Room for Deterioration

Reading Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:

“The wide latitude human societies have for deterioration is the inevitable counterpart of man’s increasing productivity and control over his environment. Occasional decline as well as prolonged mediocrity—in relation to achievable performance levels—must be counted among the many penalties of progress.”

Sometimes dogs need discipline (I’m thinking here of discipline as negative consequences). They eat something they’re not supposed to eat, or destroy some valued object. I’ve heard that dogs can learn from discipline in these circumstances, but only if the discipline comes immediately enough that they can make the connection between the discipline and their action.

Maybe humans are that way too. When we experience negative consequences from our actions, we can learn to avoid those actions and choose some others. Sometimes the consequences of our actions come at such a distance from the actions themselves that we can’t see the connection. “Climate change” can go in this category. What we humans do – what we put into the atmosphere – in a single day, or even a single year, doesn’t have much discernible effect. Over time we start to see an effect. The effect comes so slowly, with no directly perceived relation to our actions, that we might be dubious about the connection.

What would happen if we there were immediate negative consequences to our putting increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the air? Would that be a help? Surely the immediate negative consequences of putting our hand on the burner tell us DON’T PUT YOUR HAND ON THE BURNER!

We can turn to ethical matters. In the Old Testament, for example, we see God commanding the people of Israel to “make no graven image.” Idolatry is clearly a bad thing. God promises consequences. Generally, with a few notable exceptions, the consequences from God (as we read the Bible) do not come immediately. It seems that Israel can linger in idolatry for generations before judgment (consequences) comes. Wouldn’t it be better if those consequences would come immediately? Then we would be much clearer both as to exactly what constitutes idolatry and that we should avoid it.

What if there were no time for deterioration – no gap at all between our actions and their (total!) consequences? Surely in such cases, the more total the consequences, the less possible we could learn. We sin, we die. That quick. But, again, we almost never see that pattern in the Bible. There’s a lag between going wrong and being shown to be wrong.

In the quote above, Hirschman is looking at human societies (groups, communities, enterprises, businesses, etc.). Due to progress, these societies are not constantly at subsistence level. If they were at subsistence level, the first instance of “consequences,” or to use his word, “deterioration,” would be fatal. As things are, we can, as Hirschman notes, go along for quite a while, not doing really well – being just plain mediocre – but still getting along.

Like other institutions in our time, our United Methodist Church (in America, at least) is at the stage of deterioration. We’ve been losing members for over a generation now. We’ve closing far more churches than we’re opening. Through the 1950s and even into the 1960s we thought we were doing great. We’d made progress. considering were we stood in comparison with the general population of the US we were largely deceiving ourselves, but degree of progress we experienced – taking us to somewhere around 14 million members – gave us room to “deteriorate,” and to deteriorate slowly enough that we’ve continued to exist, even, occasionally, to think we’re doing ok.

What’s the cause of this deterioration? Our current conflict over sexuality gives us a context for explaining our deterioration. We can say, “Accepting, legitimating, and pushing revisionist accounts of sexual ethics is the cause of our deterioration.” Or, on the other side, we could say, “Our stubborn resistance to revised accounts of sexual ethics that take modern discoveries and the needs of contemporary people into account is the cause of our deterioration.” Either – or both – could be factors, but that’s not point in this essay.

In the first place, the beginning of our deterioration antedates by a good while the rise of these issues to the fore in the church. Neither, therefore, is likely to be the origin of our deterioration.

In the second place, neither action produces immediate consequences unambiguously enough for us to understand them as the cause of deterioration.

In the third place, I’m skeptical of monocausal theories. Our deterioration is longstanding, its causes complex.

Finally, my point in this essay is to point to the temporal gap between causes and resulting deterioration. This gap gives us time to act. From what I see, however, our time is running short.

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