Loneliness in Post-Industrial Society

It is quite common to hear that there is an epidemic of loneliness within post-industrial societies. Yet, this seems odd as inhabitants of post-industrial societies seem to have a great deal of contact with others. However, on reflection this is not odd, because loneliness is a form of alienation that results from an unsatisfied general human desire, and a large amount and variety of social contact does not satiate this desire. Furthermore, while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies, it is unclear if it has been a problem for other societies, such that loneliness may be a part of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.

Post-industrial societies are overwhelmingly urban and thus it seems odd that people would be lonely as inhabitants of these societies typically are surrounded by other people. Unlike the subsistence farmer who would often only have contact with his family, the typical city dweller within a post-industrial society will have contact with neighbours, clients, colleagues, vendors, family, and friends on a regular basis. Furthermore, the development of technologies has made it far easier to contact others. The fact that nearly everyone has a cell phone and is on social media means that we can easily stay in contact with other people even if they live on the other side of the world. So, it seems that our loneliness is not an effect of not being in contact with others or not being able to easily contact others, as post-industrial societies far surpass other societies both in terms of the amount of contact that people have with one another, and the ease with which we can contact one another.

Loneliness is a species of alienation. The lonely, like the alienated, feel displaced; the particular variety of alienation that the lonely person encounters is that they feel isolated from those they should be connected with. This does not mean that the lonely know who in particular they should be connected with, but rather that they have a sense that they are not connected to the right people or connected to people in a proper way. What lies behind loneliness is a general human desire to connect with something beyond oneself in a substantial, meaningful way. This is not a desire for any particular social relationship, but rather to be engaged with something other than ourselves in a substantial way. This is why a vast network of social contact does not protect against loneliness, as the desire to connect meaningfully with something beyond oneself is not satiated by the fact that one has a large amount of social contact. Some might question the existence of such a desire, but if the desire did not exist then the sense of loneliness we feel would likely be nonexistent, but yet we feel or typically know someone who feels this sense of loneliness. Furthermore, it seems plausible to construe this desire as a general feature of humanity rather than something particular to post-industrial society, as many cultures that have developed independently seem to speak to the presence of this desire. The notion of connecting meaningfully with something beyond oneself is vague, but it is purposefully so, as this desire is meant to cover both our desire to develop friendships and find romantic love, as well as our desire to connect with something like God. I construed the desire in this way as I think loneliness can result both because of a sense of disconnection from God, and from a sense of lack of meaningful connections with other people. The believer who feels disconnected from God would surely feel lonely, as they have found themselves in a situation where they are disconnected from a being that deeply matters in their life.

I have assumed throughout this entry that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial societies and I have no intention of arguing against this thesis, as it fits with my own anecdotal experience, although I recognize that this thesis may be discredit by empirical evidence. But simply saying that loneliness is a problem for post-industrial society raises the question of whether loneliness has been a problem for other societies. The answer to this question is not something that I can answer as I do not have the historical knowledge to speak to it conclusively, but we do have reasons to think that loneliness was a problem in other societies. In the Symposium Plato has Aristophanes say that erotic desire is rooted in the general human desire to find the other half of their true nature, and this is surely related to the desire that underlies loneliness that has been elucidated above. There are surely other examples like this, so while loneliness may be a problem for post-industrial societies this may also have been an issue within other societies as well. So, in the case that it turns out that loneliness is a problem for other societies we may need to accept that loneliness is a central aspect of the human condition, rather than a historical contingency.

Problematizing the Pursuit of Career Success: Vice, Virtue and Post-Industrial Culture

The term “career success” brings to mind conflicting images. For many, career success means climbing the professional ladder so that one can get the best and most prestigious job possible. While, for some career success is more analogous to finding a career that is one’s calling. In an earlier entry, I criticized this latter conception of a career. In this entry I will critique the former conception. For the sake of this entry I will refer to the former conception of career success as “worldly career success.”

Worldly career success is valued extremely highly within post-industrial societies. For example, nearly every parent within these societies seems to want their child to have worldly career success, and children tend to internalize the desire for worldly career success and want to get an education and experience which will allow them to climb the corporate ladder and consequently achieve worldly career success. Furthermore, those who do not succeed in climbing the ladder of their profession and consequently do not achieve worldly career success are often called “losers” or “bums.” Thus, it seems that the culture of post-industrial societies puts a lot of value on worldly career success. Yet, I will contend that we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because in many contexts within post-industrial societies devotion to worldly career success will encourage the development of vices, as opposed to virtues.

On some level it seems that striving for worldly career success would reinforce virtues such as determination, and reliability, because in order to be successful within the work place one must ensure that one performs one’s assigned tasks, and does so, even if there are roadblocks to the completion of these tasks. Yet, at the same time striving for worldly career success often requires servility, and inauthenticity. Servility and inauthenticity are often required for worldly career success because in many institutions and firms it is necessary to be sycophantic and dishonest about how one feels and what one thinks in order to climb the professional ladder. For example, if I know that my boss has a stupid idea about something, but I also know that my boss is very sensitive to any criticism from people below him in the corporate chain, then if I am committed to worldly career success I will likely be dishonest and not say anything about my bosses’ idea just to ensure my chances of a promotion. So, it seems that in many contexts commitment to worldly career success could lead us to develop vices, because as we begin to act in a servile, inauthentic fashion within our working life to achieve worldly career success we will become habituated in acting in these ways and begin to become genuinely servile and inauthentic in the other areas of our lives. In such a situation one’s commitment to worldly career success has degraded one’s spirit and brought out the baser elements of one’s self. Consequently, we should not value worldly career success without qualification, because even if worldly career success has intrinsic value (which I doubt), it is still not something that we want to pursue at all costs, as an unconditional commitment to this value can to the development of particularly problematic vices.

Now it is true that post-industrial society does not explicitly tell people to be unconditionally committed to worldly career success, yet because the culture values worldly career success so highly it implicitly suggests that there is nothing inherently wrong with pursuing this value as an ultimate end. If those who do not achieve worldly career success are “losers,” then clearly there is something wrong with not achieving worldly career success, and if this is the case then it is reasonable to think that it is legitimate to pursue worldly career success without qualification. Thus, the culture of post-industrial societies does encourage people to pursue worldly career success without qualification, even if no one is explicitly telling people to do so. As a result, it seems that the way that the culture of post-industrial societies values worldly career success is deeply problematic as it encourages people to pursue worldly career success in a way that may lead to the development of vices that any free, self-respecting person would want to avoid at any cost. Therefore, it is necessary to try to change this culture, and the first step towards changing it is to begin truly reflecting on how we value worldly career success, so we can revise our valuation where this is necessary.

The Place of Progressive Historicism in Modern Consciousness

Progressive historicism is the notion that historical forces have a direction, and this direction is towards the fullest development of humanity. In an academic context, this idea tends to be ridiculed as it is viewed as an archaic, western metanarrative that is not only false, but also pernicious in the way that it has been and is still used to justify colonialism and other evils. However, despite the fact that this idea is not taken particularly seriously among academics, it is still a large part of the popular consciousness of modern post-industrial societies. Furthermore, while progressive historicism provides an intelligible answer to the question of how we have arrived at this point in history, we should be suspicious of progressive historicism, because while there have been significant improvements in well-being throughout the development of human society, these improvements are not necessarily tied to a necessary process, and these improvements have also included historical losses in forms of value. Similarly, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it encourages a form of close-mindedness which discourages people from properly considering what the good is.

The tendency to write off progressive historicism as an antiquated theory is problematic, because even though its premises seem questionable and it has been used as a justification for problematic practises it has become a large part of the consciousness of post-industrial societies. For example, we often refer to people with ideas we disapprove of as backwards or medieval, and refer to those with ideas that we approve and admire as ahead of their time. Furthermore, I have heard seemingly intelligent people write off Plato and Aristotle, among others because the fact that they had lived an earlier era necessarily means that they are stupid and must be wrong about everything. This suggests that the way that individuals think about history fits in with the progressive historicist narrative as people tend to see the past as having been superseded by the present, and see humanity marching towards a bright new future.

The appeal of progressive historicism partially lies in the fact that we know that people in early ages have been subject to mass famine, disease, suffering and oppression, and at the very least, in post-industrial societies, it seems that we have begun to overcome famine and disease, and furthermore traditionally oppressed groups (women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals) have been able to gain legal, and perhaps social equality. In this sense, it seems that there has been progress in terms of justice as more and more people have their dignity respected, and progress in terms of technology as humanity becomes less endangered by the forces of nature and has more control over their destiny.

However, there are a few reasons why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism. Firstly, the idea of a necessary historical process while effective at explaining societal development is not necessary to explain such development. We can recognize that there has been a process of development, but consider it to be something that was contingent, and thus not inevitable, but rather one possibility among many. In this case we might consider history as something that is path dependent in that at one point there were certain events that could have led to a multiplicity of differing trajectories for the development of society, but particular choices that were made caused the current path of historical development to be much more likely. Unless we are already strongly committed to the idea of necessity determining societal change, it seems that the alternative that I have articulated is at least equally plausible to the progressive historicist story.

Secondly, the other issue with the progressive historicist story is that it pays keen attention to the gains that have occurred for humanity, but is troubling silent about the losses that have occurred throughout societal development. The development of society is partially a story of the gradual expansion of the recognition of dignity, but as a result of this development and particular technological changes certain forms of practise that constitute unique forms of value have been lost. For example, even if we are deeply disturbed by the brutality of the warrior way of life and the ethic of honor that goes along with it, we also admire the kind of courage that was necessary to live this life. And while this way of life had to be set aside to make way for egalitarian justice, certain forms of value were lost. Likewise, while finding certain elements of Ancient Athenian democracy particularly troubling (ie slavery), we can also see something deeply valuable in the solidarity that the citizenry of Athens achieved at particular points in its history. But this solidarity was probably made far more likely by the fact that the citizenry had slaves who could provide for their daily needs while they were active within the public sphere. Thus, the ending of slavery while necessary for the expansion of the recognition of all as equal, likely also lead to the loss of forms of value, such as the solidarity that could be achieved among the citizenry of Ancient Athens. Consequently, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it does not seem to tell an accurate story of the development of value throughout society’s history. Clearly, the equal dignity of all is more important than the courage of the warrior or the solidarity of Ancient Athens, but nonetheless these are still losses in value that must be taken account of.

Thirdly, the last reason why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism is the fact that the progressive historicist narrative encourages a kind of close-mindedness that sees the wisdom of the past as having been superseded by the wisdom of the modern era. This close-mindedness closes off people from deeply asking the question of what the good life is, as individuals under the grip of progressive historicism only seriously consider modern alternatives that share their own basic assumptions about what the good is, and do not deeply consider the wisdom of previous ages. If there is an inevitable process that is leading to the fullest development of humanity, then why would we need to learn from the wisdom of the past? Consequently, it seems that the progressive historicist narrative is problematic in its tendency to encourage close-mindedness. As a result while there seems to be a grain of truth within the progressive historicist notion that societal development has involved a long march towards equal respect for the dignity of all, this is only one element of the story of our history, and if we myopically focus on this one element we may fail to properly answer the question of what the good is.