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OP-ED: What is progress?

  • Published at 07:08 pm June 27th, 2020
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Progress in the fields of politics and morality should never be taken for granted

Very recently, I was intellectually provoked by the lectures of a contemporary British philosopher named John Nicholas Gray. I found it somewhat amusing that he is an Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where I have spent more than a decade for my own academic training, but I never learned about his work until a few days ago. 

Gray’s work touches a very pertinent subject -- human progress -- especially within the realms of knowledge, technology, ethics, and politics. In particular, he argues that most societies have not fully understood the notion of progress adequately and that we feel that history constitutes episodes of great civilization progress, where we implicitly, and to an extent subconsciously, assume that progress in knowledge and technology has coexisted with progress in ethics and morality over time. 

Some have even travelled the intellectual distance to argue that man has reached the “end of history” as liberal democracies have experienced their ultimate triumph against all other forms of government. Such triumphalism was not common-sense defying. 

After all, we did witness the end of slavery and empowerment of women and gay people in Western societies. We also experienced the expansion of the universal franchise and the notion of human rights, especially after WWII. 

But Gray questions -- are these examples of progress as robust as we make them to be? The world still witnesses geopolitical struggle for more resources and power -- like how it was a few centuries ago, and democracies frequently get captured by corporate oligarchies influencing policies. 

In fact, we witnessed the return of the rise of “toxic politics” where minorities are accused of creating problems for the majority in the Western World -- which bears a close resemblance to what we witnessed during the rise of far-right in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. 

An example that Gray most frequently cites is the reintroduction of torture in formal security manual after the Iraq war under the pretext of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which highlights a definite reversal of moral values in the US, as it remains a signatory to various human rights ethos and rejects such measures in state practice. 

Gray argues that to better understand human progress, we need to revisit what progress means and how it applies to the realm of science, ethics, and politics. Progress, according to Gray, is a cumulative concept, where what is once attained is not lost and that further incremental or exponential gains are possible over time. 

Hence, as we can see with some degree of clarity, this idea of progress has resonance to what we see in the field of science and knowledge -- perhaps best reflected in how advancements in aerospace technology by the Wright brothers have now landed man on the moon. Or how medical science has earned a degree of mastery over human health through a better cumulative understanding of biological systems. 

In fact, it is quite impossible to even imagine that any serious university will start teaching astronomy and reject the findings of Galileo at some point in the future. Yet, are similar progress possible in the realm of ethics and politics? 

More importantly, can progress in knowledge and technology translate into civilizational progress by making man a more reasonable and rational animal? In other words, is civilizational progress possible? Or do we merely move between different civilizational types experiencing different levels of barbarism and civility? 

Gray argues that very often we witness “exploded fallacies” of previous generations -- such as the notion of a superior race -- finding political and moral revival; while one generation remains committed to saying and doing what is politically correct -- it can easily produce a new generation who does not see anything morally inferior in being politically incorrect. 

This is perhaps best reflected in how Trump galvanizes his political support by making politically incorrect statements; and he makes it a point to argue that he personally champions being politically incorrect. Of course, liberals can reject this kind of toxic politics, but they cannot ignore that Trump did get elected with more than 62.9 million votes. 

How do we reconcile with the moral compass of everyone who voted for him? Can we say everyone who voted for him is unethical or morally inferior? Can that be a useful approach to creating a civilized, compassionate society? Or do we have to accept that there has been an ethical or moral regression among his voters? 

It is also possible that these moral issues did not matter to them, and the material progress he promised -- more jobs and putting America first -- allowed people to ignore these moral weaknesses. But that also means that those who voted for him were ready to align with a leader who had serious moral weaknesses for their own interest. 

How should one interpret such a moral compromise of nearly 46% of voters? These examples definitely shake up the conventional notion of human progress as we often naively take for granted. Gray wants us to think of history as a movement from and between societies that are driven by “freedom, consent, and contract” to societies driven by “command and status.” 

But if that is the case then the political progress we experience now can be easily lost and that argument does find some validation if one examines history’s long arc. Yet, one issue needs more inquiry. What exactly makes progress in science and knowledge distinct and definitive, but in politics and ethics murky? 

Gray argues the “human-animal” defines the fabric of ethics and politics -- and this fabric is vulnerable to human vulnerabilities. That is, for evolutionary reasons, humans have evolved to harness an infatuation for empathy, love, kindness, but also cruelty, violence, and barbarism. And these vulnerabilities find different degrees of manifestation during different times for different reasons -- creating and forming new types of civility and barbarism over time.

Hence, Gray warns that human societies should never take progress within the realm of politics and morality for granted -- as they are reversible; and have been reversed if we study history. In modern times, this assertion of such political regression within societies should not make us too awkward. 

After witnessing the rise of toxic Hindutva in India, Trump in the US, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, and powerful attacks on democratic institutions from both the political right and left in different countries, Gray’s warning needs serious reflection by anyone who values civility in the social fabric and aims for promoting civilizational progress in their lifetime.

Ashikur Rahman is a Senior Economist at the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI). He can be reached at [email protected] gmail.com.

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