March 8, 2021•857 words
"Nobody owes you, or me, or anyone, anything" is a stance I hear from friends sometimes. It makes sense in the context of a perpetual imposition of others' desire on one's life, to think "I don't owe them anything [e.g. when someone talks to me in public in an unwanted way]", but what happens when this becomes universalized into a life philosophy, into an ethics? Is this tenable?
The straightforward step in asking this question is to consider it in terms of the categorical imperative: what would the world be like, if this were universalized? If nobody felt they owed anyone anything? There's multiple ways to approach this. Assuming the most radical elaboration, everyone would act in terms of what was best for themselves, all obligations arising from implicit or explicit contracts, and even those only contingent on whether each party felt that they cared to maintain the contract once established. Many individuals might act out of a felt sense of morality, but this would hold no bearing on everyone else. Ultimately each person's behavior would fall back to an individualist "what is best for me?" mindset, a sort of anarchist libertarian situation.
This seems in accord with many peoples' implicit vision of ethics. So, what is lost? If follow Arendt in defining religion using its Latin roots, as "that which binds back"1, then the idea of "nobody owes anyone anything" implies an ultimate loss of grounding for religion, for a binding back, beyond one's personal preference. The "use" of religion in a culture is exactly that it is what binds. What are the 10 commandments if not ropes, shackles that constrain us, but which paradoxically establish something greater? A collective binding, a common social norm that is truly followed by all, is the beginning of a commons: if we can all agree that "thou shalt not kill", then we become free in a new way, to wander the streets without worrying about being killed.
So the assertion of absolute freedom, "nobody owes anyone anything", also destroys those constraints that produce an entirely different sort of freedom. And I think the attempt to negate it raises one of the most important questions of modern times: "what do we really owe each other?", which we can interpret in terms of "what sorts of freedoms, what sorts of commons do we want to guarantee?"
It's interesting to me that those who avow "nobody owes anyone anything" will, in the same breath, also invoke the idea of regulation: "nobody owes anyone anything, but people shouldn't be allowed to do certain things (e.g. stalk someone on social media)." This raises the paradox of "if nobody owes anyone anything, then how will people be prevented from taking certain actions?" The recourse is to an institutional authority, like the social media website, who will enforce certain rules on their behalf. "No individual owes anyone anything, but institutions owe us something."
The problem with drawing such a line is that institutions are run by people. If those in charge of the institution also believe that "I don't owe anyone anything", then each regulation is subject to the criterion of "what value will this bring the institution, and by extension, me?" The notion of an "ideal" never comes into play, because each collective action is translated into terms of personal gain. So in this world, the only way to "make" an institution do anything, is to raise the stakes for them in terms of their own criteria of value such that they fall in line. In other words, to threaten the institution with punishment unless they take the actions you want. This is effectively how the recent "cancellation" events work: "we will boycott you and undermine your bottom line, unless you fall in line with what we want."
Institutionally speaking, this creates a prioritization of image over substance; the government becomes concerned with their own PR over embodying any actual ideal of good, over any material concerns that citizens may have. The only way out of this trap, this child-like "I want to avoid punishment / we will punish you" is to accept that perhaps there should be certain ideas to which we bind ourselves, in order to produce a greater good. But of course, in our "postmodern" era, many can no longer identify a greater good, as philosophically, we only accept the "lesser" good of negating-the-bad, of subverting that which is evil.
So the first step toward a new "religion" is identifying a positive good, as opposed to a merely negative one. But we can never do this if we cling tightly to the stance of "nobody owes anyone anything", because the good is that which we must believe that everybody owes to each other, an idea which we can measure ourselves and others against, and produce a collective norm.
"In contrast to Greece, where piety depended upon the immediate revealed presence of the gods, [in Rome,] religion literally meant religare: to be tied back, obligated, to the enormous, almost superhuman and hence always legendary effort to lay the foundations, to build the cornerstone, to found for eternity." H. Arendt, "What Is Authority?". ↩