Just picturing, imagining realistically the future of “democracy in an age without fact”, two strong, surging, upwelling feelings come to me. The first is an anxiety provoking grief, the feeling of being lost. The second, coming from under the first, behind it but driven more powerfully, is a complex vision of a better world, an enthusiastic hope.
This essay will first examine the institution of fact, as a failed one; it will move on to see how this failure can bring about a positive change in ethics; and finally a project of thought will be proposed around the notion of personal interest.
‘Fact’, taken in its common usage of ‘scientific i.e. immutable’, aside from being a great human institution, through science has taken a particularly strong importance in the modern era. It connotes an unquestionable, certain truth entirely justified on a human level – religion, chance or fate are not called on to justify this type of truth; it is a self-sufficient rock of man made creation on which we can found our conception of the world. Hence the blow, the grief felt, when this reliance on fact can be thought of as coming to an end. The foundations are taken away, a world is turned upside down, and we are thrown back into an ether of lack of conception. Thought relying on ‘fact’ will eventually end up in this state.
Indisputable fact, surely enough, is not what it seems: in the vast majority of cases it is most definitely fallible, and at its best it can be said to be highly probable. Scientific facts are relative to context and can always be refined, and even mathematical certainties are not at the safety of being overthrown come a revolutionary discovery (such has happened a few times the last hundred years), or the invalidation of an axiom. David Hume proved this over 200 years ago when he said that the only reason we think we know that the sun will definitely rise tomorrow morning is our habit of it doing so, nothing guarantees that it will. [necessary? If so explain better] So taking scientific fact as an unshakable base of thought, when it comes down to it, is a mistake, and also a bad move on the human level. Surely enough, when statements are pushed to this level of infallibility, when they become ‘fact,’ they are unquestionable laws, a modern type of dogma. Such dogma cannot be questioned or argued, it is oppressive, and going against it will provoke social punishments. Even the highest level intellectuals and scientists (the high priests of fact), must take the greatest care when questioning it, going slowly, and most definitely avoiding certain essential ones. Transfer this pattern to the life of an individual, and while fact may give him solid beliefs (and maybe a useful sense of security) it also closes his thinking, making him doomed to make certain mistakes over and over, and to missing the classes of truth in life that his facts have rendered improbable. This greatly hinders an individual’s liberty of judgment, a capacity not only needed to a happy life, but absolutely necessary if one wishes to satisfy more subtle needs and wants, the ones which mainstream wisdom does not know how to address.
In short, the loss of the illusive fact, though disorienting, could also be a step towards a better life. Not to mention it is a step towards the truth, and just so in this aspect, desirable. It leaves us much freer to intellectual exploration; ideas and truths can be sought without the fear of outstepping accepted-as-indubitable facts. In a world with issues such as ours, this could prove essential. But still, as people, to be able to think effectively we do need a certain frame of thought. Fact has fulfilled this role, but if we are approaching “an age without fact,” we need a new, more solid and less oppressive, frame of thought. The dangers of not having one would be utter intellectual erring, or worse, the choice by default of an even worse frame of thinking.
In the light of our new freedom of thought, and to fulfill the conditions of a new frame of thought, I would like to see a habilitation of human facts as the center of our thinking. For the sake of explanation we can lump these into two categories, private and interpersonal truths. The first can be true for a person and not for another, they are private, and respectively can only have a corresponding level of validity, but which should nonetheless be respected. The second are true for pretty much everyone, but only in a human and non-scientific way. Interpersonal truths should have about the same validity as scientific truths do today, but of course, due to their interpersonal nature, would be prescribed in a different way. They are not strictly objective. These are the truths dictated by human nature, of human needs and desires. They include positive ones, like empathy and self-fulfillment, but also the negative ones, like hate and greed.
This implies that greater trust must be given to individual judgment, as well as to the human intelligences which are usually repressed or hidden rather than understood. These include the various intuitions, emotions, spirituality etc; the capacities which as living beings are often our greatest source of intelligence. This is a re-centering of ethics around the individual, and not the fact. Though the fact is important, its prominence over the individual has attained a level of absurdity and so should be re-contextualized, and in any case, if a fact is truly important to us, it is because it is somehow linked to certain human values. We implicitly function around human values today, but in too much of an indirect manner.
To prescribe the project I just described seems quasi-impossible, or at least incredibly vague. And I’m pretty sure that it is impossible to create a systematic implementation of it, even if it were clearly defined, because of its very human and non objective nature. It would have to respect each person’s individual freedom. In the mean time, in spite of this, I would like to attempt a step forward. We cannot aim directly towards a more human society, but we can make ourselves think in a more human way. Since such a human-centered system would emerge through the free choice of the collectivity of individuals, I think it would surely be beneficial to rethink a big element in the directing of this choice, our private and collective notions of “personal interest.”
This notion which guides our actions and shapes the courses of our lives is generally misunderstood today, and thus wreaks havoc on our world. Thinking about it is easy enough and accessible to anybody, and its practical concreteness makes it a much more approachable project than the abstract human-centered society referred to earlier. In an idealist perspective, we can justify that if the greater good follows from everyone pursuing their profoundly best interest, logically, a project of clarifying these interests would be key to this greater good. In a practical sense, such a reflection would give people better awareness of their actions and goals, and hence the ability to choose them more carefully, and so if nothing else, greater personal awareness and freedom. The feeling of personal interest is probably the oldest guiding thought of people; with the unprecedented level of material ease possible today it deserves some attention and maybe a bit of education (because it is still centered on survival, and maybe desire as a secondary one, not the notion of living a good life).
Presently, particularly in America, this notion has been completely blurred and uniformized, and people are losing their freedom. Without a solid sense of ones personal interests, one will be misguided, attracted by empty or destructive goals, and with one’s energies so misspent it will be impossibly difficult to lead an ethical life. Too many people equate a desirable life with wealth, fame, or power, when the pursuit and even obtaining of such things will lead to unhappiness and pain for most people. This goes from people taking out gigantic loans to buy things that they don’t need; to wall street traders, whose intellectual capacities could probably do a good deal to make society better, but instead act as essential pivots in participating in making it more unstable; or the student chasing a career that he doesn’t really want or will even be suited for (hence, perhaps, a certain proliferation of bad doctors and unhappy dentists…). To generalize a bit, within the limits of American society, personal interest is dogmatically taken to mean ‘going up’ whatever that entails. To have another conception of personal interest is tagged “alternative” or deviant, is frowned upon or ignored from a distance; in any case it is socially excluded. The freedom of self-definition is replaced by the freedom to social mobility, and in becoming a norm (or a necessary goal) it becomes a limit to the freedom of the self.
The pursuit of upward mobility as the guarantee of a good life (or happiness) is fundamentally flawed. First of all, individually, it will not satisfy anything more than the most basic material and social needs of a person; and second of all, collectively, the number of people at the ‘top’ of society never increases – and one going up generally implies another coming down: the number of people in desirable positions never actually changes, it is an empty promise for a better society. Also, more people in high profile, high paid positions, structurally implies more people in low profile and underpaid ones supporting their activity – let it be in poor parts of big cities, or on the other side of the world (behind each “Made in China” label there is a worker…).
It should be noted that this essay does not intend or desire a kind of class revolution. The proposed project lacks this controversy. It should be offensive to nobody –it is adaptable to all non-controlling systems of thought, religions, social classes etc–, and even if it does not ‘solve’ any of the ills of society, it is hard to see how it could be unhelpful. At its most extreme, a rethinking of personal interest would entail a shift from directing life with explicitly external values (wealth, power etc), to personal ones (self-fulfillment, happiness, empathy etc). Practically, the values that would really matter are more along the lines of personal fulfillment, pleasure, integrity, self-respect, etc. Wealth or power, etc, would only be valuable in relation to the latter values, and to the very few people suited for such positions.
I believe in the practical feasibility of this, that a person holds the notions of his fundamental personal interests inside of him, and that with proper research and guidance the individual can find them. This project requires solid guidance and education; self education at early stages of life can easily result in disaster. Guidance should be opposed to directing: to help someone find what is best for him rather than dictating it. The notion of personal interest itself has to be reconsidered for each and every person. Simply superimposing various pre-existing notions of personal interest is a mistake – a particular individual should require his very own one, and even if he doesn’t, he should at least be required to make the effort to find which one is his.
I believe that society today does not function properly. The desirable system of society, the one we’re looking for, is structuring but not controlling; it organizes people without preventing their well being and hindering their free will. The ability of the leading class to control its people should no longer be such an important value if we wish to attain a human-centered society. It seems like a safety net which we are stuck in. If each individual chooses what is profoundly best for him, the sum of these decisions is what can let a “better world” emerge. Controlled revolution, with its manifestos of predefined values seem like the reiteration of a bad idea. A rethinking of “personal interest,” while not a sufficient condition for a human-centered society (as opposed to economy centered, or ideology-centered ones), definitely seems to be a quasi-essential part of it. But if nothing else, if these goals are completely unrealistic, such a project would give people the added awareness of their own decisions without which they cannot be said to be free.