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.

***

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.

***

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…

***

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.

13 comments:

  1. Hedonistic libertarianism is rarely the primary expression of secular morality, and is far from the dominant elite ideology. Secular elites habitually advocate posterity-minded policies with short-term disadvantages. Global warming regulations being a familiar example.

    I imagine you are primarily hinting at short-sightedness on demographic matters, like immigration. But religious elites commonly advocate short-sighted universalist immigration policies on "transcendental" religious premises. And secular leftist elites promote demographic changes in the name of the same universalist goals; often admitting the disadvantages of their demographic policies in the short-term (i.e. Robert Putnam).

    The only difference between a long-term secular moral goal and a long-term "transcendental" (religious) goal is that the secular goal inherently requires logical justification, while the religious goal gets to subsume all of its unarticulated and fallacious premises behind a mythical authority. This is why even first-world religious people prefer to keep religion out of law and government; religious premises have no substance outside of their own naked assertion to truth. You can resolve disagreements with force, but not through a neutral intellectual process.

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  2. It is a society which will always take the easy way out... because to resist enemies makes life less pleasant than to appease them.


    America is currently embroiled in two pointless wars, because, we were told, God and some faulty evidence indicated that our lives were in danger from some primitive desert nations. These wars were not the easy way out. There was nothing we even needed "out" of! And yet here we are.

    Elite morality looks nothing like Randian every-man-for-himself hedonism. But I'm not so sure we wouldn't be better off with Randian elites than with the elites we currently have, who contrary to your characterizations, frequently push us towards long-term "sacrifices" which I find dubious.

    Or maybe not. But elites will certainly not become Randian in the forseeable future.

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  3. I am referring to the level of the individual.

    For example, I have followed environmentalism closely since 1974. It made no headway in politics until it was remade into a doctrine which provided immediate hedonic benefits for its individual adherents, and hedonic penalties for dissent.

    When environmentalism was a low status opinion of 'nutters' (i.e. when I was a teenage environmentalist!), and expressing such views involved immediate psychological and perhaps physical deprivations (i.e. when environmentalism meant not learning to drive and not owning a car; rather than showing-off by driving round in a high status Prius), it was politically insignificant.

    There are no neutral intellectual processes; just some procedures which are applied non-neutrally and implemented non-neutrally in pursuit of some goal which may not be explicit but is always implicit.

    (Of course, these purposive goals very seldom cohere, but they are there.)

    Secularism is a novelty, hypothetical, an experiment; an attempt to get-by (and open up lifestyle choices) despite subtracting the major historic human motivation - secularism is *not* the default societal state against which human religiousness needs to prove itself; the opposite applies.

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  4. I should clarify that secular hedonism does not, of course, entail the necessity that every individual must be seeking pleasure at every moment.

    What it does entail is that all action and policy - environmentalism, war etc - ultimately be related to gratification. The argument being that we make sacrifices to happiness now to enhance happiness and reduce suffering in the long run.

    Standard public discourse.

    Hedonism entails that gratification is the bottom line social morality. Utilitarianism, in other words.

    My point is that once established, utilitarianism cannot hold the line; because establishing what is the greatest happiness of other people is conjectural at best, highly unpredictable in terms of outcomes, and meaningless at worst: so, we are thrown back on our own personal state of gratification in the here and now as being the only thing we can be sure about.

    Of course (since humans are social animals) the purusit of selfish immediate gratification cannot be pursued explicitly; but it will be there as a covert pressure; and (absent the transcendental) there is nothing deeper or more fundamental to counteract it.

    (Just expediency to conceal or moderate it).

    Hence the persisting (albeit guilty) mass cultural appeal of utterly selfish, short termist, openly hedonic and exploitative characters in real life and in fiction.

    Moderns secretly believe that this is how life really is, and it is how they would like to live - if only they could get away with it and ideally be respected for it.

    The happy psychopath as the anti hero. The drugged, promiscuous, unrelaible, impulsive rock star as idol. He does just exactly what he wants when he wants, and (due to charm, style, coolness) people admire him for it. They may not like him, but they want to be him.

    At any rate people cannot (if they are modern, lacking transcendental convictions) criticise the happy psychopath for his lifestyle - without coming across as hypocritical, envious, deluded.

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  5. "Secularism is a novelty, hypothetical, an experiment; an attempt to get-by (and open up lifestyle choices) despite subtracting the major historic human motivation - secularism is *not* the default societal state against which human religiousness needs to prove itself; the opposite applies."

    I'm not sure how to interpret this statement. For instance if you are suggesting clerical rule is superior to secular, democratic government, that would be empirically false. Logically, authority-based governments (like authority-based science) are much more prone to system-failure because they don't have built in self-correcting feedback mechanisms.

    Religious morality is not the historical human default, but rather a novelty that emerged along side of agriculture. Religious morality was a cultural and cognitive adaptation to large scale societies, where people have to interact and co-exist peacefully with anonymous, unrelated individuals (the evolution of religious belief came long before this and had nothing to do with morality at all). Foragers base their morality on kinship and other interpersonal processes, not on beliefs about spiritual authorities.

    So to some extent you are correct that religious morality has aided society over some span of written history. Modern research does suggest that religious belief plays a small role in honest behavior. But for the most part, altruism and law-abidingness are genetic traits, regulated by internal biology. And the historical trend for these traits has been in a highly positive direction for both genetic and environmental reasons.

    In that sense, religion once acted as a jury rigged scaffolding for pro-social behavior in state-level societies, that has been overshadowed by more significant genetic changes in our behavioral regulation.

    It is unusual, IMO, to suggest that major human motivations and behaviors are primarily integrated around something as new and (biologically) inconsequential as theistic religion. It makes much more scientific sense to think about morality or creativity in terms of fundamental human motivators like sex, status, and community.

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  6. [Continued due to length]

    So to some extent you are correct that religious morality has aided society over some span of written history. Modern research does suggest that religious belief plays a small role in honest behavior. But for the most part, altruism and law-abidingness are genetic traits, regulated by internal biology. And the historical trend for these traits has been in a highly positive direction for both genetic and environmental reasons.

    In that sense, religion once acted as a jury rigged scaffolding for pro-social behavior in state-level societies, that has been overshadowed by more significant genetic changes in our behavioral regulation.

    It is unusual, IMO, to suggest that major human motivations and behaviors are primarily integrated around something as new and (biologically) inconsequential as theistic religion. It makes much more scientific sense to think about morality or creativity in terms of fundamental human motivators like sex, status, and community.

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  7. "Secularism is a novelty, hypothetical, an experiment; an attempt to get-by (and open up lifestyle choices) despite subtracting the major historic human motivation - secularism is *not* the default societal state against which human religiousness needs to prove itself; the opposite applies."

    I'm not sure how to interpret this statement. For instance if you are suggesting clerical rule is superior to secular, democratic government, that would be empirically false. Logically, authority-based governments (like authority-based science) are much more prone to system-failure because they don't have built in self-correcting feedback mechanisms.

    Religious morality is not the historical human default, but rather a novelty that emerged along side of agriculture. Religious morality was a cultural and cognitive adaptation to large scale societies, where people have to interact and co-exist peacefully with anonymous, unrelated individuals (the evolution of religious belief came long before this and had nothing to do with morality at all). Foragers base their morality on kinship and other interpersonal processes, not on beliefs about spiritual authorities.

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  8. "My point is that once established, utilitarianism cannot hold the line; because establishing what is the greatest happiness of other people is conjectural at best, highly unpredictable in terms of outcomes, and meaningless at worst:"


    Bruce,

    This is simply the necessary bane of human social co-existence: that at the end of the day we all have conflicting needs and preferences.

    The upshot to this is that we all share an evolutionary heritage, and therefore our needs and preferences are relatively similar enough that they can be negotiated in ways that will objectively be considered better or worse by most people (I've deconstructed this philosophical dilemma in absurdly repetitive detail in this discussion thread).

    Morality by authority (religious or otherwise) does absolutely nothing to solve the sociological dilemma you describe. The same exact reasoning could be applied to the establishment of best government or the establishment of scientific facts: "100% of the people will never agree about what's best or true, so what's the point? Let's resolve all our differences for good, by picking our beliefs and values out of a hat and enforcing them for eternity. The earth is 6000 years old, because God says so. God exists because God says He exists. Turtles All the Way Down. QED."

    The point is that we can either try to negotiate our differences by force and violence (i.e. authoritarianism), or we can try to negotiate our differences through a push-pull process of debate and persuasion (i.e. democracy). Debate and persuasion are superior for negotiating realms of human difference (such as morality, government, and science) because they rely to a much greater extent on merit and feedback. Useful choices are more often retained in response to efficacy, harmful choices are more often discarded in response to failure.

    The great thing about European culture is it moved progressively towards this understanding. Science, law, and democracy were all path-breaking secular innovations. Secularism is negotiating differences with reasoned engagement instead of arbitrary authoritarian fiat.

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  9. [Continued due to length]

    The point is that we can either try to negotiate our differences by force and violence (i.e. authoritarianism), or we can try to negotiate our differences through a push-pull process of debate and persuasion (i.e. democracy). Debate and persuasion are superior for negotiating realms of human difference (such as morality, government, and science) because they rely to a much greater extent on merit and feedback. Useful choices are more often retained in response to efficacy, harmful choices are more often discarded in response to failure.

    The great thing about European culture is it moved progressively towards this understanding. Science, law, and democracy were all path-breaking secular innovations. Secularism is negotiating differences with reasoned engagement instead of arbitrary authoritarian fiat.

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  10. "My point is that once established, utilitarianism cannot hold the line; because establishing what is the greatest happiness of other people is conjectural at best, highly unpredictable in terms of outcomes, and meaningless at worst:"


    Bruce,

    This is simply the necessary bane of human social co-existence: that at the end of the day we all have conflicting needs and preferences.

    The upshot to this is that we all share an evolutionary heritage, and therefore our needs and preferences are relatively similar enough that they can be negotiated in ways that will objectively be considered better or worse by most people (I've deconstructed this philosophical dilemma in absurdly repetitive detail in this discussion thread).

    Morality by authority (religious or otherwise) does absolutely nothing to solve the sociological dilemma you describe. The same exact reasoning could be applied to the establishment of best government or the establishment of scientific facts: "100% of the people will never agree about what's best or true, so what's the point? Let's resolve all our differences for good, by picking our beliefs and values out of a hat and enforcing them for eternity. The earth is 6000 years old, because God says so. God exists because God says He exists. Turtles All the Way Down. QED."

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jason,

    I have published your extensive comments; but you must remember that I had for many years almost exactly the same views as you have now, indeed until very recently, and felt that I had to drop them because I could no longer deny that they are wrong, false, untrue, indeed immoral! – although mainstream.

    However, acknowledging the wrongness was a slow and multi-faceted process, accomplished in the face of many types of resistance including my natural disposition; and I cannot really expect other people who see no need to change their views to be compelled by the arguments that convinced me then, or the different arguments that convince me now, when they have not been through the same experiences.

    For decades I (egotistically!) saw my job as solving the longstanding paradoxes of modernity - but it turns out that they are not paradoxes but plain contradictions.

    The only *coherent* solution to modernity I ever discovered was Niklas Luhmann's systems theory - however, this is underpinned by several purely-arbitrary (and counter-intuitive) assumptions - and the theory has no place for humans (individually or as a species), and offers no meaning or purpose - so it is a pointless solution.

    Essentially it is just another 'what will be, will be' evolutionary theory.

    My book The Modernization Imperative http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/modernization-imperative.html is evidence of my old views – so was virtually anything I wrote up until recently.

    My own contributions to the MH collaboration now seems crazily mistaken in important ways (typical Clever Silly nonsense) – but it was not until I set things down as clearly and as simply as possible in this way, that I began to recognize that the whole idea of modernity was wrong.

    My 'silliness' merely lay nearer the surface and undisguised.

    In fact such answers as there are to be had are simple; way too simple to appeal to intellectuals, too simple to convince intellectuals, too obvious and unimpressive! And that is a big problem for intellectuals as individual souls - and for modern societies run by intellectuals.

    Anyway, this blog is partly (or mostly) about exploring the implications of what happens *after* acknowledging the irrationality and self-destructiveness of modernity - for example the transience of science, the transience of economic growth, the self-destructiveness of democracy; and I don't want to spend too much time or energy going back over old ground or re-hashing the arguments I that have covered in my own personal reflections over the past several years.

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  12. Jason,

    I have published your extensive comments; but you must remember that I had for many years almost exactly the same views as you have now, indeed until very recently, and felt that I had to drop them because I could no longer deny that they are wrong, false, untrue, indeed immoral! – although mainstream.

    For decades I saw my job as solving the longstanding paradoxes of modernity and discoverig meaning and purpose in secular life - but it turns out that they were not paradoxes but plain contradictions.

    My book The Modernization Imperative http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/modernization-imperative.html is evidence of my old views – so was virtually anything I wrote up until recently.

    However, acknowledging my wrongness to myself was a slow and multi-faceted process, accomplished in the face of many types of resistance including my natural disposition.

    So I do not really expect other people who see no need to change their views to be compelled by the arguments that convinced me then, or the different arguments that convince me now, when they have not been through the same experiences.

    Anyway, this blog is partly (or mostly) about exploring the implications of what happens *after* acknowledging the irrationality and self-destructiveness of modernity.

    I don't want to spend too much time or energy going back over old ground or re-hashing the arguments I that have covered in my own personal reflections over the past several years.

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  13. Mr. Charlton,

    I think your comment "
    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." is quite accurate. If there isn't more to life than life then putting your life at risk is really quite hard to justify. Defense of country? Also hard to justify. Even raising children, a sacrifice which is increasingly hard for modern secularists to justify.

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