Friday, 16 July 2010

The submissive flaccidity of modern secular hedonism

I was always puzzled by the submissive flaccidity of modern Western societies: the way that - although they live to maximize gratification and minimize suffering - they will in practice do nothing to protect their future happiness nor to defend against future suffering.

But the reason is encapsulated by "Charlton's Law": Things must always get worse before they can get better; because otherwise they already would be better."

When a beneficial policy is a win-win option, then it gets done automatically, and we don't need to think about it - probably we don't even notice it.

But most beneficial policies have a down-side. Typically, long-term benefit can be attained only at the cost of short-term disadvantage or suffering of some kind, to some people.

So that the hedonic secular goal of making life *overall* as pleasant as possible in the *long-term* is continually being subverted by the *short-term* and *specific* gratification.

The hedonic ideal has reached such an extremity among the ruling elites that they pursue policies which will in the long term lead to lifestyles that they regard as miserable and abhorrent, because effectively to prevent these outcomes makes them feel bad now.

In other words, secular hedonism cannot take tough decisions.

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A tough decision is precisely a decision in which the correct decision leads to short term harm.

I first recognized this dilemma in medicine, when it is often the case that in order to make a person probably feel better overall in the long term, they must suffer immediate and certain short term misery: for example, surgery. Surgeons live with this on a daily basis, and consequently to be a good surgeon requires a 'tough' attitude.

Of course surgery requires many other things too, and most tough decisions are bad - but the point is that someone who was psychologically unable to make tough decisions, but always sought to maximize the immediate comfort and well-being of patients and to take minimum risk, would be a bad surgeon.

Modern society is *soft* in precisely this fashion - its rulers have lost the ability take tough decisions: to seek long term benefits when these come at the price the cost of short term costs to themselves.

The ultimate reason is, I believe, that humans can only make tough decisions when these are supported by *transcendental aims*, in the sense that humans do not want to forgo short term gratification in this world unless life is about something *more* than gratification – and where non-worldly realities (God, heaven, truth, beauty etc.) are seen as more real and more enduring than immediate gratification - and therefore more important.

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If human life is (as secular modernity asserts) ultimately about gratification (about maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering) then it will always seem tempting to take the short-term choice leading to immediate and certain happiness and avoid immediate and certain suffering; and to ignore the long-term consequences of these choices on the basis that the future cannot be known with certainty, and we might be dead anyway before the future arrives.

The resulting mentality is characteristic of the modern secular elite, but has spread to encompass much of contemporary life. Charles Murray has encapsulated this modern ‘sophisticated’ attitude very well: “Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.”

My point is that a society which regards the purpose of life as being to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible is a society which cannot make tough decisions. It is a society which will always take the easy way out, will pursue short-termist and certain benefits, and which will therefore always submit to its enemies - because to resist enemies makes life less pleasant than to appease them.

Even to recognize the reality of threats and enemies is unpleasant, distressing, generative of negative emotions such as fear and anger – better if we can pretend that threats and enemies are harmless or benign, really; and the only truly nasty people are those who make us feel bad about ourselves, here and now…

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So a society that values nothing higher than a pleasant life and which will seek the pleasant life whereever and whenever possible will be morally flaccid in face of opposition, will appease rather than resist, will submit rather than fight, and will therefore end-up being ruled by its most relentless and long-termist enemies - and by having an extremely un-pleasant life.

This is why secular modernity cannot survive: because it enshrines the worldly enlightened self-interest of submissive flaccidity as its ultimate form of rational, sensitive moral behavior.