Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The persistence of nonage

Social workers employ the term Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) to describe any juvenile who is not currently domiciled in the household of a parent or legal guardian, or is currently not under their control as evidenced by the person's status offense, and who is not an emancipated minor. As a rule, a person in need of supervision is a runaway, an orphan, a truant, or an refractory child.

Clearly the concept has a broader application so as to include the mentally ill, the mentally subnormal, the chronically homeless, those suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, and so forth. People in all these groups show a sustained inability to look after themselves.

This analysis indicates that society divides into two main categories, those who are able to function autonomously and those who are not. Members of the latter group are deemed to have ceded their independence to those who will undertake to care for them. Adapting Disraeli’s words, we are confronted with two nations.

Must we accept this situation as a natural state of affairs? For a long time progressive opinion has regarded anyone who is not a child as potentially and ideally autonomous. These folks can be reclaimes. In all likelihood, this expectation stems ultimately from the Renaissance concept of the Perfectability of Man. In our times implementation of progressive policies--or so it is generally held--will inexorably reduce the numbers of such unfortunates. Political liberals generally adhere to this activist view. For their part, Libertarians think that it is essentially a matter of will-power: by making a decision for personal responsibilty each person can opt for full autonomy. Thus there is a convergence of views favoring an optimistic outcome. The reign of adult dependency, and the consequent inferiorization of individuals confined to that status, must, and will be ended.

But is this expectation justified? That is to say, will there not always remain a substantial segment of society that consists of persons who are unable to cope for themselves? To be sure there have been considerable advances. In the Old South, sharecroppers were adult versions of PINS. To all intents and purposes this social category has been eliminated. One wonders, though, whether some of the more unruly redneck descendants of the sharecroppers are not in fact unable to cope for themselves. (I speak as the descendant of rednecks, though not of sharecroppers.)

Here is my own thesis. I posit that the project of reclamation of non-autonomous individuals can only go so far, for there will always be a substantial residue of diminished-capacity persons who need help and supervision provided by others who are fully autonomous.

Looking around at my more prosperous friends, I find that they tend to attract the adhesion of less fortunate individuals. These lucky folks generously provide odd jobs, money, and sometimes accommodation for their less competent charges. This pattern of reciprocity is more common than most of us are prepared to acknowledge.

Let us look at the matter in a somewhat different way. In the narrow sense, “nonage” is the period during which one is legally underage. However, the term may be used in an extended way to refer to a period of immaturity, whether in a person or a nation. Thomas Paine, for example, held that “The bravest achievements were always accomplished in the nonage of a nation.”

The term nonage comes close to the idea that I am seeking to describe. However, it fosters the familiar assumption that this status can and must be overcome, across the board. What I am postulating, however, is that we must acknowledge that some persons are likely to remain in a stage of nonage throughout their entire lives.

Valuable assistance in dealing with this question stems from the philosophical legacy of Immanuel Kant. In 1784 the German thinker published an essay commonly known as “What is Enlightenment” ("Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?"). Kant was responding to a question posed a year earlier by Pastor Johann Friedrich Zöllner, who was also an official in the Prussian government.

Kant answers the question succinctly in the first sentence of his essay: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity [nonage].” He holds that the immaturity is self-inflicted not from a lack of understanding, but from the lack of courage in applying one’s reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another. We fear thinking for ourselves. He exclaims that the motto of enlightenment must be “Sapere aude!” – Dare to be know!

The German word Unmündigkeit means not having attained age of majority or legal adulthood. The term is sometimes also rendered as "nonage" (the condition of "not [being] of age") or “tutelage.” Kant, whose moral philosophy centered around the concept of autonomy, is making a fundamental distinction between a person who is intellectually autonomous and one who keeps him/herself in an intellectually heteronomous, i.e. dependent and immature status.

A realistic assessment [Kant suggests] shows that the majority of people are lazy conformists who gladly linger in this immature state for their entire lives. Why? Simply because immaturity is convenient. And why is it convenient? Because “guardians” such as authors of books, doctors, spiritual advisors, and anyone whom we can pay to think for us, dictate to us what to believe. And there is more, for these benign guardians have convinced us that we don’t even need to think. For “the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex [sic]),” not only is thinking difficult, but it is dangerous. It doesn’t matter that there is no great danger. We have been intimidated into thinking that there is and therefore we are fearful of taking that first step into thinking for ourselves.

It is difficult for individuals to work their way out of this immature, cowardly mindset because the prospect of thinking for themselves makes most people intensely uncomfortable. Kant says that even if we did somehow manage to throw off the spoon-fed dogma and formulas that we have been given all our lives, we would still be stymied because we have never “cultivated our minds.”

The key to discarding these chains of mental immaturity is freedom. There is hope that the entire public could become a force of free-thinking individuals if they are free to do so. Why? There will always be a few people, even among those evil guardians, who think for themselves. They will help the rest of us to “cultivate our minds.” Then Kant shows that he is a man of his times when he says: “a revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism . . . or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in ways of thinking.” Here Kant offers a whiff of skepticism towards the recently completed American Revolution. Presciently, he foresees that in all likelihood new prejudices will replace the old ones; new leashes will be invented to control the “great unthinking masses.”

The challenge is severe, yet matters are not hopeless. Kant's essay sought to identify the causes of a lack of enlightenment, together with what would be necessary for people to enlighten themselves. He held that all church and state paternalism must be abolished and people be given the freedom to use their own intellect.

Kant defines the type of freedom he espouses as “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” In his time the use of critical reason was usually restricted to letters and private communications.

Thus Kant is both pessimistic and optimistic. He is pessimistic in the face of the enormous changes that would be required for humanity to emerge from its state of immaturity dominated by paternalism. Yet herein lies our opportunity. By overthrowing paternalist domination he sees a real chance for humanity to advance, en masse, as it were, to a state of full maturity. Ultimately, then, he is hopeful.

My position lies somewhat between these two extremes. In my view Kant’s antipaternalism is too optimistic in that there will always remain a substantial body of individuals, perhaps as high as 50% (even in advanced, “educated” societies) who will never be able wholly to look after themselves.

One might object that such a high figure is unwarranted, given the large classes of individuals--minorities, women, and homosexuals--who are no longer hobbled by legal disabilities, restrictions that relegated them to the rank of second-class citizens. This is true. However, there is a new factor at play, and that is the increasing role of technology. Those who remain computer illiterate stand at a decisive disadvantage. It is a striking fact that to qualify as an auto mechanic nowadays requires at least a two-year college degree because vehicular repairs require the application of computer skills. By definition, office work now requires significant computer experience. Americans who will not or cannot learn these procedures are finding that their jobs are being usurped by talented foreign workers in India and elsewhere. Those left behind are discarded on the scrap-heap of what will turn out to be, for all intents and purposes, the wasteland of nonage.

Still the issue has not quite come into clear focus. Kant’s interpretation, typical of an intellectual, places too much emphasis on abstract knowledge. What is really the key to success in the contemporary world is human capital, implying basic understanding of language and math, as well as “how-to” skills. Yet as a result of recent changes in technology, as noted, the bar has been raised for human capital.

It might seem that “progressive thought” is the most dependable agent in the beneficial project that Kant espouses. In this light the recent retreat of conservativism is most welcome. Not so fast, though. In reality, paternalistic liberals are scarcely reliable allies in this struggle, for they evince a long history of trying to push people back into nonage so that they will be dependent on government, which has come to supplant the function of the traditional landed gentry.

More generally, there is a powerful temptation to relegate people to nonage for one’s own advantage. This push-back takes collective forms (“welfare”) and individual forms (libido dominandi: the longing to control other persons for sexual and other purposes).

All told then, there is a prospect that a considerable proportion of our people will continue to be enmeshed in the bonds of nonage. To the rest of us--fully autonomous individuals--is left the burden of easing their path through life. This role calls for tact, but I can attest that such commitments are not beyond the scope of a reasonable person. The satisfaction of helping others in their journey through life’s perils is substantial.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent essay. I often wonder how much the Nanny State functions not to serve those too immature for their own self-education, enlightenment, and responsibility, but by removing "moral hazards" (technically, "risks" from ordinary life) it fosters a dependency of the nonage and those whose pride is not wounded to become a subsidized ward of the state?

I'm rather sensitive to this issue, as it seems to be Obama's solution to problems by removing the "risks" that come with "benefits" attached. If I can steal, cause war, torture, and mayhem, but be "covered" so we don't have to look back at the causes, only "feel good about the future," I think Pastor Obama will be bad for the country. I always admire sinners -- especially the "repeat kind," "who cannot help themselves" -- that are forgiven seventy times seven, unless and except if it happens to "us."

1:47 PM  

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