By Alberto Mingardi
Thanks to a Facebook recommendation by Tom Palmer, I’ve got my hands on “Meddling. On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone” by John Lachs. It’s a splendid little book, philosophically dense but written in a way which makes it completely accessible to a lay audience. It’d make it a wonderful gift to your friends and might prompt some thoughts.
Lachs reflects on our tendency to tell our fellow men what’s best for them. Very few of us keep quiet on the basis that everybody is the best judge of her own needs. I’m reminded of what may be a peculiar Italian characteristic. Italians (like Peruvians and New Yorkers) are well known for their driving style. Typically, the inside of an Italian car is a very talkative environment – even when only the driver is in. For the typical Italian driver, myself included, everybody else is going just too fast or (more likely) just too slow. When somebody cuts you off, or slows down when the traffic lights are yellow thus slowing us too, we tend not only to provide some very colourful definition of the other driver: but to lecture him endlessly about what good driving is. Of course, he’s not in the position to listen: but that doesn’t stop our instinct to lecture.
Lachs’s work reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s aphorism, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule”. This applies both to the wholesale and the retail urge to save humanity: to our attempts to teach colleagues what a healthy diet is, and to our wishes to wage a war to end all wars.
Lachs proves, rather successfully to my own judgment, that there is nothing particularly virtuous in minding other people’s business. “Respect for others consists primarily in acknowledging them as worthy decision makers”: leaving people alone is not thus capturing to egoism, but rather a consequence of recognising other people’s dignity.
There are many interesting ideas in Lachs’s book. On children and education, on welfare dependency, on how to help others, on legislation, and much else. I’d just like to quote him on the link between freedom and creativity:
Individual decision making is closely connected to creativity not because all choices are excellent, but because they constitute a broad field out of which the best responses can emerge. If we wished to establish a connection to Darwinian ideas, we could say that the wide spectrum of decisions is similar to the field of the spontaneous variations of living things from which the pressure of natural selection preserves only the most apt. Without such experimental structures and behaviours, responses remain stagnant and life sinks under the weight of institutionalised routine. Freedom multiplies actions and ideas, some of which turn out to be brilliant and others fundamentally flawed. The important fact, however, is that few if any of them could have occurred under conditions of enforced conformity. To leave people alone with their projects is to permit – even to encourage – the exercise of private imaginations.
John Lachs is my new favourite (living) philosopher.