Virtues of Modern Society

It’s always fashionable to knock the party you’re at. Our particular party (modern Western culture) does have a lot of problems – and dealing with those problems is very much the subject in hand. Yet it’s neither wise nor truthful to forget about the good stuff, and it’s genuinely important (and encouraging) to realize how much upside there is in our society if you can navigate it well.

In suggesting that transformative choice is THE central problem of our time, I called out many of the obvious and well-canvassed problems with living in a modern, materialistic, democratic society. I lumped those problems into two categories: issues associated with life inside unconstrained and hyper-competitive marketplaces focused on the accumulation of wealth, and the analogous problems that come from a turn to the realm of ideology and politics in the marketplaces of democracy.

Both sets of problems demand a deeper and more exacting explication than is provided in the Open Society as the Enemy. But before turning to that, it’s worth taking a quick time-out to present a defense of our current culture both in its material and political forms. For if capitalism and democracy present challenges to our ethical life, the criticisms they endure are often deeply misguided and ignore the enormous benefits they bring.

In laying out this defense (and subsequent criticism), it’s important to begin with an essential distinction. The most determined critics of our society often confuse capitalism with culture. This is a convenient confusion, because it is far easier to bedevil a culture of crass materialism than a system of free exchange. Capitalism in intellectual form is nothing more than a system of markets regulated only in specific and limited ways. This includes markets for labor, meaning that people are free to exchange their time at whatever value it can command and in whatever way they desire (within the limits created by political society). It is also a system in which society refuses to place any a priori value on the value of any service. Value is determined by supply and demand and there is no measure of value except within the context of free exchange.

The extent to which a capitalist system must lead to a culture of hyper-competition and materialism is deeply unclear. Past societies that were far more capitalist than our current quasi-socialist regimes (where the state typically drives a 1/3 to more than 1/2 of total GDP) were clearly less materialistic in many respects – particularly in their commitment to and belief in some religious or ethical life and values.

There is nothing in the logic of free-markets that demands that a society lack values other than wealth, but it may nevertheless be true that the logic of markets tends to drive a culture in that direction. For now, suffice to say that in both the defense of our non-political society and criticism of it, I am concerned not with isms but with our culture as it exists.  A culture that is certainly, in some senses, capitalist. In others socialist. And many, many other things that have little or nothing to do with either or with economics at all. We live our lives not within isms but within the here and now of a specific culture – one that is nearly always an amalgam of countless ideas and many attitudes and behaviors that lack any basis in ideas. This is especially true in a vast, complex society like ours than encompasses countless micro-cultures that often conflict in fundamental ways.

That being said, I’ll focus in both praise and critique on what I take to be broad, general and widely-agreed upon characterizations of our culture. This risks stereotyping, of course, but there is no other way to talk about society in essay form.

Defenders of our society will often respond to criticisms of our culture’s competitiveness and materialism with a pointed defense of the material benefits our society provides. We can cure otherwise fatal diseases. Prevent blindness. Remove pain. Children do not routinely die of diseases or malnutrition. We have a lot of good stuff. Everybody ought to be happy about antibiotics and clean water, and we would be fools to despise them.

But here, in this essay, I want to take all of that stuff off the table. Take it as a given that all the good stuff we have is a legitimate value and just focus on what modern society offers around transformative choice (choosing a life with value and becoming someone you want to be) because that’s the realm where modern society seems most problematic.

Yet even in this realm – the realm of choice and decision and thinking about a good life, our society offers incredible riches. For people able to withstand certain kinds of temptation, this might be the best time ever to be alive. Not (just) for the material goods, but for life as an ethical decision-maker.



In modern Western societies, an overwhelming percentage of people do things that are not directly necessary for survival. The exhausting business of subsistence does not consume our time or energy.

Lacking plenty, people must build their life along the narrow lines of subsistence. It is far from impossible to live a good and even fulfilling life on such terms.  However, for the many whose abilities and interests go beyond the provisioning of necessities, the lack of plenty is like a prison sentence from which there is no parole. Plenty is the necessary condition of widespread leisure and of cultural variety. Art, science, craft, story, and sport exist in the company of plenty. Our culture is filled with countless tiny niches that provide rich fulfillment for those who engage in them. These would not and could not exist without plenty.

That makes plenty a very good thing for transformative choice. If transformative choice is fundamentally about experience selection, plenty improves every aspect of that selection. It permits a vast increase in people – all with the opportunity to have a good life – and it creates opportunities for living that do not otherwise exist. That means a decision-maker has more potential lives to choose from and more examples of lives to study and learn from. Plenty allows for more complex and interesting social systems, so the opportunity for experiences that involve or require rich feedback from others is enhanced. Plenty creates space for education and time for reflection and exploration. That means we can think more and more deeply about choice and spend more time learning from others.

In a society where most must labor for sustenance, it will be a fraction who have the opportunity for some other kind of life. When it comes to transformative choice, thinking about inequality misses the essential point. It is far better to have a choice of many interesting lives while owning a fraction of someone else’s wealth than be condemned to endless mind-numbing work while others have the same wearisome lack of choices. In societies without plenty, only a tiny minority have the luxury of an education, a fraction who will have some choice of work, and an even smaller percentage who can be given the leisure for reflection or thought. Plenty may be the enemy of equality, but the opportunity to lead interesting lives has never been so broadly available.


With variety and leisure comes the defining characteristic of Western culture: choice. There are those who denigrate the luxury of choice. And there many of us who do not handle it well. But if choice is a curse, it is also a gift.

The more types of life you can choose from and the more paths you can take from where you are now, the better. The wider the range of experiences available, the more opportunity there is for intelligent experience selection. The more micro-cultures that exist, the more opportunity there is for finding the right fit for who you are and who you want to be. Our society provides richer material for every aspect of transformative choice.

We live in a global culture of billions. Many of those billions enjoy considerable freedom to shape their life as they choose, and our culture supports a dizzying array of life choices and styles. But even with all those choices, the sheer size of the global population ensures that most niches are well populated – giving a decision-maker many appropriate lives and many experiences to consider. Nor do we lack information for intelligent choice. From traditional art to Instagram, we live in a world where information direct from the people we are interested in is available on a truly global scale. From an information perspective, modern society is the luxurious equivalent of Versailles.

How can we fail to appreciate the great variety of lives to explore and the vast tribe of fellow-explorers surrounding our own life journey? Who would prefer an unending, featureless plain and the same story from every life? What would be the point of transformative choice in such a world? Many people have lived and died in exactly that featureless, dreary world. The more lives that are available to us, the more opportunity to match our own particular affinities and character to the best possible fit in our culture. And the more of these small niche choices that exist, the less need there is to conform to the broad roles that capture only the most common traits of people and most run-of-the-mill lives.

In the great explosion of life choice over the last two centuries, we were constantly reminded of the stultifying and misery inducing norms that dictated behavior in societies with far more limited choice. For those of us immersed, our entire lives, in the world of choice, such renditions no longer carry much emotional weight. We see the problems of choice all too well, but we have forgotten the misery of its absence.


In the great buffet of Western culture science graces the center table. It is easy enough to see the many benefits that science has brought us. A world without antibiotics or electricity is surely a worse world. It is frivolous to question the practical benefits of good medicine and technology, but they do not, in and of themselves, mean much in terms of having or choosing a good life. As Tom Stoppard’s Bernard Nightingale in Arcadia vehemently puts it: “I can’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light…If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing ‘When Father Painted the Parlour’? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you. ‘She walks into beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

Of course, Stoppard’s Bernard is the least reliable, least sympathetic person in the play – not nearly as good a man as the mathematical scientist he’s arguing with. A point Stoppard makes quite obvious.

But the point here is not that science gives us good things. The point is that science itself is a good thing.

For science is THE dominant intellectual product of our culture and its most unique community. It might be the great adventure of our species. The global community of science is the highest functioning, most useful, interesting and open community that has ever existed. The program of science is, in and of itself, one of the great opportunities for people to craft a worthwhile and interesting life. This is as true for the most abstract of mathematical disciplines as it is for the most grounded in medicine or technology. Science is useful, of course. But it is far more than useful. It is, for many wonderful people, the pathway to the best kind of life they could lead.

Popular Art

Cynics and skeptics like to look at the vast amount of entertaining trash produced in our society and suggest that we are art deprived. This is misleading. Our culture produces an exceptional, historical, amount of good art. Collaborative arts like movies, TV and theatre are abundant. Naturally, this makes for more uneven quality than in the days when a tiny sliver of the population produced and consumed works of art. That should not blind us to how much of this material there is, its professional quality, and the frequency with which it achieves artistry. The situation is similar in literature and writing in general. Even as people lament the decline of reading, we are awash in fine books of every type. There are more good novels, more good history books, and more good children’s literature than at any time in history and in any other culture. It’s not even close. What’s more, this type of art (movies, novels, history, theatre, tv) is the art that is most important when it comes to informing a life. We learn the human possibilities of transformative choice from art that lays out and describes the type of lives that are available, the consequences of choice, and the praise or blame attached in our culture to various decisions. This isn’t art with a moral or art with eye toward political justice. It’s just what art does. And we have a ton of good art.

All is not perfect. Critics justly note the copious amount of effluent produced in every creative medium. It is an amount that dwarfs and can often hide the work of quality. Worse, this effluvium is bound to have negative consequences. If we rely on art to help frame what it means to choose a life, and most of the art we consume is literally garbage, we are unlikely to improve our choices. More controversial is the notion that modern culture produces much art that is good but little that is great. It’s hard to judge this criticism with any certainty – great being hard to assess in the present (with apologies to Frost). It may be that, lacking a common set of cultural references points it is legitimately harder now to produce a work that is both humanistic and broadly appealing. In Shakespeare’s time, the canon was small and thoroughly understood by most of his audience. There is no such canon today; perhaps that puts limits on the depth a work of art can achieve if it intends to be consumed by more than a tiny sliver of an audience.

These are legitimate problems, but it is ignoring the forest for the trees to deny the extraordinary artistic production of our culture. If art – both aesthetic and humanistic – is an important part of making transformative choices, then we are blessed by our times, not deprived.

Information and Education

It’s much the same story with education and information in our culture. We have more of it (by orders of magnitude) than any culture in history has ever achieved. We have proved, what few societies would ever have believed, that almost every individual can be usefully educated. We have democratized information to an extent that would have been unimaginable in centuries past. If we assume, as seems reasonable, that education and information are potentially useful in choosing a good life, then our culture provides an embarrassment of riches.

And yes, as with art, it is often an embarrassment. Our efforts at education are successful, at least at a basic level, in their ability to develop the core skills of learning. Nearly every child is taught to read, is given a decent understanding of mathematics, and masters the mechanics and essentials of writing (spelling, grammar, typing or writing, and basic sentence construction). We are not good at doing much beyond this and our core educational institutions are all too effective at choking out any desire for learning and any interest in thinking.

Similarly, it is a rare person in our modern society who lacks access to information. But there is so much of it, and most people have so little training in how to understand or navigate it, that it often becomes worse than useless. It is one of the ironies and certainly one of the great challenges of our culture that we have managed to create terrible problems out of plenty. And yet, as with art, it would be churlish to sneer at a culture that teaches everyone to read, write and calculate; provides widespread access to fine higher-educational systems, the opportunity to spend four-years thinking about life’s essential problems, and gives everyone open access to the world’s accumulation of knowledge.


If self-altering decisions are best modeled as exploration in an uncertain land, then whatever stability can be attained is critical for choice. What kind of stability? Stability in the basic social framework is essential so that decisions that play out over years or even decades are not fundamentally at risk of dissolving around us. There’s plenty of uncertainty in any long-term transformative choice. Will it be what we expect? Will we be what we expect? But how much harder is it to make self-altering decisions if we believe that the culture and institutions around us will dissolve or change? What are we to commit to?

Once again, critics of Western culture depict a world of frenzied and unfathomable change – and not without reason. But look beyond the dizzying pace of change in technology and the micro-fads that dominate culture, and you will find a set of institutions of remarkable stability.  The political institutions of the United States have changed slowly and in largely predictable ways. The economies of the entire Western world have grown steadily. The rights of individuals have been slowly and predictably expanded. It is quite possible to plan five, ten or even twenty years out in a Western Democracy and reasonably expect that the basic institutions will be intact: that your retirement savings will be worthwhile, that social security will exist, that health care will have advanced, that the government will be similar in nature and the same basic rights will exist. Many societies and many cultures provide far less stability.

There is, of course, no guarantee that any of this will remain true. But the assumption of stability is both perfectly reasonable and historically valid. Long periods of stability have often existed in the historical past but rarely with any level of cultural dynamism. The remarkable stability of core institutions in Western society even within a remarkably dynamic culture makes it both possible and reasonable to invest in longer term and more ambitious life-projects that must unfold over long periods of time or involve large social cooperation.


One of the really happy developments in my lifetime is that Haiti and India and Nigeria are now all around us in California and London and everywhere. It has made our food, our friendships, our classrooms, our literature, our culture so much more exciting than they were before.  

Pico Iyer (from Spark)

The globalization of culture has been the single most significant development of the last half-century. It’s a development with profound economic and cultural implications. In the economic realm, globalization has accounted for a dramatic, sustained, and breathtaking advance in the material standing of the world’s poorest classes. The past fifty years have seen an unprecedented increase of wealth in countries that were previously mired in poverty. At the same time, 1st-world working-classes have been disadvantaged and globalization has driven significantly higher levels of income inequality in wealthy nations as semi-skilled labor was exported overseas. The pros and cons of that trade-off are complex and important, but they live at a macroeconomic and political level.

At the level of self-altering decisions, local cultures are being rapidly absorbed into an increasingly globalized version of Western society. Western culture has, in this regard, proven to be a mighty engine of conquest. The extent to which this is good or bad would need careful thought and the ratio between the two might be quite different depending on the localized culture that is being absorbed or displaced. There is nothing inherently wrong with cultural displacement when it is not done at the point of a sword. Culture is an evolving network created by the decisions of people. Just as we are shaped by it, we shape it. And to deny the right of people to adopt Western culture would be deny them the right of making transformative choices in their own life. At the same time, we shouldn’t simply accept that the culture that wins is necessarily the better culture. As I hope this enumeration makes plain, there are many good reasons why Western culture should be envied, desired and freely adopted. As future essays will make clear, there are also ways in which Western culture is dangerous and harmful.

However, the absorption by and into Western culture of many new cultures has led to rich, interesting and useful cultural hybridizations, all of which become global property. We live and choose in an increasingly global milieu: a culture where a middle-class white kid in the United States is more likely than not to be comfortable using chopsticks, to have a preference between Sushi and Katsu, to watch Japanese Anime and listen to K-Pop. The massive spread of Western culture has flattened some local cultures (with undeniable loss), but it has also created fascinating new blends that are more vibrant and frankly useful than what they replaced. Japan, China and Korea have all become powerful engines of cultural change and export – even as their societies have become dramatically more Western. This hybridization makes it easier for global members of the culture to access and borrow new elements and ways of life. Seeing how the Japanese integrate their aesthetics and manners into otherwise Westernized styles of life makes it easier to borrow and learn from their example.

Globalization is a remarkable and underappreciated cultural development. The hybridization of Western society and its increasing globalization has made Western culture less narrow, less Northern European in character, and less racially homogenized. It’s also made it more interesting, more colorful, and a lot tastier. People on both sides of the political spectrum are uncomfortable with this cultural borrowing and for similarly misguided reasons. One side wants to protect us from change. The other side wants to protect the rest of the world from change. But nobody wants this sort of protection. Cultures are not copyrighted. They are not static. They exist at our whim as decision-makers. An unwillingness to consider what might be worth adopting in a hybridized culture is short-sighted and foolish. As decision-makers, we do nothing but evaluate the aspects of culture that we wish to enjoy or avoid. When we are exposed to hybrid cultures being gradually integrated into a global whole, not only can we compare and adopt what we admire, it would be stupid not to.

Most critics of Western culture will acknowledge its intoxicating ability to satisfy wants/preferences. From the standpoint of transformative choice and carving out a good life, intoxication doesn’t amount to very much. But our society does far more than create and satisfy a lot of wants. The goods enumerated above are goods FOR making self-altering decisions and building a good life. They are not material or utilitarian goods. They are goods for crafting an interesting and satisfying life. We live in the most stimulating, creative, informative and flexible society in history. It is so, not by a little, but by orders of magnitude.  We have the materials, the opportunity and the information to make richer and better transformative choices.

A committed Islamist, a radical leftist, or an extraordinarily overdeveloped aesthete might disagree. For most of us, though, plenty, science, art, education, institutional stability and global integration are profound goods when it comes to choosing a life and a character. As card-carrying members of Western culture, we ought not be ashamed of what we have wrought. It’s an incredible achievement.

But if our achievements are epic, so too are the problems we’ve created.

For while we are given the raw material to build great lives, our culture provides no help in the actual construction. In fact, far from helping us take advantage of the impressive raw materials it provides, our culture is at war with many of the ideas and foundational structures necessary to creating a worthwhile life. It engages us in dizzying theatre of mass distraction, entices us with delicious toys, and seduces us with intellectual saccharin. For far too many people, the defining feature of modern culture is not the wonders it provides but the emptiness that lives in its heart.

It is that emptiness, both materialist and ideological, that we need to address.