[In light of the recent acceleration of racial, ethnic, and “religious” tensions, I felt it appropriate to repost this piece which first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason in August of 2004. -- FWP]
We've grown so proficient at so many marvelous things. Yet we're failing as a society, because of what we've forgotten, or neglected.
Each weekday morning for the past thirty years, I've awakened to the droning of an alarm clock-radio, have quaffed coffee made by a timer-triggered process so that it would be ready when I awoke, have risen and showered in precisely heated water, have shaved with a razor that's a marvel of precision technology, have pulled a cup of yogurt from my refrigerator for breakfast, and have driven off to work in a device Walter Chrysler once called "the most wonderful machines ever built by Man."
Seldom have any of these machines failed me. Oh, there've been a few cases. But when I contemplate the trivial costs of maintenance and repair they exact from me, and their astounding reliability over protracted periods without significant attention, I am humbled by the achievements they represent.
I have a particular fascination with cars. Cars used to be far simpler than they are today -- but they're far more reliable today than ever before, despite their exponentially greater complexity and capability. In the past ten years, four cars have passed through my hands, have accumulated more than 400,000 miles in all -- enough to circumnavigate the globe at the equator sixteen times -- and have produced a total of one mechanical failure among them: a dead battery.
Marvels of technological plenty and endurance are all around us. You say the blade you put in your razor this morning had a burr on it that scratched your face? How much did it cost? And what about the three hundred blades before that one? Did the coffeemaker spring a leak and leave a puddle on your counter? Spend another fifty bucks on a new coffeemaker and be happy. Are you exercised about your hard disk failure? Allow that a device that rotates at 7200 RPM and did so reliably for three years or more might just have an excuse to succumb to the stresses.
Our machines are truly marvelous. Perhaps more marvelous than any other of their aspects is how well they resist the abrasions of the environment around them. Our species...well, it's not quite so marvelous as it once was.
Our worst problem developed along the margins of our moral thinking. It's been conceded for quite a while that a man under sufficiently extreme survival pressures will naturally depart from the laws and moral strictures that govern ordinary times, no matter how devoted he is to those things under happier circumstances. But until about forty years ago, this was not considered a justification for outlawry or amorality, merely an explanation for some of it. Then developed the notion, which quickly gathered currency, that if we'd all react a certain way under sufficient stress, then those who did so ought not to be penalized for it.
For a while, it sounded good. But it was the entering wedge for the concept of moral relativism. The promoters of that concept started from the premise that an excruciatingly difficult context ought to excuse, rather than merely explain, departures from upright behavior. From there they developed the proposition that moral standards depended on context and other factors so greatly that uniform, acontextual rules were inherently unfair, and ought to be discarded.
Moral relativism is now the dominant moral concept of our time. "Whatever's right for you" is its watchword. It condones everything and condemns nothing, because the full context of a man's deeds, with all its pressures and constraints, can only be known to him. How, the relativists ask, can we possibly judge his actions when we can never know what it was like to be him, in his position, faced with his choices?
But a man is a machine of a peculiar kind. He's a learning machine, who gathers critical information about the suitability of his behavior from the consequences thereof. When the consequences are good -- that is, when they advance him toward his goals, or reduce his costs or sufferings -- they encourage him to do more of it. When the consequences are bad -- that is, when they cause him to move farther from his goals, or to incur pain or loss -- they discourage him from repeating it, possibly forever.
Behavior is suitable if it is both profitable and tolerated. Under an acontextual moral standard, many profitable behaviors are not tolerated; indeed, we try to make them unprofitable by punishing them, whether informally by techniques ranging from disapproval to ostracism, or formally, through the force of the law. Under the relativistic non-standard, punishment is itself discouraged, and those behaviors acquire a new appeal.
But even the most complete hegemony for moral relativism, in which no bad deed is ever punished by anyone in any way, can prevent the human learning machine from functioning as its Designer intended. It merely changes what we learn.
When we behave uprightly but see ourselves bypassed by others who've lied, cheated, stolen, and acted cruelly without penalty, our attachment to wholesome norms of conduct is weakened. Worse, our ability to transmit those norms to our children is weakened as well.
When we refrain from exploiting the weak, but others show no such scruples and are rewarded for it, we come to resent both the exploiters and their victims: the first for destroying our illusions, the second for providing the means.
When we answer the urgings of our hearts and give of ourselves for others' benefit, but then discover that we've been played for fools by cynical exploiters, we become hard, and far less receptive to the pleas of others in need.
By Von Neumann's Law of Requisite Variety, human society, like any other multiply connected network, will be dominated by those elements that have the most available states and behaviors. Under the regime of moral relativism, that advantage belongs to the unscrupulous. They will lord it over the rest of us specifically because they defy all law and suffer no consequences for it, neither internally imposed by conscience nor externally imposed by society.
Why this topic today? Because the C.S.O. and I have discovered, just these past two days, that we've been had. An exploiter reached us through our better natures, extracted quite a bit of good from us, and would have had still more. What wised us up and put a stop to it was coincidental, and quite fortunate for us. The damage was considerable, but it could have been far worse. Still, we can feel our hearts hardening -- not merely toward this person, but toward whoever might cross our path in the future, whether his need of succor was genuine or contrived.
The human machine never stops learning, until it stops completely.