Let me ask two simple questions. Do artistic, scientific, and intellectual elites have an obligation to society, and if so, what is the nature of that obligation?
I think the answer to the first question is obvious. Humans are social animals, and perhaps only some hermits fail to have any obligation to society. Merely consider how our species and its several precursor species evolved over millions of years. At the very time we were loosing our natural defenses — fangs and massive muscles and the like — we were increasing the size of the groups we lived in.
Through several species and millions of years, we evolved from living in small bands of perhaps 15 or so individuals to living in large bands of 150 or more individuals. A tenfold increase in the size of our social groups — not counting today’s monstrous societies. Humans are not bears. Bears are evolved to live alone. But a human living alone in the wild soon becomes impoverished even by the standards of a hunting/gathering group. Our species is evolved to live socially, and in so many more ways than I can list in a short essay, we depend on each other for our well being.
Our mutual dependency, along with other aspects of our nature, is — or at least ought to be — a basis for our rights and obligations. To attempt to impose a right or obligation on people that goes against the grain of human nature is almost always foolish — although a number of priests and tyrants have tried it.
One often repressed human right is the right to be true to oneself.
One very general human obligation is the obligation to in some way give back to one’s community something good in return for the benefits one has received from it.
Both of those things have deep roots in human nature. We humans are denatured — we become, in a sense, perverted — when we are denied authentic self expression and self fulfillment. The priests and kings have their own reasons for repressing the human need to be true to oneself. And they have many clever ploys to convince people they have no real need for authentic self expression and fulfillment. But priests and kings are fools and liars. No man or woman in all of history who ever realized their full human potential listened to the priests and kings. I wish everyone of the earth’s kids could hear that truth before they set themselves to becoming “a good and loyal subject”. So much of humanity’s potential is crushed by the folly of priests and kings. And, by “kings”, I mean even would be kings — such as George Bush. But I digress.
Besides the often repressed right to be true to oneself, is the general obligation to give back to one’s community. Those two things are brilliantly reconciled in Aristotle’s ancient dictum, which can be translated as, “Where your talents cross with the needs of the world, there lies your calling, life’s work, and bliss.” It is precisely where your right to be true to yourself is reconciled with your obligation to give back to your community that your passion in life will be found.
To echo in part what I said above, one of the most important ways in which humans are a social animal is manifested in how we find our bliss at the juncture where our individual self-realization benefits others. A human who sets out to benefit others at the expense of their own self-realization is just as likely to find themselves as sad, doubting, and disappointed as Mother Theresa was at the end of her life. On the other hand, a human who sets out to realize themselves to no one’s benefit but their own is likely to turn into a dilettante, chasing after the fads and postures of meaning and fulfillment — or worse, become a priest or king.
Artistic, scientific and intellectual elites have the same rights and obligations as anyone else. Specifically, they have the right to be true to themselves, and the obligation to give back to their community. If that is the case, then certain things follow from it. But I have space to mention only one.
The artist, scientist, or intellectual who sets out to merely exploit society for their own gain is acting immorally. This is the problem with so many elites who pass for our intelligentsia these days. They are sell outs. They have not pursued the juncture where one’s talents are reconciled with one’s obligation to the community — they have pursued the juncture where one’s talents are reconciled with the largest paycheck.
For example: Bill O’Reilly, while nothing in the way of a genuine intellectual, passes for one these days. The spin he puts on the day’s events is analogous to the painstaking analysis a real intellectual would do to achieve some insight into the day’s events. O’Reilly has used his talents and skills for entertainment to usurp the role of an intellectual. All for the purpose of becoming a rich man. Were O’Reilly a moral man, he would find where his talents and skills for entertainment can benefit society — rather than harm it. In the most meaningful sense, he has not only sold his followers and his society down the river, he has sold himself down the river too.
Artists, scientists, and intellectuals are currently among the most disrespected members of society. I think part of the reason for that is they are all too often seen as selfishly or callously opposed to society. Now, I don’t for a moment believe that is generally true. But if it were true, it would be a mistake committed against both good morals and human nature. As social animals, our greatest self flourishing and well being comes not from destroying our community, but from using our talents and skills to give back to it some of the good we have received from it.