The “I” and the “We”
There are two contrasting attitudes that we take toward practical questions, which we might call the “I” attitude and the “we” attitude. As a rational agent, I see the world as a theater of action, in which I and my goals take a central place. I act to increase my power, to acquire the means to realize my objectives, to bring others to my side, and to work with them to overcome obstacles. This “I” attitude is implanted deep in the psyche, since it defines the starting point of all practical reasoning and contains an indelible intimation of the thing that distinguishes people from the rest of nature–namely, their freedom. There is a sense in which animals, too, are free: they make choices, do things both freely and under constraint. But animals are not accountable for what they do. They are not called upon to justify their conduct, nor are they persuaded or dissuaded by dialogue with others. This strange feature of the human condition has puzzled philosophers since Aristotle; and it is the foundation of all that is most important to us. All those goals that make human life into a thing of intrinsic value–justice, community, love–have their origin in the mutual accountability of persons, who respond to each other “I” to “I.”
Behind all my projects, however, like a horizon against which they are projected, is another and quite different attitude. I am aware that I belong to a kind, and that kind has a place in nature. I am also aware that we are part of a world to which we are adapted. Whereas the “I” attitude seeks change and improvement, overcoming the challenges presented by nature, the “we” attitude seeks stasis and accommodation, confirming that we and our world are at one. Things that threaten the equilibrium between human beings and our environment, either by destroying that environment or by undermining human nature, awaken in us a profound sense of unease, even of sacrilege. The “we” attitude tells us that we must never disturb the two fixed points of our universe, the environment and human nature. This attitude may be the residue of prehistorical events, an unconscious memory of the original harmony between “our hunting fathers” and their natural home, from which our species departed on its journey into knowledge. But it continues to exert its influence on our practical reasoning, filling our minds with ideas of a prelapsarian innocence.
It will be objected that human nature does not stand still. The “I” ’ attitude restlessly pursues the path of invention, and in doing so radically changes the focus and the goal of human conduct. Consider television. Here is a technological achievement that has changed our world. It is a source of pleasure to billions and a channel of instruction and information that keeps people comfortably entertained at home when they might otherwise have been outside fighting. Such, at least, is the good side of it. But as with so much technology, there is a bad side too. The physical effects of television, in the form of obesity, heart disease, and general apathy, are observable everywhere. So too are the mental effects: the shortened attention span, the inability to comprehend abstract arguments, the exaggerated appetite for visual stimulus, the enhanced aggression when dealing with ordinary things, and the debilitating addiction to the very thing that causes those faults, which is the moving image on the screen. All this has been well documented (and in “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor,” an article in the February 2002 Scientific American, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Robert Kubey make a stab at identifying the neurological cause of the addiction). Those of us who take due note of the arguments will, drawing on our vision of human nature and of the capacities and virtues required for its fulfillment, control our children’s viewing times, try our hand at programming the machine with TiVo or a built-in censor. Failing that, we will revert to the Erewhonian solution and do as my father did when, after an elevating speech about the damage we humans inflict on ourselves by absorbing passively the entertainment that we should be creating actively, he tossed the thing through the window and then ran down the stairs to finish it off with a hammer.