Sunday, May 18, 2008

Defining 'progress'

Via Instapundit, this discussion from Phil Bowermaster:
Hedges is right that we shouldn't view ourselves as the culmination of a process of advancement. We aren't the culmination; we're just the latest step. Nor should we view human nature or the human condition as perfectible. Rather, we should see them for what we have demonstrated them to be time and time again throughout our history -- vastly improvable.

I remain skeptical that we have seen any improvement in human nature. Techological advancement and increasing wealth result in improvement of the material condition of mankind -- lower incidence of infant mortality, cures for diseases, better nutrition and so forth. These material changes may shape personality and mores, since the more wealthy a society, the more specialized its economy, the greater the development of individuality and the greater its tolerance of difference.

Yet this does not fundamentally alter human nature, and cannot be confused with "moral progress." Honesty, diligence, thrift, sobriety, modesty, chastity, fidelity, courage -- I see no cause to think these basic moral virtues are today more common than they were in 1700, and much evidence suggests these virtues are in decline.

What we see, instead, is a tendency to redefine "morality" in such a way that we can congratulate ourselves on our moral superiority to our ancestors. Thus Bowermaster offers as evidence:
How many women voted (anywhere, for anything) 300 years ago? All around the world, how many vote now?

To which I answer: So freaking what? Democracy for the sake of democracy, voting for the sake of voting? Without arguing for the disenfranchisement of women, I see no reason to hail the passage of the 19th Amendment as the dividing line between moral benightedness and an enlightened age, nor does it seem a certain proposition that America has been better governed since 1920 than it was previously. Do you mean to argue that Jimmy Carter was a better president than James Madison, or that George Bush is better than George Washington?

A society where gender equality is a cherished value will congratulate itself on its triumph over sexism, but this self-congratulation does not constitute proof of moral superiority. Was ancient chivalry really so barbarous?

Skeptical I remain, and cite Burke in my defense:
We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers. We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made in morality, nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grace has heaped its mold upon our presumption and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.
If we applaud Burke for rejecting the idea that Rousseau and Voltaire had made "discoveries . . . in morality," then why should we grant that any new moral discoveries have been made since Burke's era?

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