When may somebody, or somebody-writ-large in the guise of "Society", meddle in somebody else's affairs? That's a complex question. One should always be skeptical of purported simple answers to it.

On 7 May 1773 during a Friday evening conversation about toleration (quoted in Boswell's Life of Johnson) the Reverend Dr. Mayo got into an argument with Samuel Johnson. The same debate still resonates today:

MAYO: "I think the magistrate has no right to interfere till there is some overt act."

BOSWELL: "So, Sir, though he sees an enemy to the state charging a blunderbuss, he is not to interfere till it is fired off?"

MAYO: "He must be sure of its direction against the state."

JOHNSON: "The magistrate is to judge of that. --- He has no right to restrain your thinking, because the evil centers in yourself. If a man were sitting at this table, and chopping off his fingers, the magistrate, as guardian of the community, has no authority to restrain him, however he might do it from kindness as a parent. --- Though, indeed, upon more consideration, I think he may; as it is probable, that he who is chopping off his own fingers, may soon proceed to chop off those of other people. If I think it right to steal Mr. Dilly's plate, I am a bad man; but he can say nothing to me. If I make an open declaration that I think so, he will keep me out of his house. If I put forth my hand, I shall be sent to Newgate. This is the gradation of thinking, preaching, and acting: if a man thinks erroneously, he may keep his thoughts to himself, and nobody will trouble him; if he preaches erroneous doctrine, society may expel him; if he acts in consequence of it, the law takes place, and he is hanged."

(but see also SimpleAnswers (4 May 1999), MereAnarchy (6 Oct 1999), ...)

TopicSociety - TopicLiterature - 2003-02-22

(correlates: PointCounterpoint, AllCaughtUpNow, OptimisticPessimism, ...)