Is better better than best?
A day’s break from the T-man as I reflect on the reading so far. I am puzzled by the following question:
In a modern system in which everyone wants to create a materially powerful society, why is it that some of the most admired individuals and leaders have presented themselves as religious figures? I am thinking: Tagore, Gandhi, MLK Jr, Dalai Lama etc.
But I am not going to address that question; instead, let’s look at a major contrast between traditional and modern systems: the cult of the best vs the cult of the better.
Religions are cults of the best: their divinities are omniscient and omnipotent and super duper in every aspect. Consider what’s called the ontological argument for the existence of God: imagine a being that’s perfect in all respects except that the being doesn’t exist. We are missing something in the possibilities for perfection aren’t we, for there would be an even more perfect being: the being that’s perfect in all respects including that of existence. Surely that most perfect being exists, right?
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Forget whether this is a ironclad argument and instead ask: what is a culture in which everyone believes in perfection and also agrees that someone (Allah/God/Buddha…) embodies that perfection. That’s one mark of living in a religious culture, the cult of the best. In contrast, the modern system is about ‘betterness’ of being more efficient, more productive and more attractive than you were yesterday. And for its admirers, betterment has created better outcomes for more people than anything that came before it, for it claims to solve two problems at once: material want and social injustice, while pre-modern societies generally failed at both.
Running water, universal healthcare, equality before the law — these are fantastic achievements. Even when we complain about them, its because we want better sanitation, better healthcare and more equality. That betterment is possible across the board and that there might be a universal measuring stick for betterment is the quintessential modern belief.
Betterment goes hand in hand with uncertainty and risk: improvement is not a law of nature, but the consequence of risky choice making on our parts. I could choose to invest that ten dollar bill in the stock market or buy a bag of potato chips and munch it away. If I had invested those ten bucks in Bitcoin in 2010, I would be sitting pretty (though not as pretty as I was a year ago) but if I had invested that same tenner in Terra/Luna, well…. Progress and betterment come from risky investments and risky labor, and while risk and uncertainty can never produce the best (how can God have any risks?) our bets on the future are ways to improve our lot with a degree of predictability. So if you agree that:
That betterment is possible in every dimension
You have to choose how you are going to better yourself and those choices are risky
You can better your odds of success by creating institutions such as the State that help you absorb the downside of risk.
And in fact, institutions such as the State and the Market are universal betterment devices, i.e., they can negotiate progress along every dimension that matters.
▶︎▶︎ you’re modern.
And all of us are modern in this sense even when we project the myth of betterment back to some golden era in the Indian or European or Arab past.
Final question: if God is the embodiment of perfection, who is the embodiment of betterment?
Answer: (as you might already suspect) humans are the embodiment of betterment.
Unfortunately, the wheel of betterment and risk has turned full circle. What Marx said about capitalism is true of the cult of betterment in general: it’s inherently unstable and expands the circle of progress only by externalizing risk. Someone has to bear the burden of betterment: slaves, laborers, animals in factory farms… & at some point our collective debt has to be repaid.
Repaid to whom: the planet of course.