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How liberal is technocracy?

An objection to the view that advanced liberalism is simply an expression of the technological outlook is that technology can be turned to any purpose. The Nazis had a technology of war and oppression, Islamic terrorists have a technology of terror, and televangelists (it is said) have a technology of making money while spreading the Word. One might even claim that advanced liberalism is a reaction against some applications of technology, in particular the Holocaust, and is motivated in large part by concern for technology’s victims.

The basic question, then, is whether technology can create its own standards, or whether you have to bring in something else, like Islam or horror at the Holocaust, to give it standards to apply. A second question, if it does give rise to its own standards, is what those standards are.

It seems to me technology as a social institution is a comprehensive expression of the modern outlook, so it doesn’t need to import standards from somewhere else. It can make up its own. Specifically, “technological standards” are standards that treat means-ends reasoning (and formal logic) as the whole of rationality. Such standards treat everything as either (1) an arbitrarily desired goal, that is valuable only because somebody happens to want it, or (2) a resource to be employed to bring about such goals in accordance with some overall technically rational system.

To deal with human life solely in accordance with such standards is to treat as valuable the achievement of whatever goals people happen to have, as long as those goals can be fully integrated into the overall system (for, example, as long as they avoid “intolerance” that creates friction with other goals), and otherwise to treat people in accordance with their character as resources suitable to the system—that is, in accordance with their value as employees and consumers. The more that character can be treated as something created and certified by the system itself, for example as the outcome of training, and the less subject it is to quirks that have nothing to do with the system’s efficient operation, for example family ties, sex roles, notions of honor, or cultural peculiarities and non-economic standards, the better.

The machine’s the thing, so non-mechanical things like sex and culture have to be abolished except as interchangeable consumption goods corresponding to merely personal tastes. The abolition of such things is so important to the purity and sole legitimacy of the system that its adherents feel compelled to deny their possible relevance to any legitimate decision. Hence claims that the only possible explanation for lesser representation of women in the hard sciences is “discrimination.” The well-being of science simply as science is said to depend on making more use of woman and underrepresented minorities. People actually seem to believe that. I suppose another influence that points in the same direction is that a hard science professorship is a consumption as well as production good, so the ultimate goal of a technological society (maximizing equal satisfaction of preferences) tends to favor dividing such things up evenly.

While advanced liberalism seems to me the political view that is most consistent with the technological outlook, the connection is not a matter of immediate logical entailment. For that reason Naziism has some relevance to advanced liberalism, but the relevance is symbolic rather than factual. Naziism is important because it’s the polar opposite possibility for technological society. A society based on means-ends rationality can say that everyone’s goals are equally goals, so they have equal value. In that case it’s liberal. That approach seems quite rational but it leads to fuzziness because individual goals are hard to determine, compare, reconcile and aggregate. In the alternative, technological society might choose concreteness, and say that its own goals are what confer value, with “its own goals” defined for maximum clarity and forcefulness as the goals of the unified group constituting the society, concretized through identification with the goals of the leader, and made as vivid as possible by emphasis on victory over conflicting goals of other groups. Such an approach gives you Naziism.

I don’t think the Holocaust as an actual event really explains anything. It’s important as a symbol, and its importance has grown as it’s become more distant because the institutions and attitudes that use it as a symbol have become more dominant. Advanced liberalism causes our recollection of the Holocaust rather than the reverse. If horror at evil were the issue people would be more worried about things associated with communism but nobody cares about them. The Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews was a one-off, while the communists engaged in very large-scale killings repeatedly in more than one part of the world. It seems to follow that communism is more of a danger than Naziism. Those killings don’t fit the preferred story, though, so they’re ignored. It’s the overarching story that matters.

To my mind the basic point is this: moral blackmail based on victim status is only possible if established concepts of justice say you’re a victim. So to explain inclusiveness you have to explain why excluding someone because she’s a woman is colossally evil (and also “ignorant” and “irrational”) while excluding someone because he’s not a Harvard graduate is OK. It seems to me that to explain that you have to appeal to notions of rational social functioning, which thus turn out to be fundamental in the matter.

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