Welcome to the 3rd Millennium

welcome to the 3rd millennium

Welcome to the 3rd Millennium. The era and the journal! Many things in our world seemed to have reached a critical turning point. What should people of goodwill do?

A Time of Epochal Change

It's hardly original to point out that our world is going through rapid and far-reaching changes, and that these pose enormous challenges to us all. Technological development and globalisation, to name just two of these challenges, seem likely to leave the world profoundly altered, even by the end of the present century. Think how much the world changed from 1900 to 2000. The changes from 2000 to 2100 look set to be even more dramatic.

It is likewise unoriginal to note that technological development tends to outpace a more integral human development. We are good at coming up with new technologies but not so good at being willing and able to control them.

We lead with excitement and hope, but follow up with disappointment and disorder. 

Time and again we have proven to be poor at integrating new developments in a timely fashion.

Unoriginal as these observations are I believe them to be true. As much as the world changes, the fundamentals of human nature don't. Yet in order to meet the new challenges I believe we need to penetrate more deeply into the nature of what it is to be human. If we want technological developments to benefit humanity as a whole we need to get better at integrating them into the human community.

What should people of goodwill do?

In my youth I became keenly aware of the urgent need to build a better world. I looked around, and listened, and heard lots of critique. I heard many condemnations and calls for change. But I didn't hear many answers. As I entered my adult life one question came to the fore in my mind - what should people of goodwill do? It is easy to criticise. It's easy to point out things that have gone wrong. And things that won't work. But what should we do?

It seemed to me that we needed a great effort to build something good. But what, exactly? And how? The various proposals that were available struck me as inadequate. Sure, I understood human nature reasonably well by then as to its basics. Enough to know that the available stock of goodwill is always going to fall short of what is needed. And enough to know how difficult it is to mobilise people for serious change.

It's true that the only real solution is for everyone to become saints. But by then I had also come across a brilliant saying, though I can't recall where. In referring to our ideas about what should be done we tend towards two extremes.

We either want to build a system so good that people don't have to be good, or we want people to be so good that we don't need a system.

So even if it would be a solution if everyone became saints, that's not going to happen any time soon. What is to be done in the meantime?

The Crucial Question of System

Whatever it is, it is going to involve systems, and it is going to involve people. On one hand, I can fairly confidently predict that people of the coming century are not going to become so good that everything will work by charity, that we can dissolve the police force, and replace the tax office with an 'honour box'. On the other hand, the systems we do create are not going to have some utopian magic that makes them work even when large numbers are rorting them or only using them for what they can get.

Why do I think that the question of system is crucial? When you draw the lesson starkly, as above, it's easier to see the general kind of solutions that can't possibly work. What about when the options are less starkly drawn? For example, disagreements can arise about how to find the right balance between a 'social welfare' approach and a 'social justice' approach. Most people will agree that both are needed, to some extent - but to what extent?

The social principles of subsidiarity and solidarity stand right in the middle of this dilemma. The principle of subsidiarity privileges the small scale, the family, the local community, and small business over the larger scale. The principle of solidarity privileges the unity of people everywhere, and the rights of all to justice. Each of these principles could be pursued too far at the expense of the other. Each is a personal principle, but each needs systems to embody and support it.

An Intellectual Challenge

The 3rd Millennium Project is my attempt to contribute something to addressing some of the challenges we face. The focus is not on criticism, on condemnation or polemics. It is not even on exhortation. Its focus is on understanding.

Whatever amount of goodwill we have to work with, we need to maximise its effect by trying to find the best possible strategies. It is quite possible for too many of the people of goodwill to be spending too much time doing good things that are nevertheless much less effective than they could be. Such efforts could even be making it harder to bring about the changes that we need. How much of such a luxury can we afford?

At the same time, who wants to criticise people of goodwill? They are the very people who need to be drawn into the better coordinated effort that will be needed to effect fundamental change. And who can claim to have all the answers? Many of the disagreements between people of goodwill occur because they come to different practical judgements. They might be guided by the same principles but weigh up the various factors differently.

Many have bemoaned this wide gap between principle and practice. It seems to me that this is one of the biggest intellectual challenges of our times. Think of the sorts of things articulated in Catholic social teaching. If you read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church you will find a fine statement of principles, the kind that it would be hard for anyone to disagree with - until you try to apply them to concrete situations.

How can we narrow that gap?

e.g. 'Practically Normative' Principles

Is it possible to develop 'practically normative' principles? We are all familiar with normative principles of a fairly general kind. I mean, who can be against 'solidarity', or 'participation' as principles of social life? You can say quite a lot expounding such principles without ever getting nearer to providing more concrete guidance. But without more concrete moral norms, how will it be possible to mobilise the large and sustained effort to overcome global, structural injustices?

How can this be achieved if even the people of goodwill don't feel morally bound to a sufficiently particular course of action?

Can such things only be worked out in practice? In other words, is it even possible to specify such things theoretically? For example, would it be possible to work out a theory of subsidiarity? There are various elements around that could be assembled into a proposal for a more specified practice of subsidiarity. However, our attempts at social theory in general seem inadequate to mount to anything that could really be called theory in the proper sense. But without such clarity how could moral responsibility be specified with greater concreteness in the social realm?

This is an example of the kind of thing that will be explored here - eventually. In the meantime I am beginning with an eclectic selection of articles that I hope will seem less eclectic as time goes on and the unifying ideas underlying this 3rd Millennium Project become more apparent. So for the time being ...

'Peace on earth to all people of goodwill.'