There is nothing like self-knowledge. What is more, only human beings are capable of having self-knowledge. No animal—not even the chimpanzee—is capable of genuine self-knowledge. There is no chimpanzee saying to itself “It is so unfortunate that the chimpanzee on the other side of the road has become a parent, since I clearly have more excellent parenting skills. That consideration alone suggests that Peter Singer is quite mistaken in thinking that chimpanzee are more like human beings than not. By the age of 10, a human child is making some quite significant comparative claims about other 10-year old children.
A most interesting question is whether self-knowledge has risen and is continuing to rise among human beings. My answer is that while it is certainly the case that self-knowledge has mightily risen among human beings down through the millennia, it is far from obvious that self-knowledge is continuing to rise among human beings.
From a number of perspectives, human beings know more themselves nowadays than was even possible a mere 200 years ago. For instance, even the great Immanuel Kant thought that difference in ethnicity was indicative of differences in intellectual abilities; whereas in 2015, we know that formally speaking no such thing is true. Indeed, we know nowadays that any healthy person, regardless of ethnicity, can give blood to a human being in need.
For a while, it seemed to me that the arrow of human intellectual excellence was only pointing upwards. Hence, human intellectual excellence would only get better and ever more majestic. Alas, I know longer think that.
One reason why I know longer think so is that it seems to me that technology has triggered a level of self-deception on the part of individuals that would have been utterly unimaginable even in 1995—a mere 20 years ago. Indeed, I am prepared to argue that at this point in time, technology is occasioning more self-deception than it is excellence. Indeed, I can back-off and say that the level of self-deception and excellence occasioned by technology are equal. Needless to say, the weaker view is still very, very, very disturbing. Technology is contributing mightily to self-deception precisely because it is allowing individuals to believe with great conviction that there is “My world” and there is the “World of others”.
Well, all that I need for the argument is that (a) intellectual growth and self-deception are rather like (b) oil and water. In either case, they simply do not mix.
Yet, another factor is that self-deception is entirely incompatible with trust. Indeed, there is an inverse correlation between the two, namely that as self-deception rises, the reality is that trust declines.
And guess what? In 2015, there is substantially less trust in most societies between people than there was in 1995. And let us be absolutely clear: less trust in a society means less social affirmation in a society. And the very profound reality is that a simple instance of basic trust can be a majestic instance of affirmation.
Finally, in a society where there is less trust and less self-knowledge, it is also the case that there will be substantially less goodwill in that society. And make no mistake about it: Simple gestures of goodwill throughout society are rather like a simple moral flame that is an ever present reminder of the moral power of the basic acts of moral goodness that flow from human beings.
To conclude, the decline of basic goodwill should come as no surprise given the truth that self-deception has increased mightily in society. For as we occupy ourselves with our gadgets, we have become ever so comfortable with the utter indifference that we show others.
In a word: There is no positive correlation at all between moral progress and technological progress. And that, alas, is a bit of knowledge and self-knowledge that is both ever so disturbing but which we should ever so seriously.
© 2015 Laurence Thomas