The Boss Says We’ve Lost Our Moral Center March 25, 2009Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
Tags: Bruce Springsteen, economic man, Ethics, Jon Stewart, moral crisis, Philosophy
And no one wants to argue with The Boss.
Recently two of my favorite people appeared on the same show. Jon Stewart interviewed Bruce Springsteen.
So what did Springsteen have in mind when he said “the country has lost its moral center?”
Here is how I would explain it.
It has long been an assumption in most social and political theories, whether in philosophy or the social sciences, that we can best understand human behavior by assuming that each person is a thoroughly self-interested, rational agent.
This self-interested rational agent knows what he wants and he makes decisions by making rational calculations about how to maximize the satisfaction of his desires. So regardless of whether it is a consumer choosing between Coke and Pepsi, an investor deciding between stocks and bonds, or a person deciding how best to spend her time, we make rational calculations about how to maximize our desires based on comparisons of the added benefit we would get by pursuing alternative courses of action. (Economists call this marginal utility)
Of course, no one really makes decisions this way because emotions, irrational attachments, and a variety of human weaknesses always enter the mix of factors explaining our decisions. But most theorists, and especially economists, have found this idea of a rational, self-interested agent useful, while realizing that it is an idealization and oversimplification. It is useful because our lives are really complicated and messy and, it is thought, that we have to eliminate some of that messiness if we are going to produce intelligible models of human action.
The recent collapse in our economic system, and the inability of economists to predict it, has called into question the effectiveness of these assumptions as a model. But I think the model has had more pernicious effects than simply disrupting economic theory.
One way to understand what Springsteen was talking about when he referred to losing our moral center is that, as a culture, we took this theoretical idealization of a rational, self-interested person out of the context of economic modeling and made it a moral ideal—something we should strive to be. This move largely defines modern conservatism.
It is thus no wonder that we have lost our moral center. No doubt human beings are sometimes self-interested desire machines trying to accumulate as much as we can. But morality begins when we see the folly of that. When we make the idea of a self-interested, rational maximizer our moral ideal, we lose the very basis of any moral point of view.
The question our current predicament poses is whether we can regain our moral center.