved or hunted or naked.

Thousands of years pass, and we find that you build homes, and I bake bread, and he raises chickens, and she weaves cloth.  And still later, she teaches, and he nurses, and I make machines, and he builds roads, and on and on towards finer and more minute actions.  The things we share one to another, the needs we have and things we can offer, are different now, and more abstract and separated, because there are thousands of us and millions of us, each with different needs, different skills, different knowledge, and the beginning absolutes of water and fire and food are very remote, now.  But we are still a society, still each putting in and taking out and absolutely reliant on the other.

It seems to me that now that we are so far from those absolutes, all so content and assured that we can turn the tap and have water, turn on the gas and have heat, and go to the store to find food, that we have developed the luxury of forgetting what a society is, what benefits we take from it, and what responsibilities we owe to it.  We have created an illusion of absolute independence, of solitary self-sufficience, because we make our money and pay for our goods and never need to agree to trade one service or one kindness or one promise to another human being who needs to do the same.  We come to a place and we are not naked, and we are not cold, and we are not hungry, so we can fail to recognize the person who sews as someone we rely on, the person who farms as someone we are beholden to, even though were we to suddenly be without clothing or food, we would just as surely die.  Our social contract has worked so well for us that now there are people who believe absolutely that they need nothing and owe nothing.

But I am not machining the factory that produces my heat.  And you are not paving the roads you drive, or that the trucks carrying your food drive.  Without those who are, we are cold and hungry.  So even though I don't give you fire for water, I do put a little in the pot so the water keeps coming from the tap.  And even though you don't build a roof for someone so that they will dig out a sewer, you put in a little so that the sewers keep moving.  Each of us benefits daily from utilities, from trade agreements, from infrastructure generally, so each of us gives a little back to maintain our utilities, make our treaties, and build our roads and schools and hospitals.  Otherwise, we are failing our side of the contract; we eat but provide nothing for the warmth of those feeding us.  We drink but provide nothing to the water-carrier.  In the short term, this is cynical exploitation of a society we rely absolutely on.  But in the long term, this destroys the contract, and consequently, the society - when we have no contract, we have no heat, no water, no sewer, no access to food and clothing, no one to watch for the tiger in the night.  

This is not a plausible system; this is not a livable world.  Without a society, we are all more or less doomed to die alone, whether of exposure or starvation or disease or attack.  So be wary of anyone who tells you that all will be well when we stop supporting our society; this is nihilism.  In the most basic terms, this is the end of civilization.  If they have already reaped enough benefit from the society that they have fire and meat and water to last them for now, they won't be the ones to suffer when the contract is broken--they may walk away without paying their due or owning up to their responsibility for the society that sheltered them so far.  But we are all only one cold night away from the fire going out, and one lonely walk away from the tiger.  The lines aren't as clear as they used to be, but we may still look face to face to face and see our survival in the eyes of the other.