Zinc oxide isn't something we think about on a daily basis, perhaps, but its role can be highlighted by something as simple as an omnipotent filmstrip narrator with the power to cause household objects to suddenly disappear. The disaster that results speaks for itself: in a developed, industrialized society, we depend on zinc oxide for our physical well-being. Many writers, however, have made the point that our social well-being is likewise dependent upon an elaborate support structure of beliefs, values and ideals. The only difference is that our beliefs and ideals are wholly intangible, and that rather than vanishing suddenly, they tend to erode gradually, so that we rarely realize that anything has happened.
An argument along these lines is made by Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1981 book After Virtue. He argues that our society has lost its ability to think in ethical terms:
[Our] culture has continued to be one of unresolved and apparently unresolvable moral and other disagreements in which the evaluative and normative utterances of the contending parties present a problem of interpretation. For on the one hand they seem to presuppose a reference to some shared impresonal standard in virtue of which at most one of those contending parties can be in the right, and yet on the other the poverty of the arguments adduced in support of their assertions and the characteristically shrill, and assertive and expressive mode in which they are uttered suggest strongly that there is no such standard. My explanation was and is that the precepts that are thus uttered were once at home in, and intelligible in terms of, a context of practical beliefs and of supporting habits of thought, feeling, and action, a context that has since been lost, a context in which moral judgments were understood as governed by impersonal standards justified by a shared conception of the human good.Prologue to the third edition (2007), ix.
What was originally shared by all premodern moral codes, according to MacIntyre, was a sense of innate human purpose to which all ethical actions were to be directed. Necessary for any coherent ethical system are three components: a realistic evaluation of flawed human nature as it is now, a positive vision of transformed humanity as it ought to be, and an understanding of the sorts of actions that will transform one into the other. Good and evil actions are defined relative to a shared conception of what a good human being ought to be. MacIntyre traces this tradition through ancient epic poetry, the Hellenic philosophical tradition, and the Aristotleianism of mediaeval Europe. Although different cultures conceptualize the good in different ways (Aristotle, for example, would not have admired Christ and would have been horrified by St. Paul), each of the cultures examined shares a single idea of the good life which determined its moral code. Conspicuously absent are the irresolvable moral dilemmas that characterize modern discourse.
The villains in MacIntyre's narrative are the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who sought to overturn Aristotelianism in favour of a new, wholly "rational" philosophy. The problem they faced was with their overly narrow concept of reason. To the Enlightenment philosophers, rationality was primarily instrumental; reason is a tool, and one that can be used to exert power over the natural world. Instrumental reason is a great thing - it's the tool that allows us to transform chemicals like zinc oxide into everyday objects like emergency brakes, refrigerator shelves and pacemakers - but because it's only a tool, it can't tell you why you should want brakes, shelves, or pacemakers in the first place. Reason can help you make a bomb as easily as a fire extinguisher, but falls silent when you need to decide which one to use. David Hume was perceptive enough to recognize the problem, but concluded that ethics must therefore be a matter of the emotions rather than the intellect. From Hume followed a series of attempts to reconstruct an ethical system based on Enlightenment rationality, all of which ultimately reveal themselves as incoherent. And for all their pretensions at creating a truly new ethical system, all of these philosophers coincidentally end up advocating something like the Judaeo-Christian morality with which they were brought up. The entire enterprise of modern ethics begins to seem like an exercise in question-begging.
Laments for an idealized past are a dime a dozen, and MacIntyre's book would have little value if it merely noted social problems without offering a solution. After all, most the societies MacIntyre discusses have disappeared irretrievably: no-one today can or should act like Hector, Andromache, or Antigone. MacIntyre instead urges us to consider the concept of a virtue. Most people assume that virtues require a previously articulated moral code for their existence, as with the Christian "cardinal virtues" of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. However, no human practice can exist without virtues and vices of its own. Few of us would hesitate to describe a pencil that fails to make a mark on the pencil as a "bad pencil," or a doctor that fails to cure any of his patients as a "bad doctor". And to master a practice as complex as medicine, many virtues are necessary beyond mere technical skill at healing: good judgment, compassion, and intellectual humility, for starters. The ancient virtues re-emerge, whether we invite them or not.
It's a big jump from the concept of "good doctor" to the more extensive "good human being," but the virtues necessary to activities like medicine are transferable to all other human endeavours. If the virtue of compassion was directed towards the goal of being a good physician, it can also be directed towards the goal of becoming a good human being. This sense of human purpose will develop organically within a group of people who share common practices, and if left alone will provide the basis for a healthy and just society. It is only when our sense of purpose becomes confused that our society fails to congeal, and we find ourselves divided on the most basic questions of ethical behaviour.
Without zinc oxide, your stove erupts in flames. Without a shared network of values and ideals, society dissolves into moral confusion. If our culture invested as much effort and care into cultivating shared values and ideals as it did into zinc oxide, we would be better equipped to make difficult decisions.