Last April, while in Germany for the annual commemoration of the liberation of Buchenwald, I had an interesting chat with a German friend about the term Jedem Das Seine.
Translated, the phrase means "to each their own
." I had always interpreted it to mean "you're on your own," which is the message the Nazis clearly meant to convey when they had it built into the gates of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
This was not the interpretation of my friend; she went back to Goethe and suggested the intended meaning was "to each according to their needs." Instead of everyone being on their own, it was more a matter of people having access to whatever they needed to succeed. For some, that might be very little; for others, it could be a wheelchair, or psychological support, or dialysis.
The idealists coined a phrase that was pro-social and expansive in nature; the ideologues twisted it into something isolationist and sinister.
What does any of this have to do with society?
With her comments, Thatcher means well, and she does make a point worth considering. It's the same point that Ayn Rand tried to make:
There is no such entity as "the public." As individuals, supposedly rational actors, this makes sense to us. You're not me, I'm not you, right? We live and die as individuals.
Only we don't. We can be infected by illnesses transmitted by others. We can be hit by cars driven by others, innovated by others still. Economic crashes aren't caused by us, but they impact us.
Conversely, when we individually work, earn money, pay taxes, buy goods, we're engaged in a system of exchange with, ideally, positive implications for everyone.
The only way to truly not be part of that system is to be a hermit - not the North Pond
kind of hermit, who still relied on society for survival, but the kind that lives in the wild, hunts, builds their own shelter, like a wild animal.
Even then, though, you'd be part of a system - the ecosystem. You'd kill for food, deposit waste, use air and take up space.
As human beings, we are part of many systems, layered together. We may think we live apart from nature, because we're in cities and such, but that isn't true; we're surrounded by nature ranging from grass to birds and squirrels, not to mention germs. We eat food that comes from somewhere, our waste has to go somewhere. We're not hermetically sealed off from the rest of nature.
But we think we are. We think we've evolved beyond nature, or above nature, because we're civilized.
One of the men who died was wearing a t-shirt, no sweater, no jacket. Clearly, he had it coming. But why didn't he have a jacket? Why didn't he have what he needed to survive?
Is that not our problem, because we have to put ourselves first? If our duty is to look after ourselves first, are those who fail to look after themselves first not really human? What of parents who put their own interests ahead of those of their children? Are they more or less human?
This line of thought can go on from your children to your neighbour's children to the homeless man on the street to dead journalists in France or the children killed by ISIL.
We ignore the well-being of the man on the street because it's up to him to look after what we identify as his own self-interest. ISIL kills children because they are looking after what they have identified as their self-interest. Or rather, God's interest as interpreted by them.
The world is fixed, what happens is beyond our capacity, God has pre-ordained all. We have no responsibility to be responsible.
North America used to be home to a lot of mega-fauna. They're all gone now. So too are Neanderthals and Denisovans
. There can be no question that many of humanity's surviving primate cousins are also facing extinction due to our actions.
No one alive today was there; we don't know what happened, nor can or should we claim responsibility for it. What we can do, however, is extrapolate from the past to understand the present and, to some degree, predict the future.
The man with no jacket died because no one gave him one. The children murdered in cold blood were killed because they were seen as threats to the purity of ISIL's vision.
We drive other species to extinction for their fur, their hands, their tusks, their land. They have something we want - not necessarily need - and we take it. They have needs that are impacted by our actions, but we don't recognize or choose not to care. Whether intentional or not, malicious or not, these creatures were killed by humans.
Because we looked to ourselves first. Sometimes.
Raising children takes - and always has taken - a lot of hope - Elizabeth Kolbert
Humans do crazy things, risky things; we explore for no reason, we climb mountains because they are there, occasionally we give others the jacket off our backs.
Not all of us, clearly, but enough of us to make a difference. Otherwise, there would be no technology, no colonization of new worlds, no civilization.
With civilization comes a brand new kind of co-dependence, which is our second system. We still rely on and are part of the overall ecosystem, but we're part of another system, too - a social one tied to human constructs like infrastructure and economies. Much of what we do in a social context is antithetical to self-interest.
Any other species - and many humans alive today - would think it madness to spend up to six hours a day cramped into tight commutes, contort oneself into cubicles to strain eyes and build stress, only to earn money to buy overpriced things that aren't needed and often do nothing beyond collect dust. Yet that's what we do, isn't it?
Is that really self-interest? Why on earth would we choose to think so? Why would we pat ourselves on the back for success that negatively impacts our health, strains our familial relationships, all in the interest of being adored or feared by people we'll never meet?
Consciously or not, trade-offs are being made. Sacrifices are being made. In supposedly serving our self-interests as individuals, we are being part of a system.
A system that, perhaps, is doing to humanity what we have done to other species throughout our existence.
“With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it.”
Words are symbols; they solidify abstract concepts into unique and (theoretically) consistent wholes. Logos do the same, as do styles of dress. Concepts are also symbols; there is no zero in the real world, yet it's something we have been able to create. The economy is something we have created, though really it's a fancy way of isolating one component of an ecosystem of trade-offs from all the rest.
What of the individual?
We celebrate individuals, and individuality, but not everyone does. At the same time, all the individuals that are us remain part of systems; like hands, or cells of an ecosystemic body. In fact, the raw material of which we are made comes from other organisms; our matter comes from what we consume. Our DNA is passed on to our children, and was passed on to us by our parents. We call ourselves individuals, but we are equally vessels, and conduits, and components.
It's not society that's a construct; it's the individual that's a construct.
Worth noting, as well - if there is any one thing that sets humans apart from other animals that informs our power to both create and destroy, it's our ability to collaborate.