Of course, a number of new problems are raised in this kind of a universe, especially for the very young. Without the backdrop of history and tradition, it is difficult for individuals to situate themselves in a cosmos derived of obvious meaning. It is as though, leaning on generations of science, history and theology we cut the ladder out from under the next generation and asked them what they think being human means. But we are creatures of metaphor, of modeling and of mimicking; it is hard to know how to behave or how to live without these sources. We are told to be authentic to ourselves, to take the road less traveled, to bracket our parents and our upbringing and to find out what is most true to ourselves. Yet most of us seem to have found this isolating and even disempowering rather than empowering.
There is always a backdrop of society, history and tradition, even if we try to ignore or fight against it. Even our petty rebellions are fueled by our intellectual, spiritual and biological parents. There is no escaping them. There is also, in a more profound sense, no escaping certain laws of nature and human life. We can make what we want of our moral universe, but certain behaviors eventually degrade and destroy. “Love is love” may be the chant of our sexual liberation, but nature is totally indifferent to our trivial revolts. The fecundity of childbearing and birth obeys laws we cannot change.
Has technological revolution fueled and intensified the drive to authenticity? I certainly think it has, but it has hardly created the drive or the fragmentation of individualism. It has, at best, been a catalyst of certain underlying assumptions – like authenticity – written into our machines and their programs. It has enabled and extended this drive, but the crisis of authenticity did not arrive with Instagram. Instagram intensified and enlarged and then made money off it.
Consequentialism and the crisis of ethics
The political and social problems with individualism and authenticity have been catalogued aplenty, but at least one of them is the crisis of ethics that emerges in a universe of individual meaning makers. It is a question of not only what to believe or live for but also how we should get there.
At least part of the problem with late-stage liberalism is that the ground rules of social engagement atrophy under the weight of successively individual universes. What, after all, is a common life if it is predicated only on everyone being able to pursue, as far as they are able, what they believe to be their own, authentic way of being and living? Can social and political bonds survive this kind of fragmentation, and even if they could, how do we adjudicate when those moral universes conflict? This is not merely a philosophical question, of course. The limits of pluralism are probably at the heart of contemporary debates over immigration, trade, globalism and so on. Communities that have, or feel they have, defined ends and ethics are increasingly alarmed by the prospect of inducting members who they do not believe share either those ends or those ethics. It is one thing to say we may have different views of the good life and the ends to which human life is aimed. It is quite another to say our views diverge so widely that we no longer agree on the ground rules around which people of plural perspectives can meaningfully engage or live.
This is also what political scientists call the Rule of Law. And the legal sphere has been very busy trying to somehow make sense of the moral tangle that individualism and consequentialism have made. In its most radical form (which rarely occurs, I think), an anthropocentric worldview that places the self and its meaning at the center presumably does not need also to adopt a social ethics that validates and makes space for other people pursuing their own meaning and ends. In other words, we end up with an ethics of ends, of consequences, not of means, and those ends are defined often on the basis of what is true for me, for my self-actualization. Why should someone else’s view or life interfere with my actualization and authenticity? Only the coercive power of the increasingly illegitimate state can force concessions to others, but no state in the world is so powerful that it can enforce pluralism on a wide scale. Most political communities, to survive, need day-to-day assent from their members, including on basic things like legitimacy.
A political and social ethics of consequentialism, what achieves my or our ends without much fuss about means, now seems to culturally dominate American public life. Anything outside of the person, including potentially other people, becomes so much grist for the mill of self actualization. Nobody and nothing are intrinsically owed anything, except perhaps if I voluntarily contract or opt into an arrangement (which raises trouble for communities we are born into without our consent, including states and families). Again, our machines intensify and extend but hardly invent this logic. Cyber-utopians imagined that digital spaces would create a new, wider venue for pluralism to take flight. In some cases, this may have happened. But our alarm is now focused on the kind of digital cul-de-sacs in which radicalization of groups is the rule and social ethics is the collateral damage. We are beginning to lose not only civility but also the skill of disagreement. Locked into a kind of evolutionary fight-or-flight in our public life, technologies have embedded and extended this pathology of the modern moral order.
The loss of freedom
For half a century the debate has raged on about who was right, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, twin 20th-century dystopias of modern society long predicted a century earlier by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. The political temptations generated by individualism and consequentialism have long run along the gambit of two broad options: tyranny, or the enforcement of a kind of civil-religious order that precludes pluralism outside the boundary of state-defined limits, or fragmentation, also a kind of tyranny in which citizens opt out of larger social and political concerns.
This, some have been arguing, is endemic of the larger trajectory of liberalism. Since it does not itself, by design, sustain or project a kind of existential ordering of virtues for a free society, it depends on a citizenry being formed in other places to value the things it uses to generate the rule of law: fairness, tolerance, decency, modesty, patience, so on. But when it is no longer clear that the individual moral universes of citizens, or the moral universes of welcomed strangers, can generate or sustain these virtues in the long run, then the political order buckles and fractures until it becomes a kind of empty proceduralism, a facilitator with constantly contested limits, of individual desire.