In Thomas Babington Macauley’s dazzling essay “Southey’s Colloquies on Society” (1830), he accuses Robert Southey, then the Poet Laureate of England, of believing “that the business of the magistrate is, not merely to see that the persons and property of the people are secure from attack, but that he ought to be a jack-of-all-trades, architect, engineer, schoolmaster, merchant, theologian, a Lady Bountiful in every parish, a Paul Pry in every house, spying, eaves-dropping, relieving, admonishing, spending our money for us, and choosing our opinions for us. His principle is . . . that no man can do anything so well for himself as his rulers, be they who they may, can do it for him.” Against this view, Macauley writes, “Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as . . . a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read, and say, and eat, and drink and wear.”
Two phrases stand out: be they who they may and broken in from the birth. The former suggests that the power to meddle rests not only in the state but also in any asshole with an opinion. The latter reminds us that early intervention is crucial if one is to break a will entirely, which is why the attitudes of the entirely broken so closely resemble those of elementary school teachers: It doesn’t matter who started it. We must share and cooperate. The common good is paramount. That beliefs cultivated to maintain order in classrooms of young children have precious little application to adult life is seldom remarked; thus, we seldom debate whether any adult has any business telling any other what he ought to do. Inviting us to debate this is John Lachs, Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, with his new book Meddling: The Virtue of Leaving Others Alone.
Lachs’s Meddling is, caveat lector, a work of ethical philosophy, published by the Indiana University Press. It is not pop sociology. It is refreshingly—to this reader, at least—devoid of phrases like “a new study shows” or “data now support.” It is, in fact, a welcome antidote to that soft-science-driven journalism which conditions us to mistrust the judgments supplied by our own experience and observation. The sort of reader who believes that typing Do you have a citation for that? into a comment box is a coup de grace should trot off to Hudson News for the newest Malcolm Gladwell book and leave Lachs and his audience unmolested. That said, Meddling is short (127 pages), accessible, and sure to vindicate and delight anyone who senses too much meddling in his own affairs.
The meddler is a fact of life. The source of the meddler’s urge to control others, Lachs writes, “may be evolutionary; in this dangerous world, those who can channel the aggressions of others or can at least enlist them to their aid improve their chances of survival. But the drive . . . roils behavior long after ordered social life makes the struggle for physical existence unnecessary.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the United States, where true hardship is, at least relative to the rest of the world, easily avoided, and where the aims of meddlers can be correspondingly and comically trivial. Our media are awash in “lifehacks” and “weird tricks”; Slate’s “You’re Doing It Wrong” articles aim to set readers straight about such momentous tasks as boiling eggs: “In the rankings of kitchen frustrations, hard-to-peel hard-boiled eggs rank near the top, just behind mayonnaise that just won’t emulsify.”
There are many members of the commentariat who seek not to help but to correct by humiliation. A high schooler’s sexist tweet or a college student’s racist Halloween costume are fair game for national outrage, even as hundreds or thousands of crimes against persons and property go unremarked. Never mind that the effects of correction are bound to be negligible or, worse, counterproductive. Macauley again: “Profound and ingenious policy! Instead of curing the disease, to remove those symptoms by which alone its nature can be known! To leave the serpent his deadly sting, and deprive him only of his warning rattle!” Here is what we gain when our civilian police enforce punctilious etiquette at the expense of honesty and authenticity: a society of people whose true attitudes and beliefs are largely unknowable.
Outrage—and the bullying that goes hand-in-glove with it—may make for great clickbait, but those who traffic in it should spare a thought for its effect on society. The same goes for the “positive” writers who tell us how to increase our “mindfulness” or conduct successful relationships; how to lead more satisfying lives or raise “better” children; how to be fitter, happier, more productive. The question is not whether they are right or wrong but why they feel an impulse to dispense their advice in the first place. Surely they believe that they have something helpful to offer, that it is for our own good, but, as Lachs demonstrates, they rarely ask whether it is virtuous to make others second-guess their own conduct. Lachs’s answer is a gently qualified no: “[N]eutrality with regard to others [is] the foundational moral attitude of which obligations constitute a temporary suspension. . . . Humans tend to do particularly well when they can make their own decisions.”
Their own decisions, yes, and also their own mistakes. It is difficult for the technocrats among us to understand that a problem is often a small thing next to our inability to solve it without assistance; to have a problem solved by someone else can be worse than bearing it patiently. “[P]roviding for others,” Lachs writes, “may be of no help to them; it may invite them to surrender their independence and throw themselves on the mercy of strangers. The consequent inactivity, vulnerability, and collapse of self-respect interfere with even minimal satisfactions and make for a disconsolate life.” This fact is hidden from the helpers, whose intercessions bring them immense satisfaction. The more helpless the population as a whole is acknowledged to be, the smaller—and more remarkable—is the minority responsible for intervening wisely on its behalf.
The refusal to consider the nature of problem-solving from this vantage is an impediment to the development of social policy; a politically neutral book like Meddling is a boon to that process. It reminds us that if people are at liberty to reason from different premises—valuing independence or self-reliance, for instance, above material comfort—there can be no policy that is inherently more “rational” than any other. This is where philosophy must take the reins from social science, which can identify the “best” course of action only if we agree that satiety and health are the greatest good. But nobody agrees on anything. In Lachs’s words: “[B]eing oneself day and night gives one a privileged view of what satisfies.”
Lachs’s book is not really about meddling so much as the glory of being an individual consciousness, with its own nature, will, and preferences: “If natures differ, so must the values they seek and the experiences that satisfy them.” For some, struggle is more rewarding than comfort or reward. The pleasure that comes of meeting challenges as an individual is what Lachs finds truly valuable. We are all to some degree creatures of our socities or communities, but Lachs is wary of those who treat action itself as a group project: “The things we need in order to operate amount to background conditions of life that neither act through us nor determine what we do. The enabling conditions of action do not themselves act; only organisms do.”
This argument calls to mind both President Obama’s controversial “you didn’t build that” speech and Elizabeth Warren’s remarks, which achieved viral popularity and notoriety, to the effect that all achievement is in a sense communal. The sharp division of opinion about whether such civilizational rudiments as roads and bridges—and the taxpayers who fund them—deserve a share of credit for the triumphs of commerce suggests that many will find Lachs’s argument gratingly abstract. But he is saying something simple: Nations, institutions, companies, and so on do not act; their constituent individuals do. And Lachs is convinced that people do best, in terms of leading meaningful lives, when they are left alone to act by their own lights.
It is easy to scoff at this attitude. “What about obesity and alcoholism?” ask the health nuts. “What about the infidels?” ask the Islamists. “What about those who haven’t been Saved?” ask the Evangelical Christians. “Why won’t my son get married?” asks the mother. “Why is my daughter marrying him?” asks the father. “Why get an iPhone and not a Samsung Galaxy?” (and vice versa). Google, the Great Meddler in the Cloud, asks why we would resist strapping cameras and televisions to our heads. Golden Age-of-TV evangelists prate on about which glorified soap operas are most deserving of our rapt attention. Activists scold us about which side of history we want to be on, never noticing that nobody agrees where the line is. We could do this all day—or we could just leave each other alone. After all, as Lachs argues repeatedly in the context of religion, what does a conversion count for if it is obtained by force, whether at the point of a bayonet or through mere social pressure? It is meaningless, that is, except to the meddlers who achieve it.
Lachs does not, of course, deny that there is such a thing as expertise, nor does he deny the importance of authority. We need governments and police. We need physicians and food-and-drug regulators to advise us, up to a point. But such institutions exist to ensure enough domestic tranquility and social cohesion for the rest of us to live without interference. Most of the meddlers in our lives do it to gratify their own egos or because they mistakenly believe they are helping. Lachs has a simple test for determining whether help is truly help: It must be temporary and it must be given because it is asked for, with no strings attached. Help without a time frame is apt to create dependence—think of all those Millennials languishing in basements, Cheetos dust clinging to their tears of shame. Help with onerous conditions is not help so much as benevolent coercion.
Lachs writes with clarity and concision—admirable concision, considering how unwieldy university press offerings tend to be. He is genially disapproving of meddlers from all points on the political spectrum, as critical of gay-marriage opponents as he is, implicitly, of the runaway welfare state. He is also marvelously forceful. An especially bracing quote: “The self-motivating person who takes no commands from others and needs no others to command comes close to the best the human race has produced.” He is describing what used to be called, for brevity’s sake, an American.