A couple of months ago I noted that we live in a time in which connections like family, kinship, religion, and inherited culture and community are dissolving. The feeling against borders and Brexit shows that even national connections are disappearing in the minds of many people.
But a time of dissolution is also a time of consolidation. People always get organized somehow, so the two go together. When a technological society dissolves into a collection of unconnected particles, the particles sort out by simple and standardized functional distinctions, such as money and occupational status.
We’re entering a global order, dominated by global markets and transnational bureaucracies, upon which people rely more and more for their everyday needs and their sense of who and what they are. This is especially true of the well-educated and well-placed people who dominate public life and are therefore more in tune with things.
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This situation has a profound effect on moral life. In such a setting who we are is most obviously determined by age, career, money, consumption choices, and our orientation toward society as a whole—that is, our political views. The politically progressive young professional who is rising in his career and knows all about cooking and craft beers becomes the social ideal.
People spend more time with colleagues, fellow students, and happenstance acquaintances than family and other longstanding connections. They meet them wherever they happen to live, work, and study, or online, where most human interaction now takes place, and where past and place have no relevance.
Ideals of life and standards of conduct come less from the communities people were born into and more from peer groups, therapeutic professionals, and especially the pop culture. This is why we feel freer to speak of generational differences—differences due to changes in pop culture—than regional, class, sex, or ethnic differences, which are felt as an embarrassment that we should deny or at least avert our eyes from.
People have come to assume that human activities that matter practically should be carried on through formal institutions, and only human distinctions such as professional credentials that relate to such institutions can legitimately matter. Even mutual support and cooperation within the family have become suspect, which is why people speak of “unpaid housework” as an injustice. The idea seems to be that something that’s not part of a commercial or bureaucratic structure can be legitimate only as a strictly personal pursuit oriented toward oneself.
All this now seems normal. But what ideals of life can there be in such a setting? A world made up of neutral technologically rational institutions may seem a bad place to look for such things, but they are always present.
The quickest way to understand ideals of life is to look at people’s points of pride. Pride can be burned away by love of God and neighbor, or of the Good, Beautiful, and True. However, its role in human life is not altogether negative. Not everyone is a saint or sage, and for those who aren’t proper pride is part of self-respect and an essential motive for good behavior.
People feel entitled to proper pride in things that conform to the ideal of life they hold. This is why hypocrisy is so discrediting. It means that the value that you claim for yourself isn’t there, so you can simply be ignored.
The moral value that gives rise to proper pride need not be strictly personal. At one time people felt they could take pride in family, because families had honor and stood for something. The same was true of the nation. People felt they could take pride in being Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, or Englishmen. Each thought his country and people stood for something admirable—courage, good sense, jealous independence, the ability to rule, etc. This kind of pride, like proper pride generally, set a standard and so served a social function.
The looseness of traditional connections today makes this kind of pride seem less appropriate, so people go straight to what they understand as morality and take pride in being progressive. However, current views make society and not the individual the basic moral agent. Thus being progressive is mostly a matter of voting, signing petitions, having the right attitudes, and other things that don’t much affect how someone carries on his life. It differs in this way from honesty, chastity, loyalty, charity, and the whole array of traditional virtues, which are much more likely to make personal demands.
The result is that being progressive doesn’t touch us closely enough to be satisfactory as a major point of pride. This is why progressive virtue signaling and online lynch mobs have become such a prominent feature of life today. People feel the need to pump up the rather insubstantial quality on which they base much of their claim of personal worth by making it aggressive and intrusive.
People also pride themselves—it’s a careerist age—on money and position. But simply as such those things have a notoriously amoral quality that make them ill-suited for proper pride. Something more is needed.
Working for a progressive NGO or the right government agency can provide the missing piece. So can professionalism, since professional standards are a socially recognized ideal. So people take pride in being a doctor, lawyer, teacher, and so on. Much the same applies to other occupations or avocations that have demanding standards. This is one reason being a chef has become a high-prestige occupation.
People also feel entitled to take pride in money and position when those things represent progress. So the financial and occupational success of a woman or black person simply as such is considered an entirely legitimate basis for pride. By acquiring these things, he or she becomes an icon of how the world should be, and their possession is a standing assault on social injustice.
A similar justification can apply to pride in natural and traditional aspects of human identity like sex, religion, and inherited cultural community. Such things still define a great deal of how people understand themselves, even though people don’t know what to make of them because they no longer have a recognized function.
Based on contemporary thinking, some sort of progressive quality is needed to justify legitimate pride in them. This seems contradictory since progressives want such distinctions to be done away with as a significant feature of human life. Therefore, the only possible progressive aspect of life they can accept is the belief that such things are not a legitimate social function.
But this can be true of the identity of minority and traditionally subordinate groups. A black lesbian can take legitimate pride in what she is, because simply by existing, and still more by asserting herself and her identity in every possible setting, she confronts white privilege, the patriarchy, and heteronormativity. By asserting her distinction she promotes equality.
What does all this add up to? People want to distinguish themselves because they want to be something definite, and they want the self-respect that comes from living up to a legitimate ideal. But in a world ordered by technocratic institutions the only way to do that is to distinguish ourselves professionally, though the perceptiveness of our consumption choices, and through our devotion to “equality”—that is, to diminishing the importance of other goals and connections and confronting people who think they matter.
All this is absurdly inhuman and unfulfilling as an ideal of life. This is one reason there’s so much ill humor today: people try hard to do and be what they think right, but when they succeed they find they don’t much like it. And therein lies a lesson. For the past half-century and more the Church has tried to evangelize modern man through sympathy with his projects and aspirations. This no longer makes sense if it ever did. We need to offer, as the old slogan goes, a choice and not an echo.