Yesterday I got an interesting message from a longtime friend about questions she liked to explore and was curious about my feelings on, and I thought that the questions she explored were the sorts of questions I pondered heavily as well, though I’m not sure that we would feel the same way about them. For example, she wondered about what duties that people had to social standards and expectations. This is a common burden that people face when they and their lives and positions and behavior are sufficiently out of the social norm. By and large as human beings we tend to seek out groups of people who are sufficiently like us where the burden of accepting social standards is low because those standards reflect our own. Where tragedy occurs is when we struggle against the obligations of our society which are directly hostile to our own social interests, where we do not think ourselves to be bad people or to want bad things but yet we find ourselves suffering because what we want is viewed with hostility by those around us, particularly those in positions of cultural and political authority.
The freedom of association is one that cuts both ways. We want to be free to associate with those we wish to, but any group has a right to set the terms of who may associate with them. For association to work, there must be an alignment between our desire to associate with certain people and the approval of those people to our wish to associate with them. And, as is frequently the case in such situations, there are mutual obligations that result from this association, in that we expect that the people involved in the association will live creditably and according to the norms of the group and also that the group will itself work for the benefit of those in association with it. The group serves the people in it, and the people within it serve the group. When these reciprocal relationships are being done properly, there is little cause for anyone to complain, because the duties of association are being upheld by everyone involved. In questions of voluntary association, one hardly thinks to ask about whether we owe a duty to respect the standards of the group to which we are a part because we have freely chosen a group that has freely accepted us, in large part because there was already a shared set of standards to which we both upheld.
Society, though, in many respects, is an involuntary association. We do not volunteer or freely join those associations to which we are bound by birth. We may find ourselves connected to people whose company we do not appreciate and who do not respect us, and yet we may find ourselves with duties towards these people. Yet at the same time, we get something out of these connections, even if they are not the sort of connections we would most enjoy or appreciate. What we get out of them is that the people we are connected to are in some way obligated to support or care for us, and so we in turn are obligated to support them and care for them in the same fashion. Justice requires reciprocity, and if we make demands on others, we must be prepared to respond in kind to those demands from others. It feels like a heavier burden to give others what we are obligated to when we dislike them, and we are not inclined to do it graciously or well, which tends to inflame conflicts, even if they do not erupt into physical violence. Indeed, it is our acceptance of our duties to people who we may not care for that allows the larger society to function at all, because good citizenship requires sacrifices made to strangers and even rivals and enemies, and if we refuse to undertake those burdens to those we dislike, we act to break up that society and limit it to people who we can agree with and like and whose views we accept, and that is a recipe for civil war. Acting as a peacemaker requires that we pay a certain price in longsuffering and kindness that we would often rather not pay, but that is the price that is required for living in any society.