In a recent piece in Crisis I argued that secular and rationalizing ways of thought applied to the social environment soon bring us to inclusiveness. Giving people what they want equally, which is the goal of a liberal technocratic society, includes giving them equal social positions.
Inclusiveness is thus part of the modern effort to apply the technological outlook comprehensively, so that it applies to human relations as to everything else. The effort can’t succeed. We achieve rigor at the cost of narrowing focus, for example by excluding qualitative issues in favor of what can be measured, so we can’t make everything rigorous. In particular, social life can’t be understood as mechanism, human beings can’t be turned into components let alone equal components of an infinitely adjustable machine, and esteem can’t be manufactured and divided up equally.
The attempt to make social life technological and equal soon runs into intellectual problems on its own terms. The technocratic culture that demands inclusiveness also gives evidence, reason, neutral expertise, and science the highest possible authority. That’s a problem, because those things tell us that inclusiveness is at odds with basic features of human life. For example, they tell us that the sexes are not interchangeable, and not all configurations of sexual conduct lead to equally happy results for oneself and others. The solution to the problem is insistence that none of those things tell us what they tell us. If there seem to be conflicts, science has to revise its conclusions, because people care about their status and experiences more than they care about scientific rigor. If you raise objections, people say you are irrational and badly motivated, and they look for ways to silence you.
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The reason the technological outlook is pushed beyond its limits in obviously unworkable ways is that it is seen as uniquely valid, and that’s important when it comes to questions of basic social principle. A social order needs to be seen as entitled to respect, and it becomes entitled to respect by expressing the accepted understanding of what makes sense. Today it’s the technological understanding that people find convincing, so the social order has to express that understanding. Otherwise people won’t be able to look at it and say “that’s right so I’ll go with it.”
That requirement means inclusiveness. Technology doesn’t distinguish good and bad purposes so the social order shouldn’t distinguish them either. Technology doesn’t distinguish beneficiaries, so the social order should be egalitarian. Everybody should get what he wants equally and be treated equally. Technology wants to control the whole of visible reality, because modern science aims at that kind of universal understanding, so social engineering should apply to everything in sight and the government should take on responsibility for the total social environment.
To give up on that responsibility would, it is thought, be to give up on the application of reason to human life. It would say that the form of reason that defines rational action, which is now thought to be technology, applies to producing and distributing hamburgers but not to producing and distributing things we care about much more, like social position.
People would find that intolerable, because man is a social and rational animal who needs to believe that the social principles that define who he is, demand his allegiance, and tell him what he should respect and disdain are reasonable in the highest degree. Otherwise he won’t really accept them or accept the authority of the social order they define. He’ll think of it as an arbitrary alien force that he wants to get out from under. People don’t want to live that way, and social authorities don’t want them to take that view, so the authorities are always going to identify themselves and what they do with what is considered highest and most authoritative. Today that means inclusiveness.
It’s worth noting that what matters from the standpoint of social authority is technology as image and ritual rather than actual technology. Actual technology is a boring drudge that sometimes helps you and sometimes doesn’t. In order to become the highest social principle it has to become symbolic. It’s the function of institutions like the Supreme Court to make it so. What the justices now do is dress up in robes, engage in rituals, and produce oracles that tell us that the legal order is rational, politically correct, and worthy of our allegiance. Such rituals are necessary for political legitimacy even in an age that attempts to be comprehensively and consistently technological.
If what I’ve said is correct, and the problem is the insane merger of technology, reason, and the sacred, what do we do about it? The obvious way back to sanity is an understanding of reason that makes it possible to think about human relations and the social order in a more sensible way. In principle such an understanding would make a great deal of sense on several grounds.
The point of modern science and technology is exact prediction and control. That means that it emphasizes quantity and specific causal mechanism. That’s why people demand statistics and studies when you talk about anything whatever today. That way of thinking is extremely powerful where it applies, but its usefulness soon runs out. For example, the normal way to understand extremely complex evolved systems like human societies is not mathematics and mechanism but experience and their typical configuration, functioning, and goals. In other words, the key to understanding a society of a particular type is not accumulating masses of quantitative surveys but understanding how it is organized and how it normally works and to what ends.
So the obvious way out of the hole we’re in is to embed the kind of reason used in the hard sciences, which emphasizes number, matter, and blind quantitative forces, within a larger conception of reasonableness that allows us to deal with situations such measures don’t tell us much about. In other words, we need to add to the mix qualitative considerations, the configurations things naturally fall into, the goals they typically work to bring about, and classical natural law, which is basically a statement of how human life and goals should be arranged so that they work best together.
All of which is a very long story with lots of complications and difficulties. It’s a matter of dethroning what’s considered the highest standard for reason and reality and replacing that standard with something else, and that’s extremely difficult to do. At bottom it’s a religious problem—whether the world is essentially good and reasonable, so that its natural functioning is something we should trust and work with, or essentially blind and irrational, so we have to remake it for it to become something we can recognize as good.
For that reason it is extremely unlikely that our current political and social perplexities can be resolved apart from religion. The ideology of inclusiveness is one example among many of how those who reject religion in the name of reason end up with a bad substitute for religion that soon finds it necessary to reject reason in order to maintain itself. Our problem today is bad religion and bad reason, and our great need is for better versions of both.