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Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Needs of the Many

I suppose my subject may require at least a rough definition, but sometimes there’s only one word for a particular job. So the word of the day is solipsism.

The solipsist is not a narcissist; that’s a pathology. The solipsist is not merely selfish; that’s childish and natural in a fallen world, and even unbelievers may learn unselfishness as they age and experience life. Solipsism is actually a philosophical theory that the self is all that may be known to exist, but I’m not here talking about mere philosophies or theories. Practical solipsism is a phenomenon in which adults — particularly Western adults, I think — automatically and reflexively view every issue before them first and foremost from the angle of how it affects them.

It’s kinda like empathy ... except it isn’t. Empathy feels your pain. Solipsism feels its own imaginary pain that has been triggered by yours.

And solipsism is absolutely epidemic in our culture.

Logic Dictates …

My title is nicked from 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (yes, Star Trek again, sorry) in which Mr. Spock gives his life to save the Enterprise based on his conviction that “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Or, as Jeremy Bentham put it, “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.”

Depending on your definition of “happiness”, that may or may not hold, and there are also times when utility may not be the most moral or spiritual metric by which to make decisions. But Spock’s dying words encapsulate a mindset that is rapidly departing from the West, and one that has a formidable biblical basis. To sacrifice one’s own desires, goals, or even one’s life for the welfare of others was always a rare thing: “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die.”

Then, maybe. Today it’s near-inconceivable.

A solipsistic thinker cannot apply Spock’s thinking to his own life, nor would he truly understand Bentham’s formulation. It is not that a solipsist selfishly rejects the good of his fellow man when considering his options; it’s that questions related to the needs of the many do not even cross his mind.

The Power of Solipsism

Advertisers and newspeople assume with good reason that their audiences are largely solipsistic. That’s why every ad in the world is designed to demonstrate what this or that geegaw can do for YOU and how it will change YOUR life. Even apparently altruistic outfits like World Vision do it all the time: the camera closes in on the starving toddler’s huge eyes and the narrator intones, “What if she were YOUR child?” Bingo! Get out the Visa card. But it’s solipsism and not altruism that reflexively responds to such an appeal. Everyone knows giving is good, but the appeal to our natural solipsism is specifically designed to trigger our emotions and stop us responding in perfectly sensible ways like, “Will this organization actually send all the money I give to this child or will most of it go toward administration and the costs of this ad?” Things like, “Is there a more cost-effective way I can help even more people?”

Or even the very obvious, “But wait, this ISN’T my child!”

A Nation of Solipsists

The hashtag #NotMyPresident is just one evidence the U.S. is rapidly becoming a nation of solipsists, as are all Western nations. Last I looked, we at least pretended to value democracy, and democracy consists in both winning and losing. In America, the good news is you only need to lose for four years; then if the other guy has proven himself to be the idiot you think he is, you’ll get your own four-year shot at ruining people’s lives. The bad news is you have to suck it up and wait four years.

I do not notice a large number of voters on the Left rejoicing that democracy is working as designed and that their fellow Americans have had opportunity to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom of choice. But this is a Canadian problem too: a co-worker once told me she voted Liberal because it might preserve her present job longer than voting Reform. Really? There was not ONE single issue bandied around in the run-up to the 1997 federal election that was more significant to her than a tentative shot at maintaining her current employment status? Apparently not.

But however theoretical it may be, democracy, however flawed, is the best present hope of writing Mr. Spock’s last words across a national landscape. If the majority wants #Brexit, then #Brexit it is. Better to have 48% of your nation unhappy than to have 52% unhappy. Yes, it’s just that cold, but it makes much better sense than minority rule, and it’s certainly way more fun than living in a State where one man or a group of elites decide how the rest of the nation will live their lives. Living in a democracy means accepting that sometimes we don’t get our way so that a majority of our fellow men and women can have what they desire. In short, not solipsism.

Thwarting the Majority

And yet Western societies are being reordered across the board to thwart the wishes of impressive majorities. Two-thirds of Americans oppose allowing people to use the bathrooms of their professed gender identity. These numbers are typical throughout North America, yet “inclusive restrooms” are being mandated all over the place regardless of the public’s professed wishes. And don’t even get me started on how many Americans reject amnesty for illegal aliens, despite which their government proposes it over and over again. Look at how they consistently vote, not at how they poll. The polls are — surprise! — wrong again.

Why this disconnect between the will of the people and the actions of politicians? Because solipsists make way more noise than altruists do. Governments improbably pay the most attention to the squeakiest wheels, and this is how these same governments are eventually removed by the silent majorities that elected them.

No nation can possibly accommodate the wishes of all its citizens at all times. What seems “good” to me is often not so good when viewed from your perspective. This is why we have laws.

Not For the Solipsistic (or the Faint of Heart)

In Israel, the laws came directly from God. They took into account the weakness of the people whose needs they addressed, and because they originated in the heart of a loving God, we can be confident that from beginning to end they embodied his people’s best interests — by which I mean their REAL interests, not their PERCEIVED interests.

When that law was violated, judgment fell. Human judgment when possible, divine judgment when human judgment failed. People got hurt, sometimes in large numbers, but it was all for the ultimate good of the nation and for those who would be born years down the line and would mark that nation’s example and govern themselves accordingly:
  • Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire before the Lord and were incinerated on the spot, but the Israelite priesthood learned a critical lesson about the holiness of God. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few.
  • Three thousand idolatrous Israelites died by the sword of the Levites after the golden calf incident but at least temporarily, Israel learned a lesson about the offensiveness of idolatry to God. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few.
  • The son of an Egyptian living among the Israelites blasphemed God’s name and was stoned to death for his trouble, and Israel learned a lesson about the importance of reverence for the God who had delivered them from Egyptian slavery and protected them on their desert journey. The needs of the many … you get the picture.
We don’t think like that. We just don’t.

The Concept of Deterrence

Most of us don’t even believe punishing criminals serves as a deterrent to others of their ilk. For us, it’s all about the “wasted potential” of the sinner or the feelings of the criminal’s mother and father. We are solipsists, and when we see people judged for things we do all the time (or can certainly imagine ourselves doing), our first thought is “I wouldn’t want that to happen to ME!”

And our second thought is “Must be a bad law then.” Not logical. Not altruistic. Certainly not concerned first and foremost with the glory of God.

We are not thinking about the message judgment sends and its positive effect on the lives of our neighbours. God’s judgments on individuals hurt the individuals involved but were on the whole greatly beneficial to the nation. The needs of the many … Yeah, that.

God, Who Doesn’t Change …

New Testament examples, you ask? Sure, why not.

First, we have a wicked high priest who prophesied against his own natural inclinations:
“But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
The needs of the many, even when the One who died for them was impeccable, and the many were stained with the same foul hypocrisy and selfishness of Caiaphas.

As for judgment in the Christian era, we need to look no further than Ananias and Sapphira, who brought upon themselves the judgment of God and died in front of the church in Jerusalem. Could they have been reeducated or rehabilitated? Sure, maybe. That’s probably what you and I would have recommended. God had something better in mind: “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”

The needs of the many …

The Tentative Conclusion?

May I remind us all that the “one” upon whom God made the iniquity of us all to fall was his very own perfect Son?

Solipsistic thinking would lead me to wish that God might ease up a little on sin. After all, I have my own track record to consider. But that might require him to make an exception in my case, or worse, to change the rules for everyone.

Solipsism would say, “Go for it.”

I say this carefully (not to mention fearfully), but I would rather be the object of God’s judgment than ask that God cease to be God at my convenience.

That would just be out of order. The needs of the many …

And in any case, the One whose needs were outweighed has already paid the price.

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