I just finished reading Stephen Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time.” I confess it’s a challenging read for a non-scientist. However, Hawking was much more than a scientist and mathematician. He reveals himself to be a moral philosopher as well. Throughout his detailed discussion of how science evolved from Copernicus to Einstein and beyond, he points to how religion has historically explained what science could not and how the advances of the last half of the 20th Century explained so much that it has diminished the role of religion in society. Similarly, it has diminished the role of philosophy (perhaps a greater loss). What had been promoted by great moral thinkers from Aristotle to Kant has been lost now that we know how the universe works. In the last chapter, he quotes 20th Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as saying, “The sole remaining task of philosophy is the analysis of language.”
The disappearance of philosophy from our public discourse may explain why, instead of having a clear understanding of what’s right and wrong or moral vs immoral, we now focus on rules of behavior and the politics of reallocating capital.
So, where are we headed?
The Chinese government has created a “social credit system” to build trust on the basis of compliance with social norms defined by the central government. Americans don’t need the government to impose one. We impose it on ourselves. Shaming is a national pastime. American companies – who have two strikes against them just by existing – can trip the switch from adored to reviled in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen it happen to Uber, United Airlines and Facebook among others.
It doesn’t take a large majority to create a movement. Very vocal extremists can affect electoral outcomes and now occupy seats in Congress. Much like the pastor of a small Orlando church created an international crisis of terrorism by threatening to burn a copy of the Koran (see “Is that what Jesus would do? Really?”), a small cohort with a resonant hashtag, armed with a meme or two, can create a social movement. Think of #blacklivesmatter, #MeToo or #icebucketchallenge.
On the one hand, this phenomenon is a sign of a strong democracy. Social media provides a platform for small voices to be heard. A lonely voice may become a force for social good when a large enough chorus mobilizes for change.
On the other hand, it has bred what Arthur Brooks calls a “culture of contempt.” And, media profits by its proliferation. Social media provides a platform for outrageous claims and behavior while mainstream media – particularly cable news – profits by reporting it, analyzing it and discussing it ad nauseum. What divides us now is language and how issues are framed.
Are high taxes a way to enable social benefits or confiscation of private property?
Is abortion just ending a pregnancy or is it killing a child?
The way one answers those questions inflames our tribal passions.
Aristotle believed that a virtuous society was the result of the works of good people. Good works must be defined on the basis of a set of principles embraced by nearly all citizens. As the influence of religion and philosophy have faded, we are no longer guided by a set of generally accepted principles. Rather, we focus on rules of behavior. And, we disagree vehemently about what those rules should be. So, conservative speakers are hounded from college campuses, bureaucratic failings lead to boycotts of corporations; and, the voices of extremists yield public discussion of radical ideas as though they are reasonable.
George Orwell’s great book “1984” reinforced Wittgenstein’s description of philosophy in the 20th Century by creating new additions to our language: Newspeak, Thought Police, Groupthink, etc. We now capture those concepts under the umbrella of “political correctness.” Here’s a description of Newspeak from his book:
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view…, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought … should be literally unthinkable...”
So, is it 1984 yet?
WHO WILL LEAD?
What I’m reading
For a perspective on how Republicans can address climate change check this out from The American Enterprise Institute: Carbon tax most efficient in tackling climate change… And, while I’m on the subject, check out this opinion piece from the WSJ: The Nuclear Option is the Real Green New Deal… Bill and Melinda Gates run a foundation in their names tackling global challenges. As broad as their perspective is, they still get surprised from time to time. Check out their blog post “We Didn’t See This Coming.”