It is no secret amongst those close to me that I find sociology to be one of the most detestable subjects currently taught in academia. The entire field is rife with instances in which society (or a subgroup within society) is treated as a self-sustaining entity with its own will, or with instances in which society and culture are viewed à la Marx, as results of privileged classes wielding influence and power to subvert and exploit other classes of individuals (be they economic, racial, social, etc.) – this is treated as an absolute which pervades throughout all societies. In both cases, the sociologists make no allotment for the fact that societies are not primary entities and that the individual is the basic unit of every society. They reject the idea of the individual and the philosophy of individualism as idealistic fantasies of the Enlightenment, and so, I reject them.
Such was the case with a professor of mine who taught an honors class on U.S. cultural geography. He spent a great deal of time attempting to guilt me into being ashamed of the station into which I was born on the grounds that my family and I, because of our race and economic status, are somehow responsible for the poverty of others (a very real sociological concept called “white privilege”). In order for him to do this effectively — though he never did elicit anything from me beyond minor annoyance in regards to this issue — it was required that he delve occasionally into political philosophy. In one instance, he asserted that the United States government operates solely on a system of common law, not constitutional – as far as I could tell, my classmates found this as preposterous as I did.
But one of the other motifs of the class was slightly more impressive argument on his part, meaning it required more philosophic thought to refute than a simple point at the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. Through this argument, my professor more or less explicitly supported the political philosophy of the social contract theory. The theory itself states that, when forming a government, individuals organize themselves and agree to forfeit some of their “rights” to the new government for their own well-being as a collective and as units of that collective. Though I am paraphrasing, my professor tended to support this notion as follows:
“This idea of absolute liberty with no responsibility to achieve equality is a myth. The idea of Robinson Crusoe building an existence for himself on a desert island never happens in the real world. No notion of private property or of an economy can exist without society and a government, and society deserves something in return because no man can exist without it.”
Similar variations of this fallacy include, “You can do whatever you want on a desert island, but you give up some of your rights when you enter a society,” or, “By choosing to live somewhere, you give your consent to submit to the rules society creates to govern that area.”
First, I want to agree in part with my professor. It is absolutely true that man is far better off when he is in a situation in which he can trade with other men – it allows for specialization, increased efficiency, and more wealth, all of which are valuable to man’s life. Furthermore, I agree that governments are necessary to protect (but not to establish the concepts of) private property and economic exchanges – the idea that man should be reduced to tribalism in order to protect what is his, as defended by anarchists if not so blatantly, is contrary to the needs of his existence. However, my professor’s statements go far beyond basic economic and political philosophy into the realm of ethics and metaphysics, and it is here that he makes his errors.
By claiming that “absolute liberty” does not or cannot exist, my professor did two things: 1. he equated absolute liberty with the negation and absence of law and 2. asserted man would have more liberty on a desert island than in a society. Both mistakes are the result of a misunderstanding of what “absolute liberty” is. Absolute liberty is not a state in which man can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants without any sort of consequences – this is metaphysically impossible. Instead, absolute liberty is the complete and consistent recognition of man’s rights.
As they are, man’s rights are not the product of societal invention. Instead, they are the product of reality – moral absolutes based on each man’s own life as his ultimate value and on the protection of those things which are universally necessary for all men if they are to pursue that value. Man does not get his rights from being in a society. Man gets his rights by being man. It is true that man would have absolute liberty if he lived alone a desert island – no one would be there to violate that liberty – but he is at no greater degree of individual liberty on a desert island than he would be (or morally should be) in a society. Does man become less of a man when he moves from a desert island into a society? No, and so too does the liberty to which he is entitled not diminish.
“But what about murder? Or rape? Or theft? Surely society should ban these things!” The layman’s term “duh” comes to mind, but man never has these rights, even on a desert island. First of all, exactly who could man murder, rape, or steal from on a desert island? There is no one there but himself! It is a “right” which he could not exercise in the first place, so how could one argue that he possesses it on a desert island? Secondly, rights are necessarily social concepts, meaning that rights only make sense within the context of two or more men, not a single man. If rights are the “protection of those things which are universally necessary for all men to pursue” their lives, the question must be answered: protection from what? Man is to be free from what? The answer is initiated force – not nature, not the consequences of one’s actions, not from one’s voluntary obligations, nor anything else except initiated force; that is the purpose of rights. As such, rights do not make sense outside of a social context. They are protections of man’s ability to act and to retain the products of those actions within a group of multiple men. Though they are inherent within the nature of all men, they need not and ought not to be viewed as applicable to “desert island” situations in which man is alone — they would be as a bulletproof vest in a world without guns: existent, but moot. Regardless, all three of the above examples are violations of liberty, not applications of it. No man has the right to violate the rights of another man – that necessarily produces a universal contradiction in the concept of rights as moral absolutes which protect man’s life as an ultimate value and his ability to pursue it. Contradictions do not exist in reality, nor does the liberty to violate someone else’s liberty.
The second argument was that man somehow owes something to society for recognizing his rights. Because there exists an established system for protection of individual rights in a given society (even if my professor failed to understand those rights), it is argued that man assuredly owes something to that society for whatever level of success he is able to achieve under those conditions. In example, this would be morally equivalent to the mafia demanding “protection money” for choosing not to injure property which was rightfully mine to begin with — that because my rights were “protected” by one group from violation by another, I must subject myself to the rule of the first, forfeiting my rights through coerced payments of tribute or slave labor. The extension of this principle is that because society forbids individuals from robbing one another, it is entitled to some of that property which was protected by it.
This returns us to the “right” to take away the rights of others. The only responsibility which every man possesses when he chooses to live amongst other men is to respect their rights – doing so is merely a given, not a matter of choice. One’s rights are not negated at the collective level merely because they are respected at the individual. Again, this is the flaw with sociology – it ignores society as a group of individuals and instead treats it as a metaphysically and epistemologically separate entity governed by separate rules. A society, or any other group of humans, can be no more than the sum of its parts — it can possess no moral authority which its constituent members would not have on the individual level.
The corollary argument that man forfeits his rights because he chooses to live in a given society, particularly one which has a tendency to violate rights, is false for the same reason. Would one argue that a wife consents to being mercilessly beaten by her abusive husband simply because she chose to live with him? Is there anyone who would attempt to defend the notion that the husband had the right to beat his wife solely because he was the owner of the house? Who would truly try to assert that the wife grants her “tacit consent” to being beaten by her husband on the grounds that she “receives the benefits” of shelter and food from the same man? As stated, man’s rights are derived from the fact that he is man. His status as man does not change depending on where he lives, and consequently the rights which he possesses remain equal in number and ethical supremacy over all interactions between men.
If it has not already been noticed, the final one of my professor’s mistakes worth discussing is his treatment of society as an entity in and of itself. Though I accepted the importance of interactions between men and of barring force from those interactions for man’s benefit, I unequivocally reject the notion that man cannot exist on an individual level and relies on society to produce the conditions necessary for his existence. Though closely related to the second argument in the sense that protecting a man’s rights somehow entitles society to collectively violate those rights, this final argument is not moral – it is metaphysical.
Man’s rights are individual, as is his entitlement to them. Society does not produce these rights, and the fact that society has no authority to violate these rights is derived from man’s entitlement to them. Man’s individual rights, educed from the fact that his life is his own ultimate value on an individual level, produces the subsequent value which man has in working together with other men and banning force from human relationships. Man’s existence cannot be derived from the value which he places on living in a society, but instead the value of living in a society is derived from man’s existence. Stating otherwise is equivalent to treating Beethoven as the consequence, rather than the cause, of his famous Ninth Symphony — it is a reversal of causality, and a rejection of reality. This is what so many sociologists fail to realize, particularly those like my professor who are compelled to produce irrational political and ethical tangents from inherently irrational metaphysics.
Reality is the primary of all things – of man’s existence, of his consciousness, of his knowledge, and of the products of all the above. Society, if it is to be properly studied, cannot be treated as a singular entity with force of will or separate metaphysical/ethical status from its constituent members, lest those members lose their own identity in the process. Treating man as the product of society rather than society as the product of man is a reversal of metaphysics: the individual does not owe his existence to society – society owes its existence to the individual.