An online talk given by John De Val on 9 January 2021

(The views expressed in this talk are my own views, and do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Philosophy, Cambridge – John De Val)

In the publicity for this talk, I asserted that ‘we live in a society which has increasingly valued independence, uniqueness, personal choice, and self-expression.’ I then went on to pose the question ‘Has this led to greater happiness and freedom?’ In answering this question, we need to look a little deeper into what we mean by happiness and what we mean by freedom.

Take happiness first. Happiness can be defined in many ways. In psychology, there are two conceptions of happiness: known as hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic happiness is achieved through experiences of pleasure and enjoyment while eudaimonic happiness is achieved through experience of meaning and purpose. Hedonic happiness requires constant stimulation. Having achieved such happiness, we almost immediately find new things to desire, so that though we may find ourselves better off materially, the happiness tends to be short-lived. Eudaimonic happiness, on the other hand, tends to be longer lasting and more satisfying; it does not need to be constantly re-kindled.

Freedom can also be considered as two-fold; there is the freedom to do what we want, which the 17th century philosopher John Locke called ‘licence’ and which he contrasted with the freedom to do what we ought, which he called ‘liberty’.

There is no doubt that the society in which we live increases the opportunities for hedonic happiness and the freedom to do what we want, at least it did before the pandemic. But the evidence tends to support the view that it has not delivered an increase in the more long-lasting eudaimonic happiness for the majority of the population and it is debatable whether it has resulted in greater liberty as opposed to greater licence.

So why has society failed to deliver? This is the question that the late Jonathan Sacks, ex Chief Rabbi of the UK addresses in a book that I can strongly recommend simply called ‘Morality’ and subtitled ‘Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times’.

Before looking at some of his arguments, I would like go back in time nearly 20 years and take a seat on board Lufthansa Flight 438 en route from Frankfurt to New York. Amongst the passengers is Werner Baldessarini, the chairman of Hugo Boss, the German luxury fashion house. He is flying to New York for Fashion Week – an eight-day spectacle of clothes and models in which more than one hundred of the world’s top designers show their latest wares in giant tents and improvised catwalks. A good show at Fashion Week can guarantee the success of a manufacturer’s collection. In addition to the financial implications of having a good show, this year’s event was also important for Baldessarini for personal reasons. After twenty-seven years with Hugo Boss he had made up his mind to retire. The news hadn’t been announced publicly, but this would be one of his last shows and he wanted it to be a success.

Baldessarini was, therefore, less than thrilled to hear an announcement from the captain of Flight 438 that problems in the US were forcing them to land in Canada. Twenty minutes later the plane landed at Gander Airport a remote location in Newfoundland. Baldessarini wondered what type of problems in the US would have forced them to land in Canada. More important, he wanted to know how soon they would be leaving. He had a lot riding on this year’s fashion show and he really, really needed to be in New York. He was soon to learn of the horrifying sequence of events that are now remembered simply as 9/11. He immediately felt ashamed for worrying about his fashion show. Fashion Week now seemed so trivial. How quickly a person’s priorities could shift, he thought.

Flight 438 was not the only one to land at Gander Airport. Thirty-seven other flights were diverted there until US airspace opened up again. Altogether these flights deposited 6,595 passengers in a town with a population of scarcely 10,000 people. Over the next three days the town of Gander and the surrounding communities in this remote corner of Newfoundland provided food, clothing and shelter and a host of other services for these beleaguered passengers, many of whom were fearing for friends or relatives potentially affected by the tragedy.

Baldessarini eventually managed to contact his firm back in Germany. They arranged for a private jet to be flown out to Newfoundland to take him back to his home country. On the morning of the flight planned for that evening, he phoned to cancel it. He decided he would rather stay in Gander, at least for now. It wasn’t that the fifty-six-year-old enjoyed sleeping on army cots on the floor of a high school gym with several hundred people. In fact, they weren’t even cots. They were actually stretchers with four tiny legs that rested about six inches from the ground. But after two days of living with his fellow passengers, he felt an incredible bond with all of them, as if they were part of something special. They slept together. They ate together. They played cards and watched television together.

The bond with the passengers was rivalled only by his attachment to the townspeople whose compassion was so striking. They took their visitors on driving tours of the countryside. They took them into their homes. The passengers weren’t treated like refugees, but like long-lost relatives, and the more he thought about it, the more it affected Baldessarini.

Coming from an environment as cutthroat as the fashion industry, Baldessarini realized that this was not a feeling to ignore or casually dismiss. This was something to be relished. Given everything that was going wrong in the world, it was reassuring to see that right now, right here, in one small corner of the planet, something was going right.

There appeared to be no hatred. No anger. No fear in Gander. Only the spirit of community. Here, everyone was equal, everyone was treated the same. Here, the basic humanity of man wasn’t just surviving but thriving. And it affected Baldessarini in ways he’d never imagined.

His assistants in Frankfurt thought he was crazy when he called to cancel the private jet. He tried explaining that flying home while the others were left behind would have been an act of betrayal of everything that had happened over the last seventy-two hours. However long it took them to get home, that’s how long he would be gone.

It is perhaps not surprising that Baldessarini felt the way that he did. Genetically, we are social animals. Our ancestors in the hunter-gatherer stage of humanity, could not survive alone, and they have left a trace of this deeply engrained in our emotional set-up. Separated from others, we experience stress. Many prisoners have testified that solitary confinement is as terrifying as physical torture. John McCain said of the five and half years he was a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam being kept solitary ‘crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment’.

Over the last nine months, isolation has been the lot of many people around the world. But before the pandemic, an increasing number of people, particularly in the western world, lived what we might call ‘socially isolated lives’. Obviously, social isolation is mild in comparison to physical isolation, but the body nonetheless responds by heightened awareness of potential threats in the environment, and the resultant stress eventually weakens the immune system. That is one reason why most people seek company, the presence of others, the touch of another soul.

The importance of company and of our relationships with others is borne out by evidence from an interesting piece of research from the US known as the Grant Study. This study was begun in 1938 and has tracked the lives of 268 Harvard students – at that time Harvard was male-only students – for over eighty years seeking to understand what characteristics – from personality type to intelligence to health, habits and relationships – contribute to human flourishing. The director of the study was asked what he had he learnt from the men in the Grant Study. His response was, ‘That the only thing that matters in life is your relationships to other people. A 2017 summary of the study concluded; ’Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives….Those ties protect them from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. The Grant Study confirms that far more than what we buy or earn or own, happiness is a matter of what we do, what we are and, most importantly, how we relate to others.

Given all this, we return again to the question of how we have arrived at a situation where there has been a growing emphasis on the primacy of the individual. According to Jonathan Sacks, this move has been gradually taking place over centuries but appears to have accelerated during the last fifty or sixty years. I will start by looking at the long-term movement. The reasons underlying this long-term shift are many and I will only be able to scratch the surface this morning. When did the shift begin?

A strong case can be made for the Italian Renaissance, especially the document that has come to be seen as its manifesto; Pico della Mirandola’s Oration of the Common Man in which he extols the many intellectual achievements of humanity. There is probably some truth in this suggestion, but there can be little doubt that something decisive happened between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the interval between the end of feudalism and the birth of the Industrial Revolution and the modern world.

People began writing autobiographies. Artists started painting self-portraits. Rembrandt did so repeatedly. People lived, increasingly in private rooms. The French psychologist Jacques Laclan argued that the sense of an ‘I’ closely corresponded to the mass manufacture of glass mirrors. All roads in the late seventeenth century, writes historian Christopher Hill, led to individualism; ‘More rooms in better-off houses, use of glass in windows, the replacement of benches by chairs – all this made possible greater comfort and privacy for at least part of the population.

Important as well were the ideas of the leading lights of the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin as well as various philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Descartes, Kant and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. There is not time to consider all of these and I will just concentrate on two men; Alexander de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, who was a perceptive observer of the American scene in the early 19th century and the other, Friedrich Nietzsche whose writings and observations were very influential in the early 20th century.

What de Tocqueville observed in America was a phenomenon that he had never encountered before, and it was so new and strange that he had to devise a new word to describe it. The word he coined was ‘individualism’. He emphasised that by this he did not mean egoism. He was not referring to people being selfish and riding roughshod over the needs and feelings of others. He defined individualism as a ‘feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows so that having created a small society for its use, he willingly leaves society at large to itself’. De Tocqueville saw this as the single greatest danger to democratic freedom in the long run. People would simply cease to interest themselves in the welfare of others, and they would leave that responsibility to the state, which would grow ever larger, until it became a kind of benign tyranny. This is how he expressed it:

‘Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to, but does not see them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate, to have lost his country.’

De Tocqueville thought that the only thing that protected America from this outcome was the strength of its families, communities, churches and charitable organisations; those environments where people actively cared for one another. De Tocqueville’s warning still echoes today. Lose those environments of face-to-face encounter, where the moral sense is exercised, and eventually you will lose liberty.

I turn now to Friedrich Nietzsche. Jonathan Sacks rates Nietzsche’s influence on the contemporary world as ‘immense’. Writing in the late 19th century, Nietzche mounted an onslaught on the attachment to the existing morals and values which he asserted derived very largely from ancient Greece plus the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This meant that the values came from societies quite unlike any that existed in the present time and from religions in which many, if not most, people now no longer believed. Consequently, it was indefensible that our lives were based on value systems whose foundations we repudiate. We must either find a basis which we really do believe in to support our values, or else abandon these values and find others that we can honestly subscribe to. These values would differ between individuals. Choice was of the essence; not choice as it had always been known, between good and evil as defined by the prevailing culture, but rather to define good and evil themselves on the basis of subjective judgement. ‘Me’ had become not just the principal character in the moral drama, but its author, the writer of its rules.

Nietzsche also held the view that what enabled human beings to emerge from the animal state and to develop civilization was the perpetual elimination of the weak by the strong, the incompetent by the competent, the stupid by the clever. Only because of these processes, carried on over countless ages, did the things that we most value about our human existence come into being. But then, says, Nietzsche, along came the so-called moralists like Socrates and Jesus who said that these values were all wrong – that there should be laws to protect the weak against the strong and that justice should reign, not strength, and that the meek, not the enterprising should inherit the earth. The very processes by which man had been raised above the animals and civilisation brought into being, were then put into reverse. Natural leaders – the confident, the courageous, the innovators – were shackled by value systems that set them on equal terms with the mass of mankind. The typical characteristics of slaves were hailed as virtues; a life of service to others, self-denial, self-sacrifice.

Nietzsche’s views are challenging even now and were certainly influential in the first half of the 20th century. Some of their attraction has been diluted by the fact that they were taken up enthusiastically by both Hitler and Mussolini. But the questions he raised about values are still pertinent.

This brings us to the last fifty or sixty years. In his book, Jonathan Sacks describes the results of research using the Google program N-gram which measures the frequency of words in printed texts over a given period of time. The program was used to chart the frequencies ‘We’ and ‘I’ in all English and American books year by year, from 1900 to 2008. The two graphs are quite different. The use of ‘We’ is relatively stable over time, but the use of the word ‘I’ falls steadily from 1900 to 1965, at which point it begins a precipitate rise. From then on, the first -person singular dominates.

As we have seen Nietzsche and those following him argued that there was no such thing as an objective moral order; there are only private choices based on subjective emotions. But these new ideas did not dislodge the assumption that society was built on the foundation of a shared morality.

Starting in the 1960s, that changed. First came the liberal revolution, and a view that it is not the task of law to enforce a shared morality. We should be free to act according to our own morals, with the sole proviso that we did not do harm to others. Then, in the 1980s, came the economic revolution; the view that governments or states should interfere with markets as little as possible. Then, in the 1990s and gathering pace ever since, came the technological revolution: the Internet, tablets, smartphones and their impact on the global economy and the way we communicate with one another. Social media, in particular, has changed the nature of interpersonal encounters.

Let us look a little more closely at each of these. … In the 1960s, marriage and the family received the biggest blow they had ever encountered in Western civilisation. This was the result of many factors, among them the emergence for the first time in the West of a self-contained youth culture, the availability of birth control, and the passing of the shadow of war that had so strengthened the ‘We’ culture in Britain. The vehicles of cultural continuity had broken down and people felt on the brink of a new age radically different from the old….the spirit of the age was unstoppable. For many, sex was no longer associated with marriage, or commitment, and became instead a leisure-time activity. Over the next generation, in Britain and America, fewer people got married, and those who did, were marrying later.

With regard to economics, the governments of US, under Ronald Reagan and the UK, under Margaret Thatcher ushered in a different approach to economics known as neo-classical economics at the centre of which was a faith that markets if allowed to be free with minimum regulation would deliver economic prosperity. There is no doubt that free market economics can and have produced economic benefits. But markets exist to serve people; we were not made to serve markets. But as Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University argues, without quite realizing it, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. He asserts that market values have now crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of life – medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations.

Proponents of free market economics are fond of quoting the famous passage from Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ in which Smith states that:

‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.’

Later Smith also talks of such individuals being

‘led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.’

But these proponents often ignore the first sentence of an earlier book written by Smith ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’. That sentence reads:

‘How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it’.

In other words, Smith took it for granted that to be human is to have a moral sense and that self-interest encompassed an interest in the well-being of those who are affected by your actions. That moral sense was conspicuously lacking in the application of free-market economics over the last half-century and its absence was an important cause of the 2008 financial crash.

Turning next to the technological revolution, and in particular to the growth of social media. Social media have played a significant part in the move from ‘We’ to ‘Me’. In the world they create, I am on stage, bidding for attention, while others form my audience. This is not how character is made, nor is it how we develop as moral agents. Morality is developed when I focus on you, not on me; when I discover that you, too, have emotions, feelings, desires, aspirations, fears. I learn this by being open to you and allowing you to be open to me. It is this subtle interaction that we learn slowly and patiently through ongoing conversations with family, friends, peers, teachers, mentors and others. We develop empathy and sympathy; the capacity to put myself into your place. That is a skill I only learn by engaging with you, face to face or side by side, not by words on a screen.

These sensitivities and sensibilities live in the immediacy of the encounter and they are, for the most part, lost in electronic information-exchange. That, for instance, is why the Internet has a ‘disinhibiting effect’ – one of the factors in why people are ruder online than they would be in the physical presence of the person they are insulting. When the connection between us is not direct in time or space, I am not forced to recognise you as a human being, and I can express whatever I feel without considering what you might feel at the receiving end.

Each of these developments, social, economic, technological, has tended to place not society but the self at the heart of moral life. It is not that people became moral or immoral. That is palpably not so. We do care about others. We do volunteer. We give to charity. We have compassion. We do have a moral sense. But our moral vocabulary has switched to a host of new concepts and ideas: autonomy, authenticity, individualism, self-actualisation, self-expression, self-esteem.

For any social institution to exist, we must be prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of the relationship or the group. That is true of marriage, parenthood, membership in a community or citizenship in a nation. In these environments we enter a world of We-consciousness, in which we ask, not what is best for me but what is best for all-of-us-together.

A football team of the most brilliant players in the world will not succeed if each acts like a diva. An orchestra of dazzling musicians, each of whom feels entitled to give their own interpretation of a symphony, will produce not music but noise. A political party in which each member of parliament publicly delivers his or her own judgement as to what policy should be will be a shambles. A nation without a collective sense of identity and responsibility will split apart, as the United States and the United Kingdom have split apart since 2016. You cannot build a social world out of a multiplicity of ‘Me’s.

Simultaneously with the rise of ‘Me’ over ‘We’ since the mid-1960s, marriages, families have all atrophied. Not only are fewer people marrying and marrying later. They are having fewer children. More marriages are ending in divorce. The result is that more people are living alone. In the US, the proportion of single-person households has more than doubled in the last fifty years. This is particularly so in large cities, where they represent 40 per cent of households. In Britain in the twenty years between 1997 and 2017, there was a 16 per cent increase in the number of people living on their own.

To be sure, there is a difference between living alone and feeling lonely. Not everyone who chooses the first feels the second. But there is a connection.

We are not made to live alone. Not only is the unprecedented fragmentation of modern life bad for our health and happiness. It is also precarious because it makes us vulnerable to the dangers that lie ahead; turbulence, change, unpredictability. When the environment changes, people who are members of strong and diverse groups are at a huge advantage. They contain people of different strengths, variegated knowledge, diverse skills, and by working together they can negotiate their situation more effectively and speedily. They have greater collective resilience. A crowd of disconnected individuals does not have that same strength. Loneliness is the single greatest fear of Millennials, according to one UK census. It ranks higher than the fear of losing a home or a job.

We have lived through an extended period during which ‘Me’ has grown stronger at the expense of the ‘We’. The result, as one American sociologist has put it, is that our ‘social ecology’ has been damaged by the ‘destruction of the subtle ties that bind human beings to one another, leaving them anxious and alone’. The human condition is overwhelmingly about relationships – about faithfulness, staying true, loyal and committed to one another despite all the tensions, setbacks, misunderstandings, backslidings, and all the multiple ways in which we fall short. The over-emphasis on ‘Me’ leaves us vulnerable and isolated. It is not good to feel lonely.

As the moral sense has mutated from ‘We’ to ’Me’, almost all the institutions of civil society – marriage, the family, communities, congregations, houses of worship and the rest have grown weaker. They may still be strong in localised areas, but not in the nation as a whole, especially not in urban areas, suffering from poverty, unemployment and evincing the symptoms of despair, from graffiti on the walls to drug dealers on the streets.

What happens when civil society grows weaker and weaker and all that is left are the market and the state? That is when people begin to make demands of the state that the state cannot satisfy. The state cannot create strong families or supportive communities. It cannot provide children with stable and responsible parents. It can finance schools, but it cannot create inspiring teachers. It cannot generate the work ethic, self-control and resilience that are vital if individuals are to escape the vicious cycle of poverty and unemployment and have the chance to lead lives of happiness and hope.

I started this talk with the experience of the head of a luxury fashion firm. Now we are near the end, I will turn to the experience at the other end of the social scale; the recollections of a ninety-three year-old Glaswegian woman, Jean Melvin, who had a lifetime experience of living in the notorious tenements in that city which have now largely been demolished. These tenement buildings have an awful reputation, of overcrowding, squalor and shared toilets. Yet there are clues that there might be another side to the tenement story. A few tenements in the original style remain. They are handsomely built from expensive sandstone and have tall ceilings and large windows. Glaswegians who remember tenement life agree that overcrowding was a problem, but still talk with fondness about their buildings.

The milestones of life were marked by traditions that encouraged neighbours to play a role in one another’s lives. A new baby in the building would encourage other young children to hang around on the stairways, eagerly awaiting the ‘christening piece’ that new parents would give to the first child they met of the opposite sex to the baby. A neighbour’s wedding was even better, as the father of the groom would throw pennies and threepenny bits into the street, creating a ‘wedding scramble’ as children rushed to scoop the coins up.

In addition to knowing what was happening in your neighbours’ lives, you knew what was expected of you in a tenement building – there were roles and responsibilities that everyone adhered to. In many buildings, cleanliness was close to an obsession, with women taking it in turn to scrub the tiled floors of the close, and the whole family pitching in when houses were given a deep clean on Friday evenings. A strict rota for washing set out whose turn it was to use the communal washhouse located in the shared spaces behind the tenement buildings – an area known as ‘the backs’. Women would often pitch in to help on another’s wash day. And while today much is made of the horrors of sharing a toilet, people in Glasgow tend to recall these shared facilities as being spotlessly clean.

The entrance to tenement homes tended to have two locks; a large deadlock operated on a heavy key and a smaller, tiny key that released a small latch. But the big deadlocks were, apparently, scarcely ever used. In many buildings, the latch key was left in the door when no one was at home or tied to a piece of string that was looped through the letterbox so that anyone could retrieve it. While leaving doors unlocked was once common in the UK, these Glaswegian practices went further; an unlocked door means that you trusted your neighbours, a key left in the latch meant you were inviting them in.

With doors open to them, neighbours would nip into each other’s kitchens, borrowing some staple item like butter, sugar, flour, leaving a note to say they had done so. Repayment would not be precise, but the expectation was that the deal would be reciprocal. This fundamentally altered the economic set-up of the building; while each family might have been renting only a single room or a room-and-kitchen, they could often access the whole building if they needed to. The care of children was often a much wider concern than that of their parents. One former resident remarked, ‘You were a child of your close, any adult would help or chastise a child, as if they were its own parent. A child who suffered cuts or bruises whilst playing outside would run inside to find a ‘mammy’ – your own mother was best but any mother would do. ‘I ran up to find my auntie’, said Jean Melvin, recalling one such incident. ‘Well, she wasn’t really my auntie, but they were all your aunties up the stairs. What was formally a collection of small private places became, in practical terms, a much larger semi-public one.

Life in Glasgow in those times was hard; whilst there was work in the shipyards it was often very unpredictable. But the community spirit and togetherness meant that many people looked back on those days with nostalgia. In time, the shipyards closed, the tenement buildings were knocked down and their inhabitants re-located to the edges of the city in vast tower blocks. Once a city where keys were left in doors, and a place where births, weddings, and deaths were communal events, today almost 10 per cent of people in Glasgow feel isolated or lonely; the comparable figure for England is 4%.

So, how can we shift the emphasis from ‘I’ and ‘Me’ to ‘We’; a shift which Jonathan Sacks dubbed ‘cultural climate change’. There is a difference between this and environmental climate change. For a significant difference to environmental climate change to be made, billions of people must change the way they act. That is because the environment is global. But culture is more local, closer to home, especially when it concerns the quality of our relationships. To begin to make a difference, all we need to do is to change ourselves. To be concerned with the welfare of others. To be someone people will trust. To give. To volunteer. To listen. To smile. To be sensitive, generous, caring. To do any of those things is to make an immediate difference, not only to our own lives but to those lives we touch. We don’t have to wait for the world to change in order for our lives and those around us to change.

Some books used for the talk:
Morality; Jonathan Sacks
The Day the World Came to Town; Jim Defede
The Story of Philosophy; Bryan Magee