From one viewpoint, the whole woke movement can be seen as an attempt to produce virtue through bureaucracy. Forget for a moment the political undercurrents at play, and the resulting redefinition of virtues into novel categories like “transphobia”: let us charitably suppose that the less ideological people at PayPal and so on, cancelling organisations and individuals’ accounts, are genuinely aiming to “stop hate” by preventing its expression.
The idea is that, whilst many people might spontaneously act from virtuous principles, there’s a messy tendency for some not to do so – or for many not to do so on occasion. As a result those pesky vices that get in the way of utopia still persist in the world. The answer, says the bureaucratic mind, is to put systems in place that will not rely on unreliable individual virtues, but guarantee them by whatever mechanisms are available – laws, surveillance, policing, cancellation, defunding and so on.
The trouble, as I will try to evidence, is that the attempt to ensure virtue in this way actually leads to the multiplication of division and hatred to the point that, in our news, we see that the whole of society is increasingly disrupted, rather than becoming increasingly inclusive, spontaneous, and harmonious. If you want an explanation for this, then one factor is maybe the same quirk of human character that means that using Satnavs destroys one’s innate sense of place and direction, wearing a watch makes you unlearn the biological instincts of timekeeping, and immersing yourself in social media makes face-to-face conversation harder. In other words, if virtue is not cultivated from within, but imposed from outside, it withers on the vine.
I think I’ve mentioned before my suspicion that, were reliable stats available, we might well discover that the obsession with safeguarding the vulnerable within organisations might not have reduced the actual abuse of individuals very much. I say that partly because the Big Thing that was going to revolutionise the well-being of the young was the Children’s Act of 1989. It was on everybody’s lips at the time, but nobody mentioned it when a series of high-profile child abuse cases began to create the Safeguarding Industry a decade or so later.
In fact, it may not be coincidence that all the protective legislation and bureaucratic apparatus has coincided with a massive and consistently ignored spate of organised child sexual abuse by gangs, and with the institutionalised abuse of children during COVID, and in the sexual indoctrination of children in our schools. Neither of these abuses was mentioned on my recent safeguarding course, and it’s as if learning all the right procedures for specific risks has actually prevented us from heeding internal alarm bells that the untrained hear instinctively.
Even in individual perception all the concern for security has produced the opposite. Every educational institution now seems full of people for whom the stew of hatred surrounding them makes them fear for their very lives. They are, indeed, snowflakes, but their timidity is the result of the attempts to protect them through systems.
Another example of straining gnats and swallowing camels is my own profession of medicine. Once this was policed primarily by a strongly internalised concept of professional ethics. Because this was a virtue-based system, it was inevitable that there would be an admixture of less positive motives – for example, the professional love of money goes back at least to Chaucer’s “Doctour of Physik”:
For gold in physic is a cordial,
Therefore he loved gold in special.
There were also bound to be a few villains like Harold Shipman, and far more commonly lazy incompetents, who were before the NHS somewhat kept in check by market forces among patients, and by social pressures from colleagues, up to and including censure by the General Medical Council. But if people respected doctors generally, it was because doctors generally had an innate sense of how they should act.
But that is insufficient for the tidy-minded. In hospitals, management began to increase exponentially in the 1980s, until near the end of my career a hospital manager told me that the number of pen-pushers was essential because “doctors need managing.” I reminded him that when I started, my large district general hospital had just one administrator and his assistant, and ran fine. He was right though, because once “managed” intensively for a couple of decades, doctors no longer know how to regulate themselves, just as the public has now become incapable of recognising risk when there is not a black and yellow sign or a scary TV ad.
In general practice, the furore over one bad apple, Shipman, led the jobsworths to institute a whole system of annual appraisal, most of which was a waste of time and money, and eventually “revalidation,” the imminence of which was one of the main reasons for my jumping ship and becoming a writer. It all sounds very plausible when you talk about “best practice,” and “accountability,” but in 2022, we find that it’s hard to find a GP at all, and when we do he is unlikely to have made the slightest effort to question the bastardisation of medical science that was the COVID response. To all appearances, the drive to guarantee perfect doctors has actually resulted in the total meltdown of the profession. That’s because you cannot indoctrinate virtue, but you may very well indoctrinate the system’s vices.
Such is also the case in science more broadly. The major factor in the current prostitution of science appears to be the two-headed dragon of government funding and corporate ownership. But when science was pursued by individual enthusiasts inside or outside universities, their probity was partly ensured by the validity of their research, it’s true, but also by their internalised love of truth.
Not that this was ever perfect: scandals like Piltdown Man show how vice and evolutionary ideology (probably in tandem) could lead to fraud, and I gather that even Louis Pasteur falsified his data, probably in the end for the same reasons of ideology (in this case germ theory) and personal ambition.
Yet the attempts to systematise “good science,” through procedures such as peer review or impact factors, have led to the replication crisis only possible because of them, and most scandalously, to the complete subversion of the scientific enterprise in suppressing the origins of SARS-CoV2, the safety and efficacy of its “vaccines,” and other issues too numerous to describe. These have killed millions, and led to the collapse of the world’s societies. Once again, it is the bureaucratisation that has produced many of the problems, because “systems” can be gamed, whereas virtues cannot. In fact, the inevitable development of such gaming sounds the death knoll for virtue.
The current unrest in society seems likely to end in the destruction of bureaucracies such as I have described, as well (unfortunately) as most of the other accoutrements of civilisation from reliable money to available food and shelter. If that happens, I think the bureaucracies can be described as bathwater, rather than babies. Still, we need to remember that the problems we have do not arise purely from trying to make rules for all eventualities, but from the way that such rules have actually destroyed virtue. To destroy the first without revitalising the latter is the worst of all worlds. History has plenty of examples of societies with neither effective law nor virtuous custom, and they are not pretty.
Perhaps the saving grace is how many of those now trying to undo the damage done to society also appreciate that the loss of religion, family and natural morality have been the most damaging causes of our civilisational collapse. It’s time to cultivate true virtue along with our patch of beans and potatoes.