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Navigating America's moral wasteland

Navigating America's moral wasteland
Photo by Joshua Sun / Unsplash

On the surface, Americans all value the same things. Life, liberty, equality, the rule of law, the pursuit of happiness — these terms form the basis of our shared moral language.

If a nation is to forge a shared identity, it must share a moral vision, an understanding of what the people will be as a people. To arrive at that moral vision, a people must speak the same language, not just in the literal sense of speaking English, but they must all mean the same thing when they use specific terms.

Without a shared language with which to discuss basic truths, no unity of identity or purpose is possible.

The great seal of the United States bears the Latin phrase E pluribus unum, out of many one, but we cannot become one if our fundamental ability to discuss moral truth has broken down. A crisis of moral discourse has seized our nation, and until it is resolved, the endless culture war that rages in every corner of public and private life will continue to tear us apart.

In “After Virtue,” the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre describes a theoretical apocalypse. Imagine an advanced civilization that experiences a disaster so severe that its wealth of scientific knowledge is wiped out. Laboratories, universities, and scientific texts all vanish, leaving the people without the accumulated knowledge upon which they had previously relied. A group of politicians who blame science for the tragedy that devastated their civilization zealously crush what remains of the scientific community.

After a few decades these politicians are removed from power and society begins to rebuild. All the actual scientists are gone, but those who are old enough to remember vaguely a world where science existed start a new movement. They attempt to resurrect science, but their understanding is seriously lacking. These men were only children when their civilization still possessed a mastery of science. The leaders of the new movement have no formal training or real knowledge of what science entails. They lack the necessary equipment and texts. They do not truly understand the theories involved.

The concept of science that this post-apocalyptic society cobbles together is built on fragments, the faded memories of people who never truly understood what science was in the first place. This movement becomes vital to the culture of our imaginary civilization. Adults can be found arguing about scientific theories they do not really understand. Children learn to recite pieces of the periodic table as if they were sacred, but no one understands the context for this knowledge or how to apply it.

The citizens refer to this knowledge as “science.” They treat their understanding of the subject as if were very important despite it being tragically disconnected from what science does. This broken and impoverished notion of science is treated as common cultural knowledge. Scientific terms like “photon” and “chlorophyll” enter common use, but no one understands their original meaning. No one understands that they are using the words incorrectly.

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