To understand what kind of society we have – or ought to have – you must consider the purpose of various institutions and what kinds of honors ought to be bestowed. Such thinking can be called first-order – if this is understood as first in importance rather than in time. Philosophy is fundamental, but it is often interstitial. Questions of meaning and purpose lie below the surface, liable to pop up at any moment.

Foregrounding philosophy, though, invites problems. Reasonable disagreements about the meaning of human flourishing can degenerate into warring dogmatisms. People give in to the itch for certainty. Insights turn into dogmas. Your life could be imperiled if you do not adhere to a certain comprehensive doctrine, whether secular or theological. Classical liberalism, for instance, was born out of theorists like Hobbes and Locke realizing that there are very good reasons for marginalizing questions of value. Turn political questions into technical issues and otherwise let people do as they please.

Privatizing matters of the good – questions of goals and purposes – became a way to open the relief valve on the pressure cooker of society. You can have your own personal “philosophy of life,” just don’t foist it on me and we’ll get along fine. Increasingly, however, this approach shows itself as dysfunctional, as private preferences create public realities for everyone. It turns out that Locke’s (and later, Mill’s) model contains tacit social and ecological preconditions: there must be sufficient space and resources for everyone to do their own thing. And so we are approaching the end of modernity’s neat excision of questions of meaning and purpose. Or as Latour noted, we have to acknowledge that we have never managed to be modern.

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