In my previous column I discussed the modern tendency to identify rationality with observation, measurement, and technically-rational organization, all designed to achieve the goals of the actor.
That is the technological approach to reason that’s now pervasive, and it’s very different from classical and Christian approaches that involve recognition of the actor’s natural and supernatural good.
The modern approach doesn’t explicitly determine the goals to be achieved, claiming to leave them up to the actor. But all purposes of all persons are equally purposes, so the approach goes best with the assumption that every purpose has an equal claim to realization. The political and moral ideal most natural for modern people—and thus seen as progressive—is therefore a comprehensive egalitarian social system that gives everyone what he wants, subject to the efficiency, stability, and coherence of the system itself.
The last proviso is a big one. Basically, the effect is that we get what we want only if it fits smoothly into a sort of machine, a universal system that deals with all aspects of life in a way intended to be technically rational. Ties of family, religion, nation, and inherited culture, which are neither egalitarian nor technically rational, complicate things for the system and so are suppressed in various ways. More generally, all goals that affect other people are suppressed unless they benefit the system directly (like devotion to career) or can be converted into money (like consumption goods) and so dealt with in a friction-free way.
In other words, we all have to become politically-correct consumers and careerists without strong attachments to other people or other aspects of life. The system that supposedly gives us whatever we want turns out to push us into a life that is hardly worth living.
Even so, that way of going about things is identified not only with rationality but with peace, freedom, and equality, and people who object to it are considered irrational bigots with no legitimate place in public life. Some people may worry about specific features of the system, as churchmen who view comprehensive national education, welfare, healthcare, and guaranteed employment as a Christian necessity may worry about abortion, but if they buy into the principle of a comprehensive technically-rational system they inevitably end up supporting the practical consequences.
Such people have apparent justifications. The system looks out for people’s physical needs, at least people not considered surplus to requirements, so it can be seen as an expression of Christian charity. And its integration of all human life into a single managed system is identified with solidarity, which is commonly considered the prime directive of Catholic social teaching. Many therefore view it, whatever its flaws in detail, as the best and most Christian social system.
But whatever its particular benefits, a system that distorts human life so much is anticatholic and even antihuman. Influential Catholics, by reading secular progressivism into the Faith, have embraced something wholly alien to it.
But what do we do about a tendency that is so powerful, and infects not only secular life but the Church? Things are not as bad as they seem, because the technocratic system has fundamental flaws. Man is free, and goes his own way, so an attempt to manage everything everywhere can’t possibly succeed. That’s especially true when the attempt rejects human nature. Insistent denial of basic features of life, like the differences between the sexes and the enduring importance of inherited culture, demands layer upon layer of illusion that becomes increasingly hard to sustain.
Hence the hysteria of present-day public life. If someone doubts transgenderism or the advisability of a borderless world the very doubt is enough to prick the bubble of illusion. Those who identify technocracy with rationality and with hope for a better world experience the situation as the collapse of public life into utter irrationality. That’s why people who run into common-sense opposition to secular progressivism so often see it as a sign of resurgent Nazism.
Another problem is that putting preference satisfaction and technical rationality first destroys social loyalties, and without them the disinterested dedication needed to run a complex and demanding system disappears. The result is that public life in a system that adopts technocratic ideals becomes severely compromised by inefficiency and corruption.
It’s evident then that the system has basic flaws that will keep it from working as designed or achieving its goals. Against such an opponent clever strategies are not ultimately needed. A better grip on reality and stronger system of loyalties than current ways of thinking provide is all that is really necessary. If we are true to the Faith and the Church, we will eventually prevail.
And we can be confident that the Church will eventually return to herself. We have been promised that the Gates of Hell will not prevail, and Chesterton notes that the Church has repeatedly bounced back from seeming catastrophe. So we have grounds for ultimate confidence.
There’s a lot to do in the meantime, of course. For example, a better grip on reality requires intellectual and spiritual independence. Americans want to be respectable, so we want to believe what respectable people believe. That’s a weakness we need to overcome, because if we agree with accepted principles we will agree with accepted conclusions as well.
That’s a problem with most current discussion of religious freedom, for example. Freedom and equality are good in many ways but need to be part of a larger conception of the good life. When they become overriding goals in themselves they eventually suppress all institutions with substantive moral content, including family, the Church, and inherited culture. Only institutions that can be understood as neutral facilitators of efficiency and individual preferences—global markets, transnational bureaucracies, and certified neutral expertise—can be accepted as authoritative. So we’re back with technocracy.
Independence requires—among other things—holding electronic networks and media at arm’s length. Electronic networks submerge us in current craziness and superficiality. The mainstream media give us mainstream talking points. Niche media can be helpful but are often weakened by partisanship, factionalism, lack of resources, and lack of comprehensive coverage. We need to treat these things critically, break free of the idea that they define reality, and supplement them with our own efforts.
In particular, we need to read more books, especially old books. If we want well-developed perspectives that are independent of today’s illusions, why not go to past thinkers? They have flaws of their own, but they are flaws people today don’t find specially seductive. We also need to attend more to the world right around us. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” That only applies, of course, when you’re watching what is real. Twitter feeds don’t count.
A change in thought must, of course, go with a change in how we live. The personal is indeed the political, if only because we won’t get a better world unless we’re better people. Catholic morality is mostly natural law, so it supports the natural human institutions like family, friendship, community, and religion that provide the only possible resistance and alternative to technocracy.
Above all, we need to revive our sense of the Faith, and the normal human love for the good, beautiful, and true. We can’t beat something with nothing, and if we don’t want the New York Times to define reality we should pay attention to what does. And in any event, what are we struggling for if not the things that make us and our family and friends genuinely happy? Saint Paul had it right when he said,
Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things. (Phil. 4:8)
If we want independence and better days we need to follow that advice.
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