modern moral life
A new way of making and accumulating money, a dizzying new form of social mobility tied to this new economy, a new culture obsessively dedicated to work and financial success, consumerism, a cult of celebrity and fame, a mass culture based on journalism and advertising, a new conception of individuals as untrustworthy centers of self-interest, a new sort of dependence on the views of others for social esteem, and many other factors mean that things have not simply changed, they have changed in an unprecedented way. […] Even cynical, collective assumptions about greed and venality, much in vogue in the early modern philosophical tradition, do not have much effective purchase, however widespread their presence. One would need some sense of one’s own advantage and interest, and some reliable way of anticipating the pursuit of such interests in others, even for that sort of collectivity to function. The modern context, understood by James at a first pass as a massive failure in very much of a common normative structure, makes the assignment of or understanding of determinate meaning – psychological insight, honest self-description, genuinely shared social understanding, reliable act and intention descriptions of all kinds – nearly impossible and certainly very difficult. In such a historical context, any moral judgments of the sort we were just talking about also seem very much threatened, invitations instead – exactly as Hegel once predicted – to hypocrisy, a pretense about criteria of judgment no one can or wants to or knows how to meet, and ‘hard-heartedness’, a non-hypocritical but nearly pathological insistence on a selflessness that renders all actual action unworthy because self-interested.
Henry James & Modern Moral Life, p. 57