Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Should we mind our own business?

The individualist:

Of course, that's the ground rule of human relationships, particularly when you're in England.

It is not right for an individual to interfere with the life of another individual. This is to respect the autonomy and privacy of another individual.

The central case of this argument could be gossip - the secret love affairs or someone's grades have nothing to do with you. Others have the right to keep whatever they like to themselves, and who the hell are you to expect me to tell you everything on my mind.

If I earn lots and buy big houses, that's how it is. Conversely, if I fuck up, I fuck up. I lead my own life; so do you.

And that's how some people experience culture shock when they ask their English friends 'how much do you earn?' or 'What do your parents do?'

Another perhaps intuitively more defensible example would be seeing your friend take drugs. Shall I stop him and give him a good lecture on the basic precepts of well being of life? Drugs are no good, my friend. Regardless of utility (as my friend might either ignore me or actually bother to pay attention), by giving advice, you're intruding into the internal sphere of someone's life. You have NO claim to impose your own values on others - within the confines of my own world, I am free to believe and think whatever, and whether you agree or disagree, my thinking should be independent of any external influence, and least by stupid morals.

The busybody/the Good Samaritan:

We are not alone in this world; we live with and for each other. Living with each other doesn't mean living separately and exclusively doing our own things. We don't live for everyone else, but there's certainly a plausible argument that we do live for people closer to us in some way, and we have some claim to others' lives.

Let's start with the stronger example as above: I'm a helpful friend and I don't want to see my friend land in drug rehabilitation centre or jail or do silly things and waste his life away. This is for sure an assertion of my own values over my friend, but that is not necessarily the same as 'imposition'. We want to help, and we don't force them to stop. We only argue for the justifiability of offering help, as opposed to doing nothing. That's a minimum intrusion in the autonomy of others because it is up to them to decide whether to take your hand. Even if it involves persuading my friend to believe in my set of values, that is still distinct from imposition because my rational friend has changed his mind after my convincing arguments, and his adoption of my set of values is an act of his free will. And that degree of influence is acceptable.

Now that's the superficial bit. But if we think a bit more deeply, what does 'help' actually entail?

There are always people less lucky than you - people who don't survive wars, people who starve, people who have lost their loved ones, people who have no money, and people who have been blighted by the recent snowstorm in china...and countless examples of people who 'need' your help.

To go to a different level, there can also be a 'people' eg the Albanians in Kosovo who 'need' international humanitarian intervention on the brink of severe human oppression. We've seen (arguably) successful examples of UN intervention eg in El Salvador, maybe Bosnia...

There's always so much one could do, but why should one intervene? Are we doing it out of concern for well being of others? Is that merely a matter of principle regardless of the actual effect? Or is that a pragmatic choice - if half of the money is going to be wasted by useless NGOs, why bother donating money?

And even if we come down to a statement of principle, is that concern really justified? There are a couple of fundamental assumptions in the argument for intervention:
1. we should do what is better.
2. what we advocate is better than the status quo.

I talked about universality of human rights with a friend before, and yes indeed that's part of the debate. How far does one set of values apply? Does it apply across the board? Does it apply only in a small cross-section of society? Or does it only apply to you yourself?

Is that what a culture/society is about - an environment in which people can share the same set of values?

Let's say, we all think killing is evil, and execution is a bad idea. Any state that still practises execution should be universally condemned, not least by Amnesty International.

But who is to judge which is better? And is it actually practicable to change anything? Sending a few boxes of aid to the children in Somalia will probably give them good food for a few weeks, and what's left next? Teaching rural children for two weeks will leave them with some arguably fresh input, but they still never manage to leave the village to get to a decent university and do what 'we consider to be decent education'.

So why the bother. Mind your own business, ladies and gentlemen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow paddy, thats an amazing post. we need to talk about this in 8th week. missing our little chats about life but hope you kicked EC ass today xxxx