How civilised?

One thing that I pondered as a child was why taking someone else’s things was considered wrong. I don’t mean that I went against that idea, but that I tried to work out logically why it should be so. What was their right to claim ownership? If I took it, because I could, because they had left it unattended, or I was able to take it from them, then why didn’t it belong to me instead?

I didn’t realise at the time that this is actually philosophical thinking.

When I studied with the Open University, one module included an introduction to philosophy, through the French Revolution and Rousseau’s Social Contract. This introduced concepts that have become even more clear to me as I work on my allotment.

The idea of the social contract is that we have rights and responsibilities, and in order to exercise those rights we need to also exercise those responsibilities. For example, I have a right to drive on the road and not expect people to crash into me. So does everyone else, of course. But that right means nothing if we don’t also remember we have a responsibility to drive sensibly and on the correct side of the road, obeying all the road rules. This means that we give up a freedom – to drive anywhere and in any way we choose – in order to receive a benefit – safer roads.

It’s important to understand that we benefit from the rules, and not just have our freedoms limited, and that is why we are willing to accept them. This is why laws that are perceived as silly/useless are more frequently broken than those we accept as sensible.

In the same way, we accept that other people have a right to put time and effort into things without risk of having them removed by force or stealth. As I plant my crops and sow my seeds, I’m forced to make decisions well in advance as to what crops I want to have, and how many plants I need, in order to meet the needs of my family. There would be absolutely no point in putting in all that time and effort if there was a high chance that someone could come along and destroy it or take it all away from me. This works both ways, of course. Those who invest in creating something (whether music, stories or a fruit harvest) need to have their creation acknowledged and rewarded, or why bother?

I also consider the very real possibility of growing too much of one crop and not enough of another. This is where working together reaps benefits; by pooling resources and the time and effort that goes into producing them, we can all get what we need. One person working to grow food for their own family is in a precarious position; a co-operative of people who are willing to work together can progress much more strongly and securely.

This is the basis of civilisation: that we accept that in working together we lose some of the freedom we would have by going solo, and instead gain the benefit of strength in numbers. So when a school bans all children from taking in peanut butter sandwiches to protect the one child with allergies, the children are sacrificing the freedom to eat what they want in order to remain a strong, united group. When a building costs more to build because it has to be easily accessible, the cost is sacrificed for the benefit of the members.

And not just the specific member who’s targeted by whatever modifications are being made: for in giving up rights in order to protect members of the community, we are benefiting from civilisation, and in other circumstances we could be the direct beneficiary; either way, we are benefiting from learning to work and live together.

As I understand it, this is the basis of civilisation: we choose to create a society that protects its members, because people who need protecting in one way may be of benefit to society another way; because at some point we are all at risk of being the vulnerable party; because a united society that supports its members is stronger than one where it is every man for himself.


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