Separating the Wheat from the Chaff – Genuine and False Progress (#3)

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

Progress – What is it? Are we making it? How and where?

There are stories we tell ourselves about progress that are common to most. All boats are rising, unevenly, and in fits and starts, but exponentially after the Enlightenment. On this view, progress is improvements in quality of life. Or, progress is a bit of a mirage. Yes, life has become less violent, we are healthier, and we have more opportunities, but the core of what it means to be human, and its concomitant challenges remain unchanged – we are selfish, hierarchical and domineering. The strong oppress, the weak in new guise. This is the core of what it means to live a good life – to be free from oppression, misery, and objectification. In this regard, we have not succeeded.

You might also think that who’s to say? Isn’t this talk of progress really nonsensical? There’s little meaning to life beyond what we make up in our own little heads. Self-actualization and sporadic fulfilment are the only games in town.

In the last instalment, we saw that these views leave out as much as they contribute. In this piece, I’ll look at where progress has been made, and where we fall short.


Improvements in Technological and Institutional Collective Wisdom; Spiritual, Aesthetic and Ethical Regression

Rather than pure progress characterized by quantities and abstract capacities, the unjust dominion of the rapacious west, or heroic relativism, we can have a much more nuanced view of progress.

I argue that there has been a decline and stagnation in aesthetic and ethical standards as well as the spiritual core of life, but improvements in technological and institutional collective wisdom that together enable greater capacity for normative achievement.

Technological progress

This really goes without saying. We have made enormous technological progress in the span of some 400-500 years, whose roots lie in the advances of the Axial age.

The Abrahamic religions posit a God outside of space and time, a pure intelligence who creates and orders the world in accordance with His nature. This de-mythologization of the natural world establishes what we take for granted – the hypothesis of a rational, knowable reality, independent of the projections of our own minds, created and sustained by a divine intelligence. It enables and encourages scientific inquiry; it began in Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Israel, adopted the Greek tradition that passed on and refined in the Muslim world, until the Universities were begun in Medieval Christendom.

Technology enables the skillful manipulation of the natural world to suit many positive ends that were unthinkable to previous generations. Life spans, health, wealth, opportunity, declines in violence and increased social mobility are among the many things that have been made possible by technological advancement. A key development is the freeing up of time historically devoted to labour and sustenance for greater things: intellectual pursuits good in and of themselves and for the practical results they yield, and time for leisure and the good things of life. The result, an ability to enjoy comfort, and be less subject to states of absolute deprivation.

Institutional collective wisdom

Many of our institutions have developed to such an extent that we are protected from the great harms and evils that were more commonplace in times when life was more dangerous, resources scarcer, and collective wisdom more diffuse. Our institutions of law, politics, education, universities and colleges, the political process, and the norms of the market embody the values that have been developed and refined over time. Through their continuity they sustain, develop and pass on these values across the generations, ensuring they are manifested in varied forms of life, which stabilize society as a result. The processes that are created by institutions stand out as objective, rule-governed artifacts of human creation that can be understood by, and applied to all persons, irrespective of their differences.

Without the scaffolding of institutional stability and wisdom – the collective capital of civilization – we wouldn’t be able to replicate and improve upon successes with each passing generation. Nor would we have the connection to a past, and an ideal of the future which are essential to human life.

Increase in capacity for goodness

Increases in standards of living represent the surmounting of barriers that hitherto impeded rich, and varied lives that were cut short by death, poverty, famine, disease, war, and oppression. There is no doubt that material well-being, and the stock of knowledge and opportunity constitutes an aggregate increase in the abstract capacity that people have to lead meaningful, fulfilling and good lives.

Aesthetic, Ethical and Spiritual Voids

Conversely, the contemporary world is in many ways like a lost soul, wandering aimlessly into an abyss of its own making. Like Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome, at their apexes, we live in a decadent culture that seems to be running out of steam.

Our culture today has truly lost the sense of the beautiful and the good. Modernity, Postmodernity, and whatever stage we are entering at present, are characterized by a paradoxical turn inwards – subjectivity determines every person’s ‘truth’ and as such, is the most important value in our society. On the other hand, we collectively refer to ethics and aesthetic judgments as mere preferences, or tastes. Certainly not anything that we could ever say to be true or false, better or worse.

In art, we see this clearly. Modern and contemporary forms of art are increasingly characterized by the ideas that go into them, rather than the product itself. Art is a product of the ‘art world’ – novel ideas about how to represent subjective ideas, almost completely divorced from standards of proportion, form, and beauty.

What is a dot on a piece of paper? What is a naked, bloody body on the floor, or a pile of garbage in the corner of a room? What about a pop can?

What are the sarcasm and cynicism-drenched late night talk shows doing for us? Certainly not ennobling, or even giving an opportunity for that soul-giving, life affirming, deep-bellied, hearty and jovial laughter that brings contentment. And to say nothing of the fact that everyday conversation and norms of engagement are imbued with a sickening blend of self-deprecation, frivolity, and detachment.

What are these things – but the fatigue, and sickness of a decadent culture that knows only ironic distance from itself?

As Ross Douthat has so ably put it, “If you want to feel like Western society is convulsing, there’s an app for that, a YouTube clip of rioting to watch, a convincing simulation waiting. But in the real world, it’s possible that Western society is really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb.”[1]

Or a Helen Andrews, (recently reviewed at the Hub) who writes disparagingly of the boomers, arguing that they, “did not take their place in the great chain of civilization. And if the boomers think that they can unmoor millennials from our past, immiserate our futures, tell us we’re rich because we can afford iPhones but not families, teach us that narcissism is the highest form of patriotism, and still have a nation resilient enough to bounce back to normal after the younger generation starts to riot in the streets, then the boomers will be wrong about us.”[2]

The cultural declines evident in stale, empty, repetitive forms of life that valorize work and consumption more than family and friendship are recognizable to all. We may be entering a state of devolution, as our upright homo-sapiens begins to slouch into his desk chair, hunched over a screen – homo-docilis.

Classical conceptions of fine, performative, and musical art – still practiced by so many, and what we all intuitively recognize as markers of beauty – saw it as a skillful practice aimed at the creation of the beautiful; something characterized by coherence, proportionality, integrity, purpose and splendour. Some of these features should not even need to be explained, but against the bizarre standards of contemporary art and aesthetics, not even the most obvious can be taken for granted.

Here, I’m not just talking about painting frescoes like those on the dome of the Sistine Chapel or sculpting figures like the David to recover and develop a sense of appreciation for, and creation of life-giving art. All that is needed is to abandon the obsession with novelty in art, and functionality in design and architecture. In their place, a remembrance of the purpose of the aesthetic experience – an encounter with something that is beautiful in its integrity, its proportion, and splendour. Certainly something easier said than done, mind you.

Today, we speak of ethics in abstraction – as a desired end state that is more often than not, divorced from the actual practices of kindness, assistance, sacrifice, and care. Above all, there is little understanding of what ethics are for.

If anything, we think of doing good as part of some rational project to equalize, remedy, and improve.

Modern and postmodern philosophies have moved further and further away from a recognition of the inherent dignity of the person and understand human goodness in a formulaic way. Utilitarianism sees the good quantitatively, as the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. The good is bringing that about by policies that deliver end-states that we assume describe happiness – high levels of GDP, lifespan, access to education, health care, etc.

Modern art. One example representative enough of an entire movement devoted to the rejection of standards, and promotion of the projection of random thought, and uncultivated feeling onto pages, canvases, scores, and performances. In a veiled jab at the contemporary lack of standards, Antonin Scalia famously quipped “I must note, however, that, in my view, it is quite impossible to come to an objective assessment of (at least) literary or artistic value, there being many accomplished people who have found literature in Dada, and art in the replication of a soup can.”

Homo-economicus – a personality we all find ourselves adopting from time to time – lives and breathes utilitarian thinking. She is a pleasure-seeking utility maximizer, identifying the most effective and efficient ways of bringing about the things she wants. In this frame of mind, everything is seen as an instrument to be utilized in the pursuit of something that is supposed to be the holder of value at the end of the tunnel.

Under the calculating mindset, pleasure is conceived as that which satisfies but a partial aspect of the individual ego. The contemporary person is often using and consuming for the sake of their own stimulation, the result being that everything in their environment – including themselves – is treated like like an object. Under this attitude, we remain closed off to the realm of higher pleasures and forms of life – those characterized by love, in which people align their interests, and pursue a common good that is beyond a short-term alignment of mutually satisfactory, transitory experiences.

To experience true love, happiness, contentment, hope, and belief in others as well as one’s self, the calculating attitude must be foregone. For, it closes one off to the possibility of achieving a stable orientation of other regard, in which one is transported outside of the self into care and concern for others.

Duty-based ethics specify that to do right is to discover what is good in abstract, rational terms, and then freely, and with understanding, act in accordance with the principles that this describes.

Through the work and influence of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, autonomy became central, as he would argue that only through it, a person might come to understand and act in concert with the true, law-like regularity of the world, rather than be blown about by the whims and compulsions of intuition and emotion.

For Kant, much hinges upon motivations. The reasons for acting had to be right, so it was crucial that the will be influenced accordingly. He argued that if the will was determined by desires, then the action could not be free. After all, desires point people toward the contingent and ephemeral, and only reason can access the laws of nature – those of physics and morality alike. If the will acts in accordance with reason, then it is not being compelled.

An outgrowth of this, the ethic of autonomous choice is perhaps that which best characterizes our society today.

It is harder to see a direct descendant of Kantian thinking, but it shows up most clearly in how we think about the value of our own actions individually, and the whole of a person’s life to which they belong. We tend to think something along the lines of: if it has been the result of an autonomous choice, then it must be good, since autonomous choice is what defines the inherent dignity of a person.

The problem with the above views about the beautiful and the good is that they mistakenly identify these things as something actual and quantifiable that can be pursued and achieved with the application of method alone. By extension, when the good of human life is conceived in this way, it has the effect of relativizing the dignity of a person to some thing. If human goodness is to be found in a certain level of intelligence, a narrow range of behaviours, a state of material or status equality, or capacity for free choice, then it is not found in all people, but only in a few. The pursuit of a combination of these ideals crowds out that which is most fundamental – the quality of a life lived in its uniqueness.

The contemporary zeitgeist is sometimes so absurd that a typical person, in pursuit of what they think is noble and just, can convince herself that she’s fighting injustice, ‘ending’ world hunger, being an ‘anti-racist’ by purchasing this, commenting on that, and engaging in some activist cause or another, but who won’t even bother to try to tame their own vices, and the restlessness in their own hearts, blaming these instead on ‘systems’ and ‘society’. What kind of ethic starts off in the abstract, and never gets down to earth? No wonder the futility and uselessness of it all.

In the final instalment, I’ll look at some of the ways in which we might look to reinvigorate a connection to the permanent and enduring things, which are always growing and changing.

[1] Ross Gregory Douthat, The Decadent Society: America before and after the Pandemic, 2021, 137.

[2] Helen Andrews, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster (New York: Sentinel, 2021), 197.

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