‘All things could potentially go wrong’

I have returned from Banff and now take up again the arguments that make up our modern moral metaphysic. They are:

1.) Because the world is lost and fallen, it needs to be changed or ultimately saved.

2.) Because the world is broken or out-of-order, it needs to be fixed or restored.

3.) Constituted by problems, the world requires solutions.

4.) In virtue of our being inherently weak and prone to suffering, we human beings yearn to be helped.

5.) Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

So far, I have argued that 3) – 5) are based on errors. I have not yet addressed the errors in 1.) and 2.). In the next set of posts, I turn my attention to the argument that the world just is broken and therefore in need of fixing. I begin with a letter I wrote to one philosophical friend rather recently.


We inquired into the belief that things could potentially go wrong. After our conversation, I happened to skim a review of the English writer Geoff Dyer’s recent work. The book reviewer Kathryn Schulz writes in passing, ‘All of them [that is, his works of nonfiction and those of fiction], meanwhile, contain things that could go catastrophically wrong.’ Surely, it could be said that I am looking for evidence of those who believe that things can go wrong in order to test my thesis. A case of cherry picking. Why else would my eyes alight upon this line as opposed to many others in this review? Granted, I would reply, yet this hardly changes the fact that the most lauded English writer living today is an example of this all-pervasive way of thinking.  Here–to select another example–is Symantec’s own write-up of Security Best Practices:

The threat landscape has changed and cybercrime is rampant. The final defense against malware is a properly configured endpoint that deploys more than antivirus to provide layered protection and advanced policy configurations. Follow the steps you must do, should do, and can do to reduce your exposure and mitigate infection.

A scan of neonatal care in the US’s top hospitals would also, though in less incendiary or martial language, speak of monitoring patients’ conditions around the clock; of always being on the alert; of being on the lookout. Security guards, border security, immigration officials, defense attorneys, network analysts, financial service specialists, actuarial scientists, climate scientists: all of these assume that things will go wrong. During one conversation a while ago, I called this phenomenon the Night Watchman.


In this sort of world, we would begin to imagine all the sorts of dispositions that would develop. And it is not merely a thought experiment. While I was going through US Customs, I noticed that one of its three values is vigilance.

What depositions? Notably,

1.) Vigilance (proactive role)

2.) Worrying (passivity)

3.) Dark humor (to alleviate the burden of existence)

4.) Anger (that the wrong things are ‘thwarting’ one’s attempts or ‘resisting’ one’s influence)

5.) Sadness (because the world cannot, after all, be fixed; it’s beyond repair)

6.) Stupefaction (in order to quiet any or all of the above)

7.) Exhaustion (due to 1-6 above) 8.) Relief (when things have actually gone all right)  But, most pervasively, 1.) and 2.).

Consider 1.). How would one become vigilant? By

(a) looking out for things that could go wrong (‘monitoring for alerts’),

(b) fixing what is wrong (‘troubleshooting’), and

(c) preventing things from going wrong (‘maintenance’)

The assumption of this view is that the world’s susceptibility to breaking–breaking, breaking down, breaking apart–requires exceptional human effort simply to keep it all intact.