What Do We Want, Really?

This post was originally published two years ago today. It’s been read more than any other post I’ve written, which is interesting as it has very little to do with technology. In any case, revisiting what I wrote, I decided I needed to hear it now as much as then. Perhaps it will resonate with some of you as well. A Happy New Year to all of you. 


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.

5 thoughts on “What Do We Want, Really?

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful and thought provoking post. I’m reminded of a phrase that I sometimes use with my coaching clients, “we must be willing to give up the life that we have to create the life that we want.” For most of us, myself included, this is a scary proposition and the status quo can easily rule the day, and therefore our lives.

  2. Michael:
    Wishing you the best. Thank you for this considered writing. Henry David Thoreau encouraged our examined lives. This is beautifully refrained in that spirit.
    Steve

  3. Fantastically good post Michael – in my opinion anyway. Thank you – one of the best I’ve read this year (actually last year for me but this year for you at the time I write this :)

    I have one small quibble. In the light of the fashionability of ‘ethical consumption’ I think it’s important to place caveats on the extent to which we can or should take an interest in where our food comes from. I try not to buy food that’s involved egregious cruelty or environmental destruction, but I draw the line there for reasons that loom larger for those who’ve read and taken Hayek seriously (even if I think you can take on board his basic arguments about the importance of accessing distributed information without becoming reflexively free marketeering as he is.) . I tried to outline a little of this in this post.

    More generally, and in line with your own laments in the post above, I think of the codes of amateur sport that held from the late nineteenth century until they were white-anted from the 1970s on. I think these codes were more conducive to human wellbeing. On purely economic grounds if one accepts sporting fame as something that people value, it distributes it in an egalitarian way – with the sum total of fame and income being more widely spread around. But of course it was also part of the society’s code of treating sport as a metaphor for life – of it being more about how you play the game than winning or losing and so on.

    It seems that the right to free trade in the market and J.S. Mill’s important presumption in favour of any action providing it doesn’t harm others operates in our culture as a kind of trump card against with other considerations are rendered out of court. In many ways this has been a Good Thing (ask a gay person), but there are downsides – as your post so eloquently illustrates.

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