25 February 2012

Suum Cuique? Maybe Not So Much

So the other day we were discussing Mill's Utilitarianism in class, and the usual questions came up about my happiness v. others' happiness, what makes us really happy v. what only seems to, etc.  I pointed out that, for Mill, we do require others' input on the happiness question.  For him, we can use the collective experience of humanity to figure out what is and what is not conducive to happiness.   I went on to suggest that we do this all the time.  If we see a friend getting herself into a problematic relationship, aren't we going to want to pull her aside at some point at have a chat?  If we see a sibling, now an adult, living utterly shiftlessly and without any manner of thought for the future, etc., aren't we going to want to offer a bit of a kick in the rump?  Conversely, how many of us have been grateful that at some point in our life a friend took us aside and talked some sense to us?

The categorical "no" to these questions from one student gave me some pause.  "It's not my business," she said with reference to others' actions; "it's none of their business," she said with reference to her own.  I clarified that no one was talking about forcing anyone to change their behavior or choices, just discussing them.  I clarified that we're talking about friends here. "It doesn't make a difference," she said.

On the one hand, I get it.  We're all adults, and we don't need others weighing in on our affairs.  On the other had, I don't get it at all.  We're all limited, fallible humans, making our way from one day to the next as best we can, and sometimes that personal best might not be all that conducive to our own or others' well-being. 

I wonder if this is rugged American individualism showing through.  I wonder if this is what's left when communities and social fabrics break down.  I wonder if this is a concern for privacy and self taken to its ultimate conclusion.  I do know that it is a philosophical position as old as antiquity (Plato in Republic wrote that "justice is when everyone minds his own business, and refrains from meddling in others' affairs").

To me it all sounds like "I'll watch you play with the knife, and I'll watch you slice your finger, and I'll watch you bleed all over the floor, but I won't do anything to assist until you ask me nicely, and even then I reserve the right to say no."  

I won't argue with Plato.  "To each his own" might well be the language of justice.  In my heart, I do not find it to be the language of compassion.  I saw it welded into the main gate at Buchenwald.  That just about said it all for me.

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