What Do We Want, Really?

I was in Amish country last week. Several times a day I heard the clip-clop of horse hooves and the whirring of buggy wheels coming down the street and then receding into the distance–a rather soothing Doppler effect. While there, I was reminded of an anecdote about the Amish relayed by a reader in the comments to a recent post:

I once heard David Kline tell of Protestant tourists sight-seeing in an Amish area. An Amishman is brought on the bus and asked how Amish differ from other Christians. First, he explained similarities: all had DNA, wear clothes (even if in different styles), and like to eat good food.

Then the Amishman asked: “How many of you have a TV?”

Most, if not all, the passengers raised their hands.

“How many of you believe your children would be better off without TV?”

Most, if not all, the passengers raised their hands.

“How many of you, knowing this, will get rid of your TV when you go home?”

No hands were raised.

“That’s the difference between the Amish and others,” the man concluded.

I like the Amish. As I’ve said before, the Amish are remarkably tech-savvy. They understand that technologies have consequences, and they are determined to think very hard about how different technologies will affect the life of their communities. Moreover, they are committed to sacrificing the benefits a new technology might bring if they deem the costs too great to bear. This takes courage and resolve. We may not agree with all of the choices made by Amish communities, but it seems to me that we must admire both their resolution to think about what they are doing and their willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to live according to their principles.

Image via Wikicommons
Image via Wikicommons

The Amish are a kind of sign to us, especially as we come upon the start of a new year and consider, again, how we might better live our lives. Let me clarify what I mean by calling the Amish a sign. It is not that their distinctive way of life points the way to the precise path we must all follow. Rather, it is that they remind us of the costs we must be prepared to incur and the resoluteness we must be prepared to demonstrate if we are to live a principled life.

It is perhaps a symptom of our disorder that we seem to believe that all can be made well merely by our making a few better choices along the way. Rarely do we imagine that what might be involved in the realization of our ideals is something more radical and more costly. It is easier for us to pretend that all that is necessary are a few simple tweaks and minor adjustments to how we already conduct our lives, nothing that will makes us too uncomfortable. If and when it becomes impossible to sustain that fiction, we take comfort in fatalism: nothing can ever change, really, and so it is not worth trying to change anything at all.

What is often the case, however, is that we have not been honest with ourselves about what it is that we truly value. Perhaps an example will help. My wife and I frequently discuss what, for lack of a better way of putting it, I’ll call the ethics of eating. I will not claim to have thought very deeply, yet, about all of the related issues, but I can say that we care about what has been involved in getting food to our table. We care about the labor involved, the treatment of animals, and the use of natural resources. We care, as well, about the quality of the food and about the cultural practices of cooking and eating. I realize, of course, that it is rather fashionable to care about such things, and I can only hope that our caring is not merely a matter of fashion. I do not think it is.

But it is another thing altogether for us to consider how much we really care about these things. Acting on principle in this arena is not without its costs. Do we care enough to bear those costs? Do we care enough to invest the time necessary to understand all the relevant complex considerations? Are we prepared to spend more money? Are we willing to sacrifice convenience? And then it hits me that what we are talking about is not simply making a different consumer choice here and there. If we really care about the things we say we care about, then we are talking about changing the way we live our lives.

In cases like this, and they are many, I’m reminded of a paragraph in sociologist James Hunter’s book about varying approaches to moral education in American schools. “We say we want the renewal of character in our day,” Hunter writes,

“but we do not really know what to ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”

You may not agree with Hunter about the matter of moral education, but it is his conclusion that I want you to note: we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.

This strikes me as being a widely applicable diagnosis of our situation. Across so many different domains of our lives, private and public, this dynamic seems to hold. We say we want something, often something very noble and admirable, but in reality we are not prepared to pay the costs required to obtain the thing we say we want. We are not prepared to be inconvenienced. We are not prepared to reorder our lives. We may genuinely desire that noble, admirable thing, whatever it may be; but we want some other, less noble thing more.

At this point, I should probably acknowledge that many of the problems we face as individuals and as a society are not the sort that would be solved by our own individual thoughtfulness and resolve, no matter how heroic. But very few problems, private or public, will be solved without an honest reckoning of the price to be paid and the work to be done.

So what then? I’m presently resisting the temptation to now turn this short post toward some happy resolution, or at least toward some more positive considerations. Doing so would be disingenuous. Mostly, I simply wanted to draw our attention, mine no less than yours, toward the possibly unpleasant work of counting the costs. As we thought about the new year looming before us and contemplated how we might live it better than the last, I wanted us to entertain the possibility that what will be required of us to do so might be nothing less than a fundamental reordering of our lives. At the very least, I wanted to impress upon myself the importance of finding the space to think at length and the courage to act.

Tip the Writer


25 thoughts on “What Do We Want, Really?

  1. I agree absolutely with your sentiments. The time is fast approaching when we will discover the true cost of the choices we have made, particularly in the industrial/technological age, and the lack of clarity in our thinking for centuries. I have always admired the Amish, from the limited information we have here in the UK, and I feel it is very unfair that they will suffer from our mistakes too.

  2. What I do want, really, is to tell you how finding your blog has been great. So as we are almost leaving 2014 behind and ready to enter 2015, I want to thank you for the meaningful and well-crafted posts you’ve written and offered us. The comments have also been very interesting, and although I rarely comment myself I’ve read many thoughts that match mine. Thanks, everyone, and Happy New Year.

  3. On a related phenomenon: years ago I wrote this down on a piece of paper: “Take what you want, and pay for it. — Arabic saying.” Sadly I dunno where I read that. But it’s served me well as a mental tool for evaluating the choices available to me, phrasing my desires in terms of what the price would be.

    We’re willing to take what we want. Less willing to pay for it.

  4. I wonder if Roddenberry had the Amish in mind when he conceived of the Vulcan lore? Careful evaluation of every conceivable implication of technology before adoption. It’s as if he fused the idea of continuous rational consideration with advanced technology in some fantastic and sustainable way. What did the Vulcan’s lose in the process? Frivolity? Speed of social evolution? Yes. But really it was control of their base desires that made the execution possible. I used to think Humans couldn’t be like the Vulcans. But, maybe the Amish represent an actual first step.

    Of course, Roddenberry’s solution to every massive evolutionary hurdle was to bring civilization to its knees and confront it with the real possibility of extinction before any real substantive change could occur. Who knows, he may be right.

    In my opinion, the doorway to the kind of existence you suggest in this article involves a strong resolve to incorporate mediation into the daily regimen of life. Without meditation, it’s impossible to keep all that awareness active all of the time.

  5. It may be true that the majority of us may be afflicted by technological somnambulism (to use Winner’s phrase) more than the Amish. And that meanwhile, while we walk around in our sleep, the chickens (of global warming and other environmental catastrophes) are coming home to roost. But on the other hand we shouldn’t distinguish ourselves too much from the Amish. In some senses the difference is not a difference in principle so much as degree because very few of us adopt every last bit of technology that comes our way. We pick and choose and reject not unlike the Amish. Some of us use any drug our doctor’s prescribes to us while many others of us do not. Some people pursue cosmetic surgery while many of us do not. Many of us wouldn’t buy an F-150 even if the price of gas dropped to cents on the gallon. And the list goes on and on. I suppose, as you say, those are just “a consumer choice here or there.” But in the aggregate they often do add up to inconveniences and real life style changes. We just weigh the costs and benefits differently.

    1. But what this misses, Luke, is that the Amish have systems for collective deliberation on technology. It’s not a matter of individual Amish making individual choices as far as I understand.

      There’s also the obvious difference in numbers. The Amish are several hundred thousand people whereas the US is several hundred million. Of course, all of the US, or all of Europe, or all of the world don’t need to make the same technological choices.

      Thinking about this, I suppose there are two separate elements required for a group of people to make informed decisions about technology. The first is the ability to debate. People need to ask questions, think about those questions, and possibly do research. The second is the realm of politics where systems for collective action are put in place. One could ask at what level is it correct to ask questions about collective adoption of various technologies. I think only having the choice of individuals or entire societies isn’t flexible enough. From my reading of Wendall Berry, I get the idea that the level of the ‘community’ is the right place where such choices should be made. And perhaps the different Amish groups are in fact small enough and live together with shared concerns to an extent that they could be correctly called a community (or multiple communities?).

      1. The Amish also possess a unity of values that’s pretty rare outside of religious communities. I suspect that it’s within that broader consensus that subsequent decisions about technologies can be achieved.

  6. I’m sympathetic to your points about principled consideration of the use of technology. I don’t have television service at my apartment (or online content services to replace it), nor do I have internet service there. I find that not having internet service at my apartment forces me to be more judicious in how I use it, and that I use it more for genuinely helpful informative and educative tasks rather than for entertainment and leisure because it is not constantly available. I tend to agree that we need to engage in this kind of principled decision-making at the community level as well.

    People tend to find it odd that I am not quick to embrace every new technology given that I work in the IT field, but I would hope that those of us who work in technology would be the most conscientious about how we use it. And I think technologists are the ones who will have to help guide the public policy discussion on technology so that it can be a somewhat more informed discussion.

  7. One other small point I’d make, based on experience of living both in France and the US is that my sense is that in France (perhaps Europe more generally, but I would be careful about that) one needs to know more precisely what one wants if one is to get it.

    Resources may be available, but one often doesn’t know that these resources are available. It is only upon articulating a plan or a desire very precisely that these resources may be made available. This seems to me to contrast with the US where my sense was that I knew what was available as resources, and I could use these resources to whatever end I wanted.

    This latter (American) approach probably leads to more wasted resources and doesn’t take into account limits on those resources from a longer term perspective. What I am required to do in France may feel more constraining, but may be more sustainable as a general approach in the long run.

  8. It seems to me that the trick of this is to put one’s self in an environment where the “right” or “better” choices get made by default, which is what the Amish do by choosing to live in their communities. For most of us more or less isolated individuals living in a modern capitalist / consumerist culture the sheer daily grind of making the “right” choices is overwhelming, so we pay lip service to the ideals and at best, only modify our behaviour and choices at the margins. Many of us are waiting / hoping for the environment to change around us – it would be better perhaps to do as the Amish do, and change our environment, by joining or creating communities that reflect our ideals.

  9. Thanks to all of you for the comments above. I’m unable to go through and respond to each, but you all have raised a number of important considerations, particularly regarding the nature of community. I’ve got a follow-up post in mind, hopefully I’ll get a chance to write it soon.

  10. I’m from Northeastern Ohio and there are a few different Amish sects up there – scattered all over Ohio and parts of PA. With that being said, I’ve seen some Amish communities that strictly uphold the old ways but I’ve seen more and more where this is not the case. A lot of the younger community (35 and under) smoke cigarettes, have cell phones, and shop in the same stores as I do. I’ve seen teenagers dropped off by a van and go into a building wearing traditional garb and come out in “street clothes.”

    Although the Amish have a lot of ways that I wish more communities would adopt – including doing for your neighbor – it seems that these ways are slowly being eroded. I know that our own society is to blame but truly, I wish there was a way to combine some of their greater moral values with our technological advances. But all any of us can really do is strive for this balance in our own lives and hope that at some point, we achieve it.

    Thanks for your article. It was insightful and truly made me reflect.

  11. It may be a little late to add much to this discussion, but I just began Daniel Boorstin’s The Image , and the opening of the introduction reminded me of this post.

    We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxury cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals to “excellence”, to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move, and ever more neighborly, to go to “a church of our choice”, and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.

    Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than than world could offer.

  12. Very smart Amish man! He caught the “raw nerve” spot on with the TV stuff. It is very true. We know many things in our lives are hopeless and vain but we still hang on to them. I like not just the Amish way of living but the community living. But everybody laughs when i speak it aloud.

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