Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn predicted today’s problems

In 1978 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a speech at the Harvard commencement address, warning about the unintended consequences of Western progress.

The Harvard crowd hated the speech, which is unsurprising given the subject matter. But with the benefit of hindsight it is now considered one of the greatest speeches in recent history. Though some of the ideas in the speech are controversial, the best relate to systemic changes in society which are interesting to reconsider today.

Unlike Solzhenitsyn, my objective is not to suggest we have progressed down the wrong path, or to say any alternative would have been better. The intention is to better understand where we are today to help us comprehend the challenges ahead.

Science, Religion and the Law

Before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, religion’s power over Western societies was immense — specifically the Roman Catholic Church. The majority of Westerners lived with God’s grace, but in God’s judgement.

As proof based science overcame religion in the 18th century, Christian morals and traditions eroded. In place of these values, Solzhenitsyn suggests the West has turned to the law for guidance on what is acceptable. In his speech he calls this the mistake “at the very foundation of thought in modern times“.

Solzhenitsyn argues that unlike religion, legal systems fail to provide individuals with moral guidance and values on which to base a life. Nor do they enforce these through an omniscient being, or the associated threat of a judgement day.

“I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take full advantage of the full range of possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society…And it will be simply impossible to bear up to the trials of this threatening century with nothing but the supports of a legalistic structure”

So individuals only need to ensure their decisions are legal. Thereafter they can feel no personal blame for acting in their own interests.

“An oil company is legally blameless when it buys up an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to purchase it”

Without religious morals, society is free to pursue a large range of personal goals, many of which may conflict with the wider goals of society. Unfortunately the most widely recognised personal goal is harder to achieve than many people expect.

Freedom and the Hedonic Treadmill

The Hedonic Treadmill is a theory popularised in the 90’s that suggests humans have a tendency to revert back to a stable level of happiness, or a happiness set-point.

The theory suggests that our happiness remains at a relatively constant set-point throughout our lives, regardless of individual events or changes. As we experience positives or negatives, given some time, we adapt to the new situation. Once adapted, our happiness then returns back to it original set point.

The most obvious example of this in the Western world would relate to materialism. Most would agree that happiness from material goods doesn’t last long, and that further new goods are required to keep the rush going. Yet Solzhenitsyn points out that only recently has this become a problem. He suggests this first became a common issue following the introduction of the welfare state.

“..people have been granted well-being to the extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about“.

In his speech he suggests that before the existence of the welfare state, average citizens experienced more struggle in daily life, and spent more time avoiding it. Their goal was not chasing happiness, but avoiding struggle.

Introducing the welfare state removed this struggle for the majority. But having fixed one problem we created another. We encouraged the goal of happiness, but without really understanding how to achieve it. This led to ever-increasing personal wealth and material goods being used as a poor heuristic for happiness.

“It is imperative to reappraise the scale of the usual human values; its present incorrectness is astounding“

We have pushed ourselves on to an ever accelerating Hedonic Treadmill. The few who manage to get off are often pushed by their own personal struggle (e.g. near death experiences, long-term illness).

Shifting Decision Making

These systemic changes have interacted with one another to create a society with a new set of decision making criteria — one that Solzhenitsyn believes promotes selfishness over inclusiveness.

With our current decision making:

  • We no longer need to avoid struggle, but instead want to increase our personal wealth as we assume this will increase our happiness
  • We no longer feel the need to act in line with religious morals, so we are at ease with selfish decisions that may be harmful to others

Changing this will not be easy. Because cause and effect are not closely related in time and space, it’s not been obvious to see the problem. Equally, it will not be obvious if we have solved it. Much more could be said about the role of celebrity culture, social media and the modern day press in exacerbating these issues. However, by focusing on the two leverage points outlined above, we should be able to make small shifts that result in big changes elsewhere the system.

For instance, shifting society’s idea of the pursuit of happiness away from wealth generation and towards a more general view of societal well-being. Attempts at this are already being made by governments measuring their countries health as more than just GDP.

Or aiming to provide a form of moral guidance to replace that lost by religion. This need not be a direct replacement; there is no need for shared morals to be tied to a religion. Successful companies generate a shared vision to help their employees make decisions that are best for the company. Perhaps it be possible to transfer this idea to a society.

By analysing the history of the problems we face, we should be better equipped to understand the challenges that lie ahead. In this case the first Systems Thinking law seems appropriate: today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.