Although Conscientious Thinking was written before the presidential election and isn’t about politics per se, its thesis that elites are failing us is timely to say the least. The president ran a campaign that capitalized on broad anti-elitist sentiment, and he is by many objective measures the least qualified person ever to assume the office. How do you see our current political moment?
Certainly the self-serving solipsism of the American establishment, intellectual and political, on both the left and the right, as summarized in my book, provided the opening for a demagogue. Taking a longer view, though, I believe the recent election is the most pivotal sign yet of liberal modernity’s likely demise. Recall our experts’ end-zone dancing in the nineties: it was the “end of history” (and the good guys had won); our economists had solved forever the market’s boom-bust cycle; the digital age would soon educate the masses, streaming knowledge and prosperity to everyone. Those giddy boasts should have been the warning, for utopian beliefs, once pursued, inevitably invite dystopian results—in this case, 9/11, two failed wars, the Great Recession, and an Internet rife with cowardly trolls, fake news, cyber-thievery, and ads, ads, ads. And look who learned first to master the political potential of Twitter? We’re about to discover now, in the most excruciating ways, the difference between “reality TV” and reality.
In the introduction you say that “although the failure in commonsense thinking has been widespread, the mistakes of those in power have been far more consequential.” The flip side to this is that elites are usually part of a privileged class, and the price they pay for being wrong is low compared to those who are affected by their bad decisions. On a symbolic level, would better aligning consequences for bad decisions with those who have made them be a good place to start addressing the meltdown of the elite class?
It would be—and, looking back, publicly punishing those most responsible for the housing collapse might have eased some of the legitimate anger of ordinary citizens who were greatly damaged by the Great Recession, preventing it from stewing into the toxic rage so evident during the last election. Yet, as your question suggests, the problem of dispensing justice in our era is a structural as well as an ethical challenge. Despite our libertarian fantasies and the old mythos of the lonesome hero, Americans are living in an increasingly corporate and collective society, even as our post-modern machines are both revealing and enhancing the interactive nature of human decision-making. How guilt should be assessed and merit rewarded, when so many crimes and achievements are, in fact, collaborative or institutionally-based, is one of the great challenges of the post-modern era. One thing is very clear, though: continuing to grant large corporations the rights of citizenship and the powers of government, even while exempting them from the duties and jeopardies that ought to attend them, will destroy our democracy.
“Idiot Savant” is a provocative term given the baggage many readers might bring to it based on usage in popular culture. But you devote a good deal of time in Part I of the book to unpacking the term and exploring its etymology in order to make your case for why it’s apt. Briefly, what is an Idiot Savant and how is our age defined by them?
I use the term to diagnose and not demean. The etymology of idiot supplies a plausible explanation for the failed thinking of so many of today’s experts. As derived from the ancient Greek idios, meaning “private” or “one’s own,” the deeper history of the word links a failure in intelligence (an ignorance or idiocy) to a radical separation of the one from the many. We are at risk of slipping into gross misconceptions when the individual thinker or line of thought becomes too removed from the collective guidance of the social or psychological whole. The modern mode of reasoning that arose in 17th and 18th centuries and that still informs our scientific-style thinking has been very powerful, but it has always been susceptible to over-specialization, habitually segregating the head from the heart, the self from society, and humanity from Nature. I’m proposing in its place a more conscientious reasoning (from con-scientia—literally, learning with)—a new, as it were, “science-of-togetherness.” This post-modern way of gauging the world would not only adopt all the interactive linking and webbing of our digital devices, but also infuse them with an ethical and emotional awareness.
In Part II of the book you plot out a map for post-modern reasoning that explores alternatives to modernity. Could you name one or two models (person or organization) we might seek to emulate that exemplifies a positive alternative to old ways of thinking?
There are many. Here’s a sampling: the B corporation, whose charter commits a company to social as well as monetary goals; boycotts on both the left and the right that remind corporations of their products’ impact on the wider world; the open source movement in coding; the new websites that share knowledge freely or invite collaboration, such as the Allen Brain Atlas, Newton’s List, and Galaxy Zoo; the potential democratization of both philanthropy and political donations through “crowdfunding”; in general, organizations and digital sites that favor social affiliation over financial accumulation alone, and that, thinking conscientiously, enhance collaboration between individuals and heretofore specialized disciplines.
In chapter 8 you lay out some hopes and fears for the post-modern era in which you write…
Shifts in worldview are inherently contentious. The often violent struggle to reform the institutions of the West in ways that could accommodate the new atomization of social thought and practice lasted more than two centuries, finally resulting in an entrepreneurial economy and various forms of democratic rule whose hard-won checks and balances licensed the savvy of the modern mind-set while restraining the idiocy of its potential excesses. These solutions to the problems of human governance, however, didn’t mark “the end,” or even the beginning of the end, “of history.” They were agile adaptations to the cultural conditions of a specific era, and those conditions themselves were bound to change.
Obviously a reformation wouldn’t be necessary if our institutions were running smoothly and our faith in them was strong (plus, you would’ve written a different book!), but you make a pretty clear case that that’s not the world we are living in. Fundamental change is afoot, and we need—to borrow a phrase—to think conscientiously about managing the change to avoid the worst. Are we up to the task?
We better be. The old liberal-modern order is withering all around us, and neither China’s authoritarian capitalists, nor ISIL’s terrorists (much less Mexico’s immigrants) are primarily to blame. Modernity’s key institutions and beliefs are being undermined instead by the new patterns of perception and interaction set loose by our own high-tech machines. Those machines are “empowering,” yes, but unless their powers can be domesticated in democratic ways, they are only likely to undo our long experiment in peaceful self-governance. There can be no “get[ting] back to where we once belonged.” Today’s reactionary nostalgia is as dangerous as the utopian thinking that deluded us before. To “make America great again” will require instead an astute and self-disciplined reformulation of our beliefs and institutions. The historical record is clear: in transitional eras such as ours, those crises that the moral imagination fails to redress will eventually be suffered in the flesh. Civil and sectarian war are the last and least attractive ways for societies to reform.