Everyday, Run-of-the-Mill Doom

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Brandan O'Neill of Spiked considers the litany of modern panics against what he calls the "moral panics" of yesteryear and reaches the following conclusion:

A society that has no clear moral line on marriage or sex or hedonism is forced to fall back on a grisly, bovine form of moral pressure. Incapable of telling young people what is right and what is wrong, our society prefers to spread panic about[, for example,] physical decay and physical ailments. It appeals to us to modify our behaviour, not in the name of morality and decency, but in the name of protecting our own livers and genitalia from disease.
I think O'Neill is on to something, here, although he's looking at the wrong level of philosophy when he calls these "post-moral" panics. On the one hand, O'Neill is absolutely right that morality isn't being explicitly used to foment panic. Indeed, if we look at any such panic -- obesity, drinking, climate, or violence -- it is even easy to see examples of pragmatically pandering to completely different explicit moral codes, so the name is descriptive up to a point. (e.g., Eat better selfishly, for the sake of your health -- or eat better, selflessly, because that's what everyone else is doing; or to reduce your impact on others via redistributed health costs or a smaller "carbon footprint".) But the real question is this: Why doesn't a moral stand seem to pack a punch any more?

The short answer is that, in addition to the loosened grip of religion on the West, religionists and moral relativists alike all agree (wrongly) that there is no objective (i.e., real-world, evidence-and-logic-based, or rational) basis for morality. On the other hand, science is commonly regarded as objective, which it can be, although most laymen fail to appreciate how hard it can be to reach solid scientific conclusions, particularly about certain complex topics. (Conveniently for the panic-mongers, these topics are often the very ones they like to scare people about.) What these panic-mongers were missing in their crusades until they decided to co-opt the credibility of science isn't morality, so much as certainty.

Westerners used to be (or feel) more certain (rightly or wrongly) overall about their various moral convictions (right or wrong), but now, certainty is rare (although possible to obtain, and including about morality). When someone pushes the panic button, people will want to know why they should be afraid and why they should act. People generally don't fear going to hell for masturbating anymore, but if "science" tells them that something is killing them (or endangering something they care about), they are much more likely to listen.

The reason panics can still occur is in part because -- even if the "science" is over-simplified, distorted, wrong, not-even-wrong, or even undecided -- most people will take "science" at its word, and will not necessarily dispute its alleged conclusions or its alleged call for a specific course of action. (See the various global warming political remedies many people support.) Westerners today, in general, both crave certainty and have no idea how to achieve it. Along with the panic comes the comfort of being (or pretending to be) right about something.

O'Neill could have more aptly named his modern phenomenon post-certainty panics. Interestingly enough, they share the same fundamental epistemological cause as their religious predecessors: non-objectivity. Only when this problem is addressed at the level of advocacy is it possible to argue convincingly for a moral stand, and only when it is addressed culturally will the phenomenon of panic fads land in the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

-- CAV

--- In Other News ---

For some interesting and amusing reading, take a look at the venture funding application for Dropbox, my favorite cloud application by far. I like how founder Drew Houston summed up (and solved) his problem: "This idea requires executing well in several somewhat orthogonal directions, and missteps in any torpedo the entire product."

Fellow fans of the Loeb Classical Library and Robert Mayhew will be delighted to learn that his two-volume translation of Aristotle's Problems is now available. (HT: HBL)

In The Atlantic is a long article about someone whose GMail account got hacked, and at Lifehacker is an article it reminded me of about how to automatically create your own local backup of such an account. The Lifehacker article recommends fetchmail, but I use getmail for added security.

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