There Is No Such Thing as ‘Progress’

Humans, being creatures that seemingly can’t live without meaning, [1] have always invented for themselves mythologies [2] that serve to provide the sort of meanings that the world doesn’t provide them gratuit. ‘Progress’ is just such a myth, operative in the political sphere that, like many myths, is taken to be literally true and which informs the sense of purpose, direction, and self of those who cling to it.  However, it is ultimately a false mythology – there simply is no such thing as ‘Progress’ – and its mistakenly being taken for gospel truth is something that strikes me as potentially dangerous [3].  So on this basis [4] I have decided to provide an argument why there is and never has been Progress or Progressives.

[NB: I am not making any arguments about the validity or value of those political parties, policies, or goals that are commonly identified as being ‘Progressive’.  This is not an argument against left-wing politics.]

How do you do that anyway?

Progress is an inherently teleological concept, a goal-oriented one.  Consider that what we commonly mean when we say we are making progress is that we are moving closer towards achieving some goal, destination, or desired state, whether that is reaching a desired level of physical fitness, getting closer to our destination on a road trip, or satisfying graduation requirements in our schooling.  The teleological aspect is no less true for, is in fact central to, the myth of Progress – that is, that we as a society are traversing the distance between where we are and some more (or ultimately) moral or desirable social/political order.  The trouble for the myth of Progress comes from how we determine that there is such a goal and in what it consists.

There are two seemingly obvious ways of going about doing so.  The first is to employ some sort of philosophical realism.  One could argue that Progress is possible because there is an objective moral order and Progress occurs whenever we (re)structure society and its laws to better conform to this moral order.  Similarly, one could make the case that there is an ideal (Platonic) Form of society and Progressiveness is measured by how closely our own society approximates this ideal.  The weakness of such arguments is, of course, that it is impossible to demonstrate that they are true.  If there really is an objective moral order, why is it so easily violated unlike, say, the law of gravity?  If there is only one true morality, what are we to make of moral disagreement between individuals and societies (more on this below)?  Plainly, such justifications are only convincing to those who are already on-side and, even then, only if one buys into the brand of realism on offer.

In light of the deficiencies of the above, the second route is to justify the myth of Progress on the basis of historical experience.  The narrative is (crudely) as follows:

In the past people were either ignorant, deluded, or evil and so were their societies.  Fortunately, history demonstrates that people and society have been growing in wisdom, justice, compassion, and morality and consequently human life has been improving across the millennia.  There remains much work to be done but the trend is unmistakable – future generations of humanity will be even more compassionate, wise, and moral than our own and it is our duty (and privilege) to facilitate this process.

Here, Progress comes to be seen as something of a law of history, the goal and its contents revealed as and through an inexorable marching forward and unfolding of “wisdom, justice, compassion, and morality.”  But there are two important reasons to reject this account of Progress.

We’re just lucky things didn’t go this way.

One is that history is, of course, strongly contingent.  Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War gives us good reason to think that, had cooler heads prevailed, Athens’ devastating war with Sparta might have been avoided or that, had the plague not routed Athens’ population, it might have ended very differently.  And looking to recent history, there is no reason to believe that, had Hitler’s inner circle been better strategic thinkers, Nazi Germany should not have been master of Europe to this day.

The other reason for rejecting this account of Progress is a corollary of the first.  Simply put, whatever Progress we see in the workings-out of history only appears to be such because of our particular historically embedded vantage point.  Our views on democracy, justice, racism, sexism, etc. by which we judge the historical process are the products of that selfsame historical process!  If one is a modern, liberal democrat, then of course history looks like Progress because it is that history that engendered one’s modern, liberal democratic values.  It is useful to think of it in this way: placing rocks one on top of the other only builds a pyramid if one is actively following a blueprint, otherwise it’s just a heap of rocks.  Historical processes build heaps, not pyramids.

No pyramid, this.

Note also that this means that to the medieval Church the early history of Christianity looked like Progress and that to radical Islamists the growing adoption of the burqa and niqab across historical time look like Progress.  If historical processes can offer up different value-sets from which one can make judgements about history, then there can be no one historical trend that counts as Progress unless it leads to the end-of-history: a static, global society containing a universally assented to morality.  But since, as I have suggested, history is contingent, the historical process resulting in such a  society is no more goal-directed than a rudderless ship at sea – wherever it washes up, there the winds have blown it.  Moreover, even were the end-of-history actually possible (a questionable proposition), why should we conclude that its values are therefore better than our own?  Most large-scale societies throughout human history have more-or-less taken the view that democracy is fundamentally flawed.  Perhaps they are right – maybe the end-of-history will be governed by an eternal monarchy (or something yet undreamt of).  If we are to insist that it is our values that represent Progress, then we will have to do so on grounds other that those of historical necessity – that is, retreat to realism (with all its problems) or adopt a sort of values-chauvinism.

Not by design did it arrive here.

‘Progress’ is a flawed concept.  This isn’t to say that we can’t make progress toward our individual or collective goals, only that we must not assume that our goals have the imprimatur of reality.

Endnotes:

[1] Nor, frequently, with meaning, e.g.: Jonestown, suicide-bombings, martyrdom.

[2] The meaning of which I must define myself since the Wikipedia article is a holy mess of missing the forest for the trees (no concise definitions for this topic). Myth, in the context of this piece, does not carry the popular definition of ‘story that is untrue’ but instead means ‘story that provides meaningful context for real-world happenings, whether or not that story itself is factually true’. By this definition all of the death and resurrection of Christ, the history of the American or French Revolutions, the self-made man, and “Yes, we can!” are equally mythological.

[3] I don’t believe that I need to elaborate too much upon why that might be (that would be a whole other discussion), but I can spare a couple of words here.  The quick-and-dirty is this – when people believe that they are on the side of the inevitable march of history/good/God/whatever, it tends to make them self-righteous at best (very annoying) and, at worst, complete, raging assholes willing to railroad others to implement their vision.  Examples: Nazis, Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, Jacobins, Democrats, Republicans, Zionists, anti-Zionists, medieval Roman Catholicism, Puritanism, residential schools, Richard Dawkins, the Black Panther Party, etc.

[4] And, not to mention, also on the basis that false beliefs deserve to be challenged, whatever they are – accurate knowledge of reality counts as a moral good, in my eyes.

Blog Direction Question & BDSM and Politics

First, I have to apologize for having gone AWOL for the past while.  I was both busy with work and tied up in the evenings such that writing slipped down the list of priorities.  Also, my mind has mostly been a vacant expanse of uninterestingness and unoriginality.  I only post thoughts that, while not necessarily being the first instance of their having-been-thought in the history of the whole universe, nevertheless are made chez moi.  I haven’t had (m)any of those lately and those I have I can’t decide whether to post or not – they are mostly of a political nature and I more-or-less want to avoid politics on this blog.  Should I set up a different site for those, expand this blog’s mandate, or just let them be?

But here’s a cute one that occurred to me the other day.  I was thinking about the nature of sexual fetishes and BDSM came up (natch).  Anyway, it occurred to me that there are people in this world who actually prefer to be subordinate to others.  Similarly, there are those that prefer to be dominant.  We have all met people of both types.  So the question is: where does this leave egalitarianism?  Presumably, those who would like to follow want to be led (and so shall be led) but egalitarianism requires that people become self-led.  Isn’t this sort of harmful to would-be sheep (also, would-be shepherds)?  Doesn’t taking their interests into account sort of necessitate creating structures of dominance?

Implications, As Promised

In my post from last week I suggested that there would be some implications that flow from the unethical foundations of all ethics.  So, even though they are not completely thought-through, here are the ones which strike me as fairly obvious:

  • All reasoning about ethics/morality is wrong – though not, I should say, in the sense in which orderlies stealing from old ladies in nursing homes is wrong, but in the sense of factual error.  At best, one could say that all ethical reasoning is partial.  This is, of course, because any conception of the Good will necessarily have one or more holes or blind-spots in its analysis which it cannot acknowledge since to do so would be to undermine itself.  As I pointed out before, any conception of the Good requires the suppression of certain beliefs, behaviours, or desires that are inimical to its successful realization.  However, if these beliefs (etc.) are not ‘bad’ apart from their utility/disutility to one or another conception of the Good and, more importantly, comprise the conception of and striving after the Good of the one who has them, then the suppression of same by some other ‘Good’ and its agents constitutes a harm for that person.  The suppressing ‘Good’, however, cannot acknowledge that it is doing actual harm, else it wouldn’t be Good (or even good) – and thus we arrive at notions of ‘restorative punishments’ and ‘merely perceived harms’ which, to my mind, are pretty obvious attempts at bootstrapping coherency and universality. [1]
  • Another consequence is that to a significant degree, might makes right.  For society to be possible among numerous individuals it is necessary that there be some commonality of expectations, understandings, etc.  In order to achieve this, some conception of the Good – it will probably be easiest with one already broadly agreed to, but that is a matter of practicality – will need to be privileged over all others, even if this means doing harm to those who may not share in this conception.  Once a conception of the Good is being enforced, however, it becomes extremely difficult to resist seeing as ‘Good’ for many reasons: practicality, it grounds one’s way of life, simple lack of imagination, fear of social disapproval, etc.  By way of illustration, consider the case of hereditary monarchies.  It is difficult to imagine how any large number of people (thousands, millions) would have originally assented to absolute power being wielded over their lives by a single person and all his descendants thereafter except through coercion, but we do know that it was eventually taken for granted by most that this was simply the natural state-of-affairs and was a Good thing.  Moreover, it isn’t clear that this should strike us as overly troubling either.  Beijing is trying to enforce the use of a single language and a dominant culture throughout China, which is no doubt harmful to cultural and linguistic conservatives throughout that country [2], but which is no different in kind from any number of similar programs enacted throughout Europe which gave us all those countries we know today. [3]  Of course, this is meant to deny neither the reality of moral disagreement nor that the exercise of might (whether social or physical) can and often does do harm [4], but is rather to say that we should acknowledge that enforcement and the regularity it provides does, over time, tend towards legitimacy.
  • We should probably drop any worries about ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘being in the right’ because these are only possible from within the framework of some conception of the Good.  There are several problems with this.  First, as mentioned above (1), it will actually make us blind to certain situations that require moral consideration but which our favoured idea of the Good won’t admit of.  Second, since any conception of the Good necessarily and categorically does harm to some number of people based on the ‘appropriateness’ of their beliefs, behaviours, desires, etc., then actions flowing from any such conception will be prone to causing harm in the ways characteristic to that idea, making it entirely likely that if we do harm when acting on our idea of the Good we shall ignore or rationalize away said harm.  Third, even if we can acknowledge an area of ethical concern, trying to stay too closely within the boundaries delineated by our theory will constrain our scope of action in ways that may not be useful and may even prevent us from ever getting around to being useful because we cannot make our ethical algorithm compute.

Endnotes:

[1] I am assuming here that we are considering universalist-type conceptions of the Good (e.g. Christianity, Buddhism, Socialism/Marxism).  An obvious objection is that such criticism wouldn’t apply to conceptions of the Good that are more local in scope like, for example, Jewish rules regarding diet or ethnic-chauvinist moralities.  It is an interesting question but one which I must set aside for now although, as a pre-reflective sort of comment, I will note that most ‘local’ conceptions of the Good tend to be those held by less-powerful groups.

[2] Who, in an attempt to find allies to apply external political pressure against such policies, have formed a partnership of convenience with Western Progressives who have little patience for such linguistic and cultural conservatives within their own countries.  The irony is both palpable and delicious.

[3] Similar programs were successfully undertaken in places such as France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain (among others) and unsuccessfully in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia,  greater Spain (Spain, Portugal, the Basques), and the Soviet Union (among others).  Presently, the European project is attempting to forge a supra-nationality among the European nations – time will tell whether that will take (and perhaps, looking at the current European situation, not much time at that).

[4] Nor is it meant to imply that I am untroubled by the implementation of such policies in the Chinese case (or generally, for that matter).

A Brief Word on the Reaction to the Aurora Theatre Shooting

I haven’t tended to talk about current events/politics here, but I really want to say one thing.  I have heard that there are some people in the US trying to link the Aurora shooting to the Democrats.  Or the Republicans.  Whichever.  This is just irresponsible – taking an accidental characteristic of the killer and then making this into a relevant characteristic in order to smear one’s political adversaries as monsters, demons, and murderers-by-proxy.  It would be understandable (though still erroneous) were it an apparently politically motivated attack (as seemed possible with the Loughner shooting), but this is just run-of-the-mill deadly-nuts (like Columbine).  DO NOT DO THIS.  It leads only to greater anger, frustration, and decay of trust and social cohesion – your society has enough of that as is.  Read your Jon Haidt.

Now, feel free to go hog-wild having debates about gun-control or security friskings at the theatre, since those are at least relevant to what took place.  But stop fooling yourself into believing that your next-door neighbour who doesn’t quite have the same politics as you is one among the throngs of hell’s army – that’s a fundamentally insane worldview.

NB: If what I’ve said doesn’t apply to you, keep up the good work.

A Moral Presumption in Favour of Private Property

Property rights are a highly explosive subject of political debate in modern Western society (and probably in any human society that did or shall ever exist).  This Manichean debate has, on the one side, those who defend private property as a ‘natural right’ with nearly (sometimes totally) unlimited strength and scope, and, on the other side, those who insist that private property is just another historically contingent social more (the sociological term) designed by humans to facilitate our well-being (which argument is virtually always followed by the claim that said more is not serving human well-being).  All social/cultural/political/moral systems have a property concept of one sort or another for the simple reason that people must have some possessions and security in holding these in order to survive and flourish.  Obviously, these various systems will all differ in some capacity, so left-wingers and anthropologists are right to point out that there is nothing inevitable or immutable about the modern West’s private property views. [1]

And, in honesty, when I look at the arguments upon which Western property-rights are based – specifically, the Lockean theory and its derivatives (especially Nozick) – I do find them to be faulty.  I don’t necessarily blame Locke for this [2], but modern defenders of private property should be careful because, although this account makes property rights extremely strong, they are like a castle built on shoddy foundations – undermine those and the walls will come down, regardless of how sturdily built.  Such individuals may want to consider giving up some height in the walls in order to shore up the foundations.  As for myself, I think something can be said in favour of there being some sort of ‘natural right’ to private property, though I find such language (that is, the language of natural rights) to be unnecessarily strong, not to mention suggestive of an objective moral order of the sort of which I am skeptical.  I would rather say that there is something like a prima facie presumption in favour of private property that (potentially, as we shall see) obtains even in the absence of a legal authority to codify property rights.

But how do I define property?  Property in some object, concept, or territory (and so on) I define as ‘possession by right’.  There are two halves to this formula.  First, possession: whatever is one’s property, whatever one owns, is to be treated as though one is quite literally in possession of it, with all that this entails.  To choose an example, my car is to be treated as though I am literally in it or holding it, even when I have left it parked on the street.  Just as, were I behind the wheel, one would not simply be able to drive off (or otherwise tamper) with it without my say-so, so too am I considered ‘by right’ to be sitting behind the wheel, even when I am physically distant.  This brings us to the second half.  The ‘right’ which secures my possession of my car can be one of two types: legal or moral.  Since legal rights depend, on the final analysis, on the moral case(s) made in their defense, it is the moral right of possession which is of interest here.

Locke grounds the moral case for the creation of private property rights over things found in the state of nature – things previously owned in common as they were a gift from God to the whole of Mankind – in a presumed mixing of one’s labour with some piece of the world.  Even if we include his caveats (the so-called ‘Lockean Proviso’ and the prohibition against wastage) there are two significant stumbling blocks for his theory.  First, is the forging of private property through the mixing of labour, which simply reeks of metaphysics. [3]  Locke’s approach makes property into an ontological relationship between an object and its owner (in some non-trivial sense, the object is subsumed into its owners’ being), but today we correctly understand that property rights are social relations among members of human communities.  Second, it is unclear just what constitutes enough mixing of labour to unequivocally make something one’s own. [4]  For these reasons (and a couple of others aside, relating primarily to ‘common’ ownership of the Earth), I don’t find Locke’s account very compelling.

Still, I do believe that there is a simple enough principle in which we may ground ‘possession by moral right’ that does not necessitate recourse to exotic metaphysics and which comports perfectly happily with current anthropological/sociological accounts of human nature.  It is simply this: humans are purposive creatures – we act for reasons.  Whenever I bring something into my physical possession (whether by gathering, production, etc.), I have done so for a reason.  For example, if I have whittled a flute from a fallen branch I found, I will have done so because I want to play music, or I want to make a gift of it, or I want to trade it, or somesuch.  I have brought it into my possession to serve some end I have in mind.  Now, if someone steals, breaks, sells, or gives away that object, they will have interfered with my plans in a manner analogous to other interferences (say, having one’s hands bound – I did say analogous, not equivalent).  Provided that my plans are not themselves outside the bounds of acceptable action, there is a prima facie obligation on the part of others to refrain from interfering with my plans (since we all find such interferences irksome).  The moral right of possession is really, as I see it, a species of respecting the autonomy of action by others.

Endnotes:

[1] However, it does not follow from this, as such people seem to assume, that current arrangements are no better than some (or many) others.

[2] It would be foolish to do so – the basing of such rights in God seemed a perfectly natural thing to do at the time he was writing.

[3]  What is ‘labour’ and how does it ‘mix’ with sticks and rocks?

[4] Is picking an apple from a tree sufficient?  What if the apple fell from the tree and I just happened to catch it?  Would thinking about picking that particular apple be sufficient for it to be ‘mine’ – like calling ‘shotgun’ on the front seat or planting a flag and “claiming this land in the name of King Louis of France”?

Of What Is, and What Is Not, Criticism of Capitalism

There are numerous popular criticisms that get lobbed at the actually existing economic system that we call ‘capitalism’.  Some are wildly off-base, while others have a certain definite bite to them, but I am not interested (for present purposes) in whether or not capitalism is a good economic system (whether considered morally or pragmatically).  What I find interesting is how many critiques of capitalism are, in fact, not critiques of capitalism at all.  Take these two examples:

  1. Capitalism is bad because it does not appropriately allocate the benefits arising from productive activities – that is, profits accrue only to those who already are possessed of an excess of wealth (else they would not be the owners or shareholders of a business), rather than to those who are actually involved in the provision of the profitable product or service.
  2. Capitalism is bad because it encourages competitive consumption and ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’, a game which only the relatively wealthy can play and which, consequently, causes the further social ostracization of the less well-to-do.

The difference can, admittedly, be hard to spot if one hasn’t spent much time or effort thinking about the matter – it is masked by the usage of ‘capitalism’ in both cases.  The first is obviously a critique of capitalism, since it addresses aspects of capitalist economics directly: e.g. the ownership of productive capital and the existence of the profit motive, labour relations, dividends.  The second, however, only appears to be a critique of capitalism – why do I say this?

Note that the actual problem in the second example is the social ostracization arising from the inability of the less well off to effectively engage in a form of status competition.  Granted, competitive consumption may be encouraged (or even necessitated) by a society’s utilization of a capitalist economic system.  And, of course, the critic of capitalism could argue that it is about capitalism, because the poor (who are poor as a result of capitalist economics) cannot compete against the rich (who are rich as a result of capitalist economics) in a contest to buy the biggest, newest, and best.  But the problem here isn’t actually the competing for status by way of material accumulation, it’s the fact of competition in itself – any sort of status competition will result in winners and losers, necessarily.  The poor feel the pain arising from low status, as denoted by their failure to accumulate material goods, just as keenly as do failed or unpopular musicians, actors, or intellectuals when these latter consider their more successful peers.  Capitalism does not create status competition – it merely channels it in a particular way.

So, only the first of this pair of common critiques is actually a critique of capitalism (should someone, after reading the preceding, still believe the second to be such a critique, then I now have learned a lot about that person and his motivations).

Postmodernism Taken Too Far, Not Taken Far Enough

A little while back I was having a conversation with a fellow student with whom I share a goodly number of perspectives.  Our conversation began on the topic of the absence of free will (of the kind that most take it for granted that we have) and the worry about the justice of punishment in light of that fact (if it is a fact)[1], but then it drifted into a general conversation about the ideological state of the West generally.  Interestingly, we both agreed that postmodernism (I doubt that I shall need to explain this idea to my readership) has proven a significant failure.  [2]  Now, we agreed that postmodernism had some useful perspectives on many issues – indeed, postmodern thought has definitely influenced my ways of thinking about things and I would be remiss in not saying so – but its over-application, or its being taken to extremes, has proven disastrous.

Take, for example, the doctrine that maintains that all beliefs are really ideologies of power, that all beliefs serve the political purposes of particular actors.  I think that there is some valuable insight here – particularly that beliefs and ideologies are used for power-politicking, and that the social and political order is always justified (at least in part) on the basis of claims about how the world ‘really’ is.  Also of importance is the insight that there is no uncontroversially objective access to reality, that the things we believe will invariably reflect our desires and needs.  These are some very important things to acknowledge, but when they are over-applied to the world, they result in obviously stupid notions.  For example, that the whole of modern science is just another ideology of power [3], so that any and all purported sex-based neurological distinctions are fabrications intended to promote patriarchal norms (Newton’s Principia ought to be renamed Newton’s Rape Manual).

The same analysis applies to ethics (and particularly to cross-cultural ethics).  Since ethical systems are based in the particularities of different cultures and their power structures, there actually is no way to judge between them, since any judgements we may make about another culture’s practices (e.g. slavery, female circumcision, burkas) will be done on the basis of our own beliefs.  As such, we cannot judge their moral validity without either making a category mistake [4] or doing violence on that culture: nonsense or imperialism.  This, too, should strike us as obviously wrong – though it may be true that I will be imposing my values on another culture should I argue that slavery or the burka are bad, it shouldn’t follow that what I am saying is without meaningful content or that it should not be said.  [5]

I have this suspicion, however, that these stances are the result of a failure to take postmodern ways of thought seriously enough.  If we accept that our beliefs are grounded in the social fabric, that our epistemology is tainted, this makes the giving of reasons even more important.  We can no longer trust that authorities [6] are right, so the justifications of their arguments are crucial.  Though we have to maintain a rigorously skeptical epistemology, we nevertheless can acknowledge that there are better and worse justifications for claims, justifications that are good enough to confirm belief and to act upon.  Similarly for cultural practices – their very groundlessness is what allows for their proliferation and creative variety.  We do not necessarily do wrong by promoting our way of life, since there is no one way of life that makes a fit for all human beings everywhere and throughout history – if we appreciate our way of life, that is enough to justify our partisanship, and if we don’t, that is justification enough to strive for reform.

Or am I missing something?  Maybe what I am suggesting is totally incompatible with postmodernism, rightly considered.  In that case, transcendence is required.  How to do it?

Endnotes:

[1] This was the upshot of a class we both took on the topic of free will.

[2] I wonder whether this is evidence of an impending generational shift in ideas.  I sincerely hope so, since I am not a great fan of PM in the way it has influenced politics and much of academe.

[3] Not that this doesn’t mean politics doesn’t enter into scientific research – it certainly does, just not in the way that postmodernists claim.  From what I can tell, politics’ greatest impact on scientific institutions and inquiry is by influencing what the research questions will be.

[4] Since our values are incommensurable, judging a practice as ‘bad’ would be like judging a song for being inadequately red.

[5] Besides which, it is unclear to me how the giving of reasons can be considered ‘imperialism’.  Isn’t imperialism ultimately backed up by the application of force?  Aren’t reason-givings attempts to persuade without relying on force?

[6] Authorities of any sort, that is, not just the typical authorities pointed to by most postmodern theorists.