Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Myth of Progress

Abraham Lincoln once said "It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues." Some academics seem convinced of the fact that much of the history of man has been the process of taming our worst social vices: violence, genocide, slavery, racism, oppression, despotism etc. Not that we're free from these ills today, but that as history progresses we seem to continuously push them further back. For example, Steven Pinker points out that it seems as if violence has been decreasing, in the amount that occurs per capita, over the centuries. Of course there are setbacks along the way -- the 20th century's record of violence and genocide comes to mind -- but if we view history as a whole, concentrating on the elimination or reduction of these ills, human progress seems like an undeniable reality.

But by what means are we reducing these evils? Are we replacing them with goods, or simply neutral spaces which are more free from violence and coercion? Are there not other evils that arise in their place which we simply don't recognize as easily? Is the process that tames vices simultaneously taming our social virtues?

By taking our 'do no harm' ethos so far as to make it an ultimate end, it turns out that we must also 'do no good', at least at the social/collective/governmental level. Why? Because another thing that history has taught us is that men, or collections of men, with good and pure intentions are often among the most potent sources of tyranny and wickedness. As C.S. Lewis said: "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Power itself is a corrosive, corrupting thing and so we can't discriminate too finely between those looking to do ill and those aiming to do good; they both need to be restrained by the same systems. Gandalf possessing the One Ring is, at best, only slightly preferable to Sauron possessing it. With this being the case, certain social virtues can't be allowed to flourish because there is the substantial risk that they will devolve into tyranny and oppression.

So what is the result? We are indeed succeeding at taming the worst manifestations of our worst vices, but at the price of taming our virtues. As Nietzsche saw, and feared, this process results in the mediocritization of men. Everyone is protected; everything (besides trampling on others) is accepted; nothing is greatly praised or honored above the virtue of not-trampling-upon-others; and the result is a rather dreary and drab collection of social virtues: tolerance, equality before the law, freedom.

Not that there's anything wrong with these things per se, but there's not a whole lot praiseworthy in them, either, except that they all denote the absence of something bad (rather than the presence of a good). Freedom is the absence of illegitimate coercion, but freedom means the freedom to be a dullard, parasite, or a miser just as much as it means the freedom to be a great teacher, artist, or philanthropist. And if freedom is elevated as the ultimate virtue by  the West -- as it is -- then neither outcome can be prized too highly above the other. We just have to be happy that at least people are free, even if they don't use that freedom to do anything worthwhile. Tolerance as a virtue means intolerance of those who are intolerant, and thus is a bit self-defeating, and more importantly requires making few-to-no judgments about what is virtuous and true, just as much as it means refraining from denouncing anything as wrong or wicked or undesirable (except trampling on the rights of someone, of course). Equality before the law -- and therefore the subsidence of racism and sexism -- is a good thing, but even this has a dark side. Namely, the subtle alchemy which transforms equality before the law (derived from the equality we have in the eyes of God) into the idea that we also have a right to equal results, which in turn creates a monstrous tyranny aimed at attempting to 'remedy' a veritable sea of existing 'inequities'.

If it were possible to tame our egregious social vices while replacing the void left by them with the more robust virtues of courage, humility, charity, justice, kindness etc. then I suspect we would be much better off, and Progress would truly be a reality. But this is simply an unrealistic denial of human nature. Everything has a price, and subduing our worst vices has also subdued our virtues. Of course, there's nothing stopping individuals from being virtuous in their personal lives, but there's also nothing systematic that is greatly encouraging it. The main point is that the values society at large promotes are really what tend to shape our lives, attitudes, and decisions in subtle ways. Which is why I'm sure we all know tons of tolerant people who greatly cherish their personal freedom, and abhor the mistreatment of others, but who don't have a strong moral compass beyond that. Not because these values are universal to humanity throughout history, but because they are the values our society most highly prizes and most vigorously promotes.

So while it's possible to plot a fairly steady reduction of certain kinds of evil in the world throughout history, unless you can plot the state of our goodness alongside it -- to say nothing of newer, more subtle evils that we may not recognize or be able to chart -- you are left with an incomplete picture. The conceit of progress is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clearly history has arrived at the present, and since we are here occupying the present, and we like to fancy ourselves good, or intelligent, or enlightened, then history must have been building up to us. But this amounts to a tautology: we are here today and we value what we value. Of course if we had other values, say those of a 12th century European monk, then the 21st century America might appear quite horrific in many respects, with the 12th century appearing to be much better. This is not to deny the fruits of history, such as they are, only to say that progress is often an illusion born of confirmation bias.

I'm not suggesting, by the way, that I greatly desire history to have brought us to some other destination, or that I think the West should have substantially different values than it does have. The logic behind tolerance, freedom, and equality being our anchoring social mores is completely sound. I only mean to point out that the gains have associated costs, and that we shouldn't be so eager to buy wholeheartedly into the myth of progress.


  1. Good article Nate, but what if God is the one responsible for the progress of the human race and is working hard at advancing his kingdom through his people as Jesus preached about incessantly in the Gospels?

  2. I definitely believe that whatever progress has been made is almost certainly attributable to Christ's Church and the Holy Spirit's empowerment of the Church. But I think that the advancement of God's Kingdom doesn't always translate to the advancement of Earthly kingdoms. And what constitites advance for one often means retreat in the other. One can flourish while the other falls to ruin.