Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

On Technological Society

The notion of technological society calls for a great deal of preparatory elaboration, the first step of which concerns technique itself and its relation to human use. A technique is a rational discipline designed to assure the mastery of man over physical nature through the application of scientifically determined laws. In a certain way every technique is indifferent to the use made of it. Use is extraneous to technique, superadded to its essence, incidental to it. One may possess a technique and not use it. Actual use of it may be ethically right or wrong, and it may be right or wrong from the point of view of the technique itself. In Aristotle's example a grammarian, by the fact that he masters the rules of grammar, is in a particularly good position to break them. Grammar is a thing which can be used against its own finalities. A chemical engineer is the logical man to sabotage the operation of a chemical plant. If we were allowed to consider technique abstractly, unqualified negation would be final, and there would be nothing to be said over and above the indisputable proposition that the essence of technique comprises no tendency relative to its use. But tendencies relative to use are often embodied in the human and social existence of technique.

Clarification of this subject requires a survey, no matter how brief, of the general theory of use.{4} Use is the act by which man applies a thing to some human purpose; it is the point where the universe of nature and the universe of morality come into contact. The thing which is being used is good or bad, independently of the use made of it, according as it satisfies or not the requirements of its type; the goodness proper to it -- whether there is a question of a thing of nature or of a work of art -- is physical. Moral good and moral evil reside in the use of things by human freedom. Roughly, matters of use can be divided into (1) external things, (2) the body and its organs, (3) cognitive powers, (4) the will, (5) the sense appetite.

In many cases there is no definite relation between the physical state of a thing and the moral quality of its use. A man owns a car in perfect condition; he may use it for excellent purposes, and he may, just as well, make criminal use of it. He may also make good use or bad use of a poor car. It is clear at once that the physical perfection of a thing does not, under any circumstances, entail its good use. Our engineers are likely to improve indefinitely our means of transportation, but it can be safely predicted that a car privileged with guaranties of ethical use is a thing that no dealer will ever be entitled to advertise. The relevant question is whether it can be said with equal universality that the condition of a car never determines to any degree an inclination toward good or wrong use. Think of a car whose brakes are poor; we feel that we are somewhat unethical in procrastinating about repairing it, as if keeping poor brakes in one's garage was the beginning of murder by imprudence. True, a car may remain unused, whether its condition is good or bad. But fast and restful transportation is for all men, especially in technological societies, the object of an urge felt at frequent intervals. Whoever has a car in his garage, even in bad condition, is inclined to use it often if it is drivable at all. Now there are many opportunities for perfectly ethical use of a car that has such defects as low speed, high consumption of oil, etc., but cases in which it is ethical to use a car whose brakes are poor are few.

This example suffices to show under what conditions the physical defects of a thing may cause, though never in necessary fashion, an unethical use of it. A first condition is that there be in man, either on natural or on historical grounds, an enduring tendency to prefer use to nonuse; the second is that the defect found in the thing be of such a nature as to make good use improbable.

Over and above such a possible relation between physical defect and defective use, things may contain threats of wrong use because of sheer contrariety between their proper operations and the real good of man. If man is permanently inclined to prefer, with regard to these things, use to abstention, availability entails a tendency toward bad use and a frequency of wrong actions. There is nothing physically bad about opium; but there is in many men an inclination to get quick relief from pain and to secure euphoria at will; on account of side effects, the use of opium is frequently unethical and rarely lawful. In some extreme cases things are so constituted by nature or so perversely designed by human art that the use of them can hardly be ethical, unless it is altogether incidental: instruments of torture, forged coins, poisonous food, would be examples.

What holds for external things holds for the body, the cognitive powers, the will itself. Physical deficiency does not entail bad use, physical integrity does not entail good use, and yet there are cases in which wrong use is made more probable by physical deficiency. One can make either a good or an evil use of a healthy organism, and there are also good and bad uses of diseases; a nearsighted or hard-of-hearing person is not, as a rule, particularly inclined to make bad use of his senses. It is good to have a strong will, just as it is good to be in good health, but a strong will is not necessarily a morally good will, and a man of good will may be plagued with a naturally weak will. On the other hand, a man plagued with a weak will is particularly exposed to laziness, cowardice, etc., so that, if his will is good, he does his best to make it strong.

In the case of the sense appetite, the problem of the relation between physical integrity and ethically good use presents very particular features. Because it is an appetite, its determinations are related to effectuation in existence. I may possess a science or an art and feel no inclination to put these intellectual dispositions to work, but I cannot have a passion and not be inclined to let it reach actuality. On the other hand, because the sense appetite is, in itself, nonrational, its determinations may, prior to the operation of freedom, determinately incline man toward what is good or what is bad for him; in the former case good use is by no means guaranteed, in the latter case the only possible use is wrong and abstention alone is ethical. The wretchedness of our species is aggravated by the fact that the sense appetite is the most unsteady of our powers. A trifle upsets its balance and produces in it a disposition of which no good use can be made. Because of this peculiar relationship between physical integrity and use, the border line between ethics and psychiatry is uncertain. A perverse disposition of the sense appetite is a physical infirmity, just like nearsightedness; but it is possible, under almost all circumstances, to make good use of poor eyesight, and it is not possible, under any circumstances, to make good use of a perversion. The moralist has no major interest in the healing of nearsightedness, but he is greatly interested in the healing of perverse tendencies. Take, for instance, the case of homosexual inclination. Actual indulgence is not strictly inevitable; apart from complex cases in which the operation of reason and freedom is suspended, the person afflicted with such an inclination is able to hold it in check and may remain free from moral stain. In fact, all but the strongest wills are likely to undergo occasional defeat, with great moral and social harm. Thus it is highly desirable, from the very standpoint of ethics and society, that the perverse tendency be replaced by a normal one. Complete healing does not solve any problem of use: change a homosexual into a sexually normal man, there is not any guaranty that he will make virtuous use of his recovered health. But recovery means that his new inclinations, unlike the old ones, admit of righteous use, which is not inconsiderable. What is absurd in the popular notion of applied psychology and psychiatry -- a notion interestedly entertained and promoted by many psychiatrists and psychologists -- is the understanding that a problem of use can be solved by the mere application of positive science. Such nonsense would be easily disposed of, were it not that the healthy condition of the sense appetite, though no solution to any problem of use, is a thing that cannot be ignored in the search for solutions to the problem of use. This complex picture can be summed up in the following propositions:

1. Physical integrity does not in any case whatsoever constitute by itself a guaranty of righteous use.

2. Yet, prior to the examination of particular cases, it is never possible to assert that physical integrity is of no relevance for righteous use. There are cases in which physical evil renders bad use probable.

3. Apart from all physical defects, the relation of a thing to man's nature and man's desire may constitute the foundation of a tendency either toward righteous use (wheat) or toward wrong use (opium). In such a case the practical issue concerns the availability of the thing.

4. The situation of the sense appetite is distinguished. Here a unique relation obtains between physical integrity and use, inasmuch as lack of physical integrity may determine an inclination admitting of no good use.

Turning, now, to techniques considered concretely, i.e., with the properties that follow upon their existence in society, let us discuss, first, the question of use as opposed to nonuse. The meaning of this question can be evidenced by comparing technique with such a widely different product of civilization as metaphysics. With qualifications due to the peculiar difficulty of the subject and to several historical accidents, it can be said that for centuries the science of metaphysics has been available to men, just as calculus has been available to them ever since the time of Newton and Leibniz. But quite a few can manage calculus, and almost none metaphysics. Indefinite progress of metaphysical knowledge is possible, and our rational nature demands that it be achieved. In fact, the future of metaphysics is entirely uncertain. On the other hand, the disciplines meant to assure the mastery of man over physical nature appeal to such human interests and have aroused such historical forces that, unless a catastrophe destroys to the last man the scientific circles of the world, their falling into disuse or their ceasing to achieve progress and to conquer new fields are extremely unlikely hypotheses. The positive tendency of techniques (considered in their social existence) toward use as opposed to nonuse holds in a threefold sense; it implies (1) that the knowledge of technical subjects will not die out but will be entertained and grow; (2) that it will not remain in a theoretical condition but will be steadily applied to the transformation of nature; and (3) that the products of such a transformation will not be left idle but will go into human use. None of these happenings is strictly necessary, but the character of historical inevitability that all three evidence can easily be accounted for. Under primitive conditions the relation of man to nature involves unspeakable suffering and dire threat to life; increased power is needed for survival, for rest from pain and disease, for leisure, and for culture. A good part of what literary gentlemen call the "materialism of the modern man" boils down to the fact that the pathway to quick progress in the control of physical nature was discovered but recently. This pathway is the so-called "scientific method." In so far as it has become clear that the products of technique are in countless and daily circumstances the only means to survival and freedom from pain and drudgery, interest in life and well-being entails interest in technique.

The positive relation of technique to use can be most relevantly expressed by saying that the first law of a technological society is a tendency to remain technological. True, such a society is in many respects a frightening thing to live in. But, in order that the urge toward simpler ways of life should not lead into antisocial dreams, it must be understood once and for all that our societies will not cease to be technological unless their technical power is destroyed by unprecedented and altogether undesirable catastrophes.

Plainly, domination over physical nature is part of the vocation of man. This is a rational truth reasserted by revelation: "Fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle and all the animals that crawl on the earth" (Gen. 1:28).{5} In the fulfilment of his vocation it was normal that man, after having used empirical procedures for many generations, should develop scientific methods and put them to use. This does not mean that the process by which societies became technological was governed by strict necessity. It is said that Greek artisans, who were able to make machines and were aware of such ability, voluntarily restrained their creative genius; apparently, the fear of placing great power in unworthy hands played a part in the situation which prevented Greece from developing a mechanical civilization. Out of a sense of danger, men might have decided to observe moderation in the conquest of nature. As a matter of fact, restraining factors were defeated in the long run, and a day came for each nation when survival required the speedy growth of the technological environment. From that day on, all the weight of society was directed toward ever expanding use of technical possibilities.


We now propose to describe some general effects of the technological environment on men and human relations. Ultimately these considerations are regulated by universally human finalities; but, in so far as the problem is engaged in history, successful treatment depends upon the understanding of historical relations. Following as a pattern an expression coined by A. N. Whitehead, let attention be called to the "fallacy of misplaced novelty": it is a very simple accident which consists in interpreting as novel and peculiar to the historical phase in which our existence is comprised a state of affairs or a trend that is really much older and may even be universal. In our time of anxiety and despair the fallacy of misplaced novelty applies almost exclusively to uncongenial aspects of our experience. To confess that a hated state of affairs has been a fact for a long time is unpleasant and calls for great fortitude, since it means that we shall have to put up with such a state of affairs, and give up all hope that it will be corrected within the explorable future. It is much handier to imagine that the ugly features of our environment are things new and unprecedented, inflicted upon our lives by uniquely wicked circumstances. Escape, then, can be found in the future or in the past. The fallacy of misplaced novelty is, in most cases, sheer expression of weakness and frivolity.

Those effects of technology which seem to be of particular relevance for the theory of democratic government will be discussed, or at least indicated, under six headings: time, nature, life, reason, labor, leadership.

1. Technology altered our relation to time, inasmuch as it caused our short existence to be crowded with man-made processes having the character of wholes. In pre-technological societies men were accustomed to work on projects begun by prior generations and designed to be completed by unknown men in the remote future. The circumstances of daily work were a telling reminder of the meaning of society as a thing which transcends individual existence in the past and in the future. Means of extremely quick execution, by fostering a belief that things can be done in the present, weakened our sense of dependence upon the past and future of society and, together with it, the experience of immortal life in society through generation and work. Our uncertainty and our isolation increased. The "dreadful freedom" described by the existentialists comprises, as one of its main components, the loneliness of petty demiurges deprived, by their very power of speedy execution, of a dwelling place in social duration.

2. As an effect of technology, the ratio of the man-made to the natural in the environment of our daily existence has increased enormously. Notice that in the context of human sentiments the notion of the natural is much more narrow and the notion of the artificial much broader than in the context of physical laws. For the chemist a sample found in nature and a sample produced by laboratory synthesis are indistinguishable if the arrangement of elementary particles is strictly the same; the latter sample is not considered any more artificial than the former: all that matters is the deterministic system embodied in them. But when things are related to the moral activity of man, any modality traceable to human initiative changes the picture, decreases the ratio of the natural, increases that of the artificial. Suppose a swimming pool so designed as to duplicate exactly all the physical and chemical influences to which lake swimmers are subjected; from the standpoint of moral psychology there remains a world of difference between a natural lake and such a piece of artificial environment as a swimming pool. Canned food, in terms of biological properties, may resemble fresh food very closely; but, in terms of moral psychology, enjoying vegetables fresh from the garden is an operation quite distinct from that of enjoying canned vegetables. A sun lamp may produce effects indistinguishable from those of the sun on the skin and glands of human beings, but not on their personalities.

3. In close relation to the preceding point, let us mention the altered ratio of the living to the nonliving in man's environment. In the pre-technological age most human existences were surrounded by overflowing life; but the living environment of the modern city dweller is restricted to pets, trees in straight lines, and a few bushes in public gardens. Just as, through quick execution of human projects, technology tends to impair the integration of individual existence in the transcendent duration of society, so, by increasing the ratio of the artificial and of the nonliving in our environment, technology threatens to impair the communion of man with universal nature.

4. Under primitive circumstances human life is overwhelmingly confronted by casual situations. Every civilization has among its proper effects a greater amount of rationality in the arrangement of things. But prior to the opening of the technological era the rationalization of man's environment was a slow, restricted, and discontinuous process. In technological societies the characteristics of this process are acceleration and pervasiveness. It takes only a short time for a scientific theory to modify some phase of daily life. Within the last generation a qualitatively new state of affairs was reached, inasmuch as rationalization brought about an unprecedented relation of man to danger and security.

Everybody takes it for granted that a certain probability of fatal accident is inherent in human life; common risks, which cannot be ruled out by any means, are ignored in ordinary calculations. We know that walking in the street involves risk of death; but so does staying at home. Such risks exercise no influence on our decision to stay at home or to take a walk. The issue would be different if our house was threatened by a tornado or if the street was swept by machine-gun fire. Until recently technical feats involved a high ratio of failure and, in many cases, grave dangers. Aviation in its incipient stage aroused enthusiasm, but for a quarter of a century it was taken for granted that whoever intrusted his life to a flying machine was courting death.

Over and above such improvements as the conquests of new domains, increased power, greater speed, and greater precision, techniques acquired, in the last thirty years or so, a new character of rationality. In an ever growing number of technical procedures the ratio of failures has become negligible for most purposes. Technical risks which used to be frightening no longer exceed conspicuously those inherent in human life. Long and extremely fast trips are undertaken without any particular sense of danger, and people worry little about common surgery. Such unprecedented ability to control accidents fosters unlimited confidence in the human planning of physical processes. Between a highly mechanized environment in which machines often get out of order, as they used to do not so long ago, and a mechanical environment possessing a degree of reliability never attained by nature there is a qualitative difference of major importance. The former remains a world of chance, the latter is a world of law and calculation. The psychological and social effects of such greatly increased rationality in the framework of daily life are immeasurable. We are disappointed to realize that the human world is not in harmony with the rationality of our mechanical environment. The pattern supplied by almost infallibly operating techniques exalts the rule of expertness. The mystery characteristic of human affairs becomes more and more bewildering and uncongenial. People can hardly tolerate an extremely high ratio of failure in economic and political processes when they are used to almost uninterrupted success in the operation of their machines and generally in the application of their science. The world of man, i.e., a world in which freedom undergoes frequent defeats, becomes irritatingly unintelligible. The untrustworthiness of man is more and more of a scandal as we come so quietly to trust physical processes controlled by techniques. The problem of evil, more than ever, centers about evil in human will. Not only have techniques brought about regularity in their own operation, they have also "procured security in human life, though in highly conditional fashion. Most diseases are conquered. Premature death by so-called "natural" causes has become extremely infrequent. Yet our anxiety is overwhelming, for we know that mischievous wills can use for gigantic destruction those techniques which prove so marvelously able to protect human life and lessen human suffering. What we dread is less and less nature, more and more man. It takes fortitude not to succumb to the temptation of hating the only agent that still opposes victoriously the reign of reason in this world: man is this agent. The new rationalism born of the rationality of our technical environment may be the least reconcilable enemy of democracy and more generally of liberty. If human liberty was independent of every element of weakness and passive indifference, it would still be exceedingly uncongenial to that kind of rationalism. But in its human condition liberty is inevitably associated with such features as ignorance, doubt, hesitancy, trial and error, inconsistency, irresolution, perplexity. The rationalism born of technological pride hates human liberty both on account of its excellence and on account of its wretchedness.

5. The following remarks concern the relation of man to his own labor: (a) Division of labor is an old thing. It is too well known that in a technological society it is often extreme. (b) Technology has immensely increased the productivity of unskilled labor. If recompense is proportional to production, unskilled laborers, for the first time in history, enjoy a high economic position. (c) In so far as it is impossible to crowd into an academic program both the humanities and scientific techniques, the decline of humanistic studies in our societies resulted inevitably from the growth of technology. Although we are short of statistics in such domains, it is reasonable to believe that the proportion of men who have recently gained access to technical education and to whatever amount of scientific instruction is necessary for the handling of techniques is much greater than the proportion of men who have recently lost access to the humanities. Putting aside all comparison between technical education and classical education in terms of human worth, it may be said that the substitution of technical for humanistic culture has probably been accompanied by a large increase in the ratio of those who participate in relatively advanced forms of education.

6. In an entirely normal state of affairs, leadership belongs to prudence, not to expertness; rather than the bearer of a technical ability, a leader is supposed to be a man of virtue, a man of human experience, a man who knows men, who loves them and succeeds in persuading them. Perfect order would want experts to be kept in subordinate positions under leaders who should be good men rather than good experts. Occasionally, however, a leader may have to decide issues in which the human and the technical are so closely connected that wise judgment is impossible without some amount of expertness. Such occasions are increasingly frequent in technologically advanced societies. The expert is often placed in a position of authority. Even when he retains the instrumental rank which is his, he is likely to act upon society in more than instrumental fashion. An instrument must be light; as a result of technology, the expert has become an instrument so heavy as often to get out of control.

At the end of this inquiry, conclusions ought to be drawn concerning the good use of techniques. The enlightened man of the eighteenth century indulged in the belief that technical progress infallibly entailed the betterment of man's condition. Coupled with the postulate that nothing could ever stop technique in its march forward, such beliefs made up a great part of the so-called "theory of necessary progress." In our time this myth of the eighteenth century has been to a large extent superseded by the more up-to-date myth of the inevitable destruction of mankind by its technical creations. Faced as we are with these conflicting superstitions, the temptation is great to seek refuge in the consideration that technique is a thing which admits of good and evil use and that the relation of technical progress to human welfare is left indeterminate by the nature of things. This consideration is absolutely true, but preceding inquiries evidenced its incompleteness. We have understood that in their human existence things intrinsically indifferent to whatever use is made of them may involve tendencies having significance in terms of use.

1. It was mentioned above that in certain cases a physical deficiency in the thing used constitutes a special danger of bad use. This remark holds for techniques. Prior to the discoveries of Pasteur, surgery could not be used for the welfare of man except in a small number of desperate cases. Today, the troubles caused by new technical procedures during the early phase of application are watched with confident expectation; experience shows that technique, as it were, takes care of itself and that the bad effects due to its deficiencies do not last long. In so far as bad use of techniques is caused by their imperfection, technical progress makes for good use. This is the only sense in which the eighteenth-century belief in the betterment of man's destiny by technical progress is not devoid of foundation.

2. The problem of evil would be greatly simplified if it were always possible to trace evil to some antecedent deficiency, either on the side of the agent or on the side of its instruments or on the side of that which is acted upon. But deficiency cannot be primitive; ultimately, the origin of evil lies in the contrariety of the goods. In so far as the damage brought about by technique results from a contrariety of goods, technical improvement, far from procuring a remedy, causes a greater threat. There is incompatibility between the goodness of an explosive in act and the perfections of life within a disquietingly growing radius. Techniques take care of their deficiencies, not of the inhuman use made of their excellence. In the middle of the twentieth century, men have come to consider that the really dreadful effects of techniques are those traceable to their excellence, not those traceable to their deficiencies -- a view which to some extent accounts for the fact that the technological optimism of the eighteenth century has been so widely displaced by technological despair.

When a thing is of such nature that its excellence contains a threat of evil use, societies attempt to restrict its availability. Thus poisonous drugs are not supposed to be delivered without control. To the question whether society can protect men against the bad use of technical knowledge by surrounding it with secrecy, the answer is a melancholy one. The restriction of the availability of knowledge is a procedure applicable in an emergency, but unlikely to work satisfactorily for any considerable time. The short history of atomic techniques shows that the protection secured by secrecy may not even last until the end of the most extreme emergency.

3. Many put the blame on a lack of balance in our educational system. It is said that our education is at fault for not giving the student a chance to learn the proper use of techniques. The optimistic implication is that humanity, so badly endangered at the present time by technical monsters, can be saved by educational reforms. The problem would be to define the disciplines from which the good use of techniques can be learned and to appoint the proper men to teach them. This approach generally leads to plans for a revival of humanistic studies. Interestingly, it is often considered that the so-called "social sciences," inasmuch as they follow the pattern of the physical sciences, would yield some "technique of social processes" (whether this expression be contradictory or not) rather than the knowledge of the righteous use of techniques. Such knowledge is expected to be procured by the humanities or by humanistic methods in social science. The optimistic flavor of the system comes from a never formulated postulate concerning the existential conditions of the knowledge of use.

We saw how techniques behave with regard to use as opposed to nonuse. That they should be actually used rather than allowed to fall into disuse is determined, for all practical purposes, by the weight of history. As long as the means of technical knowledge are not violently destroyed all over the world, it can be safely predicted that techniques will keep being cultivated and keep growing, that they will continue to be applied on an ever increasing scale, and that their products will not remain idle. Our anxiety would disappear if we believed that the knowledge of righteous use behaves in similar fashion and that, once it has taken shape in our universities, it will inevitably be confirmed in existence, grow uninterruptedly, and actually control the acts of man. But such a picture is merely a modernized version of the Socratic error. The proper use of techniques, in so far as it can be taught, remains abstract and devoid of necessary influence upon action; and, in so far as it entertains an infallible relation to action, it cannot be taught. The fully determinate and unmistakably effective knowledge of the right use is not science, but prudence; it is acquired, not principally by reading books and taking courses, but by practicing virtue. Whatever is scientific and teachable in the knowledge of use admits of being ignored at the time of action and of remaining without effect upon action. Moreover, the knowledge of the right use, even in so far as it is scientific and teachable, involves difficulties which render unlikely its uninterrupted maintenance and continuous progress. In this respect the science of the proper use of techniques -- one function of ethics -- resembles metaphysics rather than positive science. Like metaphysics, the science of ethics possesses, in history, the character of a rare and precarious achievement, more threatened by decadence and oblivion than blessed with promise of maintenance and progress.

This does not mean that curriculums should not be reformed. In order that the surgeon may be good not only as a craftsman but also as a human and social character, what do we want him to learn over and above surgery? With good schooling in surgery he can be expected to live up to the rules of his art; but it would be exceedingly naïve to believe that with good courses in history, literature, the classics, philosophy, art criticism, etc., we can also expect him to live up to his ethical and social obligations. The classics, modern literature, art criticism, philosophy, theology -- a surgeon well trained in these disciplines may remain an antisocial character, unwilling to work without fee, ready to advise recourse to surgery whenever there is a nice fee in sight, addicted to the practice of corrupting physicians in order to get more opportunities for operations and fees, etc. On the other hand, if a young surgeon is sincerely anxious to behave in ethical and social fashion, acquaintance with the human world (literature, history, etc.) and the science of morality (philosophy, theology) supplies his good will and his well-directed judgment with helpful material and valuable instruments. The orders of material and instrumental causality define the capacity in which moral and humane education contributes to good use. Indeed, neither the "merely material" nor the "merely instrumental" is unimportant. But there is no short cut to the proper effects of virtue.

4. Although everything technical admits both of good and of bad use, some technical developments are much more likely to help man, others to hurt him. Throughout the technological era, societies have done much to promote those considered beneficial and thereby to divert some energy from the harmful ones. Of all the methods by which society can foster the good use of techniques, this is apparently the most efficacious. Constant attention to novel possibilities for the direction of technical energy toward genuine human good has become a task of major importance. But, in order to determine what technical directions serve man best, a sound knowledge of human finalities is necessary. In many cases such knowledge is obtained easily, and no room is left for disagreement. But the cases which matter most for the future of societies are obscure and controversial. It is clear to everybody that it is better for children not to be crippled by poliomyelitis than to be crippled by it. On the other hand, a diversity of theories on the functions and character of the family entails divergencies concerning home architecture and all the environment of family life. These are questions which do not admit, in fact, of general agreement, and the true answers, whenever available, have to fight their way in the midst of ever recurring opposition. Moralists can make themselves really useful by going into a minute analysis of the relations between the particulars of the technological environment and the behavior of men. These relations are sometimes definite; if they were more systematically studied, men of good will would be in a better position to serve the nobler ways of life through the promotion of particular lines of technical progress.

It is hardly necessary to mention that the predominance of techniques friendly to man requires a state of peace, both at home and in the world. Threats of war cause a frantic development of the most destructive techniques: this fact has assumed an appalling significance in our time.

5. In most cases the distribution of technical power contains elements of guaranty against evil use; for one thing, by the very fact that power is divided, it is less destructive in case of misuse; further, the distribution of power entails the establishment of balances and mutual checks of such a nature as to restrain disorderly ambition; lastly and perhaps most importantly, wide distribution has to comply with the interests and tastes of the common man, who may be silly and wasteful in the demands that he makes of technology but who must be given credit for being more interested in the protection than in the destruction of human life. One major reason for the maintenance of private property is that without it technical power would inevitably be centralized. The distribution of technical power, one of the greatest problems confronting democracy in our time, is a task to be carried out against an extraordinary coalition of adverse forces. As a result of its determination to proceed rationally, to be economical, to increase output and speed, and to reduce waste, any technological organization is inclined to favor concentration and centralization; it thus tends to place huge power in a small number of hands. Another element of opposition is modern totalitarianism, and another one is traditional conservatism. A Fascist, a Communist, and a landed aristocrat equally dislike the picture of ordinary people being made independent by the ownership of powerful machinery.

6. Since the sense appetite is a nature possessed with a deterministic pattern, there is not, in principle, any reason why it should not be possible to develop techniques concerned with its control and to make a good use of them; such techniques would be the nearest approximation to the great dream of the "scientific man" from the time of the Renaissance to this day -- that of an art having for its subject man himself as agent of social life and cause of history. Such techniques do exist, and, among the great changes which have occurred in the twentieth century, few, if any, have caused such lasting bewilderment as the gigantic progress accomplished by them in recent years. They work in two ways, according as the disposition which they generate remains subject to the control of free choice or attains such intensity as to suspend rational processes. In the first case the power wielded by the operator is considerable, in the latter case it is absolute.

Techniques concerned with man's appetite involve terrific danger of bad use. Keeping these techniques under control is a task of major importance, which may prove as difficult as that of controlling the deadliest forms of physical energy. The following remarks are meant to have merely indicative significance: (a) A technique acting on the appetite of man is likely to cause damage unless it possesses a high degree of intrinsic perfection. (b) By accident but inescapably, the judgment about health and disease in the sense appetite is inseparable from judgments concerning the right and the wrong. Consider, for instance, worrying -- a process which easily reaches pathological intensity. Since the definition of health pertains to natural science, natural criteria should always, in principle, suffice to decide whether worrying remains within the limits of emotional health or transgresses these limits either by abnormal direction or by abnormal intensity. In fact, simple cases are the only ones in which purely natural criteria work satisfactorily. Sound knowledge of morality is not indispensable for understanding that there is nothing pathological about a mother's being slightly upset whenever her children are late in coming home after a ride, and no knowledge of morality is needed to recognize a pathological feature in the person who worries so much about germs that handwashing becomes for him an exhausting drudgery. Between such extreme cases there are many in which the criteria applied by natural knowledge are insufficient. If, for instance, a man worries intensely about his real guilt, the answer to the question whether his case is pathological may not be separable from ethical considerations relative to remorse and repentance. It follows that, in order to be acceptable to society, technicians operating on the human appetite ought to satisfy requirements never imposed on other technicians. If the problem is to repair a broken leg, all that society demands of the health-man, over and above his surgical ability, is that he should live up to a very simple contract and obey elementary rules of his profession. If the question is to repair an appetite damaged by anxiety, the health-man may need to possess, over and above his craft, exact notions and righteous dispositions concerning the things that are worth worrying about. (c) As to the methods involving the suppression of deliberation and free choice, the main question is whether society should aim at their complete elimination or tolerate them in restricted cases. In fact, the most redoubtable of these methods, viz., intensive propaganda, is difficult to control because of its resemblance to moderate propaganda, without which there would be no democracy and no civil life.


Of all the suggestions made here in relation to the good use of techniques, none is glamorous in any respect, none carries enough weight to procure reassurance or consolation. To achieve glamour in this domain, it would be necessary to indulge in the illusion that the knowledge of the righteous use enjoys in social existence a behavior patterned after that of technique itself. If such illusions are kept aside, the reality with which we are confronted appears irreducibly tragic. In the light of history it is to be expected that the wrong use of techniques, on a large scale, will never cease to run concomitantly with their good use. The final picture is neither one of inevitable progress nor one of inevitable decadence. It is rather that of a double movement carrying mankind, through the fire of sharp conflict, toward greater good and toward greater evil. Maritain described this twofold movement as a general feature of man's earthly destiny.{6} By increasing the power of man, for better and for worse, technique supplies a major contribution to this antinomic aspect of history. What societies can do for righteous use is not enough to solve the antinomy, but it may be enough to restrain effectually the tendency of techniques to produce extreme evil, and it may be enough to release all the technical forces that are friendly to man.

{4} See Thomas Aquinas Sum. theol. i-ii, 16.

{5} The views of a remarkable theologian on the human value of technique are found in an unsigned article of Nova et vetera (Fribourg, Switzerland), No. 1 (1950).

{6} See in particular True Humanism (London: G. Bles, 1938), chap. iii.

<< Philosophy of Democratic Government >>