Ken writes: I’m reading Catherine Blyth’s ‘The Art of Conversation’ at the moment (I’ve just started, but so far it is very enjoyable). I was struck by a claim she attributes to Hannah Arendt (who I have never read…I’m not that sort of philosopher), namely that human technological prowess and human moral understanding have become unbalanced. Arendt apparently
pondered how bizarre it was that men (sic) could journey into space, yet few could discuss these Promethean powers sensibly, because science had leaped ahead of human intelligence, the spectrum of its possibilities beyond any single person’s ken, let alone everyday conversation (p.13).
Initially, I would take myself to be sympathetic to a claim like this. I take the point to be an implicit comparison of human technical and scientific intelligence with human moral sense, or wisdom. (a distinction nicely illustrated by Brian O’driscoll earlier this year: intelligence is knowing that the tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in fruit salad).
Be that as it may. I think the point as Blyth or Arendt make it is unfair and trades on a clever rhetorical sleight of hand. It cannot be right to say being able to fly to the moon is a property all humans have and deny that being able to speak sensibly about flying to the moon is a property all humans have. The technological prowess is attributed to all people collectively, even though actually only the elite few (those with ‘the right stuff’) can be astronauts and space missions are sustained and support my armies of ordinary people. But in the comparison, thinking of the consequences of technology is denied of most people considered individually. The rhetorical sleight of hand is to speak of a collective property of people for intelligence and of a property of individuals for wisdom. To argue that intelligence and wisdom come apart, the point has to be made by taking both qualities in the same sense (individual or collective). If all humans can take credit for the intelligence that puts astronauts on the moon, everyone can claim credit for the careful moral reflection on the consequences of such technology given by philosophers such as Arendt herself.