Monday, April 20, 2015

Trust What?

Here's an interesting one-sentence summary of cultural change in the post-World War II era:
Once the dominant view was that the self is to be distrusted but external institutions are to be trusted. Then the dominant view was that the self is to be trusted and external constraints are to be distrusted.
This isn't made up; I reported here a few years ago on British poll that showed exactly this, that people trusted their own moral judgment much more than advice from anyone else. And the potential pitfalls of such an approach are obvious. But who should we trust instead of ourselves? Where is wisdom to be found?

In the Catholic church, among the experts at covering up sexual abuse? In the Protestant churches that endorse torture and war?

Should we look to our political leaders for moral guidance?

Businessmen? Academics? Scientists? Lawyers? Journalists? The authors of self-help books? Sports heroes? Reality TV stars?

If you're anything like me, you find all of these suggestions absurd. For me, at least, the whole notion of institutional authority is absurd. I simply do not believe that any institution or profession has greater wisdom about life than the people who make it up happen to have, and their average wisdom is going to be pretty close to the human norm.

I suppose that can't be strictly true. There are groups that I think have less wisdom than average -- the Libertarian Party, for example -- so there must be others that do a little better. But none that are good enough for me to want to trust them.

As to why I and others no longer trust institutions, I think that is largely because we know the truth about them. We know the truth about the Catholic church because thousands of people -- abuse victims, reporters, editors, lawyers, judges, and others -- decided that telling the truth was more important than preserving the reputation of the church. Something similar happened with regard to the Presidency, and sports stars. And, I think, folks in general. Scandals like teenage pregnancy and so on used to be "hushed up" much more than they are now, so it was much easier to think of them as aberrations rather than the commonplace events that they were and are.

Another factor is the ever increasing diversity of American society; the sense that nobody else's experience is quite like your own makes you less likely to trust other people's opinions. Plus we're just not as close to our neighbors as we used to be.

There are people in the world I respect very much, such as the Dalai Lama and Jean Vanier. But since I choose which people to respect based on how I respond, personally, to what they say, in a real sense I am still responding only to my own opinions. I am not entirely comfortable with that; I don't think I am especially wise. But given who I am, it's the only course I can take.


G. Verloren said...

"But who should we trust instead of ourselves? Where is wisdom to be found?"

Philosophers and rational thought, perhaps?

I guess the problem is that there's no active institutions based in philosophy - and even if there were, they might not be based in schools of thought everyone can agree with. Add to that the fact that philosophy far too often deals chiefly with convoluted navel-gazing that doesn't really achieve anything of practical value, and it's not exactly a mystery why more people don't embrace philosophy as a guiding compass.

Underneath it all, really, is the problem that people don't like thinking for themselves, and WANT to be able to just listen to whatever some seemingly trustworthy external source tells them. This of course attracts every corrupt slimeball who figures, "Hey! If I make myself LOOK trustworthy, I can get people to listen to me and do whatever I tell them!".

John said...

"There is nothing so stupid that some philosopher has not said it."