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The Moral Anatomy of Modern Man


1st July 2020


The pain of living and the drug of dreams
curl up the small soul in the window seat. 

TS Eliot Animula

It should not be controversial to argue that successful arrival at healthy adulthood in biological, psychological and moral terms, in the case of humans, should be the aim of human life. Successful adulthood certainly seems to be the aim of life in most other creatures. Infancy and adolescence (which means growing to maturity) are just staging posts on the way to the condition in which most of a creature’s life is spent. In adulthood humans, who hail from a very social species, reproduce the species, take responsibility for themselves and, to varying degrees in their citizenship, for the conduct of society. In these ways they are supposed to take part in the thrilling moral drama that each human life is. It is this combination of responsibility and destiny that confers dignity on human adults. Their lives are significant.

And yet in our times the overwhelming impression is of people of adult age trying to run as far as they can in the opposite direction when the burdens and privileges of full adulthood first break the line of the horizon. As if adulthood is some kind of lethal contagion they seem not to be able to put off such burdens fast enough. As a result modern men and women display the full catalogue of the moral diseases associated with immaturity as a result of their never having reached or accepted their moral majority. In some sense they have deliberately missed the opportunity of adulthood and, in doing so, have eschewed their raison d’être.

Why should this be? What is the upside of avoiding adulthood? In a social creature perhaps the most important staging post of all on the way to adulthood is the realisation that other people exist and that one’s own thoughts and, especially, feelings are matched by the undeniable presence of the thoughts and feelings of millions of others. Solipsism (solus ipse – only your-self) is a bad thing. One must allow one’s feelings to be displaced by those of others if only to get your own in perspective. However, the unformed and morally embryonic adolescent will not see it this way. Instead he or she will only be concerned with the gratification of his or her own feelings and the ‘hit’ that this affords.

One of the most appealing aspects of a woke, millennial virtue-signalling way of solving dawning adult moral conundrums will be the way it satisfies the craving for such hits. The addictive hunger for a positive feedback loop of self-gratification, self-indulgence, self-congratulation, self-satisfaction, complacency and smugness usually proves to be irresistible. The avatar for such young adults is Little Jack Horner who ‘sat in a corner eating his Christmas pie. He stuck in a thumb and pulled out a plum and said, "What a good boy am I!”’

Another aspect of this solipsism is the typical dependency relationship between an adolescent and its parents. Not all teenagers fit this bill but the stereotypical bolshie teenager is self-absorbed to the point where he won’t notice that his very being, however belligerent and complaining it may be, is sustained by the indispensible provision of warmth, shelter, sanitation and food by the same parents who are the butt of his complaints. Indeed it is this latter role, played by his parents, as general receptacles of blame that may be the most important one of all to him. Everything that goes wrong in his life can be conveniently and petulantly offloaded on to them and life becomes a constant search for evidence of the betrayals, disappointments, exploitations and oppressions inflicted by those who are actually nurturing him. His parents' most important function at the microcosmic scale of the family is to be his whipping boys. If we extend and extrapolate this to the macrocosmic scale we can see a similar dependency relationship between many adults with all forms of authority and the state itself. Every institution put in place to serve us now plays the role of a whipping boy or a scapegoat which can be blamed in the media and litigated against. The local evening news on the television is just a litany of complaints against the NHS, the Police and the local authorities who, at other times we pretend to be grateful for. We have made a fine art of biting the hand that feeds us and dumping adult responsibility and, as a result, blame is systemic. We blame and depend. We depend and blame. These are two sides of the same coin. We never free ourselves from this nexus to which we neurotically cling nor risk setting out on our own in terms of responsibility. It is just too frightening. At the level of the family and the state Harry Enfield created an excellent representation of the character we have become in the petulant, interminably resentful and adult-blaming teenager, Kevin.

Further evidence of solipsism is the utilitarian way in which the woke millennial mind will use other humans, contra Kant’s categorical imperative, as a means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. Black lives, about which in terms of concrete black individuals the solipsist will have little real interest, will be enlisted as righteousness fodder to be cynically recycled as a serviceable pretext for outrage.

Much of this leads back to the gratifying emotional hits and the most gratifying one of all – that of sanctimony. This is the feeling that one is the king of the moral castle and that everyone else, morally, is a dirty old rascal. This can be the most irresistible temptation of all especially as it can be used as a power-base from which to manipulate others.

Finally there is the difficult virtue without which CS Lewis said no other virtue has any value at all; that of courage and, in particular, moral courage. It is by far a foregone conclusion that young humans, faced with the challenges of responsibility in human society, especially the one we live in where people are routinely intimidated into conformity, will rise successfully to that challenge. The temptation to fall back into infantile cowardice may prove to be irresistible.

It is quite clear that our times are seeing many who successfully negotiate the, perhaps, eighty years of their human lives without ever emerging into full adulthood. For them choosing to remain in a state of development arrested at adolescence provides them with a comforting psychological cave free from moral challenge or jeopardy where they can feel safe and satisfied with themselves. 

This is the tragedy of the modern psyche. It is a kind of living death where humans die like chrysalises that never turn into butterflies.

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