While media’s influence has been to convey simple easy to digest ideas, the overall rise in the complexity of society and economy have made society vastly more complex. This is not a bad thing, but a consequence of ever increasing economic growth and occupational specialization, as well as technological complexity. In order to make an intelligent value judgment in any given situation, one must have some grasp of the situation; not perfect understanding, but basic understanding. Yet can the average person understand a stock market driven by collateralized mortgage obligation default rates? Or the newest research in physics showing neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light, potentially upending Einstein’s theory of relativity? Or chaos in Europe based on interrelated currency and deficit issues? Or new agricultural techniques based on stem cell research?
Another factor leading to the dumbing down of values has been what can best be called the sheer incomprehensibility of the scale of modern life. Generally, this is reflected in big numbers; how to make sense of lottery payments, lawsuits, or sports contracts that run into the hundreds of millions, more than an average person will make in a thousand lifetimes. Or the genocide of millions of people in Africa. Or a technology that can send an email around the world in less than a second. Or computers that can make thousands of stock transactions in a fraction of a second? Or the fortune of billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg? Or the fact that a country has trillions of dollars in debt? In some cases the lack of comprehension is both cause and effect of the failure of values. In other cases, it is the result of brilliant innovation in technologies. But, overall, the net effect is of a world in which long term sensible values based or rational planning seems impossible.
There are attempts to battle the complexity and incomprehensibility of modern life in intelligent ways; millions practice yoga to feel more centered; others focus on slow food movements or locally grown produce as a way to have a more direct, comprehensible connection with what they eat. But most people, lacking the value teachers of the past, retreat to a default position of the lowest common denominators – money and convenience:
- MoneyBecause it can be measured easily, and is a universal (though terrible) indicator of accomplishment and status.
- Ease and ConvenienceIn the absence of a firm value structure, the desire to do what is easiest, requiring the least work or discomfort. So the common metaphor for the good life becomes lying on a beach in a sunny island. No hurries, no worries, no work. Also, no goals, no excitement, much boredom. People know they should exercise but end up retreating to the couch. The European model of short work weeks, early retirements, and generous pensions has become the worldwide ideal.
In a world where money and ease are the only widely acknowledged values, everything else is foggy and indeterminate. In order to take decisive steps, one must have firm opinions, not just whims. To work long hours one must firmly believe in one’s goals. To implement the death penalty, one must be sure that certain actions are so heinous as to deserve the most severe punishment; one must also believe that guilt can be known, and that justice can, and should be, achieved. If one’s inner world of values is a foggy marshland, one’s actions will reflect that, both in terms of one’s own life, and the way one judge’s others.