Sunday, July 15, 2007

Interesting propositions

A society without insulting and boorish behaviour is one without freedom. A society without freedom is not civilised.

I have reservations about the second statement and disagree with the first, but I think they are interesting points for debate.

Regarding the second statement. The problem here, as I see it, is one of definitions. "Society" I can run with, at least for now. But what is "freedom"? What is "civilised"? I would suggest that such terms are socially conditioned, not universal - and I would suggest that this can be demonstrated historically.

To consider the sentence in today's cultural terms, people's normal understanding of "freedom" normally means "individual freedom" - the freedom for me to do as I wish, at least as long as it doesn't harm anybody else. Trivially, if somebody considers "individual freedom" the highest good for a society, then the sentence is tautological - and with respect to the commenter, I suspect he/she may be in this category of people. As for me, I do regard individual freedom as a desirable characteristic for a society - but this is coupled with the fact that I believe people should largely be prepared to use their individual freedom for the sake of others.

The next issue is, given the first sentence, whether being "insulting and boorish" is actually harming anybody. I would suggest that it is causing harm - it is psychologically intimidating, and provoking others to dislike. Should freedom include the freedom to be insulting and boorish? Actually, I would say yes - because my idea of freedom (perhaps like my commenter) acknowledges the fact that it includes the potential for harming other people.

This is actually kind of obvious. If I am permitted to drive a car at normal speeds, then I actually have the freedom (technically) to run somebody over and kill them. This is a "freedom to harm somebody" that we all take for granted. Of course, it would be socially unacceptable (and in fact, a criminal act) - but our society grants us the freedom to do it - it doesn't constrain us in such a way that we are unable to do it.

Does that mean that being insulting and boorish is characteristic of a free society? Well, hopefully not. Not in the "conventional" free society in today's terms - because being insulting and boorish is harming others. And not in my "free" society either - because the freedom of the individual is used primarily to serve other members of the society, rather than get what the individual wants. (I trust that theologically aware readers may recognise the sort of behaviour that is required of Christians in this model of a free society.)

So how would I rewrite this first sentence? I would have said, "A society in which insulting and boorish behaviour is forbidden is one without freedom." However, I don't think that such behaviour is a sign of a healthy society - and were my commenter not being an apologist for Richard Dawkins, I think he would concede this as well.

There are many people who don't have much time for the idea that an omnipotent god could allow evil. However, this discussion relates closely to how Christians traditionally justify the presence of evil behaviour. Should people be created genuinely free, and consequently able to do things that are wrong? Or should their freedom be circumscribed, to prevent this? Many people might suggest that the fact that people are capable of doing things that are considered evil means that there can't be an omnipotent god.

Oddly, the data can be interpreted in exactly the opposite way. If a god creates us genuinely free, then we have to be free to do evil, not just good. Conversely, I would argue that the whole concepts of "right" and "wrong" become fundamentally meaningless without the concept of an external absolute. Of course, people don't behave that way, and will argue that morality is an evolutionarily advantageous trait. I certainly don't disagree that both the theist and the atheist are moral beings. I'm just not convinced that (as with many aspects of how atheism works) the case for morality as it is found in humans is coherent within an atheist framework.