The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Technocracy, Populism, and the New Ideology
Ivan Kenneally - 03/06/09

For our new President, the “proper place” of science is beyond the murky waters of political compromise–it must be unfettered from old fashioned moral strictures and the bumbling roadblocks to progress that are the consequence of political restraint. Just as he denies in the speech that there are any potential tensions between our ideals and the practical demands of ensuring our security in an often less than ideal world, he simply rejects that there are any moral or political complexities born out of technological innovation that might justify some measure of political prudence, or even the admonishment of science. Obama’s view is not merely an oversimplification of the relation between science and politics, and consequently of science’s “proper place,” but a willful ignorance of the lessons regarding the dangers of a science divorced from prudence the twentieth century has provided. For Obama, scientific and moral progress are so inexorably linked that the success of the former couldn’t possibly forestall the virtue of the latter—the march towards our scientific liberation from the unwieldy shackles of nature is virtue itself.

The real danger of Obama’s technocratic administration is the habit to tendentiously recast serious moral and political debates as misguided arguments about plainly observable scientific fact. Our most complex and tempestuous moral issues today are biotechnological—these not only live in the often dark interstices between science and morality but also demand a serious reflection on the limits of human nature and the natural conditions necessary for human flourishing. Of course, such philosophical dilemmas involve science and require the assistance of scientists to draw the line between what is and isn’t technologically feasible and medically safe. Nevertheless, questions regarding the limits of science and the limits of human nature are not themselves solely or even primarily scientific questions—in fact, science in general had proven remarkably tone deaf to the bioethical implications of its own innovation.

It might even be the case that the fundamental premises that animate science tend to obscure rather than illuminate the moral context within which science operates. Modern science is based on the rational control of nature and asymptotic progress but morality requires a humble recognition of human limitation and the stubborn persistence of pain and imperfection. The deepest motivation of science is to overcome our mortality and morality is based not just upon its acceptance but embrace. Mill often argued that both scientific and moral investigation share the centrality of dispassionate objectivity but neither the pursuit of scientific truth nor lived moral experience is a dispassionate affair. Likewise, the technocrat is a partisan of truth, progress, and the worthlessness of nature—even if he is objective about the findings of science he is considerably less so regarding the defense of science itself. Much of the problem regarding political and moral debate about science today is the insincere or unreflective posture that science is above political and moral commitment.

The French philosopher Chantal Delsol has written memorably about the often suppressed implications of the substitution of technocratic judgment for old fashioned moral prudence. In Icarus Fallen, Delsol argues that the central delusion of technocratic competence is that the “so-called rational neutrality of technocratic government” allows it to remain “neutral, or innocuous, with regard to values.” However, Delsol contends that “there are very few decisions concerning the general interest that are unrelated to underlying conceptions of existence.” Delsol denies that questions of political means are separable from the moral priorities of the community within which they arise: “All these questions relate to values; that is, they draw upon different ideas of the good, and, ultimately, different notions of happiness.” Techno-politics, therefore, is begotten from a reductionist account of political choice: “Every political act is a choice that calls for the concrete manifestation of certain references, even if these references are neither named nor conceptualized” Moreover, techno-politics is also based upon an abstract caricature of political cognition: while we rely upon our intellect as a “repository of knowledge” for the act of political deliberation, our intellect alone is incapable of exhaustively comparing all the competing values any such deliberation presupposes.

From the perspective of the technocrat, these underlying conceptions, or worldviews, are either the remnants of a now obsolete pre-scientific view of human affairs or belong to questions of ultimate purposes or ends that, thanks to modern liberalism, are easily compartmentalized and separated from the questions of political means. However, while technocracy “considers all worldviews obsolete and superfluous” it only operates under ignorant “pretenses to certitude” and the “guise of science.” In fact, the consequence of technocratic governance is the establishment of a “clandestine ideology” that imports the “rule of hidden particularities” through the back door. Techno-politics, however furtively, always “favors one worldview over the others” and since it falsely proclaims both its own neutrality and indubitable scientific support, it inevitably devolves into a “politics without tolerance.” Rather than avoiding debate regarding the fundamental questions, this “vision-less politics” actually “cuts short debate about the future” and “deprives itself of a pluralistic consideration of worldviews” while naively (and sometimes despotically) attempting to achieve a “pluralism without concrete plurality.” This is why Delsol argues that techno-politics “always goes hand in hand with a politics of special interests: besides offering a specific worldview it is incapable of articulating or even acknowledging, it can only speak the impoverished language of interests. Ultimately, real decision-making necessarily involves an element of what Delsol call “aspiration,” or the desire to “create a better society” that can only be cultivated and understood in light of a worldview that houses our deeper preferences and values.

Despite its openly populist tendencies, the rise of technocracy is hostile to the prudence and good sense of the common man. Moreover, despite his incapacity to appreciate the greatness of the statesman, the technocrat is vulnerable to becoming intoxicated by his own superior wisdom, as confirmed by statistical science. Unlike in aristocracy, the technocrat’s claim to rule is not based on questionable claims regarding excellence or tradition; the technocrat’s superiority is evidenced by reason itself. It seems quite plausible that a degenerate variety of magnanimity, contemptuous of the people and quick to anger, would be the deformed progeny of technocratic leadership. The technocrat is quick to advocate a science of administrative means but has no recourse to a comparable science of ends; the distinction between scientific fact and subjective value drains the meaningfulness of moral discourse from public life. Interestingly enough, the technocrat is even more immoderate and peculiarly self-righteous when discussing moral ends precisely because, in the absence of rational demonstration, frustration easily gives way to moral indignation. Obama often mentions his opponents’ dissenting views and acknowledges their right to hold them but also clearly marginalizes their disagreement by condescendingly pointing out their shocking irrationality.

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