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The Limits Of Expertise

Reader Candles, on the “Cops Are Not Our Saviors” thread:

The seed of what you’re saying here about teachers and cops is tied in with something that’s been weighing on my mind a lot, recently.

The entire promise of our secular Enlightenment system is that we can specialize, and outsource, responsibility to experts, and those experts will be so much more effective than we are, that we can just relax and breathe a sigh of a relief and just reap the benefits. The market is one way of interfacing with those outsourced experts. Our civil servants are another. So, we can let down our guard, and let go of what once were called the restrictive practices and self-discipline that build moral character, because we’ll have someone else, in a secular institution, who will just take care of all that stuff. We won’t have to all be jacks of all trades, master of none, stuck with folks remedies for nursing and sewing and policing and cooking and teaching and farming. And that will free us all up to follow our bliss, and find our true selves, and engage in a kind of vulgar existentialism. That’s the promise, right? Externalize and formalize all our natural human practices, find expert driven best practices, codify some language of rights to guide those institutions, and the watch the resulting human flourishing.

Since becoming a parent, though, it’s become vastly more clear to me the giant fault line that runs under this set of ideas, where it is radically unstable. In short, the amount I will suffer and sacrifice for my kids, just naturally, even if the odds are long, wildly exceeds anything I would ever do for a job. I am far from alone in this. Anyone who’s ever wrestled with getting a nanny after staying home with their small children understands this dilemma; no nanny is ever going to have your kids best interest at heart to the degree that you will. Same for cops, same for teachers. This is not, at all, because they are bad people. It’s because the structure of the role itself is set up that way.

So here’s the dilemma. The narrative of the system built on the secular Enlightenment, as I’ve described it above, is REALLY appealing. It’s tantalizing. Who wouldn’t want to live as a totally liberated hyperconsumer with no physical restraints and no need for self-control, with a benevolent system that just takes care of all responsibilities? But, because it’s cutting so deeply against the grain of human nature, it just can’t really deliver what it promises. Because there is no way for the externalized, abstracted incentive systems of the workers at the DMV, or the teacher in the failing school, or the cop in the neighborhood where people keep shooting each other, to cause them to keep sacrificing when its a lost cause, and the odds are long, and they have no support.

Parents, and communities, can and will do those things. But culture/religion/ideology matters tremendously in determining whether or not parents and local communities really will step up to do those things that only they can really have the muscle, and sacrifice, and invasiveness to do.

I think people are so quickly to shout about bad cops and bad teachers because facing the actual alternative is too horrible: maybe we can’t escape from being responsible, and having to work constantly to change and improve ourselves. Maybe these externalized systems can’t actually work to an acceptable degree. Maybe the secular Enlightenment fantasia, where we can just put our feet up and relax, and we can outsource most of our responsibilities, simply can’t deliver as promised, not because it is immoral, but because it actually can’t work, not with human nature. Like, can’t work, the way that faster than light travel or perpetual motion machines can’t work. Maybe we have to keep struggling, and have to change ourselves to become better people, and no intervention of experts can free of us that burden.

I think it’s this line of thinking that makes me sympathetic to Rod’s discussions about the BenOp, despite me not really being sure what I believe about theology.

Wendell Berry is right: It all turns on affection. Excerpt, talking about “Howard’s End”:

“The light within,” I think, means affection, affection as motive and guide. Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. The factual knowledge, in which we seem more and more to be placing our trust, leads only to hope of the discovery, endlessly deferrable, of an ultimate fact or smallest particle that at last will explain everything.

The climactic scene of Forster’s novel is the confrontation between its heroine, Margaret Schlegel, and her husband, the self-described “plain man of business,” Henry Wilcox. The issue is Henry’s determination to deal, as he thinks, “realistically” with a situation that calls for imagination, for affection, and then forgiveness. Margaret feels at the start of their confrontation that she is “fighting for women against men.” But she is not a feminist in the popular or political sense. What she opposes with all her might is Henry’s hardness of mind and heart that is “realistic” only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls. She opposes his refusal to see the practicality of the life of the soul.

Margaret’s premise, as she puts it to Henry, is the balance point of the book: “It all turns on affection now . . . Affection. Don’t you see?”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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