At least the risk of a Japanese nuclear meltdown has caused people to pay slightly less attention to the Charlie Sheen meltdown. After all, if he’s really going insane, we’ll all feel guilty about the laughter later. Or will we?
I contend people have gotten a bit more vicious and impatient over the past couple decades – not a night-and-day complete-unraveling-of-morals thing, but perhaps a subtle shift due to instant gratification getting even more instantaneous. I could therefore easily see the next generation of reality shows, driven by people’s callous desire to see something ever more shocking and tawdry, taking it for granted that we will all watch real descents into dysfunctional mental illness with the same chuckling detachment that we now watch cat videos.
If it entertains the normals, why not put crazies on TV, people will say, and eventually: why not put sociopaths in charge of programming, to make the process even more efficient? Conscience can get in the way of the tough decisions, like whether to air footage in which a stand-up comedian mercilessly mocks his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, etc.
If this sounds like pessimistic cultural conservatism, here’s a related optimistic note: Conservatives often complain about the value-neutrality – and thus potential amorality – of psychiatry (how do you feel about that?). But I think it’s a very good – and conservative – thing that psychiatry regards the lack of a conscience as a form of mental illness. After all, as Dostoyevsky reminded us, you couldn’t strictly speaking give a rational argument to a complete sociopath about why she should care about other people if she just doesn’t – you have to bank on there being some hint of compassion in there.
(But the psychiatrists seem to be right from a purely biological perspective: Normal brains are heavily influenced, even formed at the most basic level, by their sympathy with other brains, even across species, and there is indeed something “missing” in the sociopath – the question is just how you could ever convince a stubborn sociopath to care about that problem rather than feeling liberated by the difference – though my impression is that sociopaths are not a happy bunch, so if they’re neither good for us nor good for themselves, you’d think they might acknowledge the problem.)
Once an interest in doing right by other people is established, though, I’d contend, you are logically bound to some form of more or less utilitarian ethical code and numerous objective statements can then be made about “what must be done” or at least “what should not be done,” given economic, political, scientific, and psychological constraints. Moral rules (though complex, ambiguous, and highly debatable) are objective – you just need something to give people that initial push to care enough to inquire about what they are. But the handful of people who just don’t care may always be as unreachable – and as dangerous – as a few scattered vampires or zombies among us.