on Jan 26, 2006
What separates man from the animals is that, unlike them, man is a rational actor. Rather than acting from instinc, or in simple responses to immediate stimuli, we can plan rationally, guage the effects of our actions on others, and measure the harm or good that comes from our actions. Because we can do so, and exercise our will, then being a rational actor also makes us, automatically, a moral actor. So, when we talk about natural rights, what we are really discussing is a set of moral claims that arise directly from human nature.
In an ideal world I suppose this would always be the case, but I’m often shocked at how often we are, in fact, like animals – even when trying to make rational decisions. I’m always amazed at how much our base animal drives shape our otherwise highly advanced world. We write software, design new soft drinks, send spaceships to other planets, compose music, and engage in long philosophical debates on the internet about natural rights. We are, in many ways, a race of highly advanced and creative badasses. And yet, through all of this our primate nature still pokes through from time to time and exposes (some of?) us as a bunch of monkeys dressed up in ill-fitting pants and ironic t-shirts.
The obvious one: The effect of sex on our culture and entertainment is so complete and universal that I don’t think we need to even bother looking for specific examples. Our drive to eat, driven unchecked in a place with practically limitless food and little need for manual labor, has given rise to a massive industry dedicated to helping us to fight that same drive. And despite all the effort, the weight-loss industry is losing.
So what does this have to do with self-esteem? Well, another drive we have is the drive to protect our children. Many people who don’t don’t have kids have trouble trying to imagine just how powerful this drive is. This drive has served us very well over the millenia. For a long time this meant keeping out animals that thought of us as a delicous addition to the food chain. It also meant being ready if a rival society came riding over the hill with the intention of starting a tiff over who gets to live in our homes. Eventually we fixed those problems. Dangerous animals are few and far between, and the ones left are the ones smart enough to stay away from roads and guns. Barbarian societies still exist, but our relative military strength is such a mismatch that they don’t come riding over the hill anymore.
After fixing these two biggies, we were able to turn our attention to the other major dangers to our kids. Antibiotics stopped infections from killing kids at such a fierce rate. Santitation saved millions more. For an encore, we cured polio. By this point we’d stopped almost every major threat to the lives our children. Time to relax, right?
Of course not. The drive to protect children is still there. Each generation comes to see the world as they find it as “normal”, and when they grow up they will have a whole different scale for what they consider to be “dangerous”. They still want to make the world a better place for their kids, which is a bit tricky since it’s already pretty great, kid-wise. So what’s next?
Dangerous playground equipment. Dangerous toys. Choking hazards. None of these problems got suddenly worse, it’s just that the previous top dangers were eliminated, and stuff like this made it into our collective “most wanted” list. No longer content with protecting kids from death, we’re moving on to protecting them from little cuts & abrasions, and the very odd chance they might choke on a random toy. So now our playground equipment is safer, toys are rounded off and no longer launch anything, and anything smaller than a basketball is labeled as a choking hazard. Sure, playgrounds are a little less fun, some toys are less interesting, and we have warning labels written for morons plastered over everything, but we might have saved a life or at least an eyeball. And just one life makes all this hassle worthwhile, right?
At this point it should become obvious that we’re dealing with the law of diminishing returns. These changes are starting to cost us something and aren’t giving us a lot more safety. But we’re not done!
Ban fireworks. Mandatory bike helmets. Bus everyone that lives more than ten feet from school. Enact laws that dictate how and where you may build yourself a swimming pool, and how you may use it. Ban television shows that show people doing dangerous things, or add long stupid pre-show “don’t try this at home” warnings. Make sports more non-agressive and non-competitive.
At this point we’re no longer dealing with random external dangers. We’re talking about eliminating risks that people choose to take. And still it goes on. Each generation comes forward with the self-assigned mission to make the world safer for our children. Now we live in a foam-padded world where the biggest danger that faces our kids is that they might have their feelings hurt. This is about as good as life gets. And even that risk can’t be tolerated.
The people who advocate this silly business need to realize that there is no end to this. The kids will never be “safe”. They are on a fool’s errand, acting on a base drive that pushes them to advocate ever more irrational measures. The worst thing about these people is that as they advocate increasingly preposterous public policy in the name of safety, they do so at the bidding of an instinct that has become a sort of collective obsessive-compulsive disorder. Despite this, when these fancy-pants monkyes start grunting and shrieking about “self-esteem”, they believe they are being rational.
Keep piling up the banannas, monkeys… but I think you have plenty.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.