Testing the pH of the Fish Tank
A sketch of our modern moral consciousness
This is the second post in my Oversocialization series. Please see the introduction here.
Before I take a look at the elites that currently control the institutions that play a dominant role in the socialization process, I want to ask a broader question:
What are the defining values/norms/worldviews of the “modern world”?
If we truly wish to understand socialization, we have to drill all the way down. The moral consciousness of modernity is the deepest core socialization aspect. It is the moral background against which every other value and norm is plotted. To take Taylor’s moral space analogy further: it is the basic set of landmarks that every person shares on our moral maps. Leaving them behind and venturing far beyond them can cause existential crisis, alienation from peers, etc. And this is true even if leaving them is the right thing to do. This is how socialization works.
Looking at our moral maps, what are the landmarks we all have? What are the ‘goods’ we pursue, and the ‘evils’ we try to avoid, on a societal basis? And how do these shape our conception of ourselves and our relationship with ‘society’?
The Goods That Guide Us
As the resident Charles Taylor stan, I believe he has given one of the best (if not the best) accounts of the moral consciousness that underlies modernity. Of how we understand ourselves and others as agents, where our moral sources reside, etc. Obviously such a topic is incredibly dense, but I wish to give a BRIEF account of the three core “life goods” that Taylor identifies with modernity.
It should be noted that, in an obvious manner (or a “somewhat Manichean-Augustinian way” if we are feeling rather pretentious today), ‘evils’ exist when we work contrary to the ‘goods’, or actively limit them/prevent them from being instantiated.
The Importance of Autonomy
The importance of rights cannot be overstated here, for formulating moral norms in the language of rights does not simply change the form of how society expresses (and imposes) its morality, but also shifts the place of the subject. One obeys law, but one takes an active part in enforcing one’s own rights. Hence Kant’s notion of the moral law one is bound to uphold by duty (brutal oversimplication, I know). When we discuss universal rights, we are connecting our respect for human life with the notion of autonomy. There is a change in form and in content with what it means to respect someone and autonomy is central to that.
Respecting personality appears to be a key component of autonomy. This was seen most prominently with the Post-Romantic notion of individual difference. A notion that was adopted by J.S. Mill and used as a key component of his work, leading to his emotionally potent but fundamentally broken concept of the Harm Principle (“it isn’t hurting anyone so who cares?”)
Autonomy’s central place in Liberalism (especially as “Freedom/Liberty qua Autonomy”) should not be news to anyone.
The Importance of Reducing Suffering
The importance we put on reducing suffering to a minimum is, according to Taylor, unique among higher civilizations through history. It remains an integral part of what respect means to us today. Yes, there have been those who repudiate our universal duty of benevolence (most famously, the one and only Nietzsche), but the main currents of modernity (ex: bleeding heart liberals, utilitarians, etc.) continue to emphasize the reduction of suffering as being a primary value.
As I have said on Dostoevsky:
Dostoevsky knew that a rejection of the world as evil, no matter how noble the intentions of that rejection (i.e. condemning the rampant and unjust suffering in the world), would simply lead to a vicious circle of more evil and suffering. Rejecting the world would poison one’s own soul, however noble it may have been. And so, we must embrace and accept the world, in spite of all of its imperfections and evil. We must understand and acknowledge our place within the world, so that we may begin a virtuous cycle of love and care in order to overcome the vicious cycles of suffering.
(Interesting tidbit: Taylor claims Dostoevsky provides the best account of the spiritual drivers of terrorism. If anyone else has heard similarly about Dostoevsky, chime in in the comments)
Notably, as the cosmic orders that used to justify suffering have faded in importance, the demand to reduce suffering has grown. Much of this grew from the Reformation and Enlightenment rebellions against the odious requirements that “higher” morality placed on our lives. Which is deeply connected to…
The Affirmation of Ordinary Life
By ‘ordinary life’, I (following Taylor) mean the life of work/production and the family. Much of the emphasis on this arose over time as rejections of the obligations so-called ‘higher’ morality placed on us. A “rebellion against the ‘higher’” began during the Reformation, with a clearly Christian-inspired notion that ordinary life was the very center of the good life. But this rebellion was as much a revolt against the elites who had made the ‘higher’ forms their domain, as it was a rebellion against the higher forms themselves.
The central issue in the Reformation was how the ‘ordinary life’ was led: was it God-fearing and worshipful? This against the earlier dominant Aristotelian notion of ‘ordinary life’ as simply a means to support the ‘good life’ (being an active citizen and contemplating existence) and medieval notions of devotion to God as superseding more banal concerns. Of course, as Modernity developed, we saw changes.
This remains one of Modernity’s clearest impulses: the continued rebellion against the higher. Never before has sensuous pleasure been affirmed and elevated to such an extent as it is now (emboldened by Romantic notions of a harmony between sentiment and reason, of a spontaneous morality generated from a love of nature). And revolts against ‘higher’ moral orders, against the odious claims placed on us, have shifted from a defense of ordinary life to a defense of autonomy. The family and production displaced by sensuous pleasure. But this is merely an extension of the rebellion ‘impulse’, now with autonomy and the individual as the Center.
The Originary Event of Evil: The Holocaust as Modernity’s ‘Fall’
As I noted before, some of the easier-to-understand ‘evils’ are simply the absence of ‘goods’. Hence, restricting autonomy and increasing suffering are seen as grave moral ills.
However, this is not the only source of our modern understanding of ‘evil’. World War II in general, and the Holocaust in particular, truly is an originary event for our moral consciousness today. If ‘goods’ are things that guide us through moral space, ‘evils’ are things which we cannot bear to be associated with. ‘Goods’ attract, ‘Evils’ repel.
Perhaps describing the Holocaust as modernity’s “Fall” is heretical, but I use the analogy largely because the Holocaust is effectively scripture at this point. An account of the greatest evil that we moderns can conceptualize (“the industrialization of genocide”, etc.). And rejecting this scripture’s lessons in any way is tantamount to medieval heresy in today’s world.
And the account is, at this point, largely aesthetic. We might consider the Holocaust and its causes as being a kind of ‘hyperevil’ in the consciousness of modernity. Being labelled a nazi or fascist is social suicide. Our modern moral representation of the event has taken on its own existence, divergent from the historic event, and it is this modern representation of the Holocaust that has become a clear evil.
Now, I am not saying the Holocaust wasn’t evil. It was. But I see a serious flaw in the reasoning of much of modernity, emphasized by Blue Empire so long as it supports their cause:
The confusion of “some good ‘X’ can lead to bad consequences if taken too far/out of balance with other goods” and “If an affirmation of ‘X’ in any way leads to bad consequences, ‘X’ must be rejected in its entirety”.
We see this in modern rejections of nationalism with appeals to “well did you see what happened in the 30s and 40s????????”, with almost any appeal whatsoever to ethnic or cultural heritage being tied to nazism, etc.
It is critical to recover our memory that the collection of goods we pursue in our life is similar to the collection of nutrients we require to sustain our bodies. In the same way that both too little AND too much water will kill you, many of the goods we pursue must be kept in balance with others. We must be able to distinguish between negative outcomes due to pursuing a genuine evil, vs. pursuing a good too strongly (or not strongly enough). Everything must remain in balance.
Liberal ontology is, at its core, a way of treating the individual as being somehow “prior to” or “outside of” society and hierarchy. I would argue that such a stance is an outgrowth of the Cartesian-Lockean notion of ourselves as disengaged subjects able to objectify not only the world around us but our own selves as well. Certainly much of modernity’s reactions against the naturalistic Enlightenment (notably Romanticism and, later, Modernism) reject our ability to meaningfully practice disengagement.
But Liberal ontology appears to have gained strength largely due to its connection with our central good of autonomy. And with the governing ideology of our time. Liberalism is dominant. Nearly everyone is a Liberal, even supposed radicals. There is an adherence to neutralism (an extension of a Modern idea that nature is a morally neutral domain we project morally on to, as opposed to the pre-Modern idea of nature as a rich domain of moral sources itself), to proceduralism (another Modern thought, extending from our procedural theories of reason which supplanted earlier substantive theories), to autonomy (see earlier), etc. And almost every other moral good of Liberalism (“dignity”, “equality”, “privacy”, etc.) can be reduced to autonomy (at least as Liberalism interprets them).
Tension, Framing, and Socialization
The framing of certain events (or representations of events, detached from their reality) as moral sources is partially due to socialization; and, largely, due to who is in control of the main institutions that engage in socialization.
The oversocialized exist in a world where the above goods and evils are of paramount importance. Nothing can challenge them. They ARE Good and Evil. Perhaps one doesn’t even need an independent “constitutive good” (ex: a cosmic order with given principles) to make sense of them or give them meaning or weight. They simply ARE. They have been internalized to such an extent that there is no rational (or even aesthetic) thought behind them. They are as real and undeniable as gravity. To question them would be to cause an existential crisis within the oversocialized person. Which is one of the reasons people tend to double down on these, absent a traumatic event.
Tensions always exist between goods, and the oversocialized will tend to defer to the dominant institutions’ judgments at the time. This is why so many oversocialized people appear to act in an almost schizophrenic manner. The institutions may rule one way and then the other way with regards to how to resolve a tension (bear in mind the institutions are not singular minds, but organized networks of individuals with their own incentive structures and internal power struggles). If you get whiplash from trying to determine what a “normie” believes, it is likely because they are oversocialized.
Framing is critical to the development of moral consciousness. Not only in terms of socialization, but also in terms of moral development. The most consequential moral developments in our world are first felt, then rationally articulated. Either our life goods shift and we must find a new (or transformed) constitutive good to support them and give them meaning and weight, or the constitutive good we use to support our life goods is no longer seen as satisfactory and we either need a new constitutive good or must change our life goods.
In this manner, the ability to direct the socialization process grants one a huge amount of influence over the generation of moral sources that are adopted by others. It allows one to help dictate what a “normal” moral map looks like (or “should” look like). Humans think and move in herds (as anyone who has watched a market bubble and crash knows). Do not underestimate the power of controlling these institutions (and the necessity of building alternatives given their control by the enemy).
These pieces keep appearing to be longer than I intend. I at least hope this was interesting.
On Friday, I intend to describe the dynamics of Blue Empire, the dominant agents of socialization today. Next week I will go on to discuss particular examples of oversocialization and its effects today. The untangling will continue!
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I hope you enjoyed. Be well, my friends.
Regarding your description of the Holocaust as the originary event of modern morality, it's been described as a "foundation myth" for the 20th-21st century Western world: https://i.redd.it/pz077k7ywix31.png