Helpless Passengers of Automated Progress

Why be moral if civilization is inherently good?

Image by Rishiraj Singh Parmar, from

It’s odd that we forget so much from our formative years, although those gaps in our memory likely sustain the illusion that we’re self-made. But one incident that made an impression on me happened on a winter’s day in Toronto in the early 1990s. I regularly took the public bus to high school. I recall when I used to take the bus how easy it was to doze off just from the bus’s gentle rocking motions. The bus was like the passengers’ mother and the passengers still had an infant’s sense of safety when we were rocked that way.

Typically the bus driver didn’t speed, but on this occasion the driver manhandled the wheel and the gas pedal like an escaped convict. I was standing near the side door along with several other passengers, holding metal handles for stability, since all the seats had been taken. The bus jerked wildly as the driver sped and repeatedly slammed the breaks and accelerated like he was racing to a finish line.

One of the others standing near me was a thin middle-aged man originally from India or perhaps Pakistan, as I recall. Due to the bus’s inexplicable herky-jerky dashes, that man lost his grip on the handle, landed on the slush-covered floor and rolled into the hollow where the few stairs are that lead down to the bus’s side door. I remember being astonished, standing directly over him and looking down at him as he lay curled up in the filthy pocket, the back of his coat covered in brown slush, while the bus rocketed hither and thither. It all happened so quickly, I don’t remember being able to help him up before the bus stopped, the side door opened, and he tumbled out and into the snow.

The Gnostic Analogy

What struck me at the time was the feeling of pity I had for that man, bordering on schadenfreude. How embarrassed he must have been, though he was blameless for his predicament! Now, though, the memory serves as a Gnostic allegory. Isn’t the whole world like that bus, often behaving strangely, surprising us at times with its indifference and unfairness, humiliating even those who least expect to be degraded, such as when we’re ill at the doctor’s office or are mistreated at work or when we pay the price for some blunder?

And how many leap to help others in need at a moment of crisis? Of course civility and politeness compel us to make friendly gestures, especially when there’s no cost of doing so. We hold the door open for the elderly, give someone the time of day, and maybe toss a coin to a homeless person. But even in friendly Canada and multicultural Toronto, we keep to ourselves if only to respect each other’s privacy.

One of the unintended consequences of the principle that we deserve liberty as individuals is that we’re expected to pay for our failures and to be left to suffer our share of bad luck when it’s our turn to be caught up in nature’s inhuman rhythms. As rational persons with human rights, we deserve to keep the private property we earn, but for the same reason we think we ought to honour each other’s independence even when we’re in need.

Automated Progress

This helps explain why we give far less in charity than we’re able to give. Another main reason is that most who live in technologically-developed societies are functional atheists, meaning that we err on the side of assuming either that there’s no afterlife at all or that if there is one, as long as we don’t murder anyone we’ll be fine even if we lived as relatively selfish consumers. Thus, we assume we have to enjoy our limited life while we can. Saintly true-believers in the primacy of a supernatural realm where morality matters more than physics are few and far between; most are likely in psychiatric care.

No, the norm in individualistic, Western nations, at least, is that we give to society by paying taxes and by contributing in some productive way at work, and once those obligations are discharged we ought to respect each other’s boundaries so that we can freely pursue our private interests. We’re strangers not just because we’re so numerous, but because of our respect for each other’s freedom to go our own way. That fallen passenger in the bus suffered because of someone else’s gross incompetence which might as well have been a natural disaster. It could have been I who slipped and landed on the floor of the speeding bus, rolling around in the muck. I got lucky just as that man got unlucky.

We presume we’ve made a science of social progress, which is to say we think we’ve automated morality, so we needn’t worry about making difficult personal choices. After we’ve contributed to the societal machine, our private lives are for following our whims as childlike consumers. Why help the loser who slips in the bus? It was just his turn to fall through the cracks. There seems no need to lavish a stranger with such individual attention as long as we’re reassured that society progresses as a whole.

Existential Camaraderie

However, the quasi-Gnostic sense that we’re imprisoned in an inhuman world where we struggle, unable to free ourselves entirely from misfortune because of our blindness and delusions can inspire in us a feeling of existential camaraderie. Although I didn’t succumb to that particular humiliation on the bus that day, in a broader sense we’re all more or less confused and troubled. We can keep this unsettling picture in mind to the point where we’re disgusted whenever someone else suffers an indignity, not because we’re glad it wasn’t us but because we identify with the sufferer, knowing that we all suffer in similar ways, if only because we’re embodied creatures subject to ageing and death.

You might be wondering what such fellow-feeling would add to our daily experience. After all, we build our social systems and artificial environments precisely to liberate us from the tender mercies of godless nature. For example, the designer of that bus foresaw that the standing passengers could use handles; thus, the bus was equipped with handles, giving that man a fighting chance. Our artificial worlds are intelligently designed at all levels to improve our chances, prolong our life, and raise our living standards.

In that context of secular humanism, the dark Gnostic vision looks like a baseless conspiracy theory. But as progressive as many societies may be, when you look closely at our so-called improvements on the state of nature, you often find our gains are superficial or even masks for underlying inhumanity.

Despite being a leader in science, technology, and humanism, the United States has reverted to the grotesque level of economic inequality that’s common in the wild, between the few winners and the many losers. Again, the value of personal liberty doubles as an excuse to let the losers rot. The “free market” that’s meant to automate progress turns out to be a stage for crony capitalism, as our democracies are captured by predatory or parasitic megacorporations. Of course we live longer and are healthier because of medical advances, but we’ve also perfected forms of exploitation and degradation because we hide them in plain sight.

This is why neoliberals often speak of social progress as needing to be incremental, because they recognize that the forces of nature are always waiting in the wings, searching for weak points in our achievements, as it were, preparing the conditions for our collapse. In other words, like entropy, natural unfairness is the societal default and any progress in our social interactions is miraculous, which is to say anti-natural and therefore tenuous.

The question, then, is whether we’d develop differently if we hadn’t been made complacent by the successes of science and technology, if we understood that the reason such monumental human efforts were needed in the first place is that otherwise we’d be naked and alone in the wilderness, in the very bowels of the inhuman creator and destroyer of species. Without our ingenuity, audacious pride, and historic insights, we wouldn’t have built progressive civilizations, with all their wonders and drawbacks. But an unenlightened population is more likely to be trapped and debased by its handiwork than to direct its social systems to achieving honourable ends.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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