“Who decides that?”

You may have observed this strange reaction whenever you have discussed any fixed standard of anything, most likely morality, ethics or value. The very first thing many people will say in response is:
“Who decides that?”

If you talk about standards of morality or ethics to a Christian, the first thing he’ll ask you is: “who decides what is good and what is evil?”

If you talk about standards of value to a capitalist, the first thing he’ll ask you is: “who decides what my work is worth?”

If you tell a democratist that there are inalienable rights that cannot be voted away, and that we should conform society to those rights, he’ll ask: “who decides what those rights are?”

The next thing they’ll generally do is point out that people disagree so much on this subject that you must be wrong and there really is no such standard after all. If disagreement was our barometer to evaluate whether something is true or not, then the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, neurology and a lot of history would be in very dire straits indeed. But general disagreement no more disproves a position than general agreement proves a position. No matter how many people agree or disagree, what is true for you is true for you.

Consider the problems inherent to accepting absolute truths for such people. If it’s true that there is an exterior standard of ethics that we can impose on Christianity, for example, that means that we can judge the actions of Christians and Christian organizations based on that standard. But the whole Christian culture of no-responsibility and non-confront could not co-exist with any exterior standard. Besides, Christianity is based on holy writ, and holy writ does not justify itself and does not exist to be justified: it exists to be believed.

Now look at the mindset indicated by the question “who decides?” To them, the truth is a power struggle. Someone or some group with authority (politicians, scientists, priests, and so on) has to make the decision for everyone else who must, presumably, accept whatever “truth” was decided upon. Their view of epistemology is essentially authoritarian, so why should we be surprised that they apply authoritarian principles? From the beginning of their lives, they have been indoctrinated to believe in the truths handed to them by their superiors. They also fully accept that this process of constant mental abuse be done to their children. The only question left is, whose “truth” do we control them with?

But this is a necessary consequence of any ideology which rejects absolutes. If the truth cannot be found outside of us, then it must be found inside of us. And since we are all human beings and equally impotent, one version of the “truth” (that of the rulers of whatever system you examine) must be imposed, by force if necessary.

The really interesting thing, which always remains implicit and that no one seems to really pick up, is that they see the laws, rules and agreements that are imposed on them as a security against everyone else’s subjectivity, even though the belief in those laws, rules and agreements makes them the victim of their own rulers’ subjectivity. So you get things like “without the law, we’d be subject to everyone’s wild ideas,” when it is the belief in the law that already makes everyone subject to the constructed wild ideas in the first place.

This belief persists because the laws, rules and agreements are portrayed as being absolute, while everyone knows they are entirely arbitrary. It is this fundamental contradiction which leads people to ask who will decide what the absolute actually consists of (the tricky part being to not think too much about the contradiction, lest you create too much cognitive dissonance). To anyone else, this is an absurd question: we don’t decide what reality is on the basis of a whim. The rest of reality is exterior to us and is greater than any of us, and we construct our views about it by our actions and our reactions.

If meant in that sense, the answer to the question “who decides…?” is “we all do.” We are all responsible for our own actions and those actions are all part and parcel of the physical and ideological society we inhabit. We are responsible for sustaining the moral and ethical systems in place, or for opposing them. We are responsible for sustaining hierarchies or opposing them. That much cannot be escaped, but it is as good as it is bad, for if only the masses sustain an evil system, they can also overthrow it.

Society, in this view, is nothing more or less than the process of constant construction and deconstruction in which all individuals are engaged together. Of course, it is important to remember that, as Anarchists, we know that our decisions can only be understood within a given socio-economic context. It would therefore be absurd to hold the individual responsible for the existence of those mechanisms of oppression and indoctrination, which predate his existence.

If we interpret the question in a different way, not as “who is in control of this reality and effects it into the world?” but as a more simple and direct “who determines the nature of these facts?”, then the answer must be “no one.” By definition, facts are facts regardless of our assessment of them.

If it is unethical to control other human beings, then no one’s opinion, even seven billion people’s, can change that fact. If it is ethical to control other human beings, then no one’s opinion, no matter how numerous or fanatical, can change that fact either. If it is unethical to control other human beings, then it is unethical to do so in any society at any time. If it is ethical to control other human beings, then it is ethical to do so in any society at any time.

The facts, when they concern absolutes, are observable by anyone who cares to observe them. This is therefore a very pro-individual and anti-authority position, since it basically tells us that anyone can know the truth regardless of their position, and that no authorities are necessary or even desirable. It gives the individual the power to fight against any law, rule or agreement when they go against the facts as he observes them (as for instance the concept of human rights supports various anti-government fights around the world).

Lysander Spooner was a master at this line of argumentation, as we see in chapter 2 of Natural Law:

If justice be not a natural principle, governments (so-called) have no more right or reason to take cognizance of it, or to pretend or profess to take cognizance of it, than they have to take cognizance, or to pretend or profess to take cognizance, of any other nonentity; and all their professions of establishing justice, or of maintaining justice, or of rewarding justice, are simply the mere gibberish of fools, or the frauds of imposters.

But if justice be a natural principle, then it is necessarily an immutable one; and can no more be changed – by any power inferior to that which established it – than can the law of gravitation, the laws of light, the principles of mathematics, or any other natural law or principle whatever; and all attempts or assumptions, on the part of any man or body of men – whether calling themselves governments, or by any other name – to set up their own commands, wills, pleasure, or discretion, in the place of justice, as a rule of conduct for any human being, are as much an absurdity, an usurpation, and a tyranny, as would be their attempts to set up their own commands, wills, pleasure, or discretion in the place of any and all the physical, mental, and moral laws of the universe.

The fact that every individual may observe the laws of justice within himself, and observe their ethical nature outside of himself, makes any concept of government necessarily evil. If the laws are arbitrary, then they are not worth anything as ethical principles, and if the laws are accurate, then they are useless repetitions upheld at the point of the gun.

None of these fellows (whether political or religious) actually believe that their position is arbitrary, especially not the Christians, who are indoctrinated to believe that their specific modern Christian sensibilities and contemporary American political categories are absolutes handed to them by God itself from the top of Mount Sinai.

In fact, they often argue that the detractor’s world is too uncertain and that we can never know if we’re right, if we’ve drawn the correct conclusions. This idea makes them very queasy. And yet, their position is just as uncertain: after all, laws, rules and agreements change all the time, while facts do not. Therefore, the political or religious believer can never draw the “correct conclusion,” since in his world no such thing exists. It is the believer who should be anxious, since he is the one who lives in an unknowable universe. Relying on democratic vote, capitalist booms and busts or a holy scripture that no one interprets the same way is about as safe as relying on tarot cards or tea leaves.

One thought on ““Who decides that?”

  1. Dr. Q April 2, 2010 at 13:57

    You nailed it.

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