The Philosophy of Meddling in Others’ Affairs

One of the difficulties posed by the European Court’s judgment is that search engines such as Google are now faced with having to decide which information to delete and which to retain, and the criteria to be used in the exercise.  In other words, how to ensure that the information placed on websites do not interfere with the freedom, liberty and dignity of persons.


by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Justice means minding one’s own business and not meddling with other men’s concerns. ~ Plato

Hell is other people ~ Jean Paul Sartre

( January 20, 2017, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) The theory propounded by 16th century Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus of “heliocentricity” – that the Earth revolves round the Sun – has been largely accepted by modern scientists, although some may claim that it has not scientifically been proved beyond doubt.  Galileo Galilei, an Italian polymath astronomer who lived in the 17th century, endorsed Copernicus who dispelled the earlier Ptolemaic notion that the Earth was stationary, situated at the centre of the Universe.  Some of us carry this notion analogically in our day to day conduct where, deluded by the “error” of Copernicus, we imagine ourselves to be the world at the centre of the universe.   The planets and other extra terrestrial objects move in conjunction with each other, and the operative question is whether we as humans do the same in relation to other humans. In other words, do we, in our deluded belief that we are the centre of being who should influence others’ lives, have the right to involve ourselves in other peoples’ business, their lives, their burdens and, to put it bluntly, their garbage.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) popularly called the father of modern philosophy, said “He lives well who lives a hidden life”.  It can be argued that Descartes meant that one should mind one’s own business, which is similar to the philosophy of self-actualization that Alfred Adler propounded.   In this context the hierarchy of needs presented by Abraham Maslow come to mind where Maslow identified the needs of the human as being centered around “self-actualization” – a term Maslow coined – that we need to pursue the meaning of life.   These needs in the order of importance are: physiological needs (physical, survival-based needs), such as the need for food, water, sleep and air. These are on the bottom of the pyramid and represent our most basic needs; the need for safety, security, and protection; the need for a stable and secure environment free from strife; the need for love and belonging – love from family and partners, peer acceptance; the need for self-esteem, self-respect, and respect from others; the need to be creative.

None of these needs justifies our proclivity to meddle in others’ affairs or to judge others’ conduct.  By no means do the Maslowian needs relate to our wasting time on the problems of others unless we can help alleviate those problems and we are called upon to help.    In his book Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone, John Lachs laments our being surrounded by people who arrogate to themselves the knowledge that they have the right to tell us what is good for us better than we know ourselves. Lachs conveys the message that leaving others alone is almost a divine virtue that frees people to lead their own lives without interference from others.  Here, what is objected to is interference and not genuine help that would not infringe on the independence of the needy.

Digging up one’s past is another form of egregious meddling.  The past is a story we tell ourselves and it should not affect a person’s future.  Social meddling, which vilifies a person who attempts to forget the past and start anew goes contrary to the intellectual courage propounded by Immanuel Kant in his categorical imperative – a moral independence that ascribes to humans the moral rectitude of living according to values they place upon themselves.  In 2014 the European Court of Justice issued an advisory judgment in favour of   a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, who had requested a newspaper website in Catalonia to delete the publication of an auction notice of his repossessed home dating from 1998.  This resonates a growing trend where persons now want past information about them that may be no longer relevant or fair, to be deleted from internet websites.  As a result of the judgment, Google, the largest search engine in the world, launched a webpage through which European citizens can request that links to information about them be taken off search results.

One of the difficulties posed by the European Court’s judgment is that search engines such as Google are now faced with having to decide which information to delete and which to retain, and the criteria to be used in the exercise.  In other words, how to ensure that the information placed on websites do not interfere with the freedom, liberty and dignity of persons.

Another difficulty, perhaps more contentious and onerous, is the balance between what I would call “the perpetuation of fault” and the freedom of the media.  The law, which is purported to be the queen of humanities, expounds the principle that no man can be convicted twice for the same offence.   Irrelevant information from the past may lead to social interference which in turn could lead to condemnation and ostracism, or worse still, total avoidance of a person by society.  On the other hand, would not society want to know of a convicted felon or one found guilty of cheating, particularly if the person so found guilty later establishes say, a legal or dental practice?

This poses nuances of a moral nature that are difficult to address.  One could argue that everyone has the right to a second chance, a right to be forgotten for what he was and the inalienable right to get on with life.  If the perpetuity of an offence were to haunt one publicly and socially, that person may never get an opportunity to overcome his moral guilt, and more importantly, to start a new life.  On the other hand, one could say that society has a right to know in order to protect itself and that it is the very purpose of freedom of the media – to keep society informed.  There has to be a balance that deviates from arbitrary and capricious dissemination of information.

Meddling brings to bear a deeper political concept – libertarianism – which extends individual meddling to interference by a State in one’s individuality. Libertarianism advocates a degree of   freedom under law, where individuals have the choice of freedom of their actions as long as they do not derogate the rights of others.  Non-interference recognizes that each individual is a moral agent who is entitled to set his or her values to conduct himself.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to social justice, which is about respect for human rights and dignity. Everyone has the right to think the way they like.  People have the right to hold opinions and tell other people what their opinions are. What they do not have is the right to place themselves at the center of the Universe and meddle in others’ affairs or pass judgment on them.  As Anais Nin said: “From the backstabbing co-worker to the meddling sister-in-law, you are in charge of how you react to the people and events in your life. You can either give negativity power over your life or you can choose happiness instead. Take control and choose to focus on what is important in your life. Those who cannot live fully often become destroyers of life”.

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