Active Thinking Topic 14 - When Does Free Mean Selfish?

Monday 13 September 2021, 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm

Any replies to the organizer -

Venue: Cafe Brunelli, 187 Rundle St · Adelaide (You must buy a drink or something. We are 'renting' the space for 2 hours)

About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding

Focus Questions

1. "Greed is Good" - . Well, what's your view?

2. Free? Freedom to do what, when, where, to whom, and under what conditions?

3. Australia is a "free country" (whatever that means). What are your interpersonal, community and national responsibilities in the social contract?

4. Amongst individuals, in communities, and in national cultures there are very different ideas about the best balance between personal liberty and wider social and political obligations. How can these differences be best resolved, especially in a country as multicultural as Australia?

5. Do you have more freedom in an individualistic culture? Is individualism selfish? Individualistic cultures (e.g. American) and group oriented cultures are often compared to favour or disfavour one of those preferences. However, stereotypes of how individualism/group orientation actually play out in real life are often misleading. What are some of these stereotypes, and what are some real world examples? [see Thor May (2001) "Individualism or the Group:" at ]

6. What social and political boundaries do you accept? Do libertarians and anarchists have a common agenda? A paradox of personal freedom is that there is often a greater sense of freedom within accepted boundaries, as opposed to a "cowboy wild west" where anything goes. If you are confident of not being shot or ruined at some idiot's whim, you have more freedom to live a care free life.

7. What political system can best marry the energy of self-interest with the long term stability and prosperity of working for a common interest? Self interest is a powerful engine for action. Communist experiments in the abolition of common property and private enterprise (e.g. previously the Soviet Union, and the PRC) showed conclusively that where personal reward was missing, mass apathy followed. On the other hand, a system of pure greed (e.g. unrestrained capitalism) leads to mass exploitation, impoverishment of ordinary people, crime, and ultimately revolution.

8. What do you think of this generalization: a) Young adults may "love humankind" idealistically but most of them are actually relentlessly self-absorbed and even personally selfish. b) with age, many (not all) people become more politically conservative, but often also more personally generous (e.g. they frequently volunteer). If this is true, what is going on ?

9. Do you feel that you have become less selfish or more selfish with life experience? What has changed you? If you have changed, has the change given you a feeling of being less free, or more free? Why?

10 . The Covid-19 pandemic has shown up dramatic cultural (and political) differences between countries in managing infectious disease. Do these outcomes have any lessons for understanding the tension between 'free' and 'selfish'? What is your own attitude here?

Extra Reading

Chris Vedelago and Erin Pearson (August 22, 2021) "Police consider shutting down transport system for future protests - Victoria Police will consider the unprecedented step of shutting down public transport to counter future anti-lockdown protests, and said they would once again use new paramilitary anti-riot teams if needed to confront increasingly violent demonstrations". The Age @  [Quote: "More than 4000 protesters defied public health orders to march, the largest demonstration since government-ordered lockdowns to combat the spread of COVID-19 began in March 2020. In Sydney, police smothered planned protests by having 1400 officers set up checkpoints around the city, stopping 38,000 vehicles in what NSW Police Minister David Elliot described as a “temporary stop to the freedom of movement”. They also laid scores of charges and fined more than 260 people. In Melbourne, the protests were marked by wild, running clashes with police that left nine officers injured. It remains unclear how many demonstrators were hurt. More than 200 arrests were made. Victoria Police deployed a series of new anti-riot measures — including the pepper pellets and hard squash-like balls — in response to what they said were elements in the crowd throwing bottles, marbles and flares".]

Matthew Knott (August 12, 2021) "America had a chance to crush COVID but blew it". Brisbane Times @  [Quote: "After plummeting for months, the seven-day average of new cases appeared poised to drop below 10,000 for the first time since March 2020. That day never came. Instead, cases began rising and have been going up ever since. ... 30 per cent of the adult population has declined to get vaccinated - a far higher level of resistance than comparable countries such as Canada, the UK and, based on current trends, Australia. ... Some of the hold-outs were ideologically opposed conservatives; others were lazy, apathetic or worried about potential side effects. What they all had in common was that they perceived getting vaccinated as an entirely personal decision about what they put into their bodies. There was no sense that they had a role to play in a shared, nationwide effort to prevent the spread of the virus and prevent people from dying. The dark side of American individualism and liberty is selfishness and a lack of empathy".]

Amanda Holpuch (Fri 13 August 2021) "Tax on billionaires’ Covid windfall could vaccinate every adult on Earth - Analysis finds 99% levy on pandemic wealth rise could also pay all unemployed $20,000 – and still leave super-rich $55bn richer". The Guardian @ 

Drew Harwell and Jeremy Merrill (August 25, 2021) "‘A shot to restore our freedoms’: vaccine campaigns target conservatives". Brisbane Times @  [Quote: "In an ad shown to people that Facebook thinks are college-educated conservatives in Oklahoma, coronavirus vaccination is touted as “trusted by the U.S. military . . . and by our Greatest Generation”. In another, Facebook users interested in the Catholic Church are told that Pope Francis says getting vaccinated is the “moral choice”. Still, another tells fans of beer and country music: “It’s okay to question. Now get the facts on coronavirus vaccines.”"]

Thor May (2001) "Individualism or the Group:" at  [Quote: "A typical naive set of assumptions about "group oriented" cultures it that the participants within them are basically altruistic, self-effacing, self-sacrificing and sociable. A society of such individuals should exhibit the very best of human civilization working in equitable, democratic communities. By contrast, those from individualistic cultures should be cold, grasping, selfish, egotistical and almost incapable of the cooperation demanded by a civil society. Indeed, a society of individualists, by this stereotype would be a dog eat dog affair, dedicated to conflict, riven with disloyalty and betrayal, forever failing to build a stable and humanistic community. Now let’s take a plane trip and look at the real world. Better, like me, let’s work for a while in location where there is a fair sampling of both supposed archetypes of culture. What do we find? We find that the real social content behind those supposedly individualistic and group-oriented labels is drastically at variance with the stereotypes". ]

Thor May (2015) "Fuzzy Degrees of Freedom – When is the Law a Burden?" The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "Citizens, you and I, we live with the ever multiplying, ever more obscure barrage of laws and regulations which emerge from the political contest. The simple things, like not killing the bus driver, we try to get right most of the time. Beyond the clarity what Christian types call the Ten Commandments, for better or for worse we exercise our judgement as wise men and women, and hope for the best". ]

Thor May (2014) "Some Uses and Misuses of Reason" The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "When the sun rises each morning we may say the reason is that the earth on its elliptical orbit spins so that one point faces that star. Or we may say that the Sun God has mounted his chariot. Or we may say, after Ptolemy and the Christian elders until a few centuries ago, that the sun is moving around the earth. Take your pick. They have all seemed good reasons from reasonable men in their time. Our acceptance of what passes for reasoned argument has a great deal to do with the company we keep. Perhaps for most people, the word of accepted authority is the ultimate parameter on where those reasoned arguments may venture". ]

Thor May (2014) "Crime without Punishment – the journey from means to ends." The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "In the real world of events, as opposed to philosophical statements of “should”, decisions about ends and means always come down to who, if anybody, is responsible for consequences. Where consequences are not clear for actors, and especially if consequences are not personal, almost any ends can be argued for, and almost any means might be rationalized".]

Thor May (2014) "What will be the dominant ideologies of the 21st Century?" The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "Ideologies are going to be with us forever. The question is how seriously the herd takes them, and who become the high priests for interpreting them to the unwashed masses. The 20th Century gave us some pretty horrible examples of ideologies used as vehicles for mass extinction while claiming to be vehicles for mass progress. There is no particular reason to expect that the 21st Century will be more enlightened in this regard amongst those people who always form the bulk of ideological foot soldiers. It is true that there are more formally educated people on the planet than ever before, and more available tools for critical thinking, especially in the online world. Yet it is also true that the tools for mass mobilization are more powerful than they have ever been, while their control passes with increasing rapidity to compromised governments, corporations and secretive elites. This secrecy makes a considered response to genuine threats especially difficult".]

Thor May (2010) "Cultural Operating Systems". The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "To those who wish to keep their "cultural operating systems", like the Korean or Russian or Thai or French, "pure", closed, proprietary, without outside influence, I say you are in great danger. Maybe your closed cultural system was elegant and refined. Maybe it has a glorious past history. But it ultimately comes from an earlier human civilization of small, savage tribal groups. Now we humans are many, crowded on a small planet, and communicating with everyone instantly. We need a different design, and that has to be an Open System".]

Thor May (2001) "Dead or Alive?" The Passionate Skeptic website @ The Passionate Skeptic website @  [Quote: "At this moment I looked around the carriage [in Busan, South Korea], and a chill went through my body. Of all those passengers, not a single one showed the slightest signal that one of their number had collapsed, and might be in mortal danger. The bodies remained lax, the eyes unfocussed, the woman on the floor invisible to their attention. It was surreal. My disbelief gave way to outrage, and throwing decorum to the winds, in a loud voice I demanded in English, "SOMEBODY CALL A DOCTOR". Nobody looked at me, but an uneasy twitch rippled through the crowd..."]
Arwa Mahdawi (1 September 2021) "A human is not a horse. So why is a livestock drug sweeping America? There is scant evidence that ivermectin can treat or prevent Covid - but that hasn’t stopped rightwing pundits and conservative politicians from promoting it." The Guardian @  [[Quote: "If there wasn’t an effective way to protect yourself from Covid, I would understand the appetite for experimental preventatives. But we have vaccines! Similarly, if ivermectin was the sort of horse medication that had fun side-effects, I would appreciate the enthusiasm for it. But there are no fun side-effects! The side-effects of off-label use are (if you’re lucky) diarrhoea and (if you’re unlucky) death. According to the Mississippi Health Department: “At least 70% of the recent calls [to the state poison control centre] have been related to ingestion of livestock or animal formulations of ivermectin.”]

Dagmar Breitenbach (18 March 2021) "Exploring the impact of greed in Germany - Greedy for money or clicks, a bigger car or shoe collection, power, knowledge or love? A German museum looks into the historical and cultural impact of greed". Deutsche Welle @ 

Aubrey Allegretti and Jessica Elgot (24 Mar 2021) "'Greed' and 'capitalism' behind jab success, Boris Johnson tells MPs - Prime minister revives 1980s ‘greed is good’ mantra as he lauds vaccine push at meeting with backbenchers." The Guardian @

Mariam Chaalan (September 2, 2021) "Welcome to my nightmare: One GP’s adventures with anti-vaxxers and their ‘infodemic’". Brisbane Times @  [Quote: "Misinformation and, more specifically, conspiracy theories have been the fuel to vaccine hesitancy and are what the World Health Organisation defines as a massive threat to our global health". 2. (from a reader, also a GP): " I just tell them that if they don't have a vaccine the virus will vaccinate them anyway - if you don't die 1st". 3. (from a reader):"The scary thing is, I work in the technology sector. These people are great in what they do and have a grasp of some rather technical concepts. I also note that they are very strong on certain political views. These people are experts in their field of expertise and would rightfully criticize someone who would have incorrect beliefs in their profession. They do not seem to understand that they have a poor understanding of epidemiology and public health".]

Conor Friedersdorf (September 3, 2021) "How long can a democracy maintain emergency restrictions and still call itself a free country?" The Atlantic @  [Thor, comment: The answer to what the writer thinks is a rhetorical question in the title is that there has been and is strong majority support for the Covid restrictions which have been imposed in Australia up to now. That's democratic (and in fact Australian politicians as a species are terrified of opinion polls). The deal has been that when everybody has had the opportunity to vaccinate, and hospitals can cope, then the anti-vaxers can be left to risk their own lives, not yours and mine. Since the dawn of civilization all societies have imposed some restrictions on individual liberty to preserve the group, especially in times of emergency]

Rick Morton (4 September 2021) "Exclusive: Covid-19 hospitalisations three times higher than reported". The Saturday Paper @  [Quote: "The rate of Covid-19 hospitalisations in New South Wales is being reported at one-third of the real figure, with the actual numbers being masked by a decision to only report those who end up in medical facilities, and not the thousands receiving care under the state’s “hospital in the home” arrangements. .. On Thursday, the state reported almost 1000 people with Covid-19 were in hospital and 160 of those were receiving the most complex form of healthcare in intensive care units.... But that figure leaves out almost 1700 people who are receiving hospital-grade care for coronavirus in their own homes in NSW. ... Some, who were being given home care, deteriorated so quickly from mild illness to death that there was no time for even an ambulance to be called... On Thursday, 80 per cent or 689 of the 855 staffed ICU beds in NSW were full. .. Australian Paramedics Association Brett Simpson says the ambulance service in the state has already moved beyond its capacity to cope. Last year, about 170 nursing and healthcare staff were trained to help expand the ICU... only five have expressed an interest in returning.“You can increase ICU capacity all you want but if we can’t get you to the hospital alive then what’s the point? The ambulance service is not coping in any sense of the word."]

Hari Kumar (11 August, 2021) "Larry Brilliant, eradicator of smallpox, proposes ‘ring vaccination’ to combat coronavirus, says herd immunity is not achievable - saying it didn’t work against smallpox, Ebola or polio." South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) @  [Quote: "A vaccine for smallpox had been developed in 1798, but India continued to see mass outbreaks for some two centuries until the World Health Organisation started an eradication campaign in the 1970s. Brilliant, not trained as an epidemiologist... pulled off one of the most impressive victories medical science had ever achieved. The time it took vaccine shipments to arrive in rural areas with no proper storage facilities required a way to administer the jabs effectively in targeted villages to contain the outbreaks there. They chose to inoculate people who had come into contact with the infected and their contacts, rather than everyone in the village. The credit for this procedure, which proved successful and came to be known as “ring vaccination”, goes to Brilliant’s colleague William Foege, who later went on to head the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)".



When Does Free Mean Selfish? (c) Thor May 2021 

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