Covering Ourselves with Euphemisms

Talking about the good life rather than getting on with a publicly engaged project is a perennial challenge to the usefulness of philosophy.

Yet there are also historical factors that have made it difficult for philosophers to be of much use to society. We noted earlier the role played by the rise of modern liberal individualism. When the good is displaced from the center of society – as it was when classical liberalism privatized the question of the good – philosophy is displaced as well. Of course, there were good reasons for classical liberalism to make this move: conflict over the nature of the good is endemic once society is unleashed from authoritarian control. Debates over the ends of life can then lead to unpleasantries like the 30 Years War. But on the other hand, the question of the good could be set aside only under specific conditions. These include ecological abundance: there must be sufficient space and resources for people to go their own way (a New World helps). On a crowded planet we have little choice but to once again ‘publicize’ the question of the good. Or embrace authoritarianism. Or maybe colonize Mars.

The political implications of ecological scarcity are still new enough that this point has yet to firmly take hold. Indeed, the point is still up for debate: Cornucopians such as Julian Simon argue that technological innovation is the ultimate get out of jail free card. How much longer technology can overcome natural limits is anyone’s guess; but we side with those who believe that some limits will stick. Whether it will be water or species losses or atmospheric sinks, something will come to be a limiting factor, placing restraints even in the face of the abundance of other elements. And so public choices will have to be made. That is, philosophy (or authoritarianism) will become unavoidable.

This point remains difficult for many, for what might be called psychological reasons. Simon’s technological optimism is often a stalking horse for a form of social pathology. As anyone who has argued with their cell phone provider (or internet provider, bank, credit card company, airline, etc., etc.) can attest, we are all in the thrall of overwhelming forces that we cannot control. We feel impotent in the face of faceless power. Which explains much of the (largely displaced) anger at government for its supposed control over our lives. The latter can be real enough, of course, but government control pales before the uncommunicative global leviathans that make up the business world. All of which contributes to a reaction – a reflex, really, a cri de couer – that no one should be telling us how to run our life. We so want to believe that ours is an age of unprecedented freedom, even as we sit for hours in a traffic jam. And so moral claims are forced to live a cryptic existence. As David Brooks put it, “What the Victorians were to sex, we are to morality: everything is covered in euphemism.”