Thursday, January 01, 2004

Why All the Fuss about Modernity?

Tibor R. Machan

Among the many concerns voiced these days one stands out for me, namely,
the one about modernity. Modernity is the element of our age that
emphasizes technology, science, reason, individualism and similar features
of our culture that are often deemed to be progressive.
Certainly, since the 14th century the Western World has seen an
enormous increase in what is known about the universe. Science has
flourished, as has the resulting technology that enables us now to travel
more speedily, cure diseases more successfully, produce food in
unprecedented amounts and do much else better than we could before.
On the political front the modern age has seen a greater stress than have
others of the importance of individual human rights to freedom and to property.
Instead of governments being seen as rulers, they have slowly begun to be seen as
servants and defenders of the people. No, this hasn’t spread as widely as
have the modern age’s scientific and technological achievements. Still,
it is no longer taken for granted that some people have the innate
authority to rule others, or that members of a certain family get to own
a country and even its people (their subjects).
Yet, while these developments are undeniable, there is evidence of a
serious backlash, as well. Many yearn for the rigidities of ancient
times, when societies were comprised not of sovereign individuals but of
classes; others lament our preoccupation with improving our lives here on
earth, with our hope for more joy and pleasure in this life, instead of
preparations for the afterlife. The lament about commercialism – the
focus on using trade to allocate wealth and resources so they
can all go to those who can make the best use of it – often reaches
hysterical decimals. Environmentalist have targeted technology itself as
the devil of the modern age, given that it is used to transform the earth
so it can serve our own interests and goals more readily. And, of course,
there are those who believe outright that focusing on the mundane takes
our eyes off the spiritual, which is said to be far more noble and
elevating than anything life has to offer us.
One may assume that some of these lamentations are genuine, sincere, even
if one were to take them to be misguided. But in many cases there is a
hidden agenda afoot when such complaints come to light.
Most important to note is that all of these concerns end, once again,
in the assertion of the superior wisdom and therefore authority of those who
issue the complaints. Who, for example, is to decide how the earth is to be used?
Well, environmentalists, of course, and certainly not those who want more
and better housing developments and means of transportation.
The bottom line of the chorus of complaints about modernity seems,
in fact, to be nothing other than that individuals are more equipped now than
before to pursue their very own chosen goals. All that technology helps us to
strive for our chosen goals – we can travel better to the places where we wish to
go; we can keep alive longer and thus do more of what we want to do; we can
spread information more rapidly than ever before, so we can better
understand things. Once again, this leads to more individual control over
our own affairs.
And there are a great many who find this intolerable. Who, after all, is
that puny individual to be left to his or her own resources when it comes to
selecting various ends to pursue and to be able to pursue those ends
better and better all the time? This cannot be allowed to go on – those
puny individuals need to be guided, regimented, controlled, and regulated.
By whom, one might ask? Well, actually, by other individuals who
supposedly know what is important for the rest to do.
Sure, the lamentations about modernity are put in terms of the interest
or good of the community or the public or the nation or humanity, as opposed to
the selfish pursuits of individuals. But don’t be fooled. In most cases
the conflict isn’t between the public and the private interest but between
some private interest and some other private interest.
Environmentalists, for example, have no special understanding of
what we all should care about – they simply hope to bamboozle us all into
thinking that their priorities ought to be everyone’s priorities. And so
it is with others, who try to elevate their own special agenda to become
everyone else’s, usually not by argument but by law and public policy.
What modernity has done isn’t so much to guarantee a morally better life
for us all but to place the responsibility for seeking such a life at the
feet of the individual and remove it from the hands of a bunch of
self-appointed rulers. We now need to figure out ourselves what to pursue
with all the great tools that modernity has produced. We can go seriously
astray in that task. But it is no longer credible to claim that we,
ordinary folks, are to be treated as if we were little children and
others, who are just as vulnerable to malpractice as we are, may make us
behave properly. We are all required to address those issues with no one
else authorized to do it for us, and modern science and technology,
combined with the principles of a free society, make this possible.

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