The Myth of Progress

Except for the odd misanthrope—that soul hobbled by the frustration of his own ambition—it is today an unquestioned article of faith that modern social, scientific, and technological progress are goods in and of themselves. To question this faith in the ineluctable future of mankind is the worst form of heresy; it is to doubt the “brotherhood of man,” from which supposedly sprung the universal ethics that we now take for granted: freedom of thought, freedom of commerce and movement, universal suffrage, and a common human dignity that belongs to all people. However, there is a darker side to this belief in progress and a universal ethic.

Friedrich Hayek focused attention on this darker side of progressive thought in his book The Road to Serfdom (1944), a book too commonly referenced by those who have never read it to defend political views that lack the subtlety of Hayek’s own thought. In a nutshell Hayek argued that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That is why when we look closely at revolutions meant to improve the lot of the common man or society in general we find moralists of the first order behind nearly every slaughter. Bolshevik and Nazi alike could justify their slaughter because they believed it would lead to the greater good: the former to a more egalitarian society, the latter to a master race. Hayek’s argument was not against a compassionate liberal state; it was against the state bent on straightening that which in its own sight was crooked, man himself.

For those at either end of the modern political spectrum the state envisioned by Hayek and other classic liberals would be anathema. The modern Social Darwinist sees any state involvement in the social and economic lives of its citizens—beyond the enforcement of contracts—as excessive. The modern Progressive wails at the suffering of the weak, indicting the state that turns a blind eye.

The Social Darwinist abides by the ethic of brutal competition within the marketplace, and sometimes on the battlefield. These battles determine who survives and thus winnows the chafe from human society. The Progressive, convinced that mankind is completely plastic, attempts to make man over in his own image—often into an overeducated, bourgeois consumer with an unwavering devotion to universal brotherhood.

In what ways do these two groups intersect? They first intersect in their belief that their own underlying ethic is universal, that like the law of gravity it applies to everyone. The second way they intersect is in their belief that their particular universal ethic, if properly applied, will yield a more perfect man. It is this latter conviction that leads them to act.

The Social Darwinist—better known today as the free-market capitalist—is convinced that if he can reduce the state to a shadow of its former self we will have a good chance of building that better, more prosperous world populated by those purified in the fire of social and economic competition. The more perfect man awaits us on the other side of a fully privatized economy.

The Progressive just as naively believes that early education, afterschool programs, job training, life-coaching, criminal rehabilitation, the redistribution of national income, and a whole host of other programs will somehow yield the more perfect man, made possible by the more perfect society.

The reality is that our species is never likely to achieve greater happiness through some idealized notion of social, scientific, or technological progress. Although these things may be desirable and may even benefit us to some extent, they will not achieve the utopian dreams of either the Social Darwinist or the Progressive.

In his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals John Gray encourages us to think of ourselves as more alike than different from our fellow creatures on this planet. Gray terms mankind homo rapiens to emphasize how our notions of human progress and the belief in our own superiority as a species has led to a moment in time when the planet’s ecosystem may collapse under the burden of our demands. In other words, our moral conviction in our superiority and future perfection has blinded us to the fact that we have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, a relationship that is imperiled by increased population and our carbon-based economy.

Gray also talks extensively about morality, trying to show us that it is largely a local convention that cannot be universalized without a heavy cost. For, those who choose to adopt a universal ethic are driven to war against those unwilling to adopt it. Witness now the struggle of the Western world and Islamic fundamentalists. Would it not be better to accept that other groups see things differently and then meet them only where we agree? It may seem lacking in moral sentiment to say we will trade with the man who engenders commercial trust even if his culture allows him to put his wife to death for adultery, but what is the alternative? We would have to cease trading with him or force him to adopt our moral sentiments, which would ultimately destroy the wealth of one or both.

Those animated by a universal ethic and the notion of human progress have no choice but to force all of us to live as they see fit. Whether we live “red in tooth and claw” as the Social Darwinist would have it, or whether we live in a world where “everyone belongs to everyone else” as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, we will, as Gray and others have pointed out, cease to be in some important ways less human.

The myth of progress is made palpable by the irony built into every monomoralist’s philosophy. For, in trying to create a world in which the illusion of free will is made real for all, the monomoralist ends up making it less real for most, which is not progress but regression.

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