April 15, 2007

"May I?" is the distinction from "Can I?" learned by children to establish in them a sense of relative status and authority, by replacing the concept of ability to do a task with the concept of permission from another to do that task. This is intended as a structure upon which to hang initial socialisation of the child, especially the idea of living with others who might be negatively impacted by the child's actions. Where the child does not learn some variant of this distinction, the resulting person has no respect for authority (because no perceived need for authority, except on occasion to protect from the consequences of their own actions) and sees external impersonal restrictions such as laws to be unreasonable. (Laws which directly and visibly and parentally protect the person are exempt, so long as they don't come into conflict with what the person wishes to do. Such laxity while retaining a patina of protection is often termed "freedom".) Across a society, this pattern leads to a cult of individualism which, at the extremes, can become total anarchy.

As one grows up, the can I/may I division needs to be blurred anew, evolving into the ability to perform the task not requiring particular permission from anyone for the task to be performed. This is required for a child to grow into an independent adult who will not require parent-substitutes to constantly corroberate their choices. Where this blurring fails to occur, the result is stagnation, a person who generally lacks personal initiative and who is reluctant to undertake any task they have not specifically been instructed to do. In the hidden background of all actual doings of such a person is always a tentativeness, a lurking dread that they might be doing something wrong or at least inappropriate. Across a society, this pattern leads to an entropic inertia of hierarchy and bureaucracy which, at the extremes, can become fascism.

And finally, in the adult, the division needs to be re-thought, maturing into a can I/should I. Adult society is the internal tension between cans and should nots which allow individual lives to run smoothly, with minimal reference to external authorities and codefied regulation to oil out the occasional jars. Even after a person has accepted the need for some degree of personal restriction by way of initial socialisation, but outgrown the childish concept of continual permissions, wish and ability are still not the only elements of an action undertaken within a symbiotic societal structure.

Laws and regulations can't do it for us. Laws are made by human beings. To accept a body of law as our only adult voice of authority is to accept a permanent, imperfect, inflexible, impersonal parent. Like human beings, to retain relevance a body of law has to evolve. And if it is to evolve, we ourselves have to choose which laws accurately reflect our personal shoulds and should nots: not only for ourselves, but for society as a whole -- and, in equally important parallel, not only for other people, but also for ourselves.

In choosing to live with other people, the only person who can choose to accept any restrictions upon oneself at all in the interest of a greater whole is oneself. In choosing to live with other people, the only authority who can decide the appropriate restrictions by which one chooses to abide is oneself.

But our first and primary choice, as adults, is whether we do choose to live with other people, or away from other people, or in spite of other people, or even against other people. Will the society we choose to live in be primarily or even solely cooperative, isolationist, combatitive, competitive? All the rest follows.

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