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200 pages, Paperback
First published March 1, 1986
Engineers have shown little interest in filling this void. Except for airy pronouncements in yearly presidential addresses at various engineering societies, typically ones that celebrate the contributions of a particular technical vocation to the betterment of humankind, engineers appear unaware of any philosophical questions their work might entail. As a way of starting a conversation with my friends in engineering, I sometimes ask, "What are the founding principles of your discipline?" The question is always greeted with puzzlement. Even when I explain what I am after, namely, a coherent account of the nature and significance of the branch of engineering in which they are involved, the question still means nothing to them. The scant few who raise important first questions about their technical professions are usually seen by their colleagues as dangerous cranks and radicals. If Socrates' suggestion that the "unexamined life is not worth living" still holds, it is news to most engineers. (4-5)
In our society's enthusiasm to rationalize, standardize, and modernize, it has often thoughtlessly discarded qualities that it might, on more careful reflection, have wanted to preserve. (174)
A widely held notion in the twentieth century is that political life is little more than getting other people to do things for you. One delegates power and authority to representatives, to bureaucrats, to the President, or other such distant persons to get the business of government out of your way. These are not matters for which ordinary citizens want to be responsible. People watch public events on television, sense that these matters are beyond their reach, and then complain that the "government" is getting too large and powerful. (95)
The vitality of democratic politics depends upon people's willingness to act together in pursuit of their common ends. It requires that on occasion members of a community appear before each other in person, speak their minds, deliberate on paths of action, and decide what they will do. This is considerably different from the model now upheld as a breakthrough for democracy: logging onto one's computer, receiving the latest information, and sending back an instantaneous digitized response. (111)
One consequence of these developments is to pare away the kinds of face-to-face contact that once provided important buffers between individuals and organized power. To an increasing extent, people will become even more susceptible to the influence of employers, news media, advertisers, and national political leaders. Where will we find new institutions to balance and mediate such power? (116)
How far a society must go in making political authority and public roles available to ordinary people is a matter of dispute among political theorists. But no serious student of the question would give much credence to the idea that creating a universal gridwork to spread electronic information is, by itself, a democratizing step. (110)
Another important consequence of this way of talking and thinking is to exclude much of what was for-merly contained in traditional moral and political language. That language includes a rich multiplicity of categories, distinctions, arguments, modes of justification, and areas of sensitivity that are simply over-looked in many contemporary conversations. The category of "values" acts like a lawn mower that cuts flat whole fields of meaning and leaves them characterless. Where previously we might have talked about what was good, worthy, virtuous, or desirable, we are now reduced to speculating about "values." Where formerly it made sense to speak of rights and attempt to justify claims to those rights, one is inclined to moan plaintively about "values." Where not too long ago one could make a case for the wisdom of a particular action, one must now show how it matches someone's "values." Increasingly rare is the ability to make what were once fairly obvious distinctions and arguments. If there are any distinctions between an opinion and a principle, bias and belief, desire and need, one's individual interest and what one wishes for the community at large, people are less and less able to make them.
Perhaps the most important consequence of this state of affairs is a loss of attention paid to shared reasons for action. When values are looked upon as subjective, it makes little sense to raise questions of why or to ask for reasons. For the answer will inevitably be something like, "Because those are my values and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing." When basic moral and political ideas are bypassed with such alacrity, any hope for finding a rational basis for common action vanishes. Skill in making or understanding a complex moral argument becomes yet another of the lost arts. Max Horkheimer once described the decline of an objective sense of truth in the modern age as the "Eclipse of Reason." But what we encounter today is more accurately called an eclipse of reasons. (158-9)
But beyond the sophisticated studies of scientists and policy analysts concerned with these issues lies another consideration, which, if we ever become incapable of recognizing it, will indicate that our society has lost its bearings, that it is prepared to feed everything into the shredder. To put the matter bluntly, in that place, on that beach, against those rocks, mountains, sands, and seas, the power plant at Diablo Canyon is simply a hideous mistake. It is out of place, out of proportion, out of reason. It stands as a permanent insult to its natural and cultural surroundings. The thing should never have been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit calculations may have shown. Its presence is a tribute to those who cherish power and profit over everything in nature and our common humanity. To write any such conclusion in our time is, I realize, virtual heresy. (176)