Wednesday, May 6, 2015

American Anomie

David Brooks is right. Something is wrong with American intellectual life.

Brooks believes that public debate does not address moral issues. Instead, it politicizes.

Surely, debate is too politicized, but it is often hypermoralized. It all depends on how you see moral questions. I suspect that Brooks is referring to the fact that standards for good behavior have fallen by the wayside.

In place of a morality that teaches civic virtue, the culture has fallen into what I would call a guilt-culture morality. Americans today often define their moral being through their hatred of racism and sexism and homophobia and carbon emissions. They define morality in terms of belief, not behavior, in terms of emotion, not character.

The emphasis is misplaced. If, by the term undermoralized Brooks is hinting at the fact that we do not define ourselves as belonging to a nation or a religion, he is surely correct.

We respect, even worship science and big data, but we ignore the wisdom of philosophers and even theologians.

Brooks defines the situation:

The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.

Public debate is now undermoralized and overpoliticized. We have many shows where people argue about fiscal policy but not so many on how to find a vocation or how to measure the worth of your life. In fact, we now hash out our moral disagreement indirectly, under the pretense that we’re talking about politics, which is why arguments about things like tax policy come to resemble holy wars.

Intellectual prestige has drifted away from theologians, poets and philosophers and toward neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists and big data analysts. These scholars have a lot of knowledge to bring, but they’re not in the business of offering wisdom on the ultimate questions.

References to ultimate questions about the meaning of life make me queasy. They belong more properly to metaphysics than to ethics, and are best addressed by philosophy and theology. Knowing the meaning and purpose of life does not tell you how to conduct yourself in community.

As we have known for centuries, science has nothing to tell us about ethics. In a world where science reigns and where scientists pretend to be able to answer all questions, including ethical questions, public debate degenerates.

Since scientists insist that their views of non-scientific matters—ethics or the existence of God—are demonstrable and unarguable truths, they tend to reject serious debate about their opinions.

Brooks seems to believe that moral conversation involves “the inner life.” He also believes that life is only worth living if we discover its meaning, if we believe that we are living for ideals and ideas. In that he is off the mark.

In his words:

The shift has meant there is less moral conversation in the public square. I doubt people behave worse than before, but we are less articulate about the inner life. There are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most.

As a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don’t know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all.

And also:

This is true among the young as much as the older. In fact, young people, raised in today’s hypercompetitive environment, are, if anything, hungrier to find ideals that will give meaning to their activities. It’s true of people in all social classes. Everyone is born with moral imagination — a need to feel that life is in service to some good.

For a man who is supposedly a conservative thinker, Brooks traffics in far too many idealistic clich├ęs.

This has caused him to miss the larger point. In the past people addressed these larger questions within specific social contexts. They belonged to religions, for example, and found meaning in their membership in those groups. In fact, the Latin word religio means, to bind or to connect.

Religions are not the only social groups that connect people, but they are the ones that specifically address larger issues.

And, dare I say, religions have long since been the sources of the moral teachings that form the basis for our civilization and our culture.

Nowadays, we have replaced religions with pseudo-religions like psychoanalysis and political ideologies. When Brooks says that debates about tax policy can resemble holy wars, he is pointing to the fact that political parties, even factions of parties are among the few groups we feel like we belong to.

And yet, a nation that is divided into factions cannot stand.

When children attend college they rarely learn to respect religion or philosophy. They are certainly not being taught to love their country. They are indoctrinated into politically correct pieties. They are taught that America is the source of all that has gone wrong in the world and that it needs a political catharsis in order to overcome its sins.

They are forced to reject religious dogma and to embrace secular dogmas about climate change, same-sex marriage and gender reassignment. In place of good behavior they learn correct beliefs.

The stronger their beliefs and their hatred for those who think differently, the more they feel like they belong to a cult of true believers.

And yet, this cult has no congregations and no churches. It has no formal social structure. It does not require very much in terms of good behavior or good manners. Thus people feel lost, adrift, unmoored and disconnected.

More than that, these true believers disdain their nation. In itself this demoralizes the populace, and makes everyone feel that being an American is a bad thing.

Many Americans have been taught to criticize and complain, to find fault with the nation, to criminalize its successes and to defame its heroes.

As I mentioned in The Last Psychoanalyst, this bad mental habit makes it impossible to participate fully in the nation’s rituals and ceremonies. It demoralizes people, saps their confidence and makes them feel that their lives do not mean anything.

We are not going to solve the problem by engaging in metaphysical speculations about why we are here. To overcome the problem we will all need to relearn how to love our country, venerate its great people, to celebrate its successes.

That is the problem. I believe that the term anomie describes it best. In truth, Brooks has written about it, well and cogently. I blogged about it here.


Ares Olympus said...

re: We are not going to solve the problem by engaging in metaphysical speculations about why we are here. To overcome the problem we will all need to relearn how to love our country, venerate its great people, to celebrate its successes. That is the problem. I believe that the term anomie describes it best.

While I'm open to many ideas, I find this entire topic muddled and uncertain.

"Relearn how to love our country"?

Stuart, you must know how utterly meaningless that sounds. I understand loyalty, but I don't understand what love has to do with it.

But even loyalty isn't enough. Would loyalty mean being willing to pay your taxes without complaint, or is that love? I get confused what I need to love.

Or maybe you can love your country, but not your government? You can love amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties, which stay constants however wrong your government is going.

Of course perhaps a dictatorship is what we need?

On my own "metaphysical speculations" I'll go with E.F. Schumacher's Guide for the Perplexed from 1977 and his "Tasks of Man".

It sounds like the government isn't going to save us from our "inner work" whatever that is. But maybe social tradition has been reduced to 35hr/week watching TV? So at least most people are working hard on that step 1.
Schumacher notes that within philosophy there is no field in more disarray than ethics. He argues that this is because most ethical debate sidesteps any "prior clarification of the purpose of human life on the earth." Schumacher believes that ethics is the study of divergent problems; which require transcendence by the individual, not a new type of ethics to be adopted by all.

He argues that there is an increasing recognition among individuals that many solutions to human problems must be made by individuals not by society, and cannot be solved by political solutions that rearrange the system. For Schumacher, the "modern attempt to live without religion has failed."

He says that the tasks of an individual can be summed up as follows:
1. Learn from society and tradition.
2. Interiorize this knowledge, learn to think for yourself and become self-directed.
3. Grow beyond the narrow concerns of the ego.

Man, he says, in the larger sense must learn again to subordinate the sciences of manipulation to the sciences of wisdom; a theme he further develops in his book Small is Beautiful.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

The problem is that widely accepted standards have eroded so much that we now use the legal system for this purpose, and it is a wholly ineffective substitute.

I'm aligned with your "guilt-culture" distinction, Stuart. It reflects our TV consumer culture.

Allan Bloom predicted all of this when he observed that "tolerance" is the highest virtue, the one criterion of goodness. Tolerance is passive. Tolerance is a substitute for love. Love is active, and is indeed the high standard at the core of Christianity. But that's high "dogma," so why bother? Why not just metaphysically degrade someone else's metaphysics? Yet still, onecannot download love or beauty.

A society is defined by its rituals, and our rituals seem to be watching ESPN and "reality" TV.

We are a nation of passive, spectating critics... skewering the creator, the worker, the "man in the arena" who makes all this comfort and delight possible. It's really a confederacy of control freaks, like-minded elites pursuing an agenda of thought control, while producing nothing. Yes, it's anomie.

It is the Cult of the Glowing Box, and the masses follow, hypnotized, awaiting directions on how to live. The only antidote is existential conversation, and those are notoriously challenging. Wouldn't you rather just watch the NFL Draft?

Ares Olympus said...

Maybe Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD and I are in agreement over TV, so we'd better find a dictator president who can shut down our entertainment-centric attention?

But we still need to see what's missing while Stuart says "Brooks seems to believe that moral conversation involves “the inner life.” He also believes that life is only worth living if we discover its meaning, if we believe that we are living for ideals and ideas. In that he is off the mark."

As a coincidence on the question "inner life" perhaps I saw this article today about consciousness.
"Among conscious activities, the unique characteristic of self-observation cannot exist in any type of machine," Song explained. "Human thought has a mechanism that computers cannot compute or be programmed to do."

Machines are not able to observe themselves, so they can not have consciousness? So contrary to the Techophiles, we'll never be downloading our consciousnesses into computer chips. Sorry Kurzweil, looks like we're stuck being vulnerable biological beings who die.

But if Stuart is right and our "inner life" has nothing to offer us, what's missing?

Schumacher has a possible answer in his four fields of knowledge:
Schumacher identifies four fields of knowledge for the individual:
1.I → inner
2.I → other persons (inner)
3.other persons → I
4.I → the world

These four fields arise from combining two pairs: Myself and the World; and Outer Appearance and Inner Experience. He notes that humans only have direct access to fields one and four.

Field one is being aware of your feelings and thoughts and most closely correlates to self awareness.

Field two is being aware of what other people are thinking and feeling. Despite these problems we do experience a 'meeting of minds' with other individuals at certain times.

Schumacher observes that the traditional answer to the study of field two has been "You can understand others to the extent you understand yourself."

Field three is understanding yourself as an objective phenomenon. Knowledge in field three requires you to be aware what other people think of you.

Schumacher summarises his views about the four fields of knowledge as follows:
* Only when all four fields of knowledge are cultivated can you have true unity of knowledge.
* Clarity of knowledge depends on relating the four fields of knowledge to the four levels of being.
* The instructional sciences should confine their remit to field four, because it is only in the field of appearances that mathematical precision can be obtained.
* Self-knowledge can only be effectively pursued by balanced study of field one (self awareness) and field three (objective self-knowledge).
* Study of field two (understanding other individuals) is dependent on first developing a powerful insight into field one (self awareness).

So the problem with an "inner life" is that we're actually very poor at "self-awareness", and even as it gives us nearly unlimited potential, it requires TWO sources for accurate knowledge - how we feel inside, and how others see us, and its only by integrating those two sources of knowledge that we can really know ourselves as we are, and see the difference between that and who we want to be "ego-ideal" and make a plan to get there.

Some people might think all inward attention it self-absorbed and unhelpful, and yet perhaps self-reflection allow us also to master our inner world better, and then have something more to give back to the world.

But until then, at least we have the TV to tell us who we are, and we can buy stuff when we want to improve ourselves.

priss rules said...

Collective morality is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

As an individual, you can lie, cheat, rob, abandon your kids, and talk filth... but if you stand against global warming or hold up a sign that says 'black lives matter', you are better than all white folks.

Such is American morality today.

n.n said...

Science is a method and process to understand and exploit phenomena in a very limited frame of reference. Its scope is limited by natural and enhanced human perception, deductive logic, and ability to replicate our observation. For example, it cannot distinguish between origin and expression (e.g. consciousness) or determine source (e.g. human creation, system creation).

Progressive states of civilization inevitably devolve into amoral, opportunistic cults. Specifically, they have a characteristically material focus and pro-choice or selective principles.

Religion or orality is first and foremost a reconciliation of two axioms: individual dignity and intrinsic value. Our secular cult has reconciled them to selectively deny both the former (e.g. class diversity policy, selective exclusion a la "equal", "no labels") and latter (e.g. elective abortion of wholly innocent human lives).

That said, we know nothing of our purpose other than the myths recorded by our ancestors and the myths created by our contemporaries, and perhaps our own imaginations. We do know that character is an innate quality that is either reinforced or degraded through external influence.

Anonymous said...

Scripture teaches the meaning of life in these terms: (1) love God; and (2) love Your neighbor in the land.

We should also respect the covenant in which the land, or natural environment, is the source of prosperity and heritage to all generations.

America worships money and commerce. In the metaphoric interpretation of scripture we are living in Babylon - The City of Commerce.