A dangerous kind of thinking in modern life

Large decisions that people make in life often have no connection to any moral ideal or any principle that is personally valued.  We take this for granted nowadays, even though it’s quite a remarkable thing that may have dangerous consequences for human well-being, fulfillment, and ultimately the growth and productivity of society.  Charles Taylor points this out in his book, The Ethics of Authenticity, and suggests that this non-morality to our lives is a pervasive characteristic of our modern world.

People in modern society are expected to make all kinds of decisions based on purely mechanistic, rational calculations. In other words, the starting point contains no awareness of the importance of adherence to one’s own moral vision, principles, belief system, or originality. For example, I choose a city in which to live based on job opportunities and the local economic growth. This kind of thinking, known formally as instrumental reason, often forms the basis of all kinds of decisions like our career choices, educational choices, how we raise our kids, the ideas we share to our friends, how we fulfill the responsibilities of our jobs, how we expect our leaders to do their jobs, etc.

It seems to me that this kind of thinking, when it is so dominant, is a recipe for an extremely mediocre life, not to mention a miserable society.  I don’t take making such a strong value judgment lightly. Consider that if all of our decisions are totally non-moral, as it were, then very little that one is working towards has any real meaning.  Meaning in our lives, for the most part, comes from a kind of connection to our inner moral ideals or our belief system. Only the individual can decide for him or herself where meaning is derived. But if we’ve been quietly fooled into believing that a kind of personal or moral authenticity is nothing but an irresponsible illusion (that can be paid superficial lip-service, but not actually respected), then there is nothing to pursue other than the goals we’re told to have been objectively determined to be worthwhile.

Now this is most definitely not to say that this “instrumental reason” is not without its utility. Charles Taylor defines it as the “kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost­ output ratio, is its measure of success.”  This helps us achieve ends with great effectiveness and helps us to eliminate dogmas that get in the way of achieving results. The fundamental problem, it appears to me, is in using this kind of thinking without having a worthwhile end that is rooted in moral vision or principles. The problem is in assuming that this thinking simply replaces the need to have a sense of morality guiding your decisions.

Take, for example, a decision that most young people face: what do I do for higher education?  The average decision-making process in today’s culture sounds like “let me maximize my earnings and do what I’m ‘good at’ which will also help me maximize earnings and I’ll ‘enjoy it’” – and that’s it.  If that’s it, then this is instrumental reason that is unguided by any kind of moral instinct or principle or whatever you want to call it. The principled alternative to this would still of course involve a discussion of things like money (because people need to survive, even to pursue worthwhile ends), but it would nonetheless be fundamentally driven by an idea or set of ideas that come from the individual.  Instrumental reasoning is there to serve a purpose and it is in its appropriate place. And the whole process would feel very different to the individual.  The latter approach presumably feels right and the former approach feels empty.

So why do we miss this moral side of the equation? Well, for whatever reason, it is discounted in our culture.  All over the world, I think that people are quietly taught to assume that only rational calculations toward an end goal that we are told is considered worthwhile is what is wise and responsible.

There is a very strong case to be made for the average individual of any country to consider this kind of thinking. And that is not for the sake of philosophical rumination. It’s for the sake of psychological and emotional well-being and the maximization of the individual’s contribution to society. Let us not think that because these are abstract philosophical ideas that they have no significance to your or my life.  The implication here is that they might mean the difference between a life filled with profound meaning and beauty or one utterly devoid of it. How we think and the assumptions we make have enormous consequences and it is, no doubt, irresponsible to perpetuate such unexamined assumptions.