Some of our most critical cultural disorders, whether they be moral, political, or economic in nature, can be linked to a change in the way we think of freedom that began unfolding several centuries ago.
Albert Borgmann, whose idea of focal practices we’ve discussed on a couple of occasions, also gave us the apt phrase “regardless power” to describe the kind of power granted by techno-scientific knowledge and deployed with little or no regard for consequences. Such regardless power takes no account of the integrity of an ecosystem, for example, or the intangible goods inherent in existing social structures. It does not stop to consider what it might be good to do; it knows no reason why one ought not to do what one can do. So, likewise, we might speak of regardless freedom, freedom exercised with little or no regard for those with whom we share the world.
Regardless power and regardless freedom are not unrelated. Their pedigree may be traced to the early modern period, and their relationship may be described as symbiotic or dialectical. The growing capacity for regardless power makes the idea of regardless freedom plausible. The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power. If I believe that I have the right to do whatever I please, I will take up the technology that allows me to do so (or at least appears to). If I habitually relate to the world through technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position, then I will be tempted to assume that I can and ought to do whatever I please.
Interestingly, the historian and critic Lewis Mumford and C. S. Lewis help us see the historical relationship between regardless power and regardless freedom by drawing our attention to the practice of magic.
“Between fantasy and exact knowledge, between drama and technology,” Mumford wrote in Technics and Civilization, “there is an intermediate station: that of magic. It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.” He added: “As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology.”
“Magic,” he concluded, “was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.”
For his part, Lewis worried that “the fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood.”
Reminding readers that the “high noon of magic” was not the middle ages but the early modern period, Lewis observes, “The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.”
That impulse was akin to what I am here calling the pursuit of regardless freedom through the deployment of regardless power. Lewis put it this way:
“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.”
And along those same lines we see a hint of the alternative conception of freedom, a variety of which held sway in most cultures of the pre-modern world. Its expression strikes modern ears as paradoxical or simply as a contradiction: freedom lay in conformity to some external standard or model. Given some account of the telos of human nature, freedom was merely a penultimate good necessary for the achievement of that telos. It was not an end in itself. Modernity, for a host of reasons, dispenses with any notion of such a telos or end. We do not tend to believe that there is some good toward which our natures are directed or that we are most free when we are striving to realize that good. Liberty of choice, from this perspective, was not itself the highest form of freedom. Certain “free choices” could, in fact, lead us into various forms of subjugation and self-destruction. One was only truly free when one chose rightly and in accord with a principle to which the will must submit.
Alasdair MacIntyre traced a similar development in the history of ethical theory. In his view, “Within [the traditional] teleological scheme there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter.” Having dispensed with any coherent or broadly shared conception of an “essential nature,” modern ethical theory loses its way. Or, at least, it becomes unconvincing and moral argument implausible. MacIntyre tells a long and complex story to explain why public moral arguments tend to devolve into irresolvable shouting matches. In short, without a common vision of what people are for, ethics tends to be little more than personal preferences emotionally expressed. Under these conditions, one can see how the temptations of regardless power and regardless freedom take shape.
We can see, for example, these temptations manifesting themselves in the unfolding debate about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
Around the globe, nations have deployed a variety of measures and strategies, with varying degree of success, to combat the pandemic. The unprecedented nature of the crisis has even seemed to occasionally place reputable authorities at odds. Moreover, it is an open question whether the methods deployed in some of the countries which have been most successful could realistically be applied in the US. In short, the implementation of an appropriate response cannot be simply a matter of adhering to scientific consensus. First, because that consensus is evolving, as, to its credit, it must. Second, because the response is necessarily also political and economic. In other words, there was always going to be some debate about how to proceed. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of believing that one can resolve essentially human problems by technical means.
The poles of our response, then, can be characterized as tending toward regardless freedom on the one end and regardless power on the other. Regardless power here connoting a willingness to submit all human considerations to techno-scientific expertise without consideration for the intractable and recalcitrant realities of human society. Or, to put it otherwise, the tendency to assume that there must be a technically correct method (or technique) by which to resolve the crisis, one which must be implemented at all costs without any regard for the full swath of human consequences.
Regardless freedom may be best exemplified by (what we must hope is) the rare belief that being required to wear a face covering in public spaces is a grievous assault on one’s liberty. It assumes that my liberty of action must never be constrained by any consideration beyond the realization of my own desires and my own self-interest narrowly conceived.
Responsible and effective action must resist both of these temptations. Happily, while much of the public discourse appears locked in an increasingly fruitless and acrimonious debate, it seems that a majority of Americans, as far as we can judge such things, have resisted the extreme manifestations of regardless power and regardless freedom.
In the end, the lesson that we may take is an old one: societies, however rich or technically sophisticated, cannot be counted healthy and resilient without adequate reserves of intangible human resources, such as trust, solidarity, and virtue, and the institutions and communities that sustain them.
Critically, we must also recover an older understanding of freedom, one, which in its Christian manifestation, reminds us that we are not truly free unless we have learned to obey perfectly and love selflessly.
Study Center Resources
Our Dante reading group enters its third week this coming Wednesday. In our next meeting, we will be covering cantos 5-7. If you would like to join the group before we get any further along, please email Mike Sacasas at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be emailing links to the Zoom meetings on Monday morning.
For those of you in the Gainesville area, Pascal’s is now open for online ordering and curbside pickup.
— Jonathan Chaplin in Comment on “Living With Integrity in a Splintered World”:
“Among the many discontents of our contemporary civilization is an increasingly pervasive, but disturbingly elusive, sense of dis-integration, dis-connection, or fragmentation. What more and more people see when they deliberately zoom in on the centrifugal forces shaping their lives is, at best, a pleasing but unstable kaleidoscope of juxtaposed images, or, at worst, a disordered scattering of the broken shards of our selfhood.”
— Richard Hughes Gibson at the Hedgehog Review on “Our Once and Future Citizens
How might the pandemic alter civic engagement?”:
“Perhaps the greatest puzzle raised by the pandemic is how we use the Internet in the service of citizenship. I am old enough to have seen the Internet promoted as the next big thing in democracy—a new public square in which citizens could voice their ideas and assemble—and, only a decade later, to have heard “digital democracy” declared a “myth.” As a means of forming citizens, the Internet looks to many observers like a lost cause, given how overheated online political rhetoric has become. But the problem of the present hour isn’t so much whether the Internet is a healthy or useful expressive medium, a place where your cantankerous uncle can rant about the [insert political party name]. It is, rather, whether the infrastructure of the Web can facilitate the basic business of citizenship—filing an unemployment claim, conducting public education, voting.”
— Edmund G. C. King on what may be a familiar practice, “doomscrolling,” and its history:
“Doomscrolling, defined by Los Angeles Times journalist Mark Z. Barabak as ‘slang for an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news,’ and its close cousin, ‘doomsurfing,’ have already entered our international lexicon. Their prevalence is one indication of how our reading habits are changing as we try to manage our anxiety and come to terms with our new world.”