I just posted an article about C. S. Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man—which you can see on this blog. Then I watched the video interview of Edward Snowden, the whistle blower of the controversial Prism surveillance program run by the NSA.
I won’t summarize all of the arguments of Lewis’s book, but he does set forward the thesis that new technologies that enable “man’s power over nature” turn out to be not to be the power of “man” generally, but rather the power of a few men over many other men.
The technologies that Lewis had in mind in 1947 were such things as the airplane, the wireless (radio) and contraceptives. Today, no doubt he would mention computers, smart phones…and the internet. These technologies do in fact bequeath power—power that most of us enjoy, like the power of emailing a friend, or listening to The Brother’s Karamazov, or checking our bank account–all while riding a bus, train or taxi (and even on some airplanes).
The power of these technologies are increasing rapidly, and while they may bless the man on the street, they also bolster the man at the bureau. We trust that our governmental agencies like the FBI, CIA and NSA use these great powers well, for our welfare and safety. If we ever suspect that they are using these powers to control, contain and condition the man on the street…well we become a bit nervous and edgy. The same technology that enables the NSA to track a potential terrorist, enables it to track me… a potential dissident. But our government wants (even encourages?) dissidence, or political free speech even of those critical of government policy. Right?
Lewis notes that when a culture has jettisoned objective value (what he also calls the Tao)—real, knowable truth and goodness—then gradually the way it wields power shifts from serving people to conditioning them to act the way the power-holders think best. And what a power-holder thinks best is not determined by an objective standard of what is right and good, precisely because such standards have been rejected. How then to do the power-holders make their decisions? They do what they please—that is to say they follow whatever impulses come to them as the strongest. These power-holders themselves may become what Lewis calls “Conditioners” and “man-moulders:”
They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. ‘Good’ and ‘bad,’ applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived.
Could it be that immense power in the hands of few, in a culture without objective value will lead to man-moulding policies that seek to shape citizens into conformity with the prevailing ideals of those exercising this power? Is controlling and conditioning citizens not a great temptation to those possessing power—but no traditional morality? Lewis thinks that these amoral men are not bad men, because they have ceased to be men at all:
It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.
Yes, but can’t we take solace in knowing that these power-holders are going to treat us fairly and well (certainly not as artifacts)? Surely, the great majority of people in these agencies will act for our good, or at least the common good. Lewis, I think, would qualify his answer. To those who hold to objective value (the Tao), we may expect some reasonable degree of benevolent treatment. But what should we expect from those who have rejected objective value?
I am very doubtful whether history show us one example of a man, who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned.
In Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist Winston Smith (after a great deal of conditioning) learns to love Big Brother, with tears in his eyes. But Lewis suggests that Big Brother never loves the little brother, the man on the street. Neither does Orwell. The man-moulders want to control, shape and produce a new humanity, what Lewis calls a post-humanity.
This is a pessimistic note to be sure. Chesterton says somewhere that he may enjoy a lively dinner conversation with a houseguest who is a moral relativist; but he will still hide the silver at night. Can we trust the good people at the FBI, CIA and NSA? Are they good people? Are they even people?
Finally, do we regard even Edward Snowden as good? If so, by what standard? Watch as most commentators call him either good or bad, but without appealing to any clear standard of objective truth or goodness. The testimony of Snowden himself doubles the irony, as even he does not appeal to any clear standards either. His view of the human good life seems to be the common “live and let live” as every man sees fit. Freedom to many American is now freedom to do as we please and create our own “morality.” Why can’t the folks at the NSA do the same? We all live by…impulse.
I have no way of proving this thesis, but I think that roughly half of all American have rejected objective value, and we are the midst of living out the consequences of this rejection in a thousand ways. Could it be that half of the people working in the FBI, CIA and NSA are themselves without a polished moral compass? We may call for investigations and committee hearings and protest loudly, but until we return to the Tao, we will have no basis to criticize or demand reform. Instead we will pit the impulses of the man on the street against the impulses of the man with the power, with no doubt as to who will win.