Humanity has always experienced a tension between the rights of the individual and the individual's obligation to his or her community. Moreover, it is sometimes overlooked that the issue is firmly and inextricably rooted in human nature.
Humans are highly cooperative social animals. Indeed, our ability to work together to achieve a common goal most likely helped us survive for millions of years -- even more than our skills at making tools. Tools get the credit, but cooperative living did the work. Or, at least, that's how I see it.
At the same time that we are highly cooperative social animals, however, we are also individuals. There is nothing in our genetic make up that prevents us from thinking or acting for ourselves.
Consequently, we experience a tension between rights and obligations. If we were one or the other -- if we were merely a social animal, or if we were merely individuals -- there would be no such tension. No back and forth dynamic between rights and obligations. But since we are indeed both a social animal and an individual, the tension has always existed, still exists, and will always exist.
Now, it is largely accepted in America today that our rights more or less follow
from the principle of, "unless it harms others, do what you will". Or,
if you happen to be wealthy or powerful enough, the rule is simply, "do what you will".
Which is to say that, in America, there at least currently seems to be a stronger sense of rights than of
obligations. In fact, many of us -- Randians, for
instance -- seem to think our obligations are extremely minimal. But you don't
need to be a Randian to want as many rights as possible and as
few obligations as can be gotten away with. That desire seems to be
I think one reason Americans no longer have much sense of obligation is because we have been reduced from citizens to consumers. Citizens feel an obligation to society in a way that consumers don't. You don't feel much obligated to the company that makes the bleach you buy -- no matter how white your whites come out in the laundry. But a genuine citizen can and does feel an obligation to take an active role in shaping his or her society.
So long as most Americans are mainly consumers, and only marginally citizens, it will be difficult to have an insightful debate about obligations in this society. Difficult because the unthinking reflex of most of us will be to claim as many rights, and few obligations, as possible -- in keeping with being good consumers. We will approach our society as if it were a product we might buy. That is, we will approach it asking what it can do for us, and not what we can do for it.
I was put in mind of all of the above last night when I stumbled across a blog whose author was arguing for the notion that people have a responsibility (read: "obligation") to be intellectually honest. He didn't use those words -- "intellectually honest" -- but that was what he was after.
In my experience, if you don't know what intellectually honest is, you are not alone. I am always running across people who believe intellectual honesty is mostly about plagiarizing student class papers. But that's the very least of what it traditionally means.
Intellectual honesty means a number of things, including being as truthful as you can be, not misrepresenting anyone's positions if you can help it, not trying to mislead others, and accepting the weight of fact and evidence, regardless of where that takes us. A consumer would not feel he or she owed intellectual honesty to a bottle of bleach they were going to purchase, but a citizen might feel he or she owed it to their community.
To say that we have an obligation to be intellectually honest probably upsets some people and mystifies most. I think only a few of us are likely to immediately see the advantages of it. So, how can anyone possibly argue for such a thing?
The author of the blog post was arguing we had an obligation to be intellectually honest in so far as our opinions could be harmful to others.
By "harmful to others", he did not seem to mean that someone might be hurt by our opinions. That is, he was not thinking of "harm" and "hurt" as being the same thing. Some of my Middle-Eastern friends, for instance, will argue that you have no right to express an opinion that hurts others feelings. But the author of the blog post was not arguing tor that sort of thing. Instead, he meant we are obligated to be intellectually honest because our opinions might lead to actual harm to others.
For instance, suppose we know better, but we nevertheless represent vaccines as causing autism -- despite that no weight of reason and evidence supports such a conclusion. A young mother, hearing us speak, is persuaded not to vaccinate her child. Later, the child catches a virus and dies. The author of the blog post seems to have been thinking about something along those lines when he argued that we are obligated to be intellectually honest.
As I said, that sort of argument is likely to upset some Americans and mystify most of us. Whether we like it or not, we tend to perceive no chain of obligation linking what we say to what the mother does to her child -- let alone the child's death. I may buy your bleach, but that doesn't make me part of your polluting the river next to where your bleach factory sits.
However, there might be a good reason to reconsider our views here. Suppose I were to sell you a map that I guaranteed accurate. Suppose further, you relied on that map to guide you through some of Colorado's fine off road wilderness. Last, suppose the map proved so inaccurate that you became lost and starved to death. Would I not have some product liability? Would I not, at the least, need to make good on my guarantee and refund your corpse the cost the of the map? What are my obligations here?
It would seem to me that, if I have any obligation to the purchaser of the map, I might also have an obligation to the woman who listens to me for advice on vaccines.
After all, that woman is using my advice in much the same way the wilderness hiker is using my map. That is, as a guide to action. So, what is the difference between handing out bad information about vaccines and handing out bad information about routes through the wilderness?
To me, that question is an interesting one. I myself think there are stronger reasons to suppose we have an obligation to society to be intellectually honest than there are reasons to suppose we don't. I've only represented a single one of those reasons here. To represent them all would take a book.
But what do you think? Do we have an obligation to society to be intellectually honest?