“In confederations that hold but by one end, we are only to provide against the imperfections that particularly concern that end. It can be of no importance to me of what religion my physician or my lawyer is; this consideration has nothing in common with the offices of friendship which they owe me; and I am of the same indifference in the domestic acquaintance my servants must necessarily contract with me. I never inquire, when I am to take a footman, if he be chaste, but if he be diligent; and am not solicitous if my muleteer be given to gaming, as if he be strong and able; or if my cook be a swearer, if he be a good cook. I do not take upon me to direct what other men should do in the government of their families, there are plenty that meddle enough with that, but only give an account of my method in my own.”
— Michel de Montaigne, “Of Friendship”
“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
— John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty”
As John Stuart Mill says, one should be able to feel that one is entitled to live one’s life as one sees fit without “the moral coercion of public opinion.” It could be a matter of “big issues” of morality or overall behavior, or smaller issues such as behavior manifested in one’s family or personal relationships or personal matters such as appearance, dress, health, and the like.
And, often “public opinion” amounts to the thoughts (read presuppositions) of a narrow minded friend, neighbor, coworker, or relative.
Consider the following.
One of the best friends of my wife and myself is a married man with an adopted son; he has been a friend of ours forever.
I admire him greatly for his intellect and personal qualities.
He has a horrible family situation: great difficulties with his adopted son, such as the son refusing to attend school a few years ago and emotional outbursts.
The worst thing is his wife. She treats him horribly. He almost never complains (to us or from what we can observe), but we observe it all the time.
I often ask my wife, how can he put up with such treatment? (The adopted son takes cues from his mother and also treats his father, our friend, abusively.)
I always qualify what I say to her and add: It’s his family and marriage; he chooses to remain in it. It’s not for us to say.
We are very sympathetic about his situation but would never comment further unless he should ask for feedback; he is not a complainer.
It seems that situations often arise where someone whom one knows well is in a situation which you (i.e., the observer, the other party) would not approve of whatsoever if it were your life or situation. The reality may be complicated; the other party may be conflicted over the situation themselves and unsure about how to deal with it, but meddling by others (who usually have only a nodding acquaintance with the details) may increase their anxiety and make them even more uncomfortable.
Along these lines, I was thinking: Imagine a sort of inquiry board or truth commission before which all and sundry were required to appear, with everyone being subjected to the same questions:
the state of your marriage(s);
your performance in parenting;
the success or lack of it of your progeny; their adjustment and any developmental issues.
Think a few poor souls might be squirming under such scrutiny?
Some further thoughts.
Constructive, helpful advice, originating with empathy, founded upon kindness, is one thing.
But beware meddlers posing as concerned do-gooders, who are intent upon proving their own moral superiority — their overall superiority to others whose lives they are critical of.
They can actually be some of the meanest people on the planet. They are usually worse morally than the people they pick on. They have zero capacity for compassion or empathy, and they don’t care in the least about other people.
Middle class morality … do-gooders … meddlers. Perhaps there is a place for them in the grand scheme.
Not in this case, nor, I would suspect, in most.
Another problem, the bane of one’s existence (or at least some people’s), is health meddlers.
They enjoy inquiring about your health, without your having asked for advice; and then continually pestering you about it. Have you had a checkup for _______ (some condition or other)?
Often, they suffer from similar problems themselves. By focusing attention on you, they seem to be hoping to divert it from themselves and to somehow make themselves feel better. It doesn’t matter what your actual condition is, or whether or not you are worried about it, they will do the worrying for you. Did you know your weight is above normal for your height and your age? Are you monitoring your blood pressure? You may be at risk for a stroke.
People love to give advice about doctors and treatments. One of the most boring things is to hear a detailed story about how they overcame a back condition that was preventing them from playing golf, or about the cancer treatment some friend of theirs whom you don’t know had, causing the cancer to go into remission, and “he’s been healthy for the past ten years.” You are wondering about how this relates to you, since, as far as you know (pray God), you don’t have cancer; and, it’s a heartwarming story, but you never met or have heard of the person before, so it’s hard to relate to. There are thousands of people dying from cancer every month.
This cohort can actually cause stress with their meddling, and, believe me, unless you happen to be looking for a recommendation from a friend of a doctor they know and like, their meddling will do you no good whatsoever.
— Roger W. Smith
July 2017; updated April 2018