Each of Us Is Nothing If We’re Alone, Research Time, 26/09/2017

Now and then, I’ve wandered around Reddit having conversations about philosophical ideas. I had interesting conversations, but few of them were all that pretty. One that stuck with me – which I realized informs so much of radical far-right youth culture today – was about morality.

Someone told me in all seriousness that all forms of moral obligation were oppression. Because any means by which another person seeks to control my actions oppresses my individual liberty.

That’s really messed up. And I thought it was just the ravings of a messed up Reddit freak. But reading Robert Nozick’s radio show argument, I realized that this idea had real pedigree.

You can make an idol of Les Stroud the Survivor Man, but remember
this very simple fact. We'd never know about his incredible skills at
disappearing from civilization and living in the wilderness if he
didn't bring an Outdoor Life Network camera crew with him and
broadcast all his adventures on cable television to a nationwide
and global audience.
Now, Nozick was ostensibly writing about the free rider argument. He was arguing that it was morally acceptable to be a free rider on a system designed for the common good because a fundamental element of individual liberty is the freedom not to do something despite others pressuring you.

But look at what that argument actually says. The free rider problem is typically posed, literally, as taking a free ride – its typical example is hopping on a public bus without paying for it.

Nozick pumps a different example for the free rider problem and ends up in much more horrifying territory. Instead of a bus system, he describes a community entertainment program that you’ve already promised to contribute to. And he says you still have the right to back out, no questions asked.

He meant to talk about the free rider problem, but he’s argued that each of us has the right to break promises.

Having the right to break promises also means that you have the right to step away from your whole society. Because if you capitalize on your right to break all your promises, then you shout to the world that no one need ever trust you again. If you’re enthusiastic about doubling down on your freedom to break promises, no one ever will trust you again.

Your liberty is the freedom to turn your back. Let's admit that we all have this freedom. Now let’s also examine the consequences.

True isolation destroys your humanity. As an inherently social species,
we have to compromise our desires if we want to complete
ourselves as people.
Even though Hannah Arendt wrote The Human Condition 20 years before Nozick published Anarchy State and Utopia, she made one important point about the terror that results from Nozick’s idea. And I mean it when I say terror.

Turning your back on society literally means becoming a totally private person, a hermit. In the cartoon version of libertarianism, this is how the most extreme folks live. Move out to a cabin in the middle of the woods, disconnect from everything,* grow a vegetable garden, and hunt deer with your own increasingly massive weapons arsenal.

* Unless you keep the internet to stay on Reddit and 4Chan, catch up on Breitbart, follow your favourite youtubers, and watch @realDonaldTrump.

I’m being extremely sarcastic, but I’m also making a larger point about what disconnecting from society really means. You really do kind of have to become a cartoon radical libertarian to make a truly clean break – to live without the oppression of being bound by promises.

Being in Paris this week, where Arendt herself spent a good chunk of her philosophically fertile years, reminds me of the influence of old ideas, ancient concepts, on our contemporary thinking. She writes about the Polis Greek meaning of the word ‘private,’ to describe the private realm – the Greeks thought of it literally as the realm of privation.

Appearance is an essential aspect of reality, and to flee from
appearance is to fly into a shadow existence, to become a shade
instead of a person.
Someone whose entire life is relegated to the private realm is deprived. He’s a pathetic figure.** The libertarian desire for freedom – as the radio show problem and moral obligation as oppression expresses – creates a deprived human personality.

** And I feel safe saying that it’s often a he.

When someone defines their life according to such a desire, they fly away from society and human connection. All attempts at social relationships are rejected. The goal becomes isolation – isolation as the only space that can be truly free.

Arendt writes, “The private man does not appear, and therefore is as though he did not exist.” If you don’t enter society, then you don’t really exist as a person. At least, you aren’t a complete person. Your existence as a human is damaged, withered. You’ve purposely broken parts of yourself.

Those broken parts of the totally free person (on this libertarian model) are the means by which we compromise our will. I can’t just demand food for free from a restaurant, break all my promises to my friends, betray my wife, and abandon my children. All these are constraints on our freedom, when freedom is conceived as total escape from obligation.

But to cut yourself away from all those obligations makes you literally inhuman.

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