In the distant past (for the internet), I thought through and modified my worldview by blogging. Since I stopped blogging about politics and philosophy my views have changed some more. Now I would like to review some of those views and open them up to challenge by others on the internet.
It seems to me that, to paraphrase a famous passage, there are some things all humans should be able to agree upon:
- All people, regardless of gender, race, education, disability, or any other attribute, should have equal opportunity.
- Life is a precious thing and may exist on only one planet in the entire universe.
- Crime is undesirable.
- Despite democracy, most people feel powerless.
- Cultures influence individuals more than they know.
- Freedom is desirable, but a widely agreed upon definition of freedom is elusive.
- Science is the only way to know something is true.
What’s difficult about this last observation is that so many people either do not know what it is that science says is true, or disagree because it’s inconvenient. Actually, I retract that: I don’t know why some people insist on fighting the established facts – their reasoning is their own and I should not create a straw man. If you do not agree that vaccines work, that the planet we live upon is an oblate spheroid, or that the climate is changing as a result of human activity, especially the exploitation of fossil fuels, what is your “why” that you do not support the science?
This global pandemic has been an interesting one. The disease is not consistently lethal which may be a good thing in as much as it allowed society to continue to operate (there wasn’t an apocalypse), but also allowed those opposed to science to fight the controls put in place, without guaranteeing their death. Since January 2020, 474 under 18s have died of COVID-19 in the United States. Obviously more than zero deaths is unpleasant, but it is a lot fewer than the number of under 18s killed in car accidents each year (2,400 under 20s in 2019). This relative risk can be utilized by those opposed to the restrictions put in place to save lives.
I am torn about that last sentence. The “restrictions” put in place are being put in place, in theory, by the people we have chosen through voting mechanisms. So in some senses, they represent the majority view. But that would only be true in perfect democracies. The restrictions might be the right thing scientifically, but from a social perspective, they are definitely inhibiting people’s freedom. The debate is, I think, about how to balance the freedoms:
On one side of the scale is the individual who wants to walk, mask-free, into restaurants and shops and places of education, without being forced to get a vaccine.
On the other side of the scale is the individual who wants to do those same things, but without fear of being exposed to a virus that has killed over 672,000 people as of September 22, 2021 in the United States alone.
Both those people want freedom, and both cannot have it without depriving the other of theirs. It is one view that masks are a minor inconvenience and so this minor restriction could be imposed without having to thumb the scale. It is my view that this is the case with the vaccine too – it is demonstrably less dangerous than the virus for all age groups (except, perhaps second doses for the very young). The idea that freedom would be restricted unreasonably by forcing people in the left column above to be vaccinated or to wear a mask seems to me to require that the scale is unbalanced.
Anarchists and some libertarians would argue that everyone can have freedom without having to force anything upon anyone. Presumably, in that world view, we could allow restauranteurs to decide whether to enforce vaccine mandates in their places of work, and we could have mask-required schools and mask-free schools. This worldview also requires a perfectly frictionless employment market where wait-staff and others can move from an unsafe (from a COVID perspective) to a safe work place. In large cities there may be an element of that, but in rural, suburban, or even small cities, there can be fewer companies than there are industries, requiring some people to change career if they want to have that freedom.
Can you be free if you have to pay for education? Some would argue that education should be paid for by the person receiving the education (or their parents, in the case of children). Others would argue that only the educated realize the value of education, and mandatory education for children, not subject to the ability to pay for it, is in the interests of everyone. Indeed, society has largely realized and agreed with that, and the youngest age at which you can leave education has been steadily increasing over time in most of the world.
Psychology and other sciences have shown us that the human mind does not really mature until much later still. Risk-taking and decision-making skills really only settle down around the mid-20s. For some, this author included, university with its freedom and laissez faire attitude to attendance, came too early. I needed to be hand-held through education for a lot longer. With hindsight, I felt different from about the age of 28 onwards. For others it will be a lot earlier, and for a very small minority, maybe a little later.
Education is not the only thing that society mandates, but it is one of the least contentious. As I understand it, anarchism would work only with much smaller, pre-industrial populations. Education, universal healthcare, and social services – all of which I would argue are essential – would be difficult to organize without an organizing structure.
One of the questions this discussion brings to mind is about equality: Can we achieve equality and what would a fair society look like? As mentioned above, I think most people would agree that race, gender, and other attributes should not limit ones freedoms or choices. A woman (or other gender) should be allowed to choose any career she would like, just as a man has always historically been able to (subject to wealth). But what should we do about systemic inequality? If you are born into a ghetto, with gangs prevalent and violent to non-members, and if the police fail as they have done, to protect people and society from them, what hope do you have of going to the University of Oxford, becoming an astronaut, or of winning a Nobel prize? Some people achieve these things, despite their circumstances, but the chances are severely diminished.
How do we ensure equality of opportunity? Do we:
- ban inheritance,
- provide a universal basic income,
- raise all children in centrally controlled homes,
- militarize the police in ghettos,
- quadruple the expenditure on social services, or
- any combination of these things?
Actually, lets discount “centrally controlled homes” as a terrible idea that has been disproven, horrifically, by past attempts. The “defund the police” movement – which is a terrible sales technique, incidentally – attempts to provide funding for social services by redirecting some funding from police forces. This would be a solution supported by science, but is probably not enough. Similarly, increasing police spending, or militarizing them, has not been shown to work, and certainly does not help those that are arrested.
More important than these discussions about solutions to equality of opportunity is a question about whether that’s desirable, at a society level. I would argue that the Turings and the Lovelaces of our world are probably not quite as rare as we think they are, but that we waste their talents by losing those individuals who would otherwise change society for the better. But how to find them and help them? Both Turing and Lovelace were wasted in their time. Alan Turing killed himself because of the homophobic laws in England at the time, and Ada Lovelace was sidelined for being a female. Their separate genius could have propelled us to the age of the internet decades earlier if only they had been encouraged or allowed to live.
But there is an alternative argument – one which I don’t think I can satisfactorily argue at present – that the current system allows the rich parents of people like Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, and especially Elon Musk, to propel them to make societal changing inventions (at least in the cases of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk). There is a compelling counter-argument to the progress Elon Musk is making, well described by the “Our Changing Climate” YouTube channel which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=surwq9exCKA.
What do you think? How can we, and should we, create equality of opportunity? Do we want equality of outcome? Is some control of the masses necessary, desirable, or unacceptable, and why?