Some Tricky Ideas to Watch out For
Tibor R. Machan
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a very influential social and
political philosopher who argued that although human nature is benign and
good, society has corrupted us all and now we are pretty nasty and also
?everywhere in chains.? He also defended the dubious idea of ?the general
will,? some superhuman source of obligation we must all obey, out of which
grew all kinds of harmful collectivists ideas that are used by some folks
to rationalize the violation of individual rights.
Rousseau?s notion of the innocent and good savage, corrupted by society,
is actually a great confusion. If we are all so nice and gentle to begin
with, how come society turned out to be so nasty and mean? What is
society, anyway, other than large assemblies of human beings; so if
society is making us all nasty, it is, of course, people who are making us
nasty. And then they certainly didn?t start off being so nice and gentle,
after all. If they had, they wouldn?t perpetrate the corruption Rousseau
blamed on society. If society is nasty, then, well, people managed to
become nasty all on their own, society or no society.
A recent letter writer to USA Today demonstrated the influence of
Rousseau, yet again, when he wrote, ?Basic human instincts, unless
corrupted by society, bear natural traits for morality and ethical
integrity.? So, again, we are all good to start with but something
insidious called ?society? corrupts us and we end up not so nice. And on
and on goes the nonsense.
A related issue arises when people say that it is their culture that
makes them think this, do that, and so on, as if there were some big,
transcendent being called ?culture? that went about doing stuff. But what
is culture? It is, really, no more or less than the various institutions,
artifacts, projects, and the like that people produce and which become the
defining attributes of certain groups of them living in certain regions of
the globe?the Germans, Swiss, Israelis, and so forth. Culture cannot make
people to anything since culture is people doing things.
Why is it so tempting, then, to keep talking about how society does this,
and culture does that? Probably because it caters to the myth that no one
is really responsible for his or her conduct, for what is on his or her
mind, for the good and bad things that come out of what one does. No,
it?s always something else?society, culture, the country, you name it and
it?s what?s responsible. We, in turn, are but puppets being manipulated
and none of us makes things happen, none is responsible. But we also
desperately need some wise cadre that will repair culture and get
everything straightened out for the rest of us under culture?s influence.
Yet how come they have escaped the influence of culture so they can repair
The same kind of ruse is perpetrated by the big ?we? that many people
make use of when they want to coerce everyone to follow their lead. We,
for example, in Orange County, have decided to have a light rail system or
we, in Washington, DC, decided to build a massive sport stadium. In
virtually every community around the country and, indeed, the world, there
are those who make use of this royal ?we? to peddle some project they do
not have the honesty to call their own and the diligence and wherewithal
to convinced others who don?t share it to come on board with their
support. No, by using this ?we? they aim to convinced both themselves and
others that the idea in question is indeed everyone?s idea and, thus,
everyone may be taxed and otherwise coerced to support it since they too
want it, really.
The bad habit of not calling such folks to task on their tricky uses of
language has a very high price indeed. It is the way the much more solid
notion, the idea that everyone has a right to his or her life and works
and others must ask for it if they want to make use of it for some more or
less glorious purpose, is lost in the shuffle. But this shouldn?t happen.
To resist the ruse, it is best for everyone to pay attention and notice
just what the we, the society, the culture actually is and whether these
terms are being used accurately or, as I would maintain, mostly so as to
perpetrate a fraud.