Post-Enlightenment Moral Confusion in Our Times: An American Case Study

More and more recently, I have thought of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” speaking to our times:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Putin invaded Ukraine to vindicate the Rus.  Xi asserts an ethnic right to rule Taiwan.  The post-World War II liberal international order is challenged by populist nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms.  Who listens to the U.N. Secretary General anymore?  How many people even know his name?  World leaders worry about climate change at COP27, but nothing much seems to happen.  Governments flood their economies with trillions of dollars of liquidity to make life easier for people and inflation takes off.  Globalization is said to be in retreat.  Governance in the U.S. is in gridlock after last week’s election.  Confidence and happy reciprocity are less and less evident.

What has happened?

One thought is that our modern global civilization was built using the cultural architecture of the European Enlightenment, but that has run out of gas.  We have lost faith in fundamentals and are turning instead to fears and passions, not to morals and reason.

The Enlightenment encouraged science and secularism, but, as Nietzsche intuited, reason not put to good ends can easily, left in isolation, turn on what it has wrought, like Cronus eating his children.  Reason, in the wrong hands, can become a solvent, dissolving, breaking into parts, dissecting and separating what is vitally organic into non-sustaining piecemeal bits of inefficacious flotsam and jetsam.

In giving purpose to reason, we can play at being God, indulging in fantasies and narcissistic self-promotions.  Our personal narratives can lose their coherence with reality.  Logic, taken to extremes, unbalances culture and politics with clever use of words, as in post-modernism and deconstruction.  Words, then, became rhetorical devices, serving the will to power of individuals.  The Tower of Babel story from the Old Testament could be a fit metaphor – seeking to join God, but ending up with fragmentation and tribal dispersion.

Secondly, the will to power draws forth personal dedication to entitlement, that others should do unto us what we most want and not charge us a penny for their efforts, all because we are deserving.  And, necessarily to this point of view, if we don’t get what we want, it is the fault of those others.  The will to power is infantilism at its best.  Lenin once criticized left-wing communism as an “infantile disorder.”

Modernity’s privileging of the will to power has brought a spiritual crisis upon us all.  Pope Francis responded to this in 2020 with his Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.  With our spiritual anchors floating away out of our reach, we tread water and seek rescue.  Most sought after is solace in personal entitlements.

From this spiritual perspective, ESG virtue signaling and companies committing themselves to high purposes make great sense as earning us the status of fully deserving to be well cared for by others.  We are good, so they will come to our rescue.

For example, that did not happen to Captain Ahab and his crew, save only Ishmael, in Herman Melville’s marvelous theological novel, Moby Dick.

In the U.S. especially, such logic of entitlement, coupled with a sense of victimhood whenever we don’t get what we think we deserve, has taken a prominent place in our culture and our politics.  The dissolving of systemic trust and confidence worked by post-modernism and deconstruction narratives of nihilism and narcissism has flowered into the spread of woke consciousness, a kind of sectarian Puritanism.  Wokeness divides citizens into the deserving and the undeserving, with entitlements flowing to the deserving and the burden of guilt and responsibility placed upon the undeserving.

The action arm of woke consciousness in the U.S. is programs of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to privilege some at the expense of the less deserving.

The attached essay on DEI applies critical thinking and analytical modes of deconstruction to this new and, for me, very questionable practice in employment, education and the allocation of social concern.

You can read it here.