Impute a moral basis to society and you’re immediately on dangerous ground. If it’s hard to define morality in individuals how much harder is it to define morality in society. To keep the subject at a practical level I’m taking the UN declaration on human rights (see below) is a starting-point. But, as the issue of climate change exemplifies, it is only a starting-point. We have a responsibility to our own generations – but also to future generations.
American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in ‘Hope in the Dark’ (new edition 2016) asks ‘how human beings a half century or a century from now will view us … when climate change was recognised, and there was so much that could be done about it .. They may … see us as people who squandered their patrimony … regard us as people who rearranged the china when the house was on fire.’
She may be right, but new generations have always had the ability to adapt to their circumstances. Their world is the ‘new’ normal. Radicals will challenge it, as ever. And conservatives defend, as if the world had always been this way.
We must always beware complacency. Politics (not society as while) has over the last forty years lost its moral narrative. So many would argue. Some on the political right would counter that society shouldn’t have a moral narrative: the market, the free market, is the best determinant of human fortunes, and the state should interfere in only the most minimalist of ways. This also includes any attempt at world governance, so the United Nations and its various agencies, the WHO and the like, will always be suspect.
The Preamble to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reminder of how moral purpose was defined in 1948 – and a marker against which we can judge our present society.
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, … Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations
(NB The Preamble refers to ‘peoples’, not ‘nations’.)
Steven Pinker (psychologist, and author of ‘Enlightenment Now’, published in 2018) might not dissent, but he has an optimism which many of us wouldn’t share. He sees the progress in reducing inequality around the world (primarily in China and developing countries) as proof that moral purpose is still embedded in our society. Looked at in numerical terms there’s also been a massive reduction in violence (see ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, published in 2011). This, he’d argue, is the working out of reason, the highest Enlightenment ideal.
There are powerful counter-arguments against both positions. Inequality, and indeed poverty, and violence are still deep-woven into our society. Natural or man-induced calamities could have catastrophic consequences.
Reason, for Pinker, underpins progress and progress is essential, and sustainable. Take the environment as an example. He sees the damage done by carbon emissions, but the answer, he argues, is not to rail against consumption. Consumption is tied to many human goods, not least keeping cool in summer, and warm in winter. To quote from Andrew Anthony’s 2018 interview with Pinker in The Guardian, ‘how do we get the most human benefit with the least human damage’.
Pinker is right. We need, all of us, to take great care in lambasting consumption. Most people might well agree in principle, but demur when it affects them. We cannot avoid in society as currently constituted the kind of focus on science and technology, working in a capitalist context, that Pinker would advocate.
But how does Pinker imagine we got to where we are now? He rests too comfortably in the present. His argument for reason of necessity plays down the role the passions have played in driving social progress over the more than 250 years since the ‘Encyclopedie’ was published in 1750s France.
The old working class has to a great degree been ‘brought into the community – as voters, as citizens, as participants’. (See ‘Ill Fares The Land’, by the historian, Tony Judt, 2010) We didn’t get there simply by the exercise of reason. We avoided revolution, in Western Europe, but not by much. Post-war society addressed the five wants (squalor, want, ignorance, disease, and idleness) highlighted in 1942 by William Beveridge head on. But we’re now faced with what Judt described as ‘the social consequences of technological change’, as the nature of work changes radically. Judt was prescient. The historian, Peter Hennessy, has recently put forward five wants for a post-Covid times: solving social care, social housing, technical education, climate change, artificial intelligence.
Finding answers will require passion and moral purpose, and the application of enlightened and far-sighted ideas. Consumption will not get us there. (Though high levels of consumption are imperative if we’re to keep the economy firing at the level it will need to do if goals are to be met. High ideals, in the old phrase, butter no parsnips.)
Yes, capitalism will drive the foreseeable future as it has the recent past. (How it might be reconstituted is a whole other subject.) But it will challenged by, and ultimately will have no choice but to come to terms with, crises of inequality, population, resource exploitation and climate which could spell the world’s demise.
Pinker is not wrong: we have made progress in the context of human values and living conditions. But we are also radically dis-connecting from the natural world, changing permanently our ways of communicating, and our environment. We are heading into territory we don’t understand. We may or may not have the wherewithal to deal with this new dispensation when we get there. Dis-connect is high risk. Having the wherewithal doesn’t mean it will in any sense be a good place.
Science in this sense cannot be morally neutral. And does sometimes get on a roll, and head in directions which are high risk. The theory of evolution took on a life of its own. The splitting of the atom opened a Pandora’s box we have no way of closing. Neuroscience and AI are working in tandem toward higher forms of intelligence which may yet radically change who we are as human beings. *
Rebecca Solnit imagined an observer in fifty tears time who is very much a replica of a typical individual in our own time. But we may be moving into very different spaces by that time.
Back to the UN Charter and its focus on ‘the dignity and worth of human person’. We vest in them specific meanings which we cannot take for granted.
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* The Economist, referring to academics who worry about existential risk, which could be super-eruptions, climate collapse, geomagnetic storms and the like, comments that they ‘frequently apply a time-agnostic version of utilitarianism which sees “humanity’s long-term potential” as something far grander than the lives of billions on Earth today: trillions and trillions of happy lives of equal worth lived over countless millennia to come’. The Economist is referring specifically to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. We should indeed be engaged deeply in such matters. But while doing so let’s never forget – the worth and the moral worth of each individual in the here and now has to be our starting-point.