What use are tools without wisdom and virtue?

Last updated: 05/19/14 3:27pm


We humans are great toolmakers. We’ve got fire, wheels and pyramids; guns, germs and steel.We’ve built railroads, airlines and instant communication, chemical warfare and atomic bombs. We can make artificial hearts, lungs and limbs; we have harnessed the elements of air, water, coal and oil to make electricity to power looms and assembly lines. We’ve even put humans on the moon.

But we lack two critical components for making our social life better for all: virtue and wisdom. All our tool making is worthless unless we manage the tools, and the markets in which they are bought and sold. The use of technology must conform to making society better for all human beings on the planet if we’re really going to have anything to show for all our technology. Without virtue and wisdom, we will just continue managing ourselves toward extinction and our planet toward oblivion.

What do I mean by virtue? Morally good behavior and character, the good result that comes from the exercise of moral precepts. It is the practice of morality, conforming to a standard of moral excellence.

What do I mean by wisdom? Knowledge gained through having many experiences in life that lead to good sense or judgment, a natural ability to understand what is proper or reasonable.

Why do I say that we don’t seem to have either virtue or wisdom in any abundance at the state or federal level of government? There are a multitude of signs that we lack anything close to virtue and wisdom pervade our governance system:

• The people we’re electing to office, from both parties, are simply following the money trail to corporate lobbyists and the billionaires in search of campaign funds.
• We’ve created crushing poverty in the midst of a nation overflowing with resources.
• Our criminal justice system has been transformed into a racial caste and incarceration nightmare: We lock up the poor while letting the bankers wreck the world economy with impunity.
• We have wreaked environmental destruction on the earth in the name of “progress” and “globalization,” “self-interest” and “free markets.”
• Our so-called “leaders” have put in place policies that allow the cost of election campaigns to skyrocket, making the media moguls rich.
• Corporate lobbyists bend government decisions to their whims and wishes for destroying the system of rules and regulations that keep consumers safe and well.
• We call for war against other nations at the drop of a hat so we can keep the U.S. global economic empire intact a while longer.

Why have we left virtue and wisdom behind? One reason is the way our capitalist economic system uses and fosters the most negative human characteristics: fear, greed, hatred and excess abound in the markets. All pretence of wisdom or virtue has been cynically stripped away in the pursuit of satisfying corporate growth.

A second reason is our relativistic view of human life: anything goes, there’s no holding onto or discipline in the arts of love, forbearance, consensus-building, justice or equality. We’ve allowed our foundations of wisdom and virtue — the disciplined emphasis on what is right, reasonable and moral, what is just and that which promotes democracy — to rot in the name of elevating individual liberty at the expense of our society’s needs.

But the toughest question is whether we can ever get wisdom and virtue back. Is it impossible to expect people with all the tools and toys we have available to use virtue as a brake on technology? Can we once again use positive human values other than what satisfies the market? Values such as mutual aid, solidarity with our fellows, equality, justice and rule by the people can still help us build a society worth the name, if we could just find ways to re-establish virtue and wisdom in our institutions of governance.

Published May 19, 2014 in Opinions

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