Saturday, June 18, 2005

Column on Two Serious Disconnects

On Two Terrible Disconnects

Tibor Machan

It?s not the first, second, or third time I have reflected on this but
each time there just a slight difference in focus. So there is now. I am
talking about the terrible disconnection between how the bulk of the
official intellectual community versus most ordinary folks see two aspects
of human affairs. First, I am talking about how most people accept, as a
perfectly normal aspect of human life, that people can make basic choices
between right and wrong conduct and that they do this all of the time. It
infuses our ordinary understanding of politics, history, crime,
child-raising, marriage, romance, professional conduct, war,
friendship?you name it, it occupies virtual center stage. Just read any
decent novel, be it a classic or some best seller pulp fiction.

I have recently been reading through works produced by Daniel Silva, but
have also just finished The Jury by Steve Martini, a legal thriller. But I
am also working through Karl May?s In the Desert, a classic European tale
published back in 1912. The themes of human moral choice, of
responsibility, guilt, desert, triumph or negligence are all central to
these, as they re to the daily news about young women being murdered,
business professionals or politicians or doctors being brought to trial
for malpractice. Fiction or non-fiction, crime, diplomacy, history,
education or politics?they are simply replete with unending stories about
how men and women have done either the right or the wrong thing or some
combination, how others are treating them in consequence of this and so

At the very same time, however, intellectuals everywhere are churning out
massively researched works, in physics, biochemistry, molecular and
evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, economics, political science
and philosophy propounding yet another theory about how everything we
believe and do is the result of forces that operate upon us?our brains,
emotions, minds, memories, what have you. If these works are to be
believed, we are all merely highly complicated machines that produce
behavior that we have absolutely no personal control over, although, of
course, the behavior is, in fact, ours, but no more so than the behavior
of a dog biting the child is the behavior of that dog. Yet no one thinks
that dog is guilty, morally responsible or whatever?the dog just does what
it must, given the forces impelling it. And that is just what the bulk of
the educated world now thinks about what you and I and the rest of us do
and have done all along through out long human history.

This, I contend, is a terrible disconnect, a chasm that is wreaking
massive confusion upon us, our various institutions, the law, or wherever
else human affairs are being addressed. It is a colossal mess and, oddly,
very few forums through the media host any discussion of it.

There is also another such disconnect afoot, one that?s of similar scope
and produces comparably great confusion, namely, about values. On the one
hand we have most people in the world believing that there really are some
standards of right conduct that hold for everyone. That is how they raise
their kids, how they view the history of their own community and its
leaders as well as ordinary citizens?soldiers, doctors, doctors,
scientists, and everyone else. Some have run afoul of those standards,
some have excelled in terms of them and many others have fallen somewhere
in between. That is what most ordinary folks think, there?s little doubt
about it, as they go through their lives and in what they read in their
novels, view on their television programs or at the movies, even as the
give some lip service to ?it?s all relative,? ?different cultures have
different standards,? etc. But they do not believe that for a moment in
their day to day conduct.

In contrast, again, the world of academe, the scholarly community, the
erudite among us, tend, in the main, to scoff at all this. The bulk of
them are skeptics from the word ?go.? For most of them values are either
complete fabrications of primitive people or charlatans, or the inventions
of communities or religious leaders, myths through and through. Or if
there be anything to them, they are all over the map, none of them
applicable to us all, none having relevance beyond some community or
region of the world or a period of history. It?s all in fact relative or
culturally based for most such folks (which is why even ordinary persons
buy into this when they wax theoretic now and then?they get it mostly from
their teachers).

All of this, too, has terrible consequences for how people think, how
they handle personal, community, or world affairs, how they address
problems of human life in every possible area. Are all the ills we witness
concoctions, are they ills at all or just ills for some, not others and no
one can be right about any of it? It?s just a mess. Yet once again the
forums throughout the media hardly focus on any of it but carry on as if
no such disconnect existed.

All I am doing here is making an observation. I do know many of us try to
address the matter but it?s lamentable that so few prominent and visible
people make any attempt to deal with it up front, before the reading and
viewing general public.

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