The fantasy of a hard boundary

The history of every hitherto existing society is the history of attempting to do away with the irreducibility of human decision-making. From the appeal to the inscrutable demands of the gods to the pious submission to the logic of the market, human beings have always been desperate to offload their responsibility for themselves onto some external agency. The newest variation on this theme is that once we hit the limits of earth’s carrying capacity, we will be forced to make fundamental changes to our collective behavior and norms.

This impulse is understandable, because the technologies for consciously directing our collective human decision-making are all laughably inadequate. Collective decision-making has historically consisted of a small group of people claiming a right to power and most people “deciding” to submit to them, often in ignorance of the fact that their power isn’t immutable. Even when people want to change the situation, the powerful often have violent means at their disposal. Great minds from Anselm to Hobbes have claimed that even decisions made under duress are technically free, since you could always go ahead and die, but even if we grant that disturbing premise, we have to agree that this minimally “free” decision to stop resisting in the face of violence does not match up to our ideal of freedom. In any case, the combination of violence and submission is unlikely to lead to very good decisions, from a collective perspective.

Hegel may have believed that the events of his era ushered in the possibility of a more transparent and deliberate form of collective decision-making (called “Spirit”). Maybe he was even right about that! But in any case, we have collectively chosen not to take it up (using the familiar combination of self-assertion, violence, and passivity). And now the car is on fire, with no driver at the wheel, and all we can hope is that market incentives will drive nihilistic corporate leaders to doom fewer of us than we currently project.

So the fantasy that Mother Nature herself will step in and correct us is appealing, but it’s also nonsense. We human beings do have limits, above all our embodied finitude. In that sense, we can’t just do whatever we want indefinitely, because we will destroy ourselves. But we can destroy ourselves. There is no hard boundary that brings us up to the point of destroying ourselves but stops us just shy of the mark. When Mother Nature pushes back, we can collectively decide — most likely through some combination of power politics, passivity, and violent coersion — to just go ahead and die.

Doubtless we wouldn’t decide that if we had a truly transparent collective deliberation on the matter, and maybe we will luck out and choose something else when push comes to shove. But whether we do develop effective means of collective deliberation or else just luck out, in neither case will it be because some external agency forced us to. It will be our collective decision, because our collective responsibility for ourselves is inescapable.

2 Responses to “The fantasy of a hard boundary”

  1. Nathan Says:

    Really good post, especially for turning the “personal responsibility” argument that conservatives have always used to explain away the worst excesses of the rich or powerful.

  2. William Says:

    What is the significance, for you, of the fact that the power of those that we elect is mutable? Is it that we believe that we constrain power of elites through tethering them to popular opinion, and in doing so, we mistake a formal cause for a final cause?


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