Column on What Reality does Society Have?

What Reality has Society?

Tibor R. Machan

The question of how real is society can arise whenever people make reference to "obligations that citizens have to society," obligations in the name of which individual liberties are said to need restriction. (Other ways of putting the ideas is "obligatory service to the common good, public interest, etc.") Especially the liberty to own, trade, exchange, hoard, save, and so forth. The claim is that this kind of liberty may not be "absolute" because of those enforceable social obligations or responsibilities everyone has. (Especially anyone who has united with others to form a business corporation–the CSR or corporate social responsibility ruse, is what I humbly consider it.)

Please bear with me while I take you on this little philosophical journey. I teach and every year since the fall of 1970 I have met my various classes and taught for them various philosophy courses. I have obligations to my classes–for example, to know my subject, to arrive on time each period, make my assignments and grading policies clear to them, etc.

What, then, are my classes? Best as I have been able to determine over the more than four decades of dealing with them is that they are groups of individual students with a common chosen objective, namely, to become familiar with the subject matter of the course they are all taking. The class is, you might say, a group with a common educational purpose. 

Is society something like this? A group with a common purpose?

That seems like a candidate except that members of my university classes are, as young adults, free to sign up or reject signing up for the pursuit that’s the objective of the course they may or may not come to take. No one may enroll any of them without their explicit or sometime implicit consent–the latter if the course is part of a package of courses that amount to a concentration or major which includes it. But consent it crucial.

When one is part of a society one can join inadvertently, by being born to those who are already part of it. No consent is required, not at least initially. And when one is born into a society, unlike when one signs up for a class, one isn’t assuming various obligations, although if one wishes to remain a part the others may impose some, few, elementary requirements–no killing, no theft, no assault, no similar aggressive conduct is acceptable, so those who choose to engage in these will be banished (e.g., to jail). (Remember Devil’s Island? That was the idea of it.) Or one can join by requesting that one be admitted as a member–immigration is one such way). 

Now some societies have rules that are imposed on members and some of these are reasonable, just, but others can be anything but. If they aren’t reasonable and just, they aren’t really fit for human membership. Some clubs within a society could, of course, exist that has rules that would make a large, human society unjust. For example, in some subgroups one might have to give up all of one’s belongings or renounce eating on Fridays or even worship at the feet of some select members of the group. So long as membership isn’t mandatory, this could well be acceptable–one size does not fit all.

But the larger society, the one into which one can be born, would only have rules that derive from what the members are all about, human beings. A human society, in other words, needs to accommodate human nature, just as an ant or bee or termite society would only be fit for its membership if it accommodated the nature of those members. This is not so with a university class I or thousands of other teachers teach since apart from needing to fit human nature, classes must also fit the purposes for which they exist, such as learning about biology or philosophy or law. One in effect takes an oath when one signs up for a class and if one seriously breaches that oath, one can be ejected (as many students routinely are). 

Now what rules would fit a human society per se, just as such, a human society, with no special purpose that some members might like to sign up for? It depends upon human nature. Which is where the idea of natural law and natural rights comes from. By being natural, based on human nature, on what everyone has to be just to be human, these laws and rights indicate what rules members need to accept as well as what rules they may reject as unsuitable to human social life. Thus a society that has rampant violence, corruption, etc., as its constituent parts would not be fit for human inhabitation.

What then of the various claims that the membership has numerous obligations to serve society? What about a position like this one: “The ability that any of us have to earn income and acquire wealth depends only partly on our own individual efforts. It relies as well on the operation of political, economic, and social institutions that make it possible for any of us to ‘earn a living.’ . . .Viewed in this light, those deductions from my paycheck can be seen as reimbursements to society for that portion of my earnings derived from social goods” William E. Hudson, The Libertarian Illusion: Ideology, Public Policy, and the Assault on the Common Good (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008), p. 43.

Sorry, this won’t do. It would–and does, where it prevails–amount to imposing involuntary servitude on members of society, even if most members do benefit from the various features of the society; nothing may be imposed on members apart from having to act peacefully, non-aggressively. Anything else would amount to oppression, subjugation and the removal the most essential element of a bona fide human society, namely, respect for individual liberty. 

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