Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Of souls and society

How does one reconcile the need for the soul to find its purest expression with the need for society to effectively function? This is perhaps the most difficult question for one who places unlimited value on the beauty and nobility of the human soul but who also admits of the need for people to assemble and march forward together.

And it is a thornier issue than some might think. This is not simply the conflict between individual and society. It is that and more. Sure, we can point to the importance for the individual of having the opportunity to self-express, an opportunity without which there might not be anything to express. But one can make a case that the needs of the soul are also the needs of society. That society cannot function without the robust and diverse development and expression of individual human souls. Much as we require biological diversity on our planet, we require the diversity of thought and behavior to help us refine our knowledge and our methods of living. John Stuart Mill expressed this same position in On Liberty:

"In the case of any person whose judgement is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so?... Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind."

This is as true for the small adjustments we must make to move from legitimate expertise to even greater levels of accuracy and Truth as it is for the major leaps forward that require truly divergent thinking.

So if both individuals and societies need a diversity of expression of the soul, how can we insure this diversity while also respecting the more mundane needs of society?

I'm not going to offer any good answers here. I don't have any yet. But perhaps I can offer a few thoughts that may prove useful.

To start with, I think it important to acknowledge that some souls are just screwed up. Whether nature created them that way or they became so by dint of a malformed nurture, some people have evil at their core. Allowing them an opportunity to explore, develop and express their souls will accord them and society no benefit. They must, somehow, be prevented from doing so. And whether we conceptualize this as a necessary infringement on the rights of the soul based on Mill's greatest liberty formula or we argue that an evil soul is really no soul at all and that its restraint is actually a nod of respect to the human soul, most reasonable people agree that the restraint of an evil soul is good.

But this is almost easy. What of souls that are not evil but which are only non-conformist? The most extreme case might be where an individual rejects formal laws on moral grounds. The American Revolution would be one such example. Socrates' behavior in Athens another. The recent Iranian demonstrations another. And so on. What behavior should we support? In this case it seems hard to me to support maintaining the formal law and looking down on an individual that follows his soul in an effort to dismantle an unjust law. On the other hand, what if he is wrong? Do we want anarchy?

A less extreme case would be where an individual, in the search for a pure expression of soul, violates not a formal legal rule but an informal social more. Say he burps at a table where such behavior is considered impolite. In this case, it seems difficult to argue that individuals should restrain themselves. Sure, a loud burp might be unpleasant, but would we really want to stifle all thought and behavior that upsets social mores and prevailing opinions?

So it seems to me that there is a continuum along which we can place the various types of situations. At one end, lie situations where the pursuit of individual aims and the expression of the soul can only damage society. This is the case of the evil person bent on wreaking havoc. At the other end lie cases where the individual cannot meaningfully damage society. In the middle lie the difficult cases. The violation of law on purportedly moral grounds. The extreme business risk in pursuit of success. And the like.

From the perspective of society, I suppose we can talk about the expected value to society of pursuing the individual expression of the soul versus blindly maintaining the prevailing system. At least here we have a grounds for comparison in the common unit of value (though in practice it may be difficult or, even, impossible to measure).

But how can we ever decide between the value of letting souls pursue their beauty and nobility and the need to maintain societal harmony?

Which brings me back to my opening question. None the wiser but considerably more tired!

No comments: