How “moral progress” relates to “vertical and horizontal consciousness”

Il est foutu le temps des cathedrales, La foule des barbares, Est aux portes de la ville…

(The time of cathedrals has gone, Hordes of Barbarians, Storm the city gates…)

Temps des Cathedrales, Notre Dame de Paris musical

Since people don’t have enough time in modern life, they rarely think about the global notion of moral progress, if ever. However, moral, ethical development in relation to the increasing rate of scientific, economic, and technological advancements is a very important matter, and many philosophers, scholars, or the other representatives of the progressive mankind take a serious look at that question.

Economist from December 2009 presents an article named “Onwards and upwards” that asks, “Why is the modern view of progress so impoverished?” The writer is concerned about what values prevail in our contemporary society and how they affect world progress. There is another interesting essay that is related to moral progress. Sven Birkerts, an American essayist and literary critic, in his essay “The Owl Has Flown”, tries to convince the readers that our society has lost wisdom. He asserts that our lives have become localized in the “horizontal realm”. Humans do not fall to thinking “deeply” about the origin, nature, and correlation of things and events. Birkerts and the author from the Economist have similar concerns about society’s moral progress against the backdrop of technological advancements.

There is no precise, clear definition of moral progress. In one context, it relates to the political sphere and includes a free speech, freedom to protest, prohibition of slavery, and the right to vote. In another context, moral progress is linked with happiness. In addition, many thinkers relate moral progress to the degree of a society’s religiosity. The author from the Economist is prone to think that human progress depends on democratic rights. He believes that government “embodies moral progress”. He asserts that “the last pair of engines of progress” are “moral sensibility in its widest sense, and the institutions that make up what today is known as governance” (40). He says that, in spite of technological and economic progress, people are still worried about the future of their children. Material progress needs governing, for we must link “moral progress” with it. Though the author asserts that the idea of progress has become impoverished, he looks forward optimistically believing that “moral sensibility” still exists and that people have not lost their faith in moral progress.

Using facts from history and examples from the works of famous philosophers and writers, the author appeals to an audience who is not indifferent to the future of mankind. He tries to convince the readers that values such as “moral progress” and “moral sensibility” are of utmost importance in a high speed society such as our own.

If we look at Birkerts’ essay, we can find the answer to the question of why our beliefs in ”moral progress” are so fragile and unstable. Birkerts’ concern is that, in our modern world of technology, the overwhelming amount of information forces people to process it shallowly, mindlessly skimming through headlines. He designates this type of “reading” as “horizontal”. “Vertical”, on the other hand, implies the old-style of processing information deeply, when people tried to extract an underlining structure of the world from isolated shreds of evidence. The “vertical” way to read and contemplate information with the goal of acquiring a holistic understanding of our lives and the world is gone, according to Birkerts. He fears this loss is causing relativism, as well as “cognitive and moral paralysis” (73). Birkerts charges that “quantity is elevated over quality” (72). Overwhelmed by what we read, listen to, watch, and even feel, we are unable to make connections between our prior knowledge, our experiences, and the world, and thus we fail to gain any true insight or understanding of the nature of our lives and the events that influence them. Birkerts deliberately exaggerates his argument to attract attention and provoke discussion.

“Vertical consciousness” is an attempt to establish causal relationships between events, phenomena, and the driving forces of our world. “Vertical consciousness” gives us “a sense of the deep…connectedness of things….where wisdom is developed and nurtured” (74). “Horizontal consciousness” entails actions of skimming through information and perceiving the world as consisting of merely sequential events, an activity which requires very little attention or focus, “we no longer think in these larger terms” or seek to embrace and understand the big picture (74).

The question that plagues both authors is how society can have moral progress if we have lost wisdom and switched our moral ideals for a better life to consumerism and “petty self-interest” and from a “vertical” to a “horizontal” vision of the world. Both authors are also concerned about how to make our world a better place in which wisdom, spirituality, and intellectual activity will be welcomed. Although both authors look at the phenomena of moral progress from different points of view, the author from the Economist believes that governing and “moral sensibility” are the priorities for achieving the progress, while Birkerts appeals to society to change our life style and pay more attention to the timeless values such as kindness, freedom, and justice rather than to momentary pleasures.

Yes, the ideas being discussed are so important. If we let this issues slip between our fingers and isolate ourselves in shell of consumerism it may lead us to a social collapse.

Although governance is an important for supporting the moral progress, as the Economist writer said, democracy is not a panacea. Even the grandfather of today’s liberalism, Montesquieu, warned against the common and very dangerous fallacy that democracy automatically guarantees liberties (Pangle 109). Today’s foreign policies, such as the shameful wars in the Middle East, are bright examples of moral degradation of the “beacon of democracy” (Zinn para 2). The death sentence was reintroduced and has actively been used in many states, which once banned it, making the US the only developed country practicing it, thus putting us in the company of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Korea, China, Libya, etc (Capital Punishment table 1). The prison population has skyrocketed not only to the absolute and per capita first position in the today’s world, but it has also overshadowed the worse years of Stalin’s GULAG (“Incarceration in USA”, “Gulag”).

Birkerts is right to invoke us to change our behavior. We can not make wise decisions when we think with merely a “horizontal consciousness”. There was a distinct moment, a turning point when Americans had a choice between “vertical”, deep reflection or predacious consumption world resources. In 1980 they chose the easy way of R.Regan’s “shining city on a hill” (Zinn para 1) rhetoric over J.Carter’s moral philosophy of the “Malaise” speech, in which he said,

“It is a crisis of confidence… in the future… We’ve always believed in something called progress”, which is “a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own… We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself… involved in the search for freedom… In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities… too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose…”

“We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem. (para 32,35,36,37,50,51)

As history teaches us, debates about what is more important, material or moral progress, quickly become obsolete, because the former starts to deteriorate soon after the latter is gone. Alarmingly, nothing changed since J.Carter said: “We ourselves are the same Americans who just ten years ago put a man on the Moon”, but now it’s almost 40 years since we left the Moon, and we have more “lasts”: the last supersonic passenger jet flew over Atlantic about 10 years ago, and the last Space Shuttle flight was this summer (para 49).

Carter’s speech is a synthesis of the central ideas present in the articles of Birkerts and the Economist. More than 30 years ago, President Carter appealed to the nation, but did not get a response. Now it’s time to come back and ask Americans these questions again. As the author from the Economist says, “Moral progress…is neither guaranteed nor is it hopeless. Instead, it is up to us” (40).

Works cited:

Birkerts, Sven. “The Owl Has Flown.” Ed. Bruce Coleman. Making Sense: Essays on Art, Science, and Culture. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006. Print.

“Capital Punishment”. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, Sep 2011 Web. 28 Sep.2011

Carter, Jimmy. “Crisis of Confidence”. American Experience. WGBH, “n.d.” Web. 28 Sep 2011

“Capital Punishment”. Wikipedia. Wikipedia , Sep 2011 Web. 30 Sep 2011

“Gulag”. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, Sep 2011 Web. 28 Sep.2011

“Incarceration in the United States”. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, Sep 2011 Web. 30 Sep 2011

“Onwards and upwards”. Economist. Economist, 19 Dec 2009. Print.

Pangle, Thomas L.. “Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism”. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.

Zinn, Howard. “The Power and The Glory”. Boston Review. Summer 2005. Web. Sep.2011

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