Visions of Progress – partial, yet incomplete (#2)

This is part two of a four-part series on progress. The shortened and modified version can be found here at The Hub.

In the last instalment, I outlined perspectives on the question of social progress, the visions of the good life that they imply, and the lifestyles that follow suit. In this piece, we’ll look at them in closer detail.

The Enlightenment Irrationalist

The problem with the Enlightenment story is that the good things in life are not found in the amount of a thing possessed, or the raw abstract ability to choose from a dizzying array of possibilities, but in the quality of a life lived.

The rational optimists – standard-bearers of Enlightenment humanism – represent the clearest example of the measurement fallacy. For all the data points in Enlightenment Now, the statistics marshalled by world development organizations, and claims to have found a ‘happiness’ index, the problem is one of not being able to capture what one claims to, with the tools in use. What it boils down to is that you’ll never find wood with a metal detector, and you just can’t smell a sight.

Through our own experience, we all can and do come to realize that happiness and fulfilment are more than improvements in quality-of-life indicators. After a certain threshold of meeting basic needs and income security, there are diminishing returns. A troubling realization that even yuppies and social climbers inevitably stumble upon is that many people who are considered poor and unsuccessful – by the standards of the quality-of-life crowd – are actually happier than themselves, and even significant portions of people in wealthy countries. This is simply because the good life comes from things like safety, health, community, strong family structure, purpose, a belief in – and practice of – morality as standards discovered outside of one’s self, including a sense of the transcendent.

Today, the dissatisfaction with quality of life is a fact shared by people across the political spectrum. We all cry out for more than what is on offer.

Through personal experience, many of us know of wealthy and successful people with few family, friends or purpose, who lead empty and hollow lives marked by depression, misery and bitterness stemming from misguided aims and absence of meaning.

On the level of historical interpretation, the Panglossian Enlightenment optimism also leaves a few things out. Who can fail to note the massive carnage, and ideological darkness of the last century, coming at a time and under the guise of – albeit distorted – enlightenment values? On the one hand, the use of instrumental reason to master the material world through science and technology to remake humankind in the image of the Greek Gods – evinced in the eugenics movement, ethnic supremacy in Nazi Germany, and today’s genetic engineering technologies (designer babies through CRISPR, assisted suicide, and monkey-human chimera embryos, to cite just a few contemporary and emerging examples).

On the other hand, the drive to a radical equality through oppressive and coercive collectivism at the expense of so many other values has left many places destitute of freedom, and at the price of a high body count – witness the numerous failed attempts at socialism, and communism from Eastern Europe, to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

The truncated vision of the good life that is characteristic of Enlightenment optimism stems from its narrow vision of what counts as knowledge, how we know it, and the extent of our powers of reason – confined as it is to the physical and the mathematical, for instrumental and theoretical purposes alone.

The assumption in the political sphere that has often accompanied it is one that sees the world in mechanistic terms – and, as the technological zeitgeist constantly shifts, computational, or algorithmic terms. To many, humans – like all other creatures and aspects of the world – are collections of parts that follow the deterministic laws of nature. By extension, society is a machine with parts that can be dissected and disassembled, modified, and rearranged at will to serve the purposes of the tinkerers.

This metaphor for viewing the entire world as a machine has made its way into every domain of thought and action: the political, social, moral, and scientific.

However, it is far from necessary. Indeed, as both common-sense and more recent advances in science suggest, the mechanistic, and deterministic views of nature and of ourselves are but partial oversimplifications of a slice of reality. In contrast, we see a suggestion of a reservoir of freedom and indeterminacy in quantum physics, a formal, holistic understanding of the material and organic world in biology, characterized by inherent purposiveness and directedness, and the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life in ecology.

Far from an organism metaphor of human society and politics being romantic, it is the most natural, and rational. Humans are, after all, organisms, and a society is a collection of them. It is the machine or mechanism metaphor that is derivative. A machine and its functions are but crude, attempted replications of particular functions that are only analogous to those found in humans, and other organic life. 

However, as we elevate more and more the capacity to use mathematics, and aspects of our rationality for instrumental purposes, at the expense of the higher powers of reason and the emotions, conjoined in wisdom, and action informed by reflection and contemplation, we become more and more like the technological products we create – not more advanced and powerful versions of ourselves, but partial, shallow images of what we are and can be when we engage our minds, bodies, and spirit together with the heart.

A machine can be taken apart, modified, and reassembled with little effects on its proper functioning, but limbs cannot be severed, amputated, the body injected with this and that, without its health suffering greatly. This is as true for individuals, as it is for society, animal and vegetative life, and for the ecology of the environment as a whole.

The relentless pace, and restless striving of the lonely and isolated contemporary person means for many, a permanent underlying state of anxiety, and fruitless pursuit after they know not what. Without a sense of truth, goodness, or beauty, and hope in the transcendent future, too many are stuck in a frame of stale mediocrity and immanence that they cannot escape.

Egalitarianism at all costs: equally poor, unemployed, and miserable

The problem with the Marxist-tinged accounts is that they are totalizing – their chief value, equality, is not itself a standalone good, but is nonetheless pursued at the expense of everything else.

A static measure of equality in any domain is itself, an amoral, valueless property. By reaching for equality as a kind of sameness between groups or individuals in various domains – materially, across social classes, between lifestyles and worldviews in terms of status – the egalitarian vision is supposed to solve the problems of feeling lesser-than, left behind, and subject to discrimination and injustice between groups.  However, equal proportions end up short, because of a misdiagnosis of the underlying problem in the first place.

The first challenge lies in the misunderstanding of how the goods of life are created and divvied up. Material wealth, cultural differences, lifestyles, skills, self-worth, and social recognition are created through the agency of persons and peoples. A crucial ingredient, the use of one’s own agency in the development of skills and habits is what make good things good – it is the value-giving component itself. Acknowledging the role of agency in the creation of goods of all types, it is clear that respect, status, or material wealth cannot be doled out, or shared by everyone. This is because much of the value lies in the act of creation, and its persistence in the accumulated social capital that accrues to those who produce and maintain it – in skills, in character, in culture, and in institutions. To pursue the end of ‘redistribution’ (a misnomer, because it is made, not ‘distributed’ in the first place) and equality through coercive measures is to deprive the social order of its very human essence – that the pursuit of a good life and the freedom that it requires demand that people succeed and fail.

To this, it is often claimed that it is really not about equality-as-sameness across any number of domains, but something called ‘equity’. Tough to pin down, it means roughly equality as proportionality, and fairness. People ought to get what they deserve and need as equals, start from the same position, have the same opportunity, achieve what they can according to their personal potential, and so on. However, the problem is the same – to do so, state-sanctioned interventions are needed. Of course, these can be good and required up to a point, but it rarely stops where it should. Instead, well-intentioned measures can hinder and sometimes eliminate the potential for the cultivation of personal and collective agency that are the very things that ought to be enabled.

With every advance in recognition of difference, and a levelling of the playing field between groups, the yardsticks move forward, and the targets shift.

What you realize is that it is never enough for this crowd. Disparities among groups are overwhelmingly attributed to injustice – discrete and recognizable, or systemic, and hidden. 

What is wrong with this picture is that ‘justice’ is being supplanted by ‘social justice’, and often not the good kind. Justice proper, refers to the nature of specific actions of persons with agency. Social justice refers to the by-products of collective activity. To seek fairer and more equitable outcomes is an admirable goal. However, the fact that reality does not conform to a fictitious and unachievable standard of equality or equity is not an injustice – but an emergent state of affairs that could be improved upon.

The problem is as we have seen – that the proposed remedy to perceived power imbalances and injustices is none other than a greater concentration of power, all in the name of what in practice amounts to egalitarianism at the expense of other values. We see this clearly in practice. Like a virus that moves from host to host, the Marxist spirit moves from cause to cause, seeking reduction of power, material differences, and recognition of disparities through ever more coercive measures, destroying in its wake much that it claims to protect and uplift. Its targets, decreasingly laudable, have now sunk to the level of policing language, taking issue with disparities that are rooted in choice such as pay differences among men and women, natural and desirable complementary differences between the sexes, and cultural and behavioural differences. Disparities and inequalities between identity groups are the current focus of this crowd. To eradicate or alleviate these requires suppression of freedom. As the saying goes, equal at all costs – equally poor, unfree, unfulfilled, and unemployed.

For the better part of the last century and all of the 21st to date, the western world has been trending towards greater and greater concentrations of power, rent-seeking for publicly-funded social engineering professions through regulation and legislation, expansion of the size of government, and the extent of its reach. It is little wonder that many have little time to spare in caring for their loved ones, spending time with their friends, finding stable work, and earning enough disposable income to start a family.

It is not an equal amount of opportunity, goods, services, respect, or the same types of things, nor even minimal equal respect that people desire and need. People want to feel like they belong, to have a purpose in life, friends and family who care about them, safety and security, and a community. These are all to be found in a differentiated, and hierarchically stratified society, where as many as possible are able to pursue those circumstances that will fulfil them, based on their individual differences in aptitude and interest, that vary considerably among people.

Boundless Freedom – drowning in the soup of everything and nothing

We all have a little bit of the existentialist and postmodern in us. That deep uncertainty about all of the most important questions is a quintessential feature of the postmodern era – the era of doubt, and scepticism of claims to truth, goodness, beauty, and meta-narratives that attempt to make sense of things.

The problem with this view is that it is only ever lived in fits and spurts. The contemporary person can claim to have overcome the ‘game’ of life by creating his or her own values and living according to them. But to do so, one must hold one’s self in a state of unresolvable tension: creating values that one knows to be fictitious, contingent and somewhat arbitrary, and yet also believing in, and living by them. The result is often cynicism, perpetual sarcasm and an ironic distance which the person is supposed to view as a sign of their superior wisdom. Even the sincere must at some point recognize that it is all a charade that one is playing with one’s self – a self-deception that is hard to sustain.  

A point that animates the sceptical and cynical attitude is the recognition that there are a range of opinions about any number of things, at present, in the past, among groups, cultures and religions, even between different types of chemists and physicists. Probabilistically speaking, it would seem that they can’t all be right. However, this does not in fact contribute much to the undermining of belief in matters from the mundane, to the philosophical or religious. It is simply definitional of what is true, that it will always be outnumbered by the false.

Often taking empirical demonstration, and a what does this do for me right now practical test of the veracity of things as evidentiary standards, this attitude of radical scepticism toward claims of the objectivity of truth, beauty, and ethics would deny the ground beneath its feet. It is not as it seems – a healthy, sophisticated, rationally founded and intelligent position of prudent hesitancy, and suspension of belief– but an attitude of suspicion, with an emotional overtone of mistrust that elevates the power of reason to dissect with a standard of evidence so lofty, as it simultaneously doubts everything in its wake. The result if self-defeat, by the very tools of its own method.

Progress – A Slippery thing

In their own ways, each of these views hit on something important about the question of progress and the lack thereof, but ultimately, they fail to capture reality in all its complexity. In spite of the universal acknowledgment of the fact of progress, there is much disagreement about what constitutes it. Equally, there is a gnawing sense of both impending catastrophe, and deep spiritual anomie.

The former is the result of our collective hubris, growth, and existential danger arising from the combination of our fallen nature and technological mastery. The latter, the product of creating and searching for new forms of being and thinking that seem to come up perpetually short, and render us mere objects, vehicles of vacuous pursuits that fail to satisfy the deepest longings of the heart.

With a view of what progress can look like to many of us, and the virtues and virtues of each, in the next instalment we’ll look at the subject through the filter by which we analyze progress to see the phenomenon in its full light. Where are we on the right path, and where have we gone astray?


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