I am reading Charles Taylor's newest book A Secular Age. In a chapter entitled "The Age of Authenticity" he describes the rise of authenticity - a kind of thoroughgoing form of individual self-realization - as being based upon a transformation of our traditional social and political arrangements. That is, the ideal of authenticity rested upon the dissolution of older forms of community that necessarily placed limits upon our individual self-conceptions. He mentions Alan Ehrenhalt's book The Lost City as one piece of evidence for the replacement of communal norms for personal preference. A thick and unequal society built on interpersonal relationships was replaced by a more egalitarian theoretical form of mutual respect. We came to respect each other's freedom - the choices of "lifestyle" - in part because we became more separate. We are freer, but more alone; we are more equal, but necessarily more self-reliant.
Taylor points out that the costs tend to be overlooked as merely "systemic" or small prices to pay for our greater liberty and our greater equality. Yet he acknowledges our widespread feeling that "community has been undermined and that people are less trustworthy today." How does one do a cost-benefit analysis on which benefit is preferable and which price is steeper - the benefit of our liberty and equality or the cost of communal norms and a thick network of relationships? No such valid analysis can occur, he suggests, because of a "a real value shift" that doesn't allow us equally to weigh the costs involved: "things that were borne for centuries are now declared to be unbearable" (480).
I would contend one of the costs that tends to be overlooked is too dangerous and unsustainable for any society to ignore. I grow increasingly convinced that our more just society is based not upon a deeper commitment to justice per se, but our increasing liberation from having to care about the fate and condition of other people. Our more just society is manifested particularly in juridical forms, but its underlying motivations are increasingly absent in our lived reality, in our social sphere. It is easy for me to claim to respect you and your way of life if I don't fundamentally care, and I know I won't be bothered, by any aspect of your life. We are a more tolerant and easy-going society not because our consciousnesses have been expanded, but because we are relieved of any burdens to see our fates as intertwined. Such tolerance is not hard-won, but an easy default. It is the toleration of the self-indulgent and the unbothered. Underlying the Seinfeldian refrain "Not that there's anything wrong with that" are the subtexts "I don't care," "it doesn't matter to me," or the reigning sentiment of the age, "Whatever." The show wasn't about nothing; it was really about tolerant ironists who didn't give a damn about anyone.
Can it be any coincidence that within a decade of the supposed renewal of political philosophy in America - the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971, perhaps the most intricate theoretical justification of the welfare state ever penned - that the welfare state in America, and increasingly throughout the world, was being dismantled? The American welfare state increases in scale especially during those decades when our thicker communities are being dismantled or abandoned ("The Great Society" - in the singular). As Tocqueville predicted, it would be the ascent of individualism itself that would give rise to the felt need for a "tutelary State" to compensate for what had once been provided - albeit unevenly, informally, unequally - within the thicker webs of familial and local life. The dismantling of the welfare state is seen as a victory by the Right, but they are often uncognizant of the corresponding dismantling of communal forms that their valorization of individualism - especially the individualism of the marketplace - effectively undermines. The Left believes that the battle can be won by developing the correct philosophical articulation of Rawls's thesis (and then applying it through the Courts), all the while fundamentally oblivious to the wholesale dismantling of any real commitment to civic concern that has been a consequence of their universalizing efforts at achieving individual liberation and autonomy.
The deep connection between our theoretical liberal mutual respect and our actual condition of not giving a damn is nearly invisible, but its self-evidence is all around us. Our affluence and ease of life makes this condition seem plausible; a disruption of our ease will, I fear, reveal the superficiality of our purported respect and the absence of any real habituation in civic care.