In these sad and dangerous times—when if we’re not completely numbed to the tragedies of the world around us, then we’re reflexively reaching for our default (and too often shallow) responses—it’s tough to imagine anyone other than the privileged having the luxury of reading the works of David Hume. Or even about the works of Hume. That’s a tragedy in its own right, for as Julian Baggini explained in 2020, Hume is the philosopher we need today, a point that holds in 2023.
Because in a world pulled apart by dogma and doctrine, Hume argued for a morality that is both realistic, approachable, attainable, and practical. His is a morality “rooted in nothing more than ‘sympathy’: a kind of fellow-feeling for others which is close to what we now call empathy. We behave well to others for no other reason than that we see in them the capacity to suffer or to thrive, and we respond accordingly.“
This is an approach all of us can take. The problem is that so few of us do. Instead, some of us believe we can reason our way to morals, though thousands of years into our intellectual endeavor to construct a morality of pure reason our task goes on. Others think they can believe their way to a higher morality. Yet “if morality is rooted in some kind of extra-human transcendental reality, we are condemned to moral disagreement.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed the fallout: The First Crusade to conquer Jerusalem, the dreamed about and partially/temporarily assembled caliphate of ISIS, or the 1995 assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jew who said God instructed him to do it.
The great irony in taking sacred instruction—whether in a text or in your head—literally is that it encourages, perhaps even forces, followers to dump the spiritual guidance that might help make something like heaven here on Earth. Instead, religious zealots use their wishy-washy adherence to doctrine to wield power and to declare fellow (non-believing) humans something less. Translating ancient texts into policy is a fool’s game, rife with arbitrariness and contradiction and conflict. That’s how today we end up with the fundamentalist Christian notion that Jesus doesn’t so much live in our hearts, he’s merely waiting for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel so he can return to Earth.
It’s this kind of thinking—ready to change when the grip on power is slipping—that gives us contortionist doctrine like that of John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. Whereas most Christians will allow Jews into heaven provided they convert to Christianity, Hagee says “that because Jews have a covenant with God, they are not in need of “saving” and will have a place in the kingdom of heaven.“
So, which is it, do Jews get into the Christian heaven or not? It’s the same answer for all these policy debates. It’s both. And neither. It’s whatever fits our needs. Our doctrine is inviolable—unless we say so.
David French characterizes the specifically evangelical Republican bent to this approach by noting “they are inflexible about policy positions even when the Bible is silent or vague. They are flexible about morality even when the Bible is clear.”
French rightly points out that the American fundamentalist Christian outlook is one driven by emotion, not guided by philosophy or reflection. That applies to most of what Aldous Huxley called the religions of time, whose adherents include those who look for a future victory from a god in the sky, or from historical progress or technological advancement. Baggini agrees, noting “The physicist Steven Weinberg was wrong to say that ‘for good people to do evil things, that takes religion’: any rigidly held ideology will do.“
It’s interesting that empathy and sympathy lie at the core of Hume’s morality. These are often considered characteristics of the feminine mind, the one half of the human psyche that Richard Tarnas, in his stellar survey of Western Philosophy, said was largely missing from and—writing in 1991—needed by the Western canon. By all of human civilization, for that matter.
Sadly, and not so originally, the feminist mindset that has in fact moved further into our collective consciousness in the last thirty years has become a premier target of neo-reactionaries and techno-salvationists, groups that thrive on dogma. The men seeking a tech eternity—if the tech industry is any measure, then yes they’re mostly men—are building “a future fit for machines” as Lewis Lapham puts it. Not the place you’re likely to find widespread empathy. The neo-reactionaries, meanwhile, are taking aim at wokeism and the rest of modernity, including feminism, in the hopes of building a less tolerant, less democratic, and more religious world. The answer, it seems, is to strive for less compassion, less understanding, and more subservience to cryptic texts, at least when it serves your purpose.
There seems to be a technology problem here as well. Roger Cohen rightly notes that while the animosity between peoples has been around for ages in the Holy Land, the psychological gulf—that is, the ability to recognize the other as human—has worsened since the collapse of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The reason: “Day-to-day interaction between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has been drastically reduced by walls and fences in a push for physical separation.” Even in our nearly infinitely wired world, where billions of people have access to online video and images, virtual doesn’t replace actual. The dream of technologically bringing people together, or engendering empathy and understanding with a digital image or an Internet connection, is failing.
Worse, though, is that technology seems to be a turbocharged platform for engendering hate, whether that entails condemning others or recruiting likeminded folks to your hateful and violent causes. The problem, then, isn’t technology alone. It’s also us.