Moral Relativism, Truth, and Social Breakdown

Years ago I took a philosophy class on issues in morality in college. At one point we discussed how many moral truths were universal and how many were dependent on culture. Philosophers have studied this idea and they have come up with lists of moral principles that are universal across societies because they are fundamental to the functioning and cohesiveness of basic social groupings. One of the fundamental principles is the acknowledgment of the value of truth-telling and the condemnation of lying. Society cannot function if people can never make the assumption that most people are telling the truth most of the time about most things. So what happens when groups have an interest in deliberately lying to the public and it is difficult to tell the difference between a truth  and a lie? This is what Western Democracies face when an onslaught of fake news, which may be skillfully produced and disseminated by AI in the near future, overwhelms the modern communication channels.

Advances in the near future, widely reported on, will allow the seamless spoofing of video and audio. In our “post-Truth” society, and with modern propaganda sowing doubt and mistrust, how will it be possible to believe any damaging or otherwise important revelations? Even if there are digital footprints which can reveal meddling, they can be easily dismissed by partisans. In addition, it will allow important people and politicians to deny that they made statements, saying that they are fabrications, when in fact they are true.

Free society will be turned against itself, what will be the remedy to libel and slander that is impossible to prove one way or the other? In order to cut through nonsense and partisanship, focus will have to be kept on issues and policy themselves, something which is currently proving impossible. Debate over policy cannot occur if people are debating over the true nature of reality. Solutions can only exist if people avoid reports about the conversations or videos of leaders or they are dismissed in favor of actions. The other result of this change in our social dynamic, of questioning whether or not anything is real, is nothing less than the absolute dissolution and dismemberment of society. Post-truth society eventually has to face the realization that it will eventually lead to social destruction and chaos if left fundamentally unchecked.

The Death of the Classics

On the volumes written on the subject of education in the past 40 years, one strain has focused on the death of the so-called “classical education.” Through antiquity to perhaps 50 years ago, students studied the Classics. These Classics are the works of Ancient Greek and Roman writers, the foundation of Western literature and philosophy. Rapid changes and progressive knowledge have made much of this learning and writing dated and less relevant than they were to people before the Industrial Revolution. But what have we lost as a society and culture by not reading the “Classics”?

Critics of the death of the classical education point to the dearth of analysis and inference-based thinking in modern education – skills championed by reading the great authors of the past. But there are other aspects of the death of the classical education that strike me as relevant, especially as a lover of history. An unbroken chain of references, counterpoint, rebuttal, synthesis, and genesis have been violently severed in recent years.

Understanding our current moral and political debates without the guide of history and the Classics is almost impossible. Lack of imagination, of an understanding of the history of radical change and great thought, is perhaps responsible for some of our political dysfunction in the present moment in the United States. A reverence for the Constitution, but no understanding of how those ideas were formulated, is deleterious to a progressive and effective politics.

Great works of literature that could point to the Iliad and Odyssey as their spiritual and contextual predecessors are rendered foreign and unintelligible by an uncomprehending populace. General narrative structure for novels, plays, movies, and non-fiction works all owe their form to their predecessors. More than that, most great works up until the recent era have spoken and argued with the great thinkers of the classics. Many of those works survived by luck, but also by a kind of intellectual natural selection. Great works were copied and reproduced and emulated because they were recognized as being great works. Unmoored works produced in the recent era by those uneducated in the Classics run the risk of being intellectually inefficient, they may rehash old arguments and reinvent the wheel without producing original works. Historical references to the great moral dilemmas, matters of state, and war are lost and must be learned again without thoughtful guides.

Another, perhaps trivial matter, is what I would term the loss of Churchillian Moments. Someone well-read in Thucydides or Herodotus might recognize the importance of a historical turning point as its happening. Sensing pivotal moments, some leaders of the past knew they would be playing to history and therefore took altruistic, ruthless, and massive efforts to move public opinion or undertake certain actions. Winston Churchill, during the period leading up to World War 2, and during the War, made repeated references to the great victories and achievements of the past. Great Greek and Roman battles were his guide and he reacted with ferocity to any attempt to surrender to Nazi Germany because he understood how Britain would be viewed by history for its stubborn defense. For instance, if a great political challenge, like reacting to climate change, was undertaken in a historical context – that is, as if it were going to be read about like we read about the Fall of the Roman Republic, politicians might well stake everything on finding a solution.

Dynamic education, education that effects the processes by which people learn, understand, and make decisions, is important. But so is the material itself. STEM’s ascendancy does not eliminate learning about history, philosophy, and politics. We should make sure that if we are replacing the Classics that there is an understanding of what we are discarding.

Technology and Information in the Western World

At the start of the 21st Century it was obvious that information (data, communications, news) was valuable as it had not been before. The ability to collect, utilize, and disseminate information reaped efficiencies and knowledge from the multitudinous amalgamation of modern society. Sifting and organizing this data became the paramount task for business and government, and the sifting is done with algorithms. Algorithms dominate modern life in subtle and pervasive ways and they are often placed on a pedestal: the better the algorithm the better your software. With all of this data and all of this organization of data, there is a loss of focus on the issues data is actually used to resolve. There is a dark side to the task of intertwining society and reducing every tendency and action to a data point – and it’s not Big Brother sifting through your personal life that is a problem.

People are the problem. Technology does not exist in a vacuum and it exists to aid people. Technology does not make all decisions for us. The proliferation of data has led to a problem that algorithms cannot solve. People must interpret and use the data, and if there is so much information available to the public, it is up to people to filter it themselves and decide what is important to listen to. There is also the problem of trying to force people to be better at reaching certain data points. For instance, children shouldn’t get a higher grade on an English exam, they should be better at analyzing and writing in the language. Likewise, people shouldn’t just read more information, they should be analyzing the available information more efficiently.

A narrative after the presidential election centers around the dissemination of fake news and its possible impact on the outcome. Much of the blame has centered on Facebook and social media for allowing the spread of fake news, but this criticism is misplaced. People must take some responsibility before we force technology to make decisions for us. The centrality of data and algorithms, information culture in its entirety, must be maintained as an AIDE and not as a LEADER.   Our reliance on technology cannot extend to giving up agency. If people cannot decide between believing fake news sources or not, and we need an algorithm to decide for us, then people are abdicating their right to self-government to mathematical constructs.

The Aging Infrastructure Paradox

Many countries in the developed world have an infrastructure crisis. In the United States there is an avowed problem with bridges and railroads, but also with water and sewage systems and with internal governmental communications technology. There is general agreement that these aging structures need to be replaced or repaired, but the cost is tremendous and the political jockeying for funds is, and will be, intense.

There is another problem, though. With technology advancing so rapidly, how does a municipality or nation decide when to proceed in adopting technology with promised cost reductions and improvements over the horizon? Any project undertaken will necessarily be outdated and overcost compared to projects undertaken in the near future, but further deterioration in infrastructur hurts all facets of society.

It is clear that in physical infrastructure projects leaders must choose a contractor and technique and live with it, technology in this arena and costs will always fluctuate but structures must be maintained.

In communications technology any investment designed to modernize infrastructure will be rendered obsolete in a few years. Anything adopted in the public sector will immediately lag behind innovations in the private sector. This can lead to problems that are not immediately apparent, such as tech support being ended for the technology in use. If quantum cryptography or other innovations provide superior security from cyberattacks then anything not using that technology will be vulnerable to intrusion. Systems that are immediately antiquated will be vulnerable and attractive targets.

Flexibility is integral in modernity’s ever-advancing technological revolution. Skeleton structures that can be modified and updated are optimal, instead of rigid, permanent structures, in both physical and communications projects.

The Post-Will, Post-Fate Future

Our wills and fates do so contrary run, that our devices still are overthrown; are thoughts are ours, their ends none our own.
Shakespeare succinctly summed up a fundamental debate about human nature with that quote. It seems that we are predestined to play certain roles in our lives. When we look back at the episodes that define our existence, often we find that patterns seem to emerge from the randomness that permeates our interactions. This is possibly an illusion, but it also refers to something we know to be true, that we make unconscious decisions that subtly and overtly shape our lives.
Every bit of us is being broken down into discrete chunks of data. And all of that data is processed with other data, and constantly refined algorithms comb through all that data to sort and find patterns. It is the avowed goal of the founders of Google, for instance, to create a personal assistant that optimizes all of the minute decisions we make in a day. Less traffic than usual? Your sleep not quite as sound? Sleep in for 10 more minutes before getting up, this will be determined for you.
Now the AI deprives of us will, but it does not exactly exist as fate either. That is, it determines in a mathematical manner the most efficient way to live in our lives at the moment, from moment to moment. It does not determine an overarching theme for our lives. But how will we cope with this new aimlessness?
It seems likely that the majority of people will acquiesce, handing control of their lives over to algorithms and enjoying the placid comfort of decision-less existence. People who rebel will almost certainly be at a disadvantage, both in the comfort of their lives and in their place in society. This is I, Robot and The Matrix in real life. Will AI have to give us the illusion of control in order for us to maintain our emotional equilibrium? But we will know it is a lie. We will all have to find our unique pleasures and goals. Even the realm of art will be penetrated by AI, and a society of artists will be unnecessary, so will self-improvement. So what exists beyond the intellectual? The only thing that we will control or want to control, and the only thing that distinguishes us from an intelligent computer, is our emotions and physicality. Perhaps we will seek to manipulate our emotions, “I wish to feel joy!” Or maybe, due to the imperfections of human psychology, profound sadness. The other is physical pleasure. Drugs and stimulations will be in high demand.

I’m not sure where this leaves us as a species, but once our minds are rendered impotent compared to a computer, all we have left are our bodies and our primitive feelings. Existence, even immortal existence, could be rendered utterly meaningless. That flaw, that has driven humanity so far, to discover meaning, always asking “why?” and “how?” will certainly be our undoing once there is no purpose to answering those questions.