Sunday 7 July 2019

Charlton's First Law and the Submissive Flaccidity of Secular Modernity

I was always puzzled by the submissive flaccidity of modern Western societies: the way that - although they live to maximise gratification and minimise suffering - they will in practice do nothing to protect their future happiness nor to defend against future suffering.

But the reason is encapsulated by Charlton's First Law: Things must always get worse before they can get better; because otherwise they already would be better.

When a beneficial policy is a win-win option, then it gets done automatically, and we don't need to think about it - probably we don't even notice it. But most beneficial policies have a down-side. Typically, long-term benefit can be attained only at the cost of short-term disadvantage or suffering of some kind, to some people.

So that the hedonic secular goal of making life overall as pleasant as possible in the long-term is continually being subverted by the short-term and specific gratification.

The hedonic ideal has reached such an extremity among the ruling elites that they pursue policies which will in the long term lead to lifestyles that they regard as miserable and abhorrent, because effectively to prevent these outcomes makes them feel bad now.

In other words, secular hedonism cannot take tough decisions.

A tough decision is precisely a decision in which the correct decision leads to short term harm.

I first recognised this dilemma in medicine, when it is often the case that in order to make a person probably feel better overall in the long term, they must suffer immediate and certain short term misery: for example, surgery. Surgeons live with this on a daily basis, and consequently to be a good surgeon requires a 'tough' attitude.

The point is that someone who was psychologically unable to make tough decisions, but always sought to maximise the immediate comfort and well-being of patients and to take minimum risk, would be a bad surgeon.

Modern society is soft in precisely this fashion - its rulers have lost the ability take tough decisions: to seek long term benefits when these come at the price the cost of short term costs to themselves.

The ultimate reason is, I believe, that humans can only make tough decisions when these are supported by transcendental aims, in the sense that humans do not want to forgo short term gratification in this world unless life is believed to be about something more than gratification.

This entails that non-worldly realities (God, heaven, truth, beauty etc.) are seen as more real and more enduring than immediate gratification - and therefore more important.

If human life is (as secular modernity asserts) ultimately about gratification (about maximising happiness and minimising suffering) then it will always seem tempting to take the short-term choice leading to immediate and certain happiness and avoid immediate and certain suffering; and to ignore the long-term consequences of these choices on the basis that the future cannot be known with certainty, and we might be dead anyway before the future arrives.

A society that regards the 'purpose of life' as being to while-away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, is a society which cannot make tough decisions. It is a society which will always take the easy-way-out, will pursue short-termist and certain benefits, and which will therefore always submit to its enemies - because to resist enemies makes life less pleasant than to appease them.

Even to recognize the reality of threats and enemies is unpleasant, distressing, generative of negative emotions such as fear and anger – better if we can pretend that threats and enemies are harmless or benign, really; and the only truly nasty people are those who make us feel bad about ourselves, here and now…

So a society that values nothing higher than a pleasant life, and which will seek the pleasant life wherever and whenever possible is a society that will be morally flaccid in face of opposition, will appease rather than resist, will submit rather than fight, and will therefore end-up being ruled by its most relentless and long-termist enemies - and by having an extremely un-pleasant life.

Note: Edited from a post of nine years ago.

1 comment:

William Wildblood said...

Two examples of what you say spring immediately to mind. Brexit and the banking crisis of 2008. The former may (or may not) lead to economic problems but that is secondary. The point is it is the right thing to do from the 'man does not live by bread alone' perspective. With regard to the latter, the fundamental flaws are all still there. The cracks were just papered over to keep the show on the road for as long as possible.