The Modern Good Life, Part 1: The Bias to Action

As the great Madonna once asked, “Where do we go from here?”

It’s hard to avoid bad news these days. I read an extensive and very depressing article in the Atlantic last week about the “long shadow” that the current recession will leave on America. On the back of a decade-long employment slump, the current rate of unemployment will not really get better until at least 2014. A whole generation of young people, unable to get jobs now, will never achieve the same level of material wealth that their parents and grandparents had. A third of college graduates refuse to even engage with the job market, preferring to live at home with their parents. Another third are seeking refuge in graduate degrees that won’t help them find jobs later. Men everywhere, but especially in low-income families, have been disproportionally hit by labour force reductions (in manufacturing, construction, and the like) and are now the minority in the workforce. Their accompanying feelings of emasculation cause them to be more likely to abuse their wives and children, become addicted to some substance or another, or generally act out in other violent and destructive ways. Even the basic social fabric is weakening: in times of economic decline, populations become less tolerant and open-minded, and more rights are taken away; consequently, social progress is halted or reversed.

Serious problems all. And it isn’t just the Atlantic. The general tenor of world news these days is that the sky is falling: employment is down, crime is up, terrorists are everywhere, earthquakes and tsunamis are destroying whole countries, we are crumpling under the weight of our own debt, politicians are even slimier than usual, China is poised to rule the world, and cylons are going to nuke us! It’s a terrible time to be literate, really. The apocalypse is upon us.

But is it really? Are we to believe these prophecies of doom, spoon fed to us by our trusty news media on a daily basis? Are things really that bad? And if so, what is good?

Over the next few days I will be releasing a series of posts that examine the underlying assumptions that we hold– about human action, about history, and about progress – and exploring how they contribute to our current feelings of helplessness, decline, and a general sense that something has gone terribly wrong. I don’t mean to say that our most fundamental societal beliefs are wrong; merely that they are unexamined.

I suspect that much of our nebulous sense of “wrong” relates to our feelings of powerlessness. We are being manipulated by forces we can’t control, or even understand in some cases, and we have no idea the effect they will have on our future as individuals or as a society. (Indeed, the future is so uncertain, some of us have taken off our shades.)

The desire for action is one of the traits that characterizes our age, and the ability to change the world is a fundamental assumption twenty-first century humans hold. But it has not always been this way. The ancient philosophers thought that contemplation and understanding were the goal of life, constituting what they referred to as the “good life.” We have much more ambitious goals now: the “good life” today, it seems, is not only to understand but to effect positive change.

In the excellent and thought-provoking Straw Dogs, John Gray discusses the idea that we have adopted a “humanist” faith in progress and scientific innovation as a way to solve the age-old ethical and moral dilemmas that challenge us. This humanism bases itself on a perverted idea of Darwinian theory, he argues, and has picked up right where Christianity has left off, with the central tenet that humans are special, and different from other animals. We have destinies, special capabilities, the power to change things.

Gray disagrees on all counts. While we have certainly seen progress in science and technology, giving us more knowledge and more power than ever before, humans’ morality and ethics have remained at the same level. I will go one step further and say that the feelings of power that science and technology have engendered are also accompanied by a greater sense of scope (i.e. that life has to mean something) and responsibility (i.e. that we personally can change things).

The societal structures in which we live embody this sense of scope and responsibility. Consider democracy, or capitalism – belief systems that favour choice, and, as part of that choice, action. We must cast the vote, or buy the best product, in order for either system to succeed. And if enough of us vote with our ballots or with our feet, things will change.

It is no coincidence that both ideas really took off in the Victorian era, when action – or work – was glorified as good, honest, and respectable for the first time. Before that, work was always something to be abhorred, given to slaves or serfs if possible, deserving of contempt. At best, work was a means to an end of rest, or contemplation. But after the nineteenth century, “good work” became an end in itself. The idea originated in Christianity, but was never fully adopted until it became a part of the secular worldview of the capitalist, meritocratic nations that have effectively run the world for the past 200 years. (So if you’re feeling overworked, don’t blame the Americans; blame Martin Luther.)

It’s no wonder we feel lost these days, when we are unable to find a job, or feed our families, or predict what our personal living situation will be in six months. It is the natural fear that comes from instability, but also the idea that we are powerless. Gray would say that it is a reminder of our own insignificance and mortality, which normally are hidden behind a guise of action for the sake of it. It may also be a blow to the pride we feel in being able to control our worlds.

So how to fix this feeling of helplessness? Gray contrasts the modern Christian/Western idea that the “good life” is a struggle, swimming upstream in order to make our mark, a “perpetual striving,” with that of Taoism, in which the “good life” is living effortlessly, as we really are, and letting the current carry us. It certainly sounds more appealing, doesn’t it?

Next post in this series: History and its (Ab)Uses

4 Responses to The Modern Good Life, Part 1: The Bias to Action

  1. Matto says:

    First off, glad that things seem to be going so well for you, Kathryn. I stumbled upon your blog during a particular potent bout of internet procrastination, but am really glad of it, since I’m really enjoying your ideas and commentary. Although I am not sure whether my incoherent ramblings really have much to offer, this post finally motivated me to leave a small comment.

    The sense of powerlessness which consumes our society is something that I’ve been thinking about too. I know that so many generations of people have perceived themselves to be living in “unique times”, with radical ruptures in their social order or looming existential threats. That said, at the risk of being naively presentist, I think that our modern, globalized society is, in fact, exceptional.

    Its interesting to read the way you ascribe the general doom and gloom to greater individual empowerment and a personal sense psychological insignificance. I’ve lately wondered though if we also feel powerless because, despite our technological advancements, our society is becoming qualitatively more powerless in face of poorly understood and uncontrollable threats. I am thinking of things like climate change, full of so many unknown unknowns that decision-making, both individually and societally can become paralyzed. I’ve come to buy into the set of thinkers (including for example Homer-Dixon’s “The Ingenuity Gap” and the extensive risk society work), who believe that the problems modern society faces are, themselves, becoming significantly more difficult faster than our capacity to respond to them can develop.

    Which is a long of saying that I reacted poorly to Gray’s suggestion, worried that the Taoist current might well allow us to blindly accelerate headlong into bumpy rapids or a devastating falls.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of the set! Good luck with everything,


  2. Kathryn Exon says:

    Thank you for your excellent and well-thought out comment, Matto – of course, you always have lots to offer. 🙂

    All this rapid technological change I think ratchets up the amount of potential we have to be destructive. One day somebody invented a stone arrow for hunting, and the next someone used it to kill another person in a neighbouring tribe – a classic example of how technological advancement is really neutral because it can be (and is) used for both good and ill. A stone arrow can only kill a handful of people, though, wielded correctly. Something like, say, a nuclear bomb or an acute biological weapon can be deployed by only a few more people and do much, much more damage. The scope is greater. The power we have as individuals is greater. It‘s scary and yes, I agree with you, unprecedented.

    It’s interesting you list climate change as an example, because I scrawled to myself while reading Gray’s book: so, does this mean he’s going to let us all off scot free wrt climate change? It turns out yes, he is: his theory is that the Earth will self-regulate, probably by flooding massive parts of low-lying land (i.e. Bangladesh) and thus eradicating the “human plague” that is causing it such problems. To us, this outcome seems like the death knell of humanity. Perhaps we as a race would continue on after the massive impacts of climate change, albeit in a much less numerous form, but we of course don’t even want to consider that possibility.

    It’s easy to take a blasé attitude and only care about the present, hoping things will turn out for the best, but I also doubt this is the best strategy. My theory (and I may extrapolate on this in Pt. 3) is that the only reason morality has remained at a constant is that throughout history there has been a battle of good, altruistic people doing their best and selfish, “evil” people balancing out their actions. So actions for the good – at least from some people – is a necessity in order for us to remain on an even keel, I suspect.

    Thanks again – that was great.

  3. Jeremy says:

    Hi everyone,

    I think I have to agree with Matto on one point and disagree with him on another. When I read what you had to say about Gray’s position that we should adopt an Eastern/Taoist position toward things, that sounded too much to me like giving up. It is similar to the wave of “positive thinking” woo-hoo that has inundated our society through books like “The Secret” and others, which preach that we should simply focus on positive thoughts (which will somehow metaphysically come true) and learn to be happy with what we have.

    Name one famous person in history, or the present, who accomplished the betterment of anyone or anything through that method. You can’t. Alternatively, one could argue that if historical troublemakers had just learned to appreciate the little things in life and think positively, we could avoid the plagues of war and despotism. While tempting, adoption of the wait-and-see strategy would lead to nothing but stasis and the end of the dynamism of the human race. Is that the world we want to live in?

    I have to disagree with Matto and those he cites in that the problems our society faces are becoming too complex for us to handle. We have managed to avert many Malthusian crises in the past. Sometimes it seems like humanity manages to avoid disaster in the nick of time, thanks to people like Norman Borlaug and others like him. I have huge faith in the power of science to save us, even from the problems which scientific advances have created. And, if necessity is the mother of invention, we should see a rapid burst of new ideas and technology over our lifetime. Just look at how rapidly our way of life has changed since we were born not that long ago. Problems may be mounting, but the rate of change is also increasing exponentially.

    For my own positive contribution, allow me to point out that I think the main problem we face today is shortsightedness and the demand for instant gratification on nearly every level. If we were only to make things such as alternative energy, conservation and improvements in agriculture a priority, I have no doubt that we could quickly ameliorate the problems we currently face. However, many advances such as hybrid vehicles, solar power and others are not as widespread as they could be because they are not immediately profitable. We live in an age where most seem only to care about the next quarterly report, the next news cycle, or the next election. It is this myopia which prevents us from embracing measures which may incur short term cost for long term gain. Examples of this can be seen in state governments’ reluctance to subsidize and mandate the use of renewable energy. A shining exception (pun intended) has been in Germany, which is leading the way in solar energy despite the gloomy weather which often dominates Northern Europe. While others say the shift to renewable energy is impossible, Germany of all places is making it a reality. Imagine if that type of political and social will could be brought to bear in places like Arizona and Baja California…

    In conclusion, I think the thing which might save our generation from the crises on the horizon is Millenials’ documented willingness (in polls) to embrace a wider role for government. When we are left to the mercies of major corporations invested in the status quo, I believe that the power of the state will be necessary to generate collective action for improving our lot. All the voluntary Earth hours and meatless Mondays are a poor substitute for mandates and subsidies, such as those in Germany for solar energy.

  4. […] winning a Nobel Prize or raising well-adjusted children. We have, as I have pointed out before, a strong bias to action which makes us want to do good and make things “better.” Most […]

Leave a Reply to Kathryn Exon Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s