An ethical tipping point?

Adam Lent, of the RSA, wrote a very interesting blog last week. He charted parallels between the present day and the 1930s, and suggested that we’re only just beginning to experience the effects of the crash of 2008.

It raises interesting questions about how a nation should prepare itself for what might prove to be a very stormy and challenging decade economically and politically. Could it be, for example, that we may soon reach a type of ethical/cultural tipping point where we realise that the values that sustained us for the last and very different decade or more are no longer up to the job and new ideas and practices rush in to fill the vacuum?

What interested me in the blog is this business of how values and ethics shape a culture and its politics. In particular, it’s all very well to have an ethical response to a financial or ecological crisis. But whether or not it is powerful enough to have any effect is another question entirely. I suppose this is why it feels sadly true that only profound trauma can empower profound change in the social ethos. If Aristotle is right, and ethics is a kind of practical intelligence, then it is known emotionally/spiritually as much as rationally/objectively. And this set me thinking. I’d be very glad for any thoughts on what follows.

It’s been said that a civilisation or society has an outer and an inner life, and that when the society is flourishing, that’s because the outer and the inner are working together in harmony.

The outer life is manifest in science, material artifacts, political economy. The inner life is that of its members – their human flourishing and spiritual wellbeing. What determines how the two are linked is the values or ethics of the day. When the values are right, both aspects thrive and the society has vitality. When the values are wrong, one aspect dominates the other.

So, the analysis would be that we live in a period that has excelled in the outer and has become detached from the inner, because the vitality of the age – growth, consumption, etc – precludes it. Hence, our outer lives – work, politics, economics – have become detached from our inner lives, and so life often feels dehumanizing and appears to be heading for some kind of destruction.

That said, you see all kinds of situations in which you see a desire to link the outer and the inner.

– It’s the appeal of ecological philosophies that try to re-enchant nature and the material (funny how the materialist age is one that values the material less and less).

– It’s the appeal of faith schools, that remain appealing in spite of all the barriers, because kids’ inner lives aren’t marginalized, but the inner is in the atmosphere (as Mary Warnock almost puts it).

– It’s why complementary therapies thrive, no matter how flaky they are, because they don’t just promise welfare but wellbeing.

– It’s why narratives, stories and myth-telling dominate entertainment – from novels and history books, to online games, to films – because they address the inner need for imaginative resources to tell us who and what we are.

– Conversely, you might say it’s why politics has become so managerial, because it has no vision of what it is to be human.

– And, I suspect it’s why the law based upon rights is becoming unhinged, and is undermining as much as promoting human flourishing, because it is gradually replacing human relationships with contractual relationships, mutual respect with solipsistic demands, sympathy with suing etc.

I doubt whether science alone is enough to put things right. Science generates no values of its own (the bomb is as likely a product as a cure for cancer). So it is subject to the values of the day: the individualistic, the utilitarian, the materialistic ones that serve late capitalism so well. Hence, although science might well help reinvigorate our sense of our inner lives (via research in empathy, sociality, self-knowledge), the instrumental nature of modern science means it does so in a rather clumsy way, and that it also struggles to instantiate any different set of values.

– So today, from progressives, we hear lots about how to be happy, but in ways that merely palliate our otherwise stressful days.

– Alternatively, ‘big ideas’ books play into fantasies of unlimited freedom – sociality via the virtual, say.

– Further, it tends to leave citizens depoliticized, because what they are really asking for/being encouraged to ask for is satisfaction as customers of state or private services.

The focus on the outer also generates a culture that finds it hard to hear the harsher truths of our inner lives, that it’s as much about pain as pleasure, limitation as freedom, commitment as choice, trauma as tranquility. But the paradox is that meaningfulness is only found when individuals can embrace both sides. There is no love without suffering, no beginning without ending, no life without death. (Hence, for example, an account of empathy that only stresses our connection, and not the differences between us that our empathic capacities also show, soon dissolves into mere sentimentality.)

What to do? I’m not that sure! But I increasingly think that this is a pre-political issue, one that only changes over the course of generations, not political or economic cycles, and to try to ignore or curtail that process only results in failure, unintended consequences or the dominant ethic gaining more of a strangle-hold. Length of time is just a consequence of trying to address the inner world, as opposed to the outer one.

However, key and rather disparate questions are beginning to emerge for me.

– How can we construct a rhythm for the day/week/year that is not determined by work or consumption, and so allows our inner lives to shape the outer, not just the outer the inner?

– What virtues do we need to pay attention to the inner again – patience, attention, a tolerance of doubt/uncertainty, courage (I’m reminded of Pascal’s, ‘man’s sole problem is his incapacity to stay quietly in one room.’).

– Clearly education is crucial, as the virtue ethics approach, with which this inner/outer analysis chimes, is all about character formation, habits, practical intelligence.

– I’d say we need less fix-it politics and more one that might be a little like faith, as I’ve written before.

As I say, any thoughts, observations, critiques, gratefully received.

(Image: Jovel)