Civilization, we fear, is on the brink of destruction. Start with your biggest fear. Foreign Affairs’ Sunday Backstory email is entitled “America’s Crisis of Democracy. A pandemic is destroying a way of life. Nuclear Armageddon is just around the corner. Moral standards are dying. Human energy use is killing the planet. Politics is leading to civil war. American functional institutions fail in their missions: the CDC, the Federal Reserve, the financial sector, the media, Congress, or the Supreme Court.
The fear is heightened by the disorientation and disruption of new ideas and innovations. The internet connects us intimately with people who used to be out of sight. It also gets hacked. We learn new things about the universe every year – and wonder if we understand reality itself. Genes are spliced and people seem to invent new genders to identify themselves by. Truth is a construct, not a fact, say some …
Amid this “ungrounding,” fear is understandable. Any norms we have lived by are dying. Without norms there is only chaos, and chaos turns living into a struggle for survival. Perhaps worst of all, societies where people have the greatest discretion over their lives, where affluence allows reflection and rights allow open thought, seem the most self-destructive. The freest people are wrecking the world and their own well being. If we use freedom for this, perhaps humankind is no more (maybe worse) than another species of “dumb” animal.
But apocalyptic fear is not necessary. Disruption and dysfunction always follow from change. Anything new in the world brings change. The greater the novelty, the greater the change, the greater the disruption – but sometimes also the greater the new opportunities. Amartya Sen defines freedom and development, both, as “expansion of the ‘capability’ of persons to live the kind of life they value.”[i] He explicitly sees “development as freedom.”
Any development, though, is a step into the unknown. It comes with disorientation, at least at first. If today’s world is disrupted and disorienting, it may yet be a matter of digestion, to the point where we can make a new, as-yet-unknown, kind of sense of all the crazy new stuff.
In this light, it is important to recall that no true democracy has yet existed, that all freedoms are incomplete, that all our institutions are creations of previous crises of development. If some countries have developed systems that feel democratic, political systems still have much more room to yield more discretion to the governed. And as development takes place moving forward, any new ways of life that we may devise are unknown to us today. How well they work will depend upon our choices, in creating new expectations and norms, and in living by them or rejecting them. And we will live them, for better or worse, moment by moment. But these steps humanity builds the future. It always has, but as freedom grows, the decisions are more clearly in our hands.
And yes, we can fail, choosing to step down that path to Armageddon. Successful choice is necessary – we just can’t control the outcomes by imposing our past standards to limit people’s choices going forward. What I know, even as an expert in some field, may no longer hold. We are not repairing a broken world, but building a new one, in unknown mental and psychological territory. We do need basic bedrock orientation to hold a course, a point of reference that we take as our deepest faith. But as we can see today, absolute truth may be an impossibility – we must take our bedrock as article of faith, in the most clinical definition of the word.
As it happens, Americans have a founding tenet that stands up to this need. We hold as self-evident – i.e. as article of faith – that individuals inherently carry individual rights, and that governments exist to secure those rights. A lot of systems, a lot of progress, can be shaped in many many ways on this bedrock. But with this common orientation we can consider them as a community, all of us pointed in the same direction.
We need not fear Armageddon; we just have to look at the unknown as a canvas for our self-creation, on the bedrock of our national founding. It’s all still scary and confusing. But it’s in our hands and if we remind ourselves of our bedrock, we have reason to look beyond the fear of what’s passing, and start in building the next development.
[i] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), p. 18.