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.


Lies, truth and meaning

I was reading an article recently about whether it was ever okay to lie to children, and it got me wondering. The article was talking in terms of outright lies, such as Father Christmas, or a school who faked a spaceship crash to stimulate the children’s imagination, in the process convincing some children that it was genuine, to the point they became extremely upset when told later that it wasn’t.

My response to this is no, it’s not okay with me. We’ve never made much effort to persuade our children that Father Christmas is real, and I feel that it’s hard enough for them to learn about life without them having to figure out whether the adults around them are telling the truth. All too often I’ve seen adults tell children something that to an adult is obviously wrong, but the trusting child will blindly accept it, lacking the maturity and experience to know any different.

There’s another type of lie to children, though, that I do think is okay, and that’s as defined in the Science of Discworld series of books: a lie that later helps to understand the truth. One example that comes to mind is the idea of electricity flowing like water. This type of lie is part of learning; it’s the process by which we develop our understanding.

But when it comes to the truth, can we say there is absolute truth, or do we construct our own truth? In many cases, it’s more like our interpretation; two people can see the same thing, but understand something different from it. “There’s three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.” Does that third side actually exist? Or does what you see as the truth depend on where you are looking from?

This made me wonder if we take things further and construct our own meaning as well. Another concept from the Science of Discworld is that of narrativium – the element of story. I follow the stories of several families facing various difficulties, and I notice that generally they tend to have a strong religious belief; they have a strong feeling that there is meaning in their lives. It’s easier to face trials if you have a deeply ingrained feeling that these trials serve a purpose, rather than believing that life as a whole is meaningless.

Does that meaning have to exist outside of ourselves though? Does there have to be an absolute meaning, or is it enough to decide that the element of narrativium exists, that things happen the way they do because that is the way they are meant to happen?

To me, the difference is between feeling that things happen randomly and feeling that things happen as they should. Between bewailing things I don’t like and looking for the purpose in them. Between despairing and giving up, and pushing forward and looking for the way to make the best of things.

One example is someone who lost her job, and spent a lot more time than usual with a parent who shortly afterwards died unexpectedly. Losing her job was unpleasant. The parent dying was unpleasant. But the two events happening in the way they did meant that she got the most out of those few months. Looking for the benefits from things happening the way they did will surely improve life, even if there is no outside force giving that meaning. The meaning is there because we look for it, because it happened and therefore it means something. We make our own meaning in life, and it’s up to us whether that meaning is positive or negative.

With this in mind, I choose to believe that there is some underlying thread of narrativium in life, and to follow that thread and act as though it is real; whether or not it objectively exists is not as important as looking for it. Sometimes we see the pattern afterwards, where at first things appeared random. Sometimes belief in something calls it into existence. And sometimes a belief can make life easier, whether or not that thing is real.