Children are all foreigners.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
No one who thinks about what is going on doubts that mankind is risking dark conclusions.
Few, however, notice the paradox that this should be so in the midst of the cultural and technological accomplishments human beings boast of.
Why is our prospect so little improved by these achievements? Half of the world’s 7 billion people exist on less, often far less, than $3.00 a day. In 2011, there were more than 43 million refugees, throngs of instantly poor people continued to flood into cities; and, in China and India alone, more than two billion people struggled to achieve first world prosperity.
They do not notice that the economies they admire are becoming poorer, that the middle class is shrinking while a small proportion are growing very wealthy indeed. If this is the best the world's premier examples of democracy and capitalism can manage, who do they dream of a better outcome?
In spite of this evidence, in spite of 2011's occupy Wall Street demonstrations, 'progress and development' initiatives continue using the time-honoured stratagem of dangling carrots before asses.
In China and other emerging nations, 'Dear Leaders' prefer whipping their asses' other ends – but always with the same end in mind: profit, power and personal aggrandisement. For decades, the people in charge have been exporting their citizens' hopes in the form of cheap goods to western nations, whose economies are being gutted in the bargain. Why would sophisticated nations destroy themselves in this way? The short answer is that western nations have demagogues of their own. These renditions of 'dear leaders' pursue progress, development and global trade because this causes wealth and power to flow to them. Since economies are zero sum games, since every debit has a corresponding credit, the results are everywhere: unemployment, marginal employment, part-time employment, infrastructure decay, enormous personal and public debt.
When western economies fall back because micro-economic thinking has prevailed over macro-economic morality and common sense - perhaps this decade, certainly in the following - emerging nations will not only lose their customer base but the rationale they have been pursuing.
These consequences signify that 'progress, development and efficiency' are euphemisms for regressive stratagems. Simply stated, there is nothing in the capitalist model that can be trusted to distribute the benefits of inventions, resource development and new technologies across populations. Progress and development involve producing goods and services with fewer people. Thus, the way most human beings earned a living fifty years ago have been declared obsolete or redundant. To be sure, new occupations have emerged. Some require sophisticated people competent to manage complex, powerful systems. Most, however, are so simple that the work can be outsourced or automated depending upon whether workers are prepared to be 'reasonable' about wages.
The only question is whether the winners of these subterfuges (i.e., the one per cent talked about by 2011's occupy groups) will successfully deflect responsibility for what is happening upon those it is happening to.
If the rest of us hope to extricate ourselves from this prospect, we must give up heroes vs. villains fairy tales. What you and I get up to every day spawns the technologies and political structures that make wealth and power possible. To avoid going the rest of the way down this road, we must recognize that willingness to be subordinated has always been our nemesis. In addition, our abdications of moral and intellectual responsibility have spawned every tin pot dictator the world has known.
Thus the above question: why are things bad and getting worse when we know so much and have such wonderful machines? - can be restated. Since nothing is more eagerly seized upon than ‘home-grown’ truths, what happened to the insights gleaned from centuries of hark knocks and exploitations - insights that should have already established fire-walls against harm and manipulation?
In the following, I suggest that an important factor diverting these lessons into culs-de-sac is the notion of personhood and free will as a human birthright. I also propose that, since facile personal agency claims do not completely account for what is going on, we must also consider how adults, especially 'developed nation' adults, really feel about the generations that will replace them.
The first part of the story involves the claim that all, or almost all, human beings possess intellectual and moral agency. We think of ourselves as enjoying free will. We believe that insights, decisions, wishes and priorities ... are generated in non-deterministic ways - i.e., not by what is and has been going on. We believe that these decisions may be further assessed regarding their moral or prudential credentials. Whether this occurs or not, further decisions determine whether and how choices are put into play.
In other words, we see ourselves as moral and rational agents able to make choices no matter what habits, needs, inculcated wants or external circumstances ... stand in the way. We believe that we alone, out of all creatures on the planet, have this capability.
Accordingly, when some mischief has occurred and an individual has been implicated, the investigation is over. The source of the mischief is a willful choice willfully acted out. The accused shoulders the responsibility. Everyone else is off the hook.
Although I do not claim to prove here that the idea of free will is hubris-laden nonsense, history points in this direction so clearly that we would do well to consider what light the possibility sheds upon problems we are having. If the free will claim is false, this is not an obscure academic issue. In the grip of this confusion, insights and hard lessons risk being shunted into the ‘human agency’ drawer, where they languish awaiting disposition by faculties of will, reasoning and judgement.
To be sure, derailed understandings, insights, experiences ... are not always quiescent. They often find expression in conversations, opinion pieces in newspapers, dissertations, polls, demonstrations and violent events. According to the story we have been telling ourselves, such conversations and gesticulations go to the improvement of everyone's understanding. For the most part however, pronouncements, promulgations, proselytizing ... are put forward by individuals hoping to improve public understanding - their own requiring no repair but functioning as a source of wisdom.
We have all been in such conversations. We may have authored more than our share. In either event, we know from experience that talk is rarely the precursor of action. In most cases talk is a substitute for acting - a ruminating within oneself and among fellow ruminants that wastes time and allows harms to fester until the possibility of repair is often lost.
With centuries of evidence to consider, it is clear that earnest, fatuous, vacuous ... talk has been the principal fruit of insights whose engendering moment has passed. Once the circumstances that spawned insights - and offered their best possible venue - have passed; once understandings are corralled under the rubric of moral agency, all that remains is pondering what might have been in support of recommendations about what should or should not occur. The need for action is obliterated by the fantasy that moral and rational agents are thoughtfully considering what should be done.
Although I propose that the notion of ‘free will’ makes no sense and is in fact a profoundly dangerous fantasy, an alternative is worth considering. If all goes well, human beings are capable of becoming self-determining. Achieving this happy state should be every person’s ambition; its maximization every society’s goal.
At the same time, it is important to realize that human beings cannot become fully self-determining. The exciting possibility, the only possibility, is that the proportion of activities rising from internal dispositions and ruminations can be improved. If this is not accomplished, everything people get up to will be determined by external events combining with raw experiences and physiological states. On the other hand, if internal fires have been kindled and individual are enjoying 'internal illuminations', this could replace free will with what might be termed self determination. The test is simple. Can we predict what the person will get up to? If so there is no person in any meaningful sense of the word.
If we cannot make such predictions, if the person is a source of creative acts and thoughts, this does not require talk of souls or evolutionarily achieved person-hood. The explanation is simply that enough culture and experience has been experienced that a lively replica of the world has been internalized from individual vantage points. These 'toy worlds' are self-sustaining (pun intended). They operate in the guise of cogitating, ruminating, thinking ..., in ways that cannot be discerned by observation. Such persons can make responses that cannot be predicted no matter how much is known or how many wiretaps have been installed. A culture endowed with such individuals (we can now legitimately call them persons) has become non-deterministic to all intents and purpose - without magic talk of Divine origins or transcending causality.
There is an immediate - and I think urgent - application for this proposal. Replacing free will talk with proceedings achieving self-determination is the only way human beings can extricate themselves from the bleak future 'progress and development' has in store (pun again intended) for us.
This will not be easy. We will have to give up our favourite fantasy - the notion that one per cent of human beings (to use a now familiar expression) is responsible for what is going on. The reality is that toxic relationships among the one and the ninety-nine, the rich and the poor, leaders and followers ... have been poisoning everything.
To take a fresh example, western nations - the present winners of the global economic contest - have been translating victory into self-administered genocide. They have not been reproducing sufficiently to maintain their genetic identity, outsourcing even this requirement in the guise of larger and larger immigration quotas.
Mr. Darwin would not be amused!
The immediate benefit of transcending "who is to blame" games would be pragmatic. Insights are able to improve responses because they are perfectly positioned to inform responses. Realizations, ideas ... are, after all, dispositional events linking external events with relevant memories and skills. Had human beings not been distracted by ‘God-given agency’ conceits, understandings, insights and cultural resources would have been more active where and when it mattered. We would have had a different history. We would have a different prospect.
The idea of automatically occurring agent-hood is deeply rooted in cultures, including the structure of language. Subjects, predicates, names, pronouns and verbs ... imply that persons are sources of action and not just the loci or regions where events occur. We sometimes talk of animals in this way, although almost always as a conscious anthropomorphism. I suggest that before we think about favourite animals in this way, we anthropomorphize ourselves. Our bodies are possessions that we control from within, rather like pets are possessions that we control from without. To make the whole contraption fly, we flesh out the story with talk about free will and agency.
More is going on of course. Free will claims are wonderfully useful in socializing behaviour and lubricating economic activities. Corporations spend billions advertising, pass the costs to customers and then camouflage the results with talk about free speech and sovereign consumers.
- One of the most important applications of agent talk involves meritocracies. Since talk about immortality and supernatural existence is implausible without a back story, we bury such claims in talk about Divine Judgements, Heaven and Hell. Talk of judgement requires notions of responsibility. In this way, the idea of persons authoring actions is sneaked in.
- The same meritocracy does an enormous amount of secular work. Blaming and praising is the cornerstone of economic and political machinations sorting human beings into rich and poor populations.
- The psychological consequences of apperception, subjectivism ... whatever one calls the inner character of consciousness ... are important ingredients in the agency myth. We see ourselves as captains of our bodies. We are conscious of our behaviour altering in the light of new information and new understandings. The leap of faith is to assume, as David Hume warned against, that association equals causation. Granted, the idea of consciousness as agent has a surface plausibility. Every time I am aware of a goal, ambition or lust and then of myself making a response, I am aware! The pleasant reassuring conclusion follows apace: awareness signifies agency in action. Awareness is agency in action!
- We rarely notice that most alterations occur immediately. I become aware of a decision or a desire to do something. Then I become aware of acting upon this decision. When actions occur immediately, there is less opportunity for the agency conceit to divert understandings into letters to editors; and, ironically, the more likely persons will look like agents. At the same time, the lack of a period of deliberation between the time that a decision or inclination generates awareness and a relevant action occurs diminishes agency claims. Recall the distinction between first and second degree murder - a period of deliberation between an urge and its consummation.
- In the same vein, if a task is complicated or extends over time, each successive segment will be impelled by what has already occurred. Once the task is underway, it is fair to ask whether completed stages are not pre-empting the agent's capacity to make choices?
- Similarly, if I choose to do something involving a week's work, does this not constrain my freedom tomorrow? If choices are meaningful they must legislate what persons get up to. If I 'choose' to experiment with heroin or cocaine, there is lots of evidence that my future will become quite predictable. There is no problem meeting such challenges if we replace free will talk with self-determination, but it is not clear how free will claims can survive what they imply for the putative agent's own future.
We must not be misled by individuals who pronounce themselves agents but whose lives are full of practical endeavors and immediate success. The question we need to ask has a broader canvas. Why do people routinely fail to secure medium and long-term well-being for themselves, families and communities? Generations have failed to distil the lessons of history, psychological insights, technological discoveries ... into countervails against leaders, exploiters, con artists ... . Passivity, ineptitude, ignorance ... cannot explain these failures. People are not lazy or witless or indifferent.
A clue can be found in the reproductive habits of rich populations. Not only are parents in developed nations failing to reproduce sufficiently to prevent self-administered genocide, they seem uninterested in conveying experiences and economic advantages to the children they do have. This has been so consistent that oversight cannot explain the phenomenon. If matters were proceeding accidentally, communities would have arisen from time to time that were comparatively immune to the encroachments of the rich and famous. Given the interest such examples would elicit, these communities would have been noticed and news would have spread.
Although they demonstrate that wholesome living and economic independence can be readily achieved, communities occasionally springing up amongst religious groups — the Shakers, Hutterites and Mennonites — do not count. They owe too much to a few charismatic individuals leveraging spiritual authoritarianism into successful megalomanias. These leaders often proceed by interposing themselves between congregations and larger usurpations perpetrated by politicians and captains of industry. A chilling example occurred in Jonestown, Guyana on November 30, 1978. Members of The People's Temple seemed remarkably sanguine as they proceeded to kill their children and then themselves. The almost banal reason they deemed this necessary was that Reverend Jim Jones had warned them that the world was conspiring against them and would soon come and take their children to a fate worse than death.
A total of 909 Temple members died in Jonestown, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in an event termed "revolutionary suicide" by Jones and some members on an audio tape of the event and in prior discussions. This includes over 200 murdered children. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others by Temple members at a nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. The victims included United States Congressman Leo Ryan, the first member of Congress assassinated in the line of duty in the history of the United States. Four other Temple members died in Georgetown at Jones's command.
We all have favourite examples of megalomania and amazing gullibility. What we do not often reflect upon is that they can usually be traced to of leader-follower relationships run amok. The more interesting question is why human beings continue to have idolatrous relationships with leaders in the first place. What explains our persistent failure to ponder history and harness science, technology and resource extraction techniques to personal and community well-being? What explains our recent, facile agreement that future generations should expect to lead wretched lives because of pollution, climate change and resource depletion? How is this different from The People's Temple congregation placidly agreeing that the best thing for their children was to send them along to Heaven straight away?
The most important candidate has been sketched. The myth of personal agency has been derailing insights and lessons not immediately acted upon. These unrequited understandings have been placed in escrow pending consideration and disposition by 'willing agents'. Because we imagine ourselves as agents striding across the world in bodies we possess and control, these ' pending resolutions and remedies' are not seen as a graveyard of vanished opportunities but as a resource that we may (or may not) act upon, depending upon the free will choices of a world full of persons.
In the meantime, the point in time and space where these understandings would have done the most good is receding. Every moment that passes means there is less chance that they could be acted upon. Soon nothing seems possible except discussing missed opportunities with similarly belated experts, reminiscing about youthful adventures when we were less thoughtful, and perhaps concluding with token expressions of regret for all those who will survive us and perhaps live to regret it.
As Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and thousands (but not millions) of others demonstrate, there are few bounds upon the prospects of ambitious people. What we also rarely often think about is something Mr. Darwin pointed out: life is a zero-sum game. The several million wealthy individuals who now own the world owe their fabulous lives to billions with no prospects to speak of.
The root cause of this state of affairs involves human beings' fatal interest in finding and submitting to leaders, heroes, Gods ... anyone who presents as stronger, faster, wiser or even crueler. Granted, for most of human existence, identifying individuals who seemed to know where food, shelter and advantage could be found was an excellent strategy. After all, until perhaps ten thousand years ago, every generation started out on the same footing.
The factors that changed this state of affairs included slow population growth that crossed a threshold of cultural sustainability and then achieved languages and oral traditions allowing generations to harvest the experiences of clans and kin groups. Some anthropologists suggest that the end of the last ice age (about 10000 years ago) permitted agrarian practices and communities to flourish. However they occurred, agrarian communities invented not only writing but the most technological device ever conceived. No weapon or technological advance has been as important in human history as money. Money accelerated urbanization and made occupational specialization, political institutions and systematic extortions possible.
As well, money offered an antidote to, or at least an anodyne against, old age, infirmity and existential difficulties. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Conrad Black ... control far more than their per capita share of the world. One suspects that they retire each night with rather more of a feeling of immortality than you and I enjoy. Even if they have not extended their prospect temporally, they have expanded spatially -the next best thing to dying and going to heaven.Their expanded horizons should be contrasted with wretches who own nothing save the skin they stand in. In such lives ... increasingly the usual life ... mortality is inches away.
Money has another invidious function. The amount of money in circulation is difficult to measure. What is not difficult is recognizing that, whatever this sum is, it represents a lien upon the the life of every present and future individual. The reason is that urban populations are in a trap. They have an ever expanding list of must-have products and services, and they have no means to produce any of these requirements. Everything needed: shelter, food, sex, entertainment ... requires money. Every person must therefore develop a marketable skill or broker individuals possessing money and skills and individuals who can be persuaded to purchase the resulting goods and services.
Money is not only a magically efficient medium of exchange, it has an advantage over cattle, wheat or concubines. Any amount can be accumulated, transported and stored out of sight. Money requires no maintenance (inflation excepted), does not tarnish and is less likely to excite thieves. Money is the lifeblood and muscle of the governments and corporations now orchestrating virtually everything human beings get up to. Moreover, every sum accumulated sets the stage for more of the same. The resulting capacity of the wealthy to farm human beings is doubly true across generations. Contemporaries sometimes regard one another with fondness. After all, we all face death, more or less at the same moment. With regard to future generations however, the record is clear. They have little or no standing.
As if sensing that some such suspicion might be gathering, the parents of developed nations have taken to brandishing concern for children as a badge of honour. No stone remains unturned - and few remain unhurled - when talk runs high about improving young people's prospects.
However, since little or nothing has been going on to secure their survivable future (which must not be confused with living higher up the hog!), a question must be asked. What if adults are ambivalent about, if not actively hostile towards, future generations? What if this ambivalence has been finding political and economic expression in corporate and national activities? This might seem outrageous, but we need deep-running explanations to explain our history. We need to explain why things are now worsening at an accelerating rate when we have so much experience to consider and such wonderful machines to deploy. Finally, we need to explain why adults are moving so adroitly from apparent indifference to facile resignation.
Is that a crocodile tear on your face?
Closer to home, the notion of inter-generational sabotage illuminates an otherwise inexplicable phenomenon. For the last half of the 20th century, the managers and employees of western corporations and governments negotiated handsome pension programs on their own behalf. In these arrangements, employees contributed significant sums to defined benefit pension plans. This money could have been retained and invested privately. As well, many employers have been making ‘matching contributions’ on employees' behalf. These sums could also have been negotiated into salaries and invested privately.
A similar argument could be made about government pension plans. Hundreds of millions of individuals have been investing in pensions schemes whose payouts are enriched by the fact that pensions vanish upon beneficiaries' death, leaving nothing to pass along. In addition, the growing popularity of ‘reverse mortgages’ means oldsters are drawing down any real estate equity they might have accumulated.
Just in case the message is not clear, parents are passing on enormous public debts, depleted resources and a polluted world. Globalization and automation are now facts of life and there is little need for the homely activities most of us are capable of getting up. Our life styles are already reflecting our shrinking relevance.
In other words, future generations face the same future that confronted horses when tractors transformed farming in the first half of the 20th century. No work to do, no warm stalls, no friendly words and no retirement pastures.
Is is possible that this consequence can be traced to the fact that, surrounded by demanding, promiscuous young people, a bleak future (a few decades removed) is the forecast adults find most congenial.
This is not to say that parents have been consciously contriving their children’s downfall. Most are fully occupied providing as many creature comforts and technological marvels as obesity can stomach. Could this be hypocrisy? Is it possible that adults understand out of the corner of their eye that there is no need for active sabotage? Such matters can clearly be left to governments, politicians and corporations. All they have to do is tolerate economic and political machinations and their deep agenda is accomplished without lifting a. finger.
In circumstances wherein plenty of human beings are eager to exploit everything and everyone - and when has this not been true? - sabotage can be accomplished by ‘acts of omission’.
Moreover, since nothing indictable need occur, adults get to live out their lives convinced that they embody nothing but wholesome concerns.
At the same time we seem to know that the fate of children and grandchildren can be safely left with megalomaniacs, captains of industry and sycophant politicians.