As mankind acquires more power, he acquires more responsibility. Once, nature was something over which he had no control. A man had to live with the world as he found it, and all that mattered was his own personal survival and that of his kin. Whether he survived (or not) made not the slightest difference to nature or even to other members of his species. From the moment he began to clear ground to plant crops, dig wells for water, cut trees for fuel, and kill animals because they annoyed him, that began to change. When he did it well, he flourished. When he did it wrong, he was not the only one (or thing) to suffer. He made gardens out of deserts, but just as often made deserts out of gardens. The easy movement of information gave him new means to fight disease; the easy movement of people and goods gave him new diseases to fight. Organization gave him new powers, and new responsibilities. Once, a safe water supply meant a well of his own. Now it means something very different. ( Anyone out there who wants their city’s water supply to be provided by a for-profit company, without regulation or oversight? ) In the 18th century, there was no such things a “public health”: government at any level had nothing to do with health. Streets could be open sewers, and quarantine (as in, imprisoning the sick in their houses and leaving them to their fate) was about only tool available to fight raging epidemics. Finally it was discovered that collective action could do wonders to improve this situation: public water and sewage systems were not created for convenience, they were created to fight the spread of cholera and dysentery. Vaccinations were made universal and public health workers hired because it was learned that protecting everyone was the only real way to protect anyone. In a modern industrialized state, a disease-ridden workforce is no asset. Products and practices were banned that poisoned people, or were found in practice to result in frequent injuries or death because we came to realize that, in the old phrase “no man is and island, entire unto himself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … Every man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.” While we cannot utterly prevent one another from killing ourselves or even each other, we have a common interest in each other’s wellbeing and in each other’s fate, and a responsibility to do what we can and may to preserve one another. Some people seem to preach “every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost” a philosophy which they are pleased to call “personal responsibility” but which is in fact just its opposite: it is rather the shirking of all responsibility. They pretend that things like climate change, floods, famines, the spreading of deserts, the creation of new strains of the disease, are not man-made. They pretend that we are still living in a world where the strong self-sufficient individual is all that is needed or wanted, and all limitations or burdens placed upon him by his fellow men are a necessary evil at best, and an evil tyranny at worst. (Not that efforts for the common good cannot become excessive and tyrannical, even when well-meant: they certainly can! Still, there is a difference be use and abuse. And that something may be abused is no reason to ban its use altogether. Something these very people in other contexts will themselves maintain.) Perhaps they do not intend their rhetoric to be taken seriously, to be taken literally, that they want to reduce government to little more than the armed forces and a system of courts and prisons used to maintain the established social order, but why should we assume they are not in earnest, and really do want to pull down what it has taken a couple centuries to build up? This has been a long, slow evolution. Personally, I think it will continue, even with missteps and detours. That eventually new solutions will be found for new problems. But it is possible it may fail as well, if the “look out for number one” and the “I’m a winner and I don’t give a damn what happens to losers” mentality continues to flourish.
Apr 12, 2017