I have recently been involved in a number of Twitter conversations that have circled around topics relating to convenience, consumerism, and what is Good to pursue in society. I have been, broadly, disappointed in the discussions that have resulted, especially with regards to the statements made by those who claim to be "humanists." Putting aside academic definitions, I want to distinguish between two kinds of "humanism" I see, and briefly lay out why one is wrong while the other provides a basic map for us to build better societies.
Side 1: The Humanism of the Last Man
The Last Man is the man who has forgotten his humanity. That so many of these people call themselves "humanists" is a profound irony.
The Last Man worships the convenience and comfort of the modern world. He disdains hard physical labor. He perceives farming and blue collar work as "backwards," something to be overcome, not celebrated. The Last Man aims to conquer Nature, without realizing his ideology has already conquered him.
The fundamental problem with the Last Man is that he is completely isolated from the real world. This is where technocratic delusions are born. Your average technocrat theorist understands the world through aggregates and spreadsheets. They have no communion with Nature, no connection with their fellow Man, no respect for history. They are isolated, in a vacuum. And here, their delusions of terraforming the World, of designing societies, of moving people around like units in a video game, are born.
Even if "man being the measure of all things" means that "what is good for Man is Good," the Last Man has no connection with the Good. His sterile hedonism is both a cause and an effect of this alienation from our humanity.
Which leads to a question: where did this alienation emerge from in the first place? Certainly there is truth that technology made it easier to be secluded from others, but I am no tech determinist. There are many conceivable ways the world could have turned out. So what, when coupled with the tech that enabled it, led to our current predicament?
Our obsession with autonomy.
I believe that dehumanization, the process of considering those who are biologically human to be less than persons, must be avoided at all costs. In other words, our definition of personhood must be broad enough that all humans are considered persons.
And here, I fear that our obsession with autonomy has put us in a bind. First, to embrace the full personhood of a disabled individual is to acknowledge and endorse something beyond pure autonomy as being meaningful (and perhaps more meaningful than autonomy). The disabled individual wishes to do X but cannot, not because of an "external" obstacle, but because they lack the physical or mental capability to perform X. If we say that human is still a full person, we are claiming that the individual's capacity to perform autonomous action is either totally irrelevant or at least less relevant than some other factor to determine personhood. Second, from the above, we now have a situation in which rival values may displace autonomy as the highest virtue in society. Do you want to know why people hold so tightly to the value of autonomy? It is because they fear that the things they enjoy doing would be revealed to be unjustified if they were forced to come to terms with the fact Autonomy mediated by Harm/Coercion justifies nothing and that there is no substantive justification for pursuing their desires. In fact, their desires are Wrong. This, of course, is unacceptable to the modern individual who demands the ability to define and redefine themselves at will.
The obsession with convenience can be understood as the privileging of our desire to avoid doing anything we don't want to do. While this doesn't sound at all objectionable on the surface, an analysis of our relationships with others (both man and Nature) show that most of these relationships are built on responsibilities that aren't particularly enjoyable. Few of us, if given the option, would choose to go to church or to the grocery store instead of staying home and playing video games.
Our embrace of wants above all else was an embrace of hedonism. This was tenable when we had strong social connections that wouldn't instantly wither; however, we live in a profoundly alienated world, and our social connections are ever more tenuous (if they exist at all). Our obsession with avoiding the unpleasant or tedious has eroded the social fabric of our society...and without these support networks in place, alienation takes its toll:
our notion of Autonomy leads to deep psychological distress because it [claims]..."living a full or dignified life occurs when one exercises their self-responsible reason and acts in an autonomous fashion." Of course, one is never actually autonomous. From the moment we are born to the time we die, we are embedded in a variety of networks and contexts, most of which we did not consent to. Our answer to "what it means to live a full/dignified life" is entirely incompatible with reality. Is it any surprise so many of us are depressed?
Side 2: Eudaimonia, or a return to Human Flourishing
What are the foundations of human flourishing? Of living a full life? What do our elderly regret? What truly makes us happy?
On the social side, we need meaningful connections. We need to feel a sense of belonging and reciprocity, and through this feel connected to a common purpose with others.
It is through our regular interactions that we may build connections. It is through our connections that we may find belonging. It is through our belonging that we may recognize a higher purpose we share with others.
And so, if we want to build strong communities, we need to begin from the material circumstances: we have to build towns and cities where individuals have regular interactions with one another. We need jobs that give people sufficient free time to connect with friends and family. We would prefer to have communities that have historical continuity, where a substantial percentage of people live in the same town they grew up in.
And, perhaps most significantly, we need people to be tied up with one another materially. Self-sufficiency on a town-level might be ideal, but communities are built via interdependence. Local economic specialization allows for trade and interactions. We respect what each person brings to the table and contributes to the broader community. These tie-ups make us accountable to one another: if you aren’t relying on your neighbors, you’re not part of a community.
Connection, friendship or otherwise, is fostered not only through deep interactions but rhythmic interactions (keep the sex jokes out of my comment section). We cant just have one 8-hour long chat with a friend once a year and expect to remain close. There must be both a regularity and a spontaneity to our interactions. Bumping into your friend at the store is just as important as making plans to go play basketball next weekend.
On the individual side, we need a society that allows each and every one of us to develop both our talents and our moral characters. We must allow individuals to explore their passions and develop them as they see fit. To do this, individuals both need time and space. We need the time to develop ourselves, and the space away from judging eyes to do so. Privacy is paramount.
Developing our moral characters is tricky, but it begins from our families and local communities.
The philosopher Hugh LaFollette has published a chapter of one of his books online, free for all to read. The chapter, titled Morality and Personal Relationships, is a defense of particularity in the development of the moral character of individuals:
Here I want to bring these disparate suggestions together to defend an Aristotelian-type two-pronged thesis: that a) close personal relationships are likely to be formed and persist only among morally good people, and that b) close personal relationships are prerequisites for the development of morally good people.
It is that second point that is so important. We come to universality through particularity. It is the particular relationships we are in that prime and cultivate our ability to extend our empathy to distant others. It is through these particular relationships that we are interested in that we come to understand that Others have internal depths of their own. And it is only with that understanding that we can properly extend that to rest of the World.
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