One of the most common things one hears from older people is how they are concerned about the decline of moral principles in society. Perhaps this is something one hears in every generation as society evolves and customary behavior changes. Today, however, this is not simply a casual concern of older people in their conversations, but of many other groups of people as well. Groups of more conservative-oriented people stake out strong moral principles as a defense against what they perceive as the onslaught of dangerous moral change. A moral decay that they perceive in the behavior of so many of the people they see around them. These supposedly fallen people include everyone from teenagers to politicians to Wall Street businesspeople to ordinary everyday people. There is the sense that something is different this time when people proclaim the decline of morals in society. This is because customary behavior appears to be so disconnected in so many areas of life from what traditional moral principles teach us.
I know that I have discussed moral behavior in modern technological society in several of my previous articles, but it is something which I feel the need to continue to explore. It has been much easier for me to diagnose the problems of modern life than to find easy solutions to these problems.
I was at a philosophy conference a few weeks ago at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The focus of the conference was teaching morals in modern education. In other words, there was a focus on how to teach moral virtues in modern schools in order to combat the perceived decline in moral behavior among students. The presenters and the audience at this conference were not particularly oriented towards morality in a religious way. As a matter of fact, they focused on the moral principles of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. After all, this conference was sponsored, at least in part, by the philosophy department of Northwestern. For many people at the conference, the perceived moral problems of young people today would diminish considerably, if only they could absorb the virtues taught by Aristotle. Socrates and Plato were brought into the mix as well.
All three of these philosophers are wonderful thinkers and among the foundational thinkers of our Western Civilization. But times have changed significantly since these three were alive. When Aristotle and Plato wrote, there was a great emphasis on principle-based morality (as there was with the prophets and moral teachers of Western religion). Moral philosophy was based on the need to develop strongly defined figure principles as a way of psychologically transcending above the organic perishability that surrounded people in traditional living environments. These principles were an attempt to prevent people from giving in to their lusts and degenerating into animals.
But in a living environment that is enveloped by a modern technology that is evolving at an accelerated pace, people are becoming increasingly detached from any natural living environments that would threaten organic perishability. Today the degeneration of the human nature in a person could be in a different direction, Today, the influences in the living environment lead to a person becoming robotized. As a result, a very different approach to morality is needed.
Rather than concentrating on strongly defined transcendent figure moral principles, the focus today should be on establishing a strong contextual grounding for dealing with the larger circumstances in which human actions are carried out in modern technological living environments. Context-based morality is the use of strong contextual understanding to keep people moral within the sensory distortion from the vacuum and the free-floating figures in the vacuum that are being experienced today. Technologically-based sensory distortion influences people to behave in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise behave.
If technological figures are constantly evolving, new reactions from people are constantly being elicited. Sometimes, these reactions constitute behavior suitable to being judged from a moral dimension. The context of the reaction becomes as important, if not more important, than the abstract principle by itself. There is a need to judge the reaction within the new specific situation.
Yes we still need principles. But in the old days, the application of principles could shape how we mentally configured our perception of the contexts of life situations. Now we first really have to see and experience life situations as much as possible free from the judgments of standard moral principles. And then we have to let the actual problems created by our life situations shape not only the applications of moral principles but even new basic moral principles. This latter concept is going to appear radical. Religions as well as the judges in our legal system have always tried to fit applications of standard fixed principles to new situations. But modern technology has ripple effects throughout human life and human society today, and it is generating so many situations for which there are simply no good precedents. Not only is it creating new situations, but with the rapid evolution of technology today, it is creating constantly new unprecedented situations. This is why rigid discrete figure principles are not adequate anymore for arriving at many moral decisions. Blind application of abstract figure principles in today’s world leads to a person degenerating into a robot. And the one constant today to all of our specific potential moral choices should be that they keep us bonded to our animal natures and receptive to organic blendable continual stimuli. Both of these are important for maintain a strong coherent sense of self in a human being and preventing him from becoming a robot.
Sex may be a perfect area of life to use in order to understand the importance of contextual understanding to making moral decisions. I have shifted a little bit in my comparative interpretation of sex outside of marriage in traditional societies vs. sex outside of marriage in modern technological societies. I used to focus on unmarried sex in preliterate societies as a way of reinforcing community bonding and creating a collective imprint from a particular generation. This was in distinction to unmarried sex in modern technological society, which is a way of getting a variety of organic blendable continual stimuli from different bodies as a way of compensating for the lack of variety of organic stimuli in modern living environments. In most so-called civilized societies, sex was primarily supposed to be reserved for marriage, where one could leave a strong personal imprint with one partner and where one could leave a strong personal imprint with the children one had. Sex outside of marriage was considered immoral, because it blurred one’s capacity to make and preserve personal imprints, and more important, because a person became less fully human in a transcendent sense, by giving in to animal lusts.
Sex in modern technological society serves a different purpose. People today aren’t so concerned with being able to preserve imprints in the face of organic perishability. Today people are concerned with being able to even have the opportunity to make organic imprints in the face of a field of experience that is lacking in organic surfaces. And people today experience sex not so much as a giving into animal lusts, but rather as a desperate attempt to fight numbness and to use the organic stimuli from sex to fight degenerating into becoming robots.
This context of sex today is totally different from when Western religious principles were first formulated. Young people feel a need for sex, at least partly because of sensory distortion, way before they are in a position to be economically independent adults. And having sex with different bodies gives them the variety of organic stimulation they no longer get in traditional living environments. Unfortunately, with more casual sex, young people diminish the opportunity to create deeper bonds, to preserve organic imprints with their partners. But the deeper enemy today is robotization, and the priority is actions to maintain a human balance within today’s living situation. What should be discussed at some point is if there is a way to put some formal boundaries to casual sex, so that young people can get the opportunity to create some deeper bonds within sexual diversity. Before the sexual revolution came into full force, adolescents used to go steady. Perhaps such steady relationships with mature sex can be institutionalized – sort of like early trial marriages. The one thing for sure is that the traditional purposes of sex are clashing with newly developed modern purposes for sex, and some way has to be developed to reconcile these different needs.
In today’s world, sensory distortion from modern technology has been undermining the very foundations of our patterns of life, our rhythms of life. It has created new human life situations and new configurations of human life situations which require radically new responses from people in order that they may survive psychologically. And with regard to morality, a moral solution to a human life situation cannot be developed today without first taking into account how modern technology has directly or indirectly affected the situation. Modern technology is so incredibly pervasive in its effects on all aspects of human life.
© 2013 Laurence Mesirow