Monday, March 5, 2012

The Illusion of Inevitable Progress


The Whig interpretation of history, formulated in Britain during the 19th century, held that human progress was inevitable, and that history was a study of mankind’s progress from barbarism to civilization.
Although largely discredited as a school of historiography, the Whig interpretation of history still has a strong impact on society, because the notion of inevitable progress still permeates popular culture.
In the Whig worldview, each age in human history is better than the one before it. To a Whig, the modern age, with its defeat of slavery, incredible technology, and tolerance of previously unfashionable worldviews, is clearly the best age in human history. And future ages will only build upon the progress gained in previous eras. 
The term “progressive” reflects this belief that human progress is inevitable. Any opposition to changes which further “progress” is seen by progressives as morally reprehensible, and the work of unenlightened reactionaries or bigots.
On some level, there is an element of truth to the progressive worldview. For the most part, inevitable human progression is true (or at least is plausible) in certain fields of human endeavor.
Technological progress is one example of clearly evident progress over time. While catastrophic events occur that can set humanity back technologically (such as the fall of the Roman Empire), for the most part, the history of technological advance has been marked by unceasing progress. Scientists built upon the knowledge of earlier scientists and thinkers, and were able to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” (Sir Isaac Newton)
But this is not true of all aspects of humanity. Humanity can technologically advance, yet simultaneously regress in other areas. This is especially evident in the moral realm. 
For good and evil are not based upon technological progress. Indeed, the Nazis took power in Germany, perhaps the most educated and industrialized nation in human history of its time, and wrought moral havoc.
Evil wears many faces in many different ages: from human sacrifice in the ancient era, to Nazism and Communism in the mid-20th century. Today, abortion, the killing of unborn children, is the great moral evil.
This is not to say that progress is non-existent. Moral progress can occur in society – slavery was defeated in America and Britain during the 19th century. But moral regress can take place as well. The oppression of factory workers during the period of the Industrial Revolution marked a societal moral hardening during the early 19th century. Moral progress is clearly not inevitable.  
It is a form of hubris on the part of self-styled “progressives” to claim society must inevitably rise towards ever-greater understanding and decency. Mankind can rise in moral stature - but the human race can also clearly decline in morals, as well.

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