Technology and Wisdom in balance

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.


3 thoughts on “Technology and Wisdom in balance

  1. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    I must observe that, ‘Can I do it?’ is not immediately followed by ‘Would I like it to be done to me or to experience the consequences?’ as a general thing which seems to demonstrate human wisdom does lag behind creativity. We shall not even go on to the question of whether even the greatest thinkers in any area ever really consider the larger consequences of their actions, ideas or inventions. There is a kind of tunnel vision that generally affects our species.

  2. And rightly so! If we sit around all the time thinking about the “consequences” of our actions, how ever are we going to get that big explosion we need to scare the crap out of the Rooskies? Get ‘er done.

  3. Dot

    Picking up on your point about individual versus collective capacities, would it be valid to say that humans acting collectively tend to be more ingenious but less sensible than individual humans? Collectively, humans have produced modern western society, with all its technological wonders, and that was the product of no individual mind or effort and, I believe, could not have been. But individuals are quite able to see the aspects of it that are ruinously unwise – notably its environmental impact. So the collectivity has behaved very foolishly, and individuals can see that; but they are part of the system in question and find it remarkably hard to break out of it and act independently.

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