Taking the free world and children seriously: an anecdote

From the archives: Posted on 4th February, 1997

I had written:

“[The poster] seems to think that there was no more ‘child abuse’ in the past than now:
           Well, don’t forget that until the mid-nineteenth century the overwhelming majority of actions now classified as ‘child abuse’, including arbitrary amounts of violence, torture, forced marriages, forced labour, failure to meet elementary needs of the child, were all perfectly legal and many of them were socially acceptable or even required. Laws about the few parental actions that were illegal (basically incest and murder) were essentially unenforced.
           The improvement in this situation has been gradual and continuous.”

[The poster] replied:

“I am talking about really early societies like indigenous peoples. I am not talking about anything that has basically gone on since the industrial revolution in America, or actually more or less the entry of so called ‘western’ civilization anywhere.”

I was going to write an analytical posting about the links between this form of alienation/historical revisionism, and irrationalism (which [the poster] is also enthusiastic about), and coercion. But under the circumstances I think an anecdote might be more apt.

I was a postdoc in Texas and it was very hot and I was discussing Popperian political philosophy with a physicist colleague. He had been looking through Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations at my recommendation, and had found five controversial ‘theses’, of which Thesis 2 was

“In spite of our great and serious troubles, and in spite of the fact that ours is surely not the best possible society, I assert that our own free world is by far the best society which has come into existence during the course of human history.”

Popper had also explained:

“(By the word ‘our’ I mean the free world of the Atlantic community – especially England the United States, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, and the outposts of this world in the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand.)”

My colleague thought that this Thesis was ‘pathetically obvious’ and questioned whether Popper was as great a thinker as I had been claiming.

So I told him that this ‘pathetically obvious’ thesis is rejected by most intellectuals, and that it is important to endorse it publicly. He said I was crazy. I bet him a dollar that if we asked the next ten people we met (we were in the Physics-Math-Astronomy building of the University of Texas) whether “our society is by far the best society which has yet come into existence”, the majority would say no. He accepted the bet. We also agreed various rules in advance about what we would do if people were evasive, equivocated or talked nonsense, as I predicted many would. For instance, if they questioned what ‘best’ was, we would tell them ‘best according to whatever criterion you think is best’.

We tried it. Of the first ten people we met, every single one said no. My colleague paid me my dollar. He was very shaken.

To try to cheer him up, I predicted that if we asked John Wheeler or Bryce DeWitt (two of the greatest physicists I have known, who worked on our floor), they would both say yes. We tried it. They did.

Then we had to leave to go and see the premiere of Star Trek the movie. (That will date the incident for you film buffs out there.) On the way, we asked several more people at random. Only one, I think, said yes.

When we got to the cinema we found we had underestimated the number of Trekkies in Austin. There was a huge crowd and there was no way we could get in. We decided to wait in line for the next performance. It was about 100 degrees and we were standing there for three hours. There were many families with children in the line, and the heat and stress caused the usual hideous coercion that one sees in supermarkets and airports. Except, that is, for one father with a daughter aged about eight. They were standing a few yards in front of us and spent the time alternately in quiet conversation, and with the daughter running all over the place investigating things and people in a way that most parents would feel obliged to prevent – but this father just smiled benignly.

Finally we got in to the air-conditioned cinema and flopped into our seats. The father and daughter were in the row in front of us. She was asking him excited questions about the movie and other matters, and he was taking her seriously.

“Ask him the question,” I suggested. “He’ll say yes too.” My colleague tried it. I was right.

See also:

David Deutsch, 1997, ‘Taking the free world and children seriously: an anecdote’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/taking-the-free-world-and-children-seriously-an-anecdote/

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