- On the occasion of today's presidential election: What are we to think about this setback to the cause of enlightenment? The 18th century's Emanuel Kant proposed that free speech, without revolution, would progressively insinuate better ideas into political institutions: you told me that. You also told me about the atrophy of good, how when we stop acting to better ourselves we start acting worse, and how when we stop acting bad, we don't automatically start acting better,* this because our educational institutions overpower our habits, what's in us that urges us to live well. For hundreds of years our progressive ideas have been working their way into our institutions, but now it seems the character our institutions educated us into having protects the institutions from the influence of our ideas.
- What character is that?
- Isolated one from the other, "atomized". The good of self-questioning and authenticity taught us by modern institutions turns into vanity and self-absorption. The prosperity of our economics and the large scale generosity it allows turns into selfishness and greed. The love of truth that guides our technological advance turns into technical practice for its own sake, doing for the sake of doing. I'll read you something from a Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, from his book 'The Ethics Of Authenticity':
What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-leveled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and its relation to the cosmos. But to engage effectively in this many-faceted debate, one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity, as well as what is shallow or dangerous. As Pascal said about human beings, modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misere. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge.The Canadian philosopher, a practicing Catholic, thinks the atomized state our institutions have put us in can be overcome by an act of conversion, in which selfishness becomes authenticity, competitive trading becomes cooperative and well-intentioned, technology becomes again love of truth, and thus the project of enlightenment continues after not much disruption.
- And let me guess. You're all in favor of spiritual conversions, even on a mass scale. But like Kant said of revolution, progress will not be lasting because the character of the people has not changed. We might for the moment stop being bad, but under the continuing atomizing pressure of institutions and the character they have educated us into having, we won't start being good. And with no experience acting in different circumstances there is no consensus which way to go, the institutions easily resist any pressure to change.
- What then?
- We look for institutions of a kind that don't isolate themselves from the people by educating them into isolation from each other.
- How do you imagine these, call them self-immunized institutions?
- A Catholic philosopher imagines that with enough love we can get back on the track of enlightenment and progress. But think about our relation to dogs and cats, our pets, or as they are now known, companion animals. We provide the home, the institution within which they live. And we could hardly love them more than we do, without question we love them more than we love each other. And what is the result, what sort of world do our companion animals live in? A world very much like our own. We keep about one percent of us human beings locked in cages, another few percent in and out of the cages in any one year. About the same numbers are true of dogs and cats in our animal shelters! We kill every year a few million of them. And about the same number of us humans are killed every year ten or more years before their time, poisoned by bad air, water, food administered to us all by our corporate leaders and government officials controlled by them.
- If love is not going to save us from our institutions what will?
- We have to look at new forms that can continue to guide our progress while preventing our atomization and consequent end to the enlightenment project, doing as much as possible democratically, as much as possible without leaders. Leaders have a technical relation to those they lead. Objects of technique are things. Things are by definition isolated, separate from each other.
- Why do I find that answer so satisfying? After a lifetime of being told we have to wait, submit to the demands of our institutions, progress is slow but continuous, you tell me now, love each other all that we want, progress is at an end unless we turn our technological prowess to the invention of the institutions themselves.
Kant & Compromise
You Have To Have A Story
The Technology Of Good
Compassion & The Story
* Better People
The Atrophy Of Good