Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Causes and Symptoms of (Our) Loneliness and Unhappiness (revised)

[The following has been substantially revised (largely additional material) from its original version of April 14, 2012.]

“But what is the sense of the question, how should we live?—where am I supposed to place the emphasis, find the intonation which reveals the fragments of the conversation? The only echo I can find: ‘then how should we live?’ But where does it come from? What has already been said or argued? ‘If we shouldn’t live like this, then how?’ The question arises out of conflict: how should we live? [….] How can we live so that we no longer go on doing this or this? (And how am I going to fill in these markers?) But it is also a challenge, come on, then, so what’s the answer? What do you really know? Who are you? [….] We have to realize how terrible it all is [as crystallized in the First Noble Truth of Buddhism] without being overwhelmed by it. We should not live like this, incapable, unable to possess ourselves of the energy that the good requires. We are sleepwalkers. [….] We are creatures working out our lives in ignorance (avidya, confident that we know), victims of cravings and aversions which mop our energies and distract our attention from the realities that surround us on every side, not knowing our alienation from the beings also there whom we may well conceive as surrounding us.”—Michael McGhee, Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Herewith my response to Stephen Marche’s recent essay in The Atlantic (May 2012), “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”:

Contemporary libertarianism (ignoring its antecedents in one strain of Liberalism), alas, owes much by way of its ideological core to the Austrian school of economics, particularly the works of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. This libertarianism, with its most recent philosophical (and therefore most sophisticated) articulation in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), is accorded a crass and vulgar literary expression in the fiction of Ayn Rand, borders on the solipsistic, and represents a species of individualism gone deeply awry, indeed pathologically so (hence the focus on ‘self-interest’ in a narrow if not selfish sense,* and the lapses into narcissism, for example). This libertarianism grants its ideological blessings to capitalism generally, stoking the fires of explosive growth in the very technologies that bewitch us, that exacerbate pre-existing conditions of loneliness and unhappiness in this country. And a popular cultural ethos of scientism amongst the intelligentsia, only fuels the flames of widespread anxiety and malaise (See, for instance, Kenan Malik’s Man, Beast, and Zombie [2000] and Ramond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity [2011]). This libertarian ideology, at once obdurate, trenchant, and intoxicating, imbibed by the masses and elites alike in the United States, lacks the theoretical resources to critique contemporary (especially digital) technology and happily colludes in the post-World War II production of “unhappiness:”

“Amidst the satisfaction people feel with their material progress, there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression haunting advanced market democracies throughout the world, a spirit that mocks the idea that markets maximize well-being and the eighteenth-century promise of a right to the pursuit of happiness under benign government’s of people’s own choosing. The haunting spirit is manifold: a postwar decline in the United States in people who report themselves as happy, a rising tide in all advanced societies of clinical depression and dysphoria (especially among the young), increasing distrust of each other and of political and other institutions, declining belief that the lot of the average man is getting better, a tragic erosion of family solidarity and community integration together with an apparent decline in warm, intimate relations among friends.” (Robert E. Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, 2000)

Thus two quotes from Marche’s piece enable us to place Facebook in proper perspective, for it “arrived in the middle of a dramatic increase in the quantity and intensity of human loneliness, a rise that initially made the site’s promise of greater connection seem deeply attractive,” and, “Well before Facebook, digital technology was enabling our tendency for isolation, to an unprecedented degree.” It seems, therefore, that Facebook is best viewed as both sign and symptom, not as an etiological variable, precipitating factor, or even a secondary cause, of what ails us. At most, it merely feeds on preexisting conditions and trends, as well as the ideologies that sanction and bless them. Indeed, the Buddhist (with his fairly elaborate moral psychology centered on the relief of existential suffering), a Martha Nussbaum (in her works on Hellenistic ethics, the emotions, and social justice), a Daniel M. Haybron (in his The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being, 2008), or a Pico Iyer (in the ‘Joy of Quiet’ essay in The New York Times of December 29 last year), would attribute the root causes of our loneliness and unhappiness prior to—in a diachronic and synchronic sense (or historically and structurally)—the turbo-capitalist marketplace conditions that prevail in fashionable libertarian flights of fancy, in a fundamental failure to ask the right questions about human fulfillment, in the individual and collective inability or refusal to pose the proper questions about the philosophy, ethics, and psychology of human flourishing (or eudaimonia, along the lines, say, of Hellenistic ethics, especially the Stoics) or our assumptions and beliefs about human nature. Such questions are directly implicated in answering more immediately practical queries, such as “How does one—or we—live in a sensible manner?” or, “Do our ways of living contribute to and in turn reflect our sincere endeavors to lead meaningful and truly fulfilling lives, in other words, are they indissolubly linked to the terms and conditions of eudaimonia in its broadest and deepest sense?” In asking such questions we need to carefully consider the moral and psychological consequences of living in deference to an “unbound Prometheus,” considerations that encompass the nature and pace of technological development, as well as the relevance of democratic theory and practice to science and technology. In conclusion, within the framework of our eudaimonistic questioning, we urgently need a theory of technology that is critical (in the spirit of the Frankfurt School), environmental (encompassing the ecological sciences), and spiritually humane (in a sense that pays due homage to Renaissance humanism).

* Examination of the notion of “self-interest” in the history of Liberalism as a moral and political philosophy reveals the fact that it once played a progressive or liberating role, unlike the far more constricted conceptions that arose within neo-classical economics (and the corresponding focus on satisfaction of ‘revealed’ preferences) and with the emergence of contemporary Libertarianism, be it philosophical, political, or economic. On this prior progressive role of “self-interest” in Liberalism, see Stephen Holmes’s Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

Further Reading:
  • Borgman, Albert. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
  • Brown, Richard Harvey. Toward a Democratic Science: Scientific Narration and Civic Communication. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Kitcher, Philip. Science, Truth, and Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Light, Andrew and Avner de-Shalit, eds. Moral and Political Reasoning in Environmental Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
  • Midgley, Mary. Science and Poetry. London: Routledge, 2001.
  • Mirowski, Philip. Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Mumford, Lewis. The Transformations of Man. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Riesman, David (with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney). The Lonely Crowd. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001 ed.
  • Shiva, Vandana. Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1997.
  • Shrader-Frechette, Kristin and Laura Westra, eds. Technology and Values. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
  • Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989.


Blogger Jim Chen said...

Bravo, Patrick. Any day is a good day that begins with a discussion by you of eudaimonia.

4/14/2012 10:21 AM  

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