Feb 19, 2021
The Freedom of Self-Sacrifice
Among the revolutionary changes brought about by modern technology and its growing role in shaping human behavior, the most alarming have to do with our ability—and right—to come to our own decisions about things that bear on our dignity as human persons. We continue to have vital human impulses, natural loves and fears, aspirations that resemble those of premodern societies, and sensibilities that find their home in a great variety of religious institutions. All the same, it seems that in our acquired habitual interface with social media platforms, we are actively ceding the essential part of our humanity, rational volition, to an intimate but mostly unnoticed symbiosis with a nonhuman mind, whose coercive thought and will mix so thoroughly with our own that we can hardly tell where one ends and the other begins.
Ultimately, however, the hope is that we won’t just use computers—we’ll become them. Today, cognitive scientists often compare the brain to hardware and the mind to the software that runs on it. But a software program is just information, and in principle there’s no reason why the information of consciousness has to be encoded in neurons.1
The most evident sign of this compromise to our free will is found in the fact that we now make most of our decisions not by deliberation and consultation, which draw from the deeper regions of human passion and require the ordering influence of our native reason, but by subtle inclinations of desire and fear that, detached from that reason, are shaped and channeled by the artificial intelligence of corporate algorithms.
“When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”2
It is common knowledge in the social media industry that people do not really choose to follow trends but are moved to do so by subliminal coercion. Immersed in the confidence that one is making personal decisions, one actually merely submits to the ephemeral pleasure of participating in mass, collective decisions, the consequences of which neither interest the individual nor touch his conscience, the moral witness of all acts of free will. By an artificially induced necessity, we now think algorithmically; although algorithms themselves are human constructs, like other mathematical systems they measure only a small, quantitative part of us that is detached from our qualitative aspects, the unity of which we mysteriously grasp in our idea of the human person. Nonetheless, many have begun to suspect that we have reached a threshold at which a real choice must be made—namely, whether to preserve the primordial spark of our humanity or, appalled and repulsed by late-modern presentations of human history on the one hand and entranced by stories of a “transhuman”3 life on the other, to leave it behind once and for all. Presuming that the former is the only choice a human being can make—choosing, after all, being a human thing to do4—the immediate task is to find out what is happening to us in the human interface with social media algorithms.5 Fortunately, there is growing evidence, produced by many who are intimately involved in creating, managing, and using social media, that reveals how corporate algorithms have been compromising our free will and, consequently, changing the innate orientation of our moral compass.
We are “losing our free will.” Through algorithms that monitor our behavior and activities, Google and other free social media are changing our behavior without our even knowing it.6
The vast majority of us communicate with these algorithms far more often than we speak with human persons; accustomed to thinking of online platforms as merely passively registering consumer demands and facilitating routine searches for information, most people are ignorant of or unconcerned with the platforms’ more important task, which is at once to study and to manipulate human behavior, shaping and channeling our decision-making processes from relatively superficial to profoundly subliminal levels of consciousness.
What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale, but without informed consent.7
You work on algorithms... until you find a formula that will cause behavior change, or behavior pattern change, in a predictable manner.... This is something entirely new in the world and distinct from any previous advertising, or policing, or statecraft.8
The actual user interface can harm individuals, especially children,9 but the injuries, psychological as well as physiological, can be concealed or explained away by citing the overall benefit of that interface to consumers. To some observers, however, the extent to which social media corporations will go to pursue coercive agendas reveals a capacity and commitment to effect deeper and more permanent modifications in human behavior than was heretofore possible in the advertising industry. Software engineers have become, for all intents and purposes, social engineers.
We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now.10
Given the societal saturation of handheld devices, it is not surprising that people in every sector of society are now thoroughly used to conducting their business by using online platforms and speaking to computer simulations of human voices; but that they have so easily shifted into using a machine interface in order to communicate, in the most intimate fashion, with loved ones and friends continues to be astounding, especially given the invisible audience of anonymous data harvesters that not only monitor our every word but statistically harvest our emotions.
Of all the things we possess, our rational free will is the most precious, but it is usually only in the shock of its imminent loss—or, in the present context, theft—that we cling to it with the appropriate ferocity. The question of whether free will is real or an illusion11 ceases to matter when it is existentially threatened—when, that is, a panic takes hold of our body and mind, making us cry out for a sense of purpose we may have never known. While there is no shortage of witnesses to the terrible risks posed to humanity by online platforms, especially social media, the strength of current statistical analyses and compilations of the available data on the crisis is offset by a lack of qualitative reflection concerning the spiritual structures of human moral agency, which have traditionally been treated by religion. Specifically, Western civilization presupposes a vast literature on “the free choice of the will,”12 the culmination of which we find in Thomas Aquinas’s writings in moral theology. The common characteristic of this tradition is its aim not only to guide human actions toward virtuous ends but to discover the inner workings of the human reason and will that are required to achieve them. There exists, in short, an alternate fund of research, equally scientific in its own fashion, that meticulously documents the subtle order involved in the many stages of rational volition as well as its influence on the passions—i.e., desire, anger, fear, and so on. Seeking to give them measure and grace, the authors in this tradition recognized that controlling the passions was neither desirable nor possible. The research of contemplative intuition revealed that, together with these impulses, the internal expansiveness of imagination and intellect sets to work in the various dimensions of the will, from which then flow practical acts that mold external circumstances into well-ordered and harmonious wholes. The path of moral virtue, though beginning in robust confrontation with external circumstances, always saw its end in internal perfection.
Aquinas called moral acts “human acts,” for he held that moral virtues make sense only in the context of the entire human person that is perfected by them. But the fundamental structure, itself premoral, that allows the human being to act at all is the network of means and ends, which also happens to be the language of teleology. In his Summa Theologica,13 he maintains that “all things, by desiring their own perfection, desire God himself.” To modern sensibilities, this will seem to be merely one of many anthropomorphic statements to which ancient philosophers were given in their attempts to account for an order in nature that requires a mathematical language they did not possess. Despite what we are usually told, both modern and ancient sciences have held, as a fundamental principle, that nature is built on rational structures. The greatest difference between the two perspectives has, rather, to do with whether there is teleology in nature—that is, whether all things act for the sake of something. For Aristotle, to whom Aquinas was obliged for the background of his statement, every being moves toward the perfection of its own nature by something approximating human desire, be it natural impulse, instinct, or the complex affective life of the higher animals. To take some obvious examples, birds build nests for the sake of propagating, and a single bird will fly in the face of a predator for the sake of protecting its mate. The bird’s passion, as it were, drives the rational goal of preserving its young even while the rational goal gives structure to the passion. Thus, while moderns have been content to limit rationality in nature to mathematical patterns and causal predictability, the ancients required in things a final causality that accounts not only for rational structures but also the vital forces that sustain them. But while nature as a whole acts rationally, they held that only the human species actually possesses a rational faculty. This legacy of teleology in the philosophy of nature laid the groundwork for later scholastic philosophers to treat the rationality of human actions as a special application, as it were, of the more universal order of natural causes. While the natural philosopher conceived of the final cause of things as that for the sake of which they move by natural impulse, the ethicist posited the final cause in human acts as the end for the sake of which one chooses the means. And while other animals simply desire the end, the human animal desires it self-consciously as “good.”
The second source for Aquinas’s statement can be found in the theology of the early church, which, though it agreed with Aristotle that all things desire in analogous ways their own perfection, was compelled to expand his teleology to conform to the belief that all things are created by God—that is, they are creatures. The church fathers assigned, therefore, a twofold end to all things: the first being their natural end, which is simply the mature form of their species (a baby robin works hard to be a fully grown robin); the second being their providential end, the end that makes their specific motions contribute to a universal or cosmic plan designed by their creator.14 It was this second end that ultimately accounted for the fact that a rational structure, such as a robin’s nest, can be constructed by a creature without a rational faculty. Traditional Christian theology, therefore, added to Aristotle’s scientific anthropomorphism a comprehensive “theomorphism.”
All things move for the sake of ends; but we alone can will the end in such a way that we reflectively evaluate the means that can achieve it and choose them by deliberation. Moreover, the complexity of human acts, their layered self-consciousness, and the variety of their volitional modes require a far greater amount of time and space to reach their completion than those of other creatures. The difference is staggering if one considers the great variety that can be found in human plans, some of which take many years to unfold and include a vast network of means and ends by which the final end might be accomplished. The rich rationality of human acts demands a fullness of time and space, but it is the end, which comes from outside us, that constitutes the intelligible light by which our acts derive meaning and purpose. Accordingly, we love the end not merely as a goal or terminus but as something good in itself. Though we may not love the means, it has traditionally been a mark of maturity in a person to respect them, to develop a relation with them that is marked by patient attention and care as to their own requirements.
The self-consciously rational and reflective nature of the human network of means and ends begets another property unique to humans—namely, that some means become so desirable in themselves that they become ends in their own right, even as they continue to be the means toward a more remote and greater good. This property of human means is an important witness to the spatiotemporal dimensions required by human acts. Consider the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which, though regarded as the means for achieving wisdom, reflect the beauty of that end to such an extent that they have become, over millennia of use, ends and goods in themselves. With respect to most means, however, the best we can hope for is toleration, as is often the case with those we accomplish each day merely “to get on with our lives.” Consequently, a crucial part of deliberating as to which means we should choose to achieve the end is finding the ones that are the least burdensome—that is, that involve the least suffering. We are sometimes constrained to choose between means that are very unpleasant indeed, and which only a very beloved or necessary end can justify by bringing them under its overarching goodness. As a rule, then, we suffer the means and enjoy the end.
There is also, however, a suffering that is proper to love, for as long as the beloved object is out of reach we must endure its absence, and the course of that endurance can be painful indeed. Further, if love did not suffer the privation of its object, there would be no such thing as the means, for we would always possess whatever we love. Love thus generates the means and, in doing so, generates their characteristic suffering. Though the suffering of privation is found in every living being, in human acts it can reach such an intensity as to become indistinguishable from the love that begets it, as we will see further on. And since, in the more complex human acts, means themselves become subordinate ends, we also suffer privation with respect to them. St. Augustine of Hippo, speaking from personal experience, noted that the excessive love of the means can result in a fatal delay in the soul’s journey to God, thus putting the love of the means into competition with the love even of our absolute and final end: happiness. We must also point out that because the network of means can range from the optional to the necessary, human acts come naturally arranged in a hierarchy of suffering and love, the latter constituting the characteristic passion regarding ends, the former the characteristic passion regarding the means. Finally, if every voluntary act involves this twofold suffering in its means and ends, and if every society is held together by voluntary acts, then every society will be made up of a network of love and suffering.
As the theoretical sciences isolate certain extreme examples of their subjects as archetypes for all the rest, so the practical science of moral theology, in the process of studying virtuous actions, seeks particular examples in which they attain extremes of passionate intensity. Such qualitative intensity in a virtue becomes all the more important to moral theology in comparison with classical ethics insofar as moral theology considers its subjects in light of their supernatural as well as their natural perfection—that is, both with respect to their remote and their proximate ends. Accordingly, loves and sufferings that society condones as common features of its normative life and, thus, considers to be ethical can be raised to such a qualitative intensity that, precisely because they disrupt the accustomed order of human passions, they require a theological consideration to account for their meaning and purpose. More to our point, when confronted by circumstances of extreme adversity, ordinary relations of love can be condensed to such a degree that the time required to reflect on them shrinks to a single instant of fierce necessity. When the mother’s naturally affectionate love for her child is immediately and mortally threatened, it can become so intense as to make her aware of nothing but things that may be enlisted in her spontaneous efforts to preserve the child’s life—things that may include her own life. For the moral theologian interested in the boundary between the natural and the supernatural virtues,15 among the lessons to be learned from such a crisis of love is that it is a likeness to the highest kind of religious love for God, what the tradition has called “mystical love”: as the mother, in a moment of fierce loving care, has no sense of herself apart from her child, so the mystic, with an analogously fierce love for God, has no sense of herself apart from God. Here we do not speak of doing something for another but rather of being for the sake of another, the latter of which allows no time or space for self-consciousness, let alone for deliberation, counsel, or choice, the natural phases of every human act according to moral theology. Even means and ends become indistinguishable from each other when, in a single instant, love and suffering become a single passion.
In ancient Greek usage, the verb pasco (to suffer) commonly signified the passive experience of unpleasant as well as pleasant things; gradually, however, the verb came to signify exclusively with respect to unpleasant or inimical things.16 At some point, one ceased to “suffer joy” at any happy circumstance, although expressions of “suffering love” managed to escape the inadvertent linguistic purge. In early Christian literature, however, pasco and its various derivatives began to be conceived in such an altered way as almost to constitute a shift in their essential meaning: in addition to signifying “bearing the burden of something distressing or painful,” it came also, and even principally, to signify “suffering for the sake of God.”17 In subsequent Christian literature the meanings attached to suffering became even more complex, including, over and above self-denial in the pursuit of God, self-sacrifice in bearing witness to Christ.18 In the martyr, the archetype of Christian self-sacrifice, the act of suffering became self-conscious in a way that was lacking even in heroic acts of suffering death for the sake of family or country, acts that were not done explicitly for the sake of witnessing to God. The martyr, having separated himself from concern with any object or end apart from God, deliberately, and at the height of his passion, made his very self the sole means of witnessing to Him. Indeed his self, which had always distracted him from God, had become the last privation of his love for God, the last obstacle to becoming one with Him, and, thus, it had become his suffering. And because love and suffering are correlative, the martyr’s love shared in the intensity of his suffering, much as the mother’s suffering shared in her love. Finally, as every worldly love manifests the suffering that arises from the privation of a good, so too, in the martyr’s love of the highest Good, could be found the highest expression of human privation.
But at this point one may ask, What is the purpose of these extremes of love and suffering for maintaining the bonds of society and the common good? How can they be the means for the immediate end of preserving the health and welfare of citizens? For the passions of martyrs and heroes ultimately bear witness to the dissolution, not the preservation, of the normative bonds of human relations. The mother suffers for her child, the martyr for God, but neither dies for society.19 The mother loves nothing but her child, the martyr nothing but God, but neither of these intensive loves is capable of being shared extensively among others. These so-to-speak non-societal loves, however, are akin to the type of love designated in Greek as eros, a term that, while signifying in classical literature the intensity of romantic love, was adopted by the early church to signify the human person’s absolute love of God. And as the love of God, being free from corporeal passions, is shrouded in mystery to those who still love the things of this world, it was often qualified by the term mystical. Mystical eros was thought to be the glue that binds a solitary soul to God, and because it was every bit as exclusive as that of the mother and the martyr, it could not, per se, be the glue that binds individuals with each other in a community, even in a community of the faithful or the ecclesia.20 In Egypt and Palestine, Christians living in the cities went out to the desert to take counsel with anchorites,21 hermits who had renounced human society for the sake of continuous prayer. Nonetheless, the fathers of the early church believed that the love which is proper to community—namely, agape or “filial love”—was not different in kind to mystical love, and though they held that the former is weaker than the latter, by weaker they did not mean feeble or ignoble but extensive rather than intensive; agape was designed, as it were, to be the absolute love of God expressed relatively as the love of neighbor. Their common element, that which made them extremes of the same kinship of divine love, was self-sacrificial suffering—in eros, the absolute self-sacrifice for the sake of God; in agape, the relative self-sacrifice for the sake of another. Agape, then, is mystical eros as suffered in the world.
In the ecclesia, every secular relation took on an added dimension, an otherworldliness that directed the eye beyond the beloved person to the source of love itself, and did so without diminishing the love of human kinship. With agape, the benevolent relations of human society and the affection generated therein became at once heightened in their intensity and strengthened in their adhesive power to bind persons to each other, for all relations were essentially self-sacrificial. The filial love of agape is essentially relative in the sense that one calls the members of one’s extended family “relatives,” but because it is otherworldly as well, it inspires a hope that turns the mind to the love that is not mediated by any worldly relation. Far from constituting a utopia (which makes itself the end), or a dystopia (which is the actual end of a utopia), the ecclesia might be called a prostopia, a community that, qua community, is directed toward and in essential relation to another place—the place of God. The expression in Greek for relation is pros ti, literally, “toward something,” but in an ecclesia, the relation between citizens is raised to the level of being pros theon, a being-toward-God. Here we see the twofold end of all things, mentioned above, as functioning in the microcosm of human society, in which each citizen is acutely conscious of his natural and supernatural end, of his love for neighbor and his love for God. Each person reminds the other of the Person of God, and in this way guarantees that the community will be filled with a supernatural joy of human kinship that, being proper to agape, does not enter into mystical eros, for which God is present to the point of making all others absent. Nonetheless, just as there can be no means without an end, so the complete love of agape would not be possible without the mystical love that transcends it.
The most important father of the early Latin church, St. Augustine, asserted that the true love of God was the only love we should enjoy as a good in itself, and that every love we have for others, be they spouses, family, or friends, can never be more than the means toward that end. He went so far as to say that we should use others for the sake of cultivating our absolute relation to God. At first glance this seems a heartless proposition, one designed not to foster love between people but to alienate them from each other, to dissolve rather than constitute the glue holding them together. But he made it quite clear that far from diminishing the legitimacy and qualitative intensity of the human love we have for each other, the love of use adds to it the acknowledgment that every love is a faint reflection of love’s finality in God. For Augustine, the love manifest in and by the ecclesia—which, as an ideal form, he held to be present seminally in every human society—is the highest love that humans possess for each other simply because it is the only love that is also self-consciously directed to the final cause of our being; in every other love and, therefore, in every other suffering, we conceal or even sever the thread that binds us to God. The members of the ecclesia, then, habitually seek to turn virtuous acts of doing things for the sake of each other into spiritual acts of being for the sake of each other, the former requiring a part, the latter the whole, of themselves. But how can there be a society so thoroughly and self-consciously founded on self-sacrifice? How can any society maintain such a psychological and spiritual tension? How can such a society last?22
Throughout the modern age, philosophers and scientists have looked forward to and, since the nineteenth century, actively planned for the day when science, under the rubric of medicine and behavioral psychology, would have the capacity to eradicate suffering from the human condition.23 In our present time, the technocratic systems on which we have become dependent for carrying out virtually all of our business and social communication, and which have gained the ascendency in critical areas of public policy, are aggressively implementing agendas that have, as their explicit goal, the eradication of suffering in all parts of the world.24 Apropos of our theme in this essay, such a plan, if indeed it is as universal as it claims to be, must persecute25 suffering all the way to its natural presence in human acts and the means and ends that underly them as their formal structure. It must, that is, somehow eradicate not only natural but supernatural human impulses and desires—the same impulses that ancient philosophers and theologians believed to be the vital forces behind the proximate and remote ends of moral actions—by abolishing the time and space in which alone they can be expressed. The vital energy of our loves, especially those that are most intense, must be rerouted to other organic mechanisms that allow for nothing but simple cause and effect relations. Relations of means and ends, consequently, must be replaced by relations of stimulus and response that are normally found only at the lowest animal level—that is, in organisms whose primitive structures, while totally lacking self-consciousness, nonetheless possess aggressive and efficient powers for propagating their own species. This means, of course, that no time or space would be left for either ecclesial or mystical acts of love and suffering. In an instructive irony, this secular plan, by eliminating the conditions for attaining the highest or final cause of human existence, can arrive only at the lowest or material cause. There can be no middle place, for that would be the natural condition of human acts, the time and space for which is always open to being contracted for one of two agendas: the cultivation of the superhuman love of religion or the enforcement of the subhuman desire of the viral algorithm.
Given that, in the modern age, the “hard” sciences have eliminated teleology from the legitimate concerns of research, it should not be surprising that the “soft” social sciences have imitated them by seeking to eliminate teleology in human acts, a plan that, by the reckoning of ancient teleology, must eventually arrive at collapsing the time required for willing the end as a good, deliberating on and choosing the means in a virtuous manner, and, finally, enjoying the end in one’s possession. Accordingly, just as the natural sciences have reduced the manifest teleology in nature to the bare material mechanism of cause and effect, so the social sciences have reduced the rich teleology of human intentions to the simple dichotomy of doing “this or that.” Finally, as physics has done away with metaphysics and theology, so behavioral psychology has done away with ethics and moral theology—and all ostensibly for the sake of control. Again, without suffering, there can be no natural or supernatural love; the human will at best know only a kind of primitive affection for the correct functioning of a mechanism that is not human but infrahuman, a microbial or viral sort of life.
But we have not yet followed the secular plan to its end, for we have not mentioned its intentions with respect to that particular suffering one feels in love itself—namely, the privation of the beloved object. As we mentioned above, nothing moves at all except insofar as it suffers the privation of the end that it desires. Is the secular eradication of suffering meant to go this far? And if so, must it not work against itself by eliminating, in the process, the possibility of any human motion, even the most primitive? Such an end is, in fact, impossible, but neither is it desirable, for while even this last suffering is despised, it must be kept alive if there is to be anything left at all of the human being—and, by implication, of other animals and even plants—that can be controlled—and control is what passes for the essential nature of the algorithm once made independent of immediate human guidance.26 For this reason, then, the social engineers’27 desire to control suffering must be greater than their desire to annihilate it. But how can human beings ever be tempted to submit to such a diminution of their natural expansiveness of mind and will? An oft-quoted passage from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, in the part known as “The Grand Inquisitor,” may provide a plausible response: “In the end they will lay down their freedom at our feet and say: ‘Make us your slaves, if only you will feed us!’”28 Accordingly, from Dostoyevsky’s traditionally religious perspective, the failure in the secular plan is not primarily one of reason but of intention; it is a failure of the will as manifest in its potential to love something higher than, and incommensurable with, itself. Most religions hold that we naturally love what is beyond our nature to attain, but they also hold that this love can only be satisfied supernaturally. The testimony of the martyr, as we have seen, is possible only with respect to the second and not to the first end—that is, to our supernatural and not to our natural end. But even so, it must presuppose our desire for the first end, for it is not something added, as if it were an alien influence, but rather something that perfects from within, working with what already is to make something that will be. If there is indeed such desire—and religion has testified to its existence for millennia—it must be directed beyond our human nature, and there must be an intuitive knowledge that our natural end is not our final end. Indeed, because the transcendental end is present seminally in the love we have for it, our work to achieve it will take the form of a return to it. The members of the ecclesia bear witness to each other of that end and the open field of divine life it implies. But at the same time, this gift of love, so long as we remain in our natural state, will always entail the burden of privation. Human community, therefore, must always itself be a burden, but a burden by design.
Beyond the question of whether the power of self-sacrifice, the sheer seminal energy of its eruption into the relative bonds of society, should be allowed to be expressed, there is the more pressing question, given our present circumstances, of whether it can be suppressed—whether, that is, the natural and even supernatural intensity in us can be extinguished or perpetually kept in check, even by a mechanism whose power and extent now encompass the entire world. Perhaps these questions cannot be answered as a practical matter but only as a matter of faith—that is, by an appeal to principle. But there is a practical question that might be answered: Is such a thing being attempted in the present time?29 If so, then more questions arise, such as, What must we do to stop it? But here we must ask who “we” are, and this leads to more doubts regarding the means—that is, who will take the actions necessary to preserve a humanity the essentials for which we are close to forgetting? These questions can lead to an intolerable vertigo. But if one answers the question of whether the plan is actually happening in the affirmative, then it seems that the only place to look is to a broader plan—namely, the providence of God. It is that plan, after all, that established the twofold end of humanity, and that alone, therefore, can remind
us of the great power that is present in every human act of using the means to attain the end. As long as one can still imagine the radical intensity of love and suffering that can be found in self-sacrificial acts of being for the sake of another, then one will always have access to the door that leads out of the prison of mere determinism and brute material causality and toward the wide field of the divine life.