The data are clear: Americans are cynical about the country’s direction by huge margins.
Politically, cynicism has structural causes. Socially, increased inequality, segregation, and isolation fragment our communities and assail our trust in others and in our public institutions. Economically, an illusion of prosperity masks crippling inequality. Longitudinal surveys indicate a growing number of young Americans primarily motivated to their careers by wealth over a desire to better the social condition.
Who wouldn’t respond with self-preservation when confronted with the apparent bleakness of future decades? Who wouldn’t respond with me-first when urbanization and labor market changes cast force young people’s social networks away from local community and kinship ties? Who wouldn’t delay marriage, delay childrearing, delay building assets and become a permanent renter when all economic incentives argue against making long-term commitments in favor of maintaining short-term stability (and paying off debt)?
I would argue that the ethical choices of millennials are a product of material circumstances and rational responses more than a moral deficiency. In other words, socioeconomic conditions drive changes in attitudes rather than the reverse. A corollary to this argument is that new generational attitudes are a response to social structures. If increasing numbers of young people are “dropping out” of society (or being forced out through the criminal justice system), a moral crisis is soon to follow.
C.S. Lewis arguably predicted these painful ailments of 21st-century society in his collection of lectures entitled The Abolition of Man. Lewis took a stand against modernism in this work. He predicted a postwar technocratic order, finding evidence of its emergence in contemporaneous textbooks introducing ethics derived from Fact rather than Value:
“The old [value system] dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds…in a word, the old was a kind of propagation…the new is merely propaganda.” -p. 33
Lewis did not argue that modernism harmed society on its merits. Rather, he believed modernism attempted to disassemble the timeworn values with which the mass of people were familiar: respect for others, respect for society, duties to elders, duties to children, fairness, good faith, generosity and mercy.
He warned of the “Conditioners,” capable of controlling the disassembly of these traditional values:
“At the moment of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ – to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners.” –p. 80
“If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, then raw material he will be.” –p. 84
Lewis’ warning paints a broad brush, and warrants connection to empirical observation than pages from a literature textbook with which he takes issue. Who are the “Conditioners” today? The 2015 movie Ex Machina demonstrates the absolute power and absolute depravity of which a Conditioner is capable, particularly in the context of artificial intelligence. Inventors and researchers make brilliant contributions to scientific knowledge, no doubt. Yet wielding unchecked power to alter norms of human behavior can tilt just as easily toward destructive self-gratification as toward beneficence.
The Curative Power of Traditional Values
A society governed by and emulating Conditioners has lost traditional values as a justification for protecting life and liberty. People speak past each other in the name of self-preservation and the barren minimalism of tolerance. In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis asserted the West needed a “dogmatic belief in objective value.” The same could be said today.
Yet promoting traditional values is anathema to those who value tolerance. Traditional values appear mutually exclusive with feminism, LGBT equality, and understanding the concept of privilege. Aren’t traditional values a name for social backwardness, a vehicle for reactionary oppression of the vulnerable? A false dichotomy between objective morality and social justice results from such narrow thinking. The better path is a synthesis: how can objective morality in all its richness itself achieve social justice?
Think about the Scopes Monkey Trial. Remember William Jennings Bryan? In liberal orthodoxy, Bryan would be a science-denier who argued against the teaching of evolution in schools. Puzzlingly, Bryan is one of the great progressive heroes of American history. How could he have been reactionary and progressive at the same time?
Bryan and his ilk were not science-deniers like climate-deniers are today. They were philosophy-deniers, opponents of the Social Darwinism that justified colonialism and Gilded-Age inequality in the vocabulary of the Conditioners of the day. The Conditioner-deniers answered cynicism with personalism: a belief in the inviolability and sacredness of human life individual and collective.
Cynicism and self-preservation goes hand in hand with the loss of traditional values and virtues. Traditional values alone will not fix cynicism on the whole, but they inoculate the individual against despair and cultivate a desire to work for the greater good. I contend we should think more about how to restore a progressive society based around the timeless values advanced in The Abolition of Man.