The Idea of Moral ProgressRICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS
Almost everybody agrees that progress is a good thing. But most self-evidently good things, when examined more closely, have a way of generating disagreements. And so it is with the idea of progress, of which the idea of moral progress is part.
We are routinely told that ours is an age of unprecedented rapidity of change. In ethics and almost every other field, it is said that new questions require new answers. The same was likely said at the time about every age. One imagines Adam remarking to Eve as they are leaving the garden, "My dear, we are living in an age of transition." The modern assumption is that the transition is to something better. The modern sensibility unbounded is that of the neophiliac, the lover of the new. I noticed on a New York City bus an advertisement for a telecommunications company that bluntly proclaims the neophiliac creed: "Change is Good!" The unarticulated, and perhaps unconscious, assumption is that change is going somewhere; it has an end or what the Greeks called a telos. In the language of philosophers, change is teleological. Change is good because it is a move to the better on the way of history toward some unspecified, and perhaps unspecifiable, good. Such is the faith of modernity.
While sensible people have problems with the simplistic proposition that change is good, they have equal difficulty with the counter-proposition that change is bad. Leaning toward one proposition or the other marks the difference between dispositions usually called conservative and liberal — or, as some prefer, progressive. Even the most progressive, however, allow that there are setbacks in history, that time is not the vehicle of smoothly incremental progress. And the most determined conservative, while suspicious of change, will nonetheless allow that there are instances of undoubted progress. To the question of whether there is progress in history, a conservative friend, a distinguished social scientist, responds with what he thinks is a decisive answer: Up until about a hundred years ago, most people went through at least half of their lives with a toothache. In our society today, few people born after 1960 know what a toothache is.
Progress in medical care, while often exaggerated, is frequently cited as the most irrefutable evidence for faith in progress itself. Also cited, with considerable justice, is economic improvement. It is no little thing that the thirty million Americans who are today officially counted as living in "poverty" have, with relatively few exceptions, a standard of living that was considered "average" only twenty-five years ago. Moreover, there is hardly a product that we buy — from cars to razor blades to a bed mattress — that, controlling for inflation, is not cheaper and better today than twenty-five years ago. And that is not to mention the many products that were not available then. I was in Cuba a while back, and walking down one of the decaying streets of Havana I tried to place this puzzling sound — a persistent clacking noise coming from a government office. It was the sound of someone using a manual typewriter, an apt symbol of what progress has left behind.
Nor need we content ourselves with medical, economic, and technological evidence of historical advance. Is there not also a phenomenon that is rightly called moral progress? In the history of our own country, we have put slavery and legally imposed racial segregation behind us, and almost nobody doubts that this counts as moral progress. More ambiguously, there are the recent decades of changing sex roles and redefinitions of the family. The proponents of such changes express confidence that their recognition as progress is only a matter of time. Also in the realm of what we might call political morality, it would seem that we have learned from the catastrophes of the past. Outside the weekend militias, very few people today advocate a regime based upon the superiority of Aryan blood; and outside our universities, very few propose the state collectivization of private property. Moreover, it is surely great progress that, at least in the West, we do not kill one another in wars of religion. Whether this is because of a decline in religious commitment or because we have come to recognize that it is the will of God that we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God, it is undoubtedly a very good thing. I will be returning to the claim that all such instances of moral progress are a development or unfolding of received moral wisdom — wisdom that counts as knowledge.
The casting of the pall, in one telling of the story, goes back to the guns of August 1914, when it was said that the lights were going out all over the world. As a college student reading the memoirs of British philosopher Bertrand Russell, I recall being deeply impressed by his assertion that nobody who was not a child before 1914 could know what real happiness is. In his privileged and enlightened world, all good things then seemed possible, indeed inevitable. It was only a matter of time. Of the French Revolution, more than a century earlier, Wordsworth could exclaim, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" Humankind seems much older now.
To be sure, in recent decades we witnessed a counterculture that, in a spasm of historical amnesia, had flower children announcing the Age of Aquarius to the tune of "the times they are a-changing." Grownups knew better, even if many felt obliged to indulge the youthful trashing of the world that they had made and that their children held in contempt. Yet those same children, now the middle-aged establishment in charge of almost everything, seem not to believe that the doctrine of historical progress has been vindicated. The Woodstock Nation was a youthful high, but it is now nostalgically remembered as a "time out" from the real world.
How can one seriously believe in progress at the end of what is undeniably the bloodiest century in history — the century of the Battle of the Somme, of Auschwitz, of the Gulag Archipelago, of Maoism, of obliteration bombing, and of mass starvation as government policy? In this century, so many people have been deliberately killed by other people that the estimates of historians vary by the tens of millions, and they end up by agreeing to split the difference or to round off the victim count at the nearest ten million. One might conclude that it has not been a good century for the idea of progress in general, and of moral progress in particular.
Shortly after World War I turned out the lights all over the world, Oswald Spengler published his two-volume Der Untergang des Abendlandes, known in English as The Decline of the West. Professional historians pilloried his scholarship, but many of the brightest and best of a generation suspected he was telling the truth, as they also succumbed to the mood of Eliotís The Waste Land, published in the same year as Spenglerís second volume. A great depression and another world war later, after Henry Luceís "American Century" had been proclaimed and then debunked by Vietnam and all that, Robert Nisbet published, in 1980, his History of the Idea of Progress. Nisbet believed that, despite spasmodic eruptions of an ever more desperate optimism, the idea of progress was moribund or dead.
The idea of progress, Nisbet wrote, began with classical Greece and its fascination with knowledge, a fascination that was appropriated and put to intellectual and practical use by Christianity. From the early church fathers through the high Middle Ages and into the Puritan seventeenth century of Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, there was a confidence that ever-expanding knowledge held the promise of something like a golden age. Although often in militantly secular form, this confidence drove also the Enlightenment, which was living off the capital of Christian faith in historical purpose. The assumed link between knowledge and progress explains what Nisbet describes as the liberal belief in "education" as the panacea for human problems, paving the road to utopia. But by the 1970s, said Nisbet, all the talk was about the limits of knowledge, the end of scientific inquiry, the unreliability of claims to objective truth. The curtain was falling on the long-running show of modernity and progress. What would come to be called "postmodernity" was waiting in the wings.
For many centuries, the argument was that knowledge equals progress, and now — or at least many were saying — advances in real knowledge were coming to an end. In 1978 an entire issue of the journal Daedalus was devoted to articles by scientists on "The Limits of Scientific Inquiry." Not only does science no longer have the cultural and even moral authority that it once enjoyed, the contributors noted, but many scientists are filled with doubts about their own enterprise. Some went so far as to suggest that we may be witnessing a reversal of roles between science and religion, with the ascendancy of the latter in providing a stable definition of our historical circumstance.
Some years earlier, the distinguished molecular biologist Gunther Stent published under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History a widely read little book, The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress. There is irony in his reference to a "golden age," for what he discerned was a decline or stasis in almost every aspect of scientific, social, and artistic life. His critique is much more subtle than just another lament about growing license and decadence. He noted, for instance, that the progress of art in modernity has been accompanied by a freedom from accepted canons and limits, and that this freedom is undoing art itself. "The artistís accession to near-total freedom of expression now presents very great cognitive difficulties for the appreciation of his work. The absence of recognizable canons reduces his act of creation to near-randomness for the perceiver. In other words, artistic evolution along the one-way street to freedom embodies an element of self-limitation."
Stent noted that a similar sense of limits, of an end of progress, is evident in the so-called hard sciences, and in his own field of molecular biology. We may view such claims with a certain skepticism. When the Sumerians invented the wheel, there were perhaps those who observed that that was the end of progress. The French historian Charles Perrault wrote in 1687: "Our age is . . . arrived at the very summit of perfection. And since for some years the rate of progress has been much slower and appears almost insensible — as the days seem to cease lengthening when the summer solstice draws near — it is pleasant to think that there are probably not many things for which we need envy future generations." Historyís destination had been reached, he concluded, or was close at hand.
Gunther Stent, however, spoke not from such smug complacency but from a keen appreciation of scientific facts. He traces the various stages of the ascendancy of scientific progress in understanding ever more complex phenomena. We have now, he says, arrived at "the end of progress" because we have come up against the "mind-matter paradox." Stent asks, "Is it in fact likely that consciousness, the unique attribute of the brain that appears to endow its ensemble of atoms with self-awareness, will ever be explained?" He answers that question in the negative. He suggests that the search for a "molecular" explanation of consciousness is "a waste of time." "Thus, as far as consciousness is concerned, it is possible that the quest for its physical nature is bringing us to the limits of human understanding, in that the brain may not be capable, in the last analysis, of providing [an] explanation of itself."
Similar limits are becoming evident in other sciences. To cite but one obvious instance, cosmologists who study the structure of space-time relationships in the universe note that the billions of light years between ourselves and the reception of the data that we can examine means that we never know what is happening now billions of light years away (or even what "now" means in this context). And the very logic of the circumstance means that it will not, it cannot, change in the future. Scientists a billion years from now, if we can imagine such a thing, will still be billions of light years away from the data accessible to their scrutiny. Even if, in ways that are not now imagined, we were able to leapfrog, so to speak, over vast spaces of time, there would always be beyond any point reached an infinity of points not reached. In other words, there is no end, and it is that realization that is at the heart of the idea of the end of progress.
I am not an astronomer or physicist or molecular biologist, but one cannot help but follow these discussions with great interest. Of most particular interest to the theologian and philosopher is the discussion of the mind-matter connection that, especially in light of what physicists call the "anthropic principle," is richly suggestive for the biblical understanding of humanity created in the image and likeness of God — we are participants, if you will, in the consciousness of God. But exploring these questions here would take us too far afield. The question at hand is the idea of progress, and how that idea is now challenged not only by events in politics, society, and culture, but also by science, which, following its own rigorous methodology, discovers that there are many things we do not know and can never know. One may object that these limits are at the margins, that there are still vast fields of discovery open to future generations. But that is the way it is with limits; they are, by definition, always at the margin. They define the margins. The crucial point is that the link between knowledge and progress that was forged in classical Greece and that, in the form we call scientific, has been both the motor and the guarantor of the modernity project has now been broken. Or so we are told by some of the more impressive thinkers of our time.
But there was something else driving the idea of progress as well. Returning to Nisbetís rather melancholic book on the subject, his epilogue asks the question, "What is the future of the idea of progress in the West?" He continues, "Any answer to that question requires answer to a prior question: What is the future of Judeo-Christianity in the West?" He notes that the great thinkers of the Enlightenment — for instance, Lessing, Kant, Herder, and Priestley — all recognized that the idea of progress is "closely and deeply united with Christianity." The same is true of the enormously influential prophets of progress. "The mature writings of Saint-Simon and Comte, both preeminent in the history of the idea of progress, bear this out. Even Mill, apparent atheist through much of his life, came in his final years to declare the indispensability of Christianity to both progress and order." As for Karl Marx, it is by now a commonplace to observe that his grand ideological structure of the dialectic of history was but a heretical variation on Christian themes.
Although Nisbetís melancholy goes deep, he expresses the hope, perhaps a wan hope, that something like a religious awakening might yet rescue the idea of progress. He saw signs of such an awakening, and twenty years later many think those signs are stronger. Nisbet quotes Yeats: "Surely some revelation is at hand?" Maybe. Maybe not. He concludes the book with this: "Only, it seems evident from the historical record, in the context of a true culture in which the core is a deep and wide sense of the sacred are we likely to regain the vital conditions of progress itself and of faith in progress — past, present, and future."
Niebuhr did not intend that as a compliment to Christian culture. His point is that the idea of progress is a cultural distortion of authentic Christianity. A staunch Protestant writing in an era before the full flowering of ecumenical etiquette, Niebuhr blamed this distortion on what he called the "Catholic synthesis" of nature and grace as that synthesis was secularized in the Renaissance and then in subsequent modernity. The secularized idea of progress emerged from the biblical understanding of purpose in history, said Niebuhr, but it broke away from the biblical truth that the fulfillment of history transcends history itself, as it also jettisoned any notion of divine judgment. The secularized story of history therefore ended up with "no consciousness of the ambiguous and tragic elements in history." It is true, said Niebuhr, that human history is filled with endless possibilities, but the idea of progress forgets that they are endless possibilities for both good and evil. "History, therefore, has no solution of its own problem."
Niebuhr was accused of offering a bleak or pessimistic view of history. He called his view "Christian realism." If, without the idea of progress, people might despair of the tasks of personal, social, and scientific advance, that too, said Niebuhr, might be to the good. There is such a thing as "creative despair" that induces faith, he said, and such faith "becomes the wisdom which makes Ďsenseí out of a life and history which would otherwise remain senseless." What we should have learned from the last two hundred years, and especially from the tragedies of this century, is that history is not the answer to the question that is history. Niebuhr puts the point nicely: "We have learned, in other words, that history is not its own redeemer."
One may be unpersuaded by some of Niebuhrís conclusions, but a Niebuhrian sensibility is an invaluable safeguard against the shallow sentimentalisms and utopian fantasies that have all too often afflicted thinking about history and its possibilities. Niebuhr rightly reminds us that history is not the uninterrupted triumphal march of progress. In the Christian view of things, experience both personal and social is cruciform; it is the way of the cross. At the same time, the cross is not the final word. There is resurrection, and it is both resurrection in history and resurrection of history. It is first the resurrection of the history of Jesus — and that is the foretaste, or preview, or promise of the resurrection of all things. That is surely the import of St. Paulís great cosmic hymns in, for instance, the first chapters of Ephesians and Colossians. To the Ephesians Paul writes, "For [God] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:9-10).
This vision is inseparable from an emphatically Jewish understanding of the Messianic Age. The chief difference between Jews and Christians is over if, or in what way, that Messianic Age is anticipated in the person of Jesus whom Christians call the Christ. For both Christians and Jews, past and present time participate in what Paul calls "the fullness of time." In the call of Abraham, the election of Israel, the promises given through the prophets, and (for Christians) the coming of the Christ, the plan of history is being fulfilled. Jews disagree with Jews and Christians disagree with Christians over the eschatological scenarios and apocalyptic details by which "the fullness of time" will be achieved, but all are agreed that history is not, in the words of the cynic, just one damn thing after another; history will be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. Niebuhr is undoubtedly right to say that "history is not its own redeemer." But the biblical view — a view that is utterly formative for Western culture in both its religious and secular expressions — is that history does have a Redeemer, and that the Redeemer is, however veiled and sometimes hidden, present and active in history itself.
And, ecumenical etiquette notwithstanding, it must be admitted that Niebuhrís very Protestant reading of history is in tension, if not in conflict, with the "Catholic synthesis." In our own time, that synthesis is energetically set forth by the pontificate of John Paul II. In October 1998, the Pope issued his thirteenth encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), in which he powerfully affirms that there can be no conflict between faith and reason, between science and religion, between philosophy and revelation; all truths are one because God, the source and end of all truth, is one. Human beings are by nature seekers after truth, and revelation provides the ultimate "horizon" of that search. The Word of God, or the logos that is the ordering reason of all things, is incarnate in history and is the guarantee that the search for truth is not in vain. Not until the final End Time will we know the truth perfectly, but along the way both believers and unbelievers who honestly seek for the truth according to the rules of science and reason will be vindicated.
This is surely an audacious vision, but is it a doctrine of progress? The answer is no and yes. If by progress we mean a smooth, incremental, and almost automatic movement in time from worse to better, from ignorance to enlightenment, the answer is certainly no. If, however, by progress we mean that human beings are free agents who are capable of participating in the transcendent purpose that is immanent in history and holds the certain promise of vindicating all that is true, good, and beautiful, then the answer is certainly yes.
As the decision of Princeton suggests, Singer is no marginal figure in our intellectual culture. He is also author of the main article on ethics, a full twenty pages, in the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. From Confucius and Aristotle, to Maimonides and Aquinas, through Hume and Kant to Peter Singer, the article traces the liberation of moral theory and practice from any truths that pose an obstacle to our will to power and control. The gist of it is caught in the title of Singerís 1995 book, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (St. Martinís). That Singer does not regret the collapse of what he dismissively refers to as traditional ethics is evident in the chilling conclusion of his Britannica article: "The culmination of such advances in human reproduction will be the mastery of genetic engineering. . . . Perhaps this will be the most challenging issue for twenty-first-century ethics." Singer leaves no doubt that he welcomes the challenge and the brave new world it portends. The cosmologists and molecular biologists — those who are bound by the disciplines of scientific method — reach the end of knowledge, at which point they fall silent in what might be viewed as a recognition of human creatureliness. Ethical theorists — bound by no such disciplines — reach the end of knowledge, at which point anything can be said, and anything can be done.
For a dramatically different account of the history of ethics and its progress or regress, we have Alasdair MacIntyreís much discussed and eminently readable little book, After Virtue — in my judgment, one of the most important books on moral philosophy published in this century. For MacIntyre, the account of moral theory and practice offered by people such as Singer, which is the dominant account in the academy today, results in a rationalized ethics that has broken loose from any tradition of virtue or truth — from our knowledge of virtue and truth. The stark choice facing us, MacIntyre says, is a choice between Aristotle or Nietzsche, between a tradition of virtue, on the one hand, and moral nihilism, on the other. The various intellectual dispositions that today run under the banner of "postmodernism" have quite consciously opted for nihilism. The hubris of Enlightenment rationalism that Niebuhr rightly criticized has given way to the hubris of postmodernityís irrationalism. Secular rationalism tried to do too much, but can rationally recognize when it fails. Irrationalism has no access to such humility.
In the view of MacIntyre and others, the Enlightenment project has failed on its own terms. Despite monumental efforts, perhaps the greatest of which is that of Immanuel Kant, it failed to produce an ethics to which any rational person, acting rationally, must give assent. Society was for a time able to live off the capital of earlier traditions of virtue, but now that capital has been depleted, the failure of the Enlightenment project has been widely advertised, and the time has come round at last for the triumph of nihilism. In this reading, postmodernity is the product of failed modernity, and the nihilistic avant garde is a regression to the rule of the barbarians. Barbarians today, as in classical Greece, are defined as those who are outside the civilizational circle of conversation about how we ought to order our life together, about the meaning of right and wrong, good and evil. They are those who know nothing, and insist that nothing can be known, about such matters.
Recall the concluding passage of After Virtue. MacIntyre draws the parallel between our time and the collapse of the Roman Empire when St. Benedictís monastic movement provided a refuge for civilization. "What matters [now] is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different - St. Benedict."
We may think that picture somewhat overdrawn. After all, those who are called barbarians are not primitives, they are not neanderthals; they are frequently those thought to be the "brightest and best" among us. But that is to miss the point. The new barbarians are barbarians not because they are unsophisticated but precisely because of the hyper-sophistication with which they have removed themselves from what I have called the civilizational circle of moral conversation. In simpler terms, that is called "traditional values." The barbarians refuse to be limited by what we know, by the wisdom we have received, about good and evil, right and wrong. For them, the past is merely prelude.
What, then, can we say about the future of moral progress? Within the civilizational circle, there is moral progress (and regress!) in how we live, but there is no progress in the sense of moving beyond the moral truths that constitute the circle itself. We can develop the further implications of those truths, or we can step outside the circle by denying that there is such a thing as moral truth. It has become the mark of hyper-sophistication in our time to echo the question of Pontius Pilate, "What is truth?" Pontius Pilate, an urbane Roman ever so much more sophisticated by worldly standards than the prisoner who stood before him, was a forerunner of the barbarians now in power.
Like all tradition, the Tao is vulnerable. Those who want to violate it ask, "Why not?", and it is not always possible to give a rationally convincing answer, or an answer that is convincing to everybody. In response to the assertion of rules that set limits, the avant garde offers the challenge, "Sez who?", and the invoking of authority, even of the most venerable authority, carries little weight in our time. Most corrosive is what is called the hermeneutics of suspicion, in which every rule or law or custom is perceived to have behind it some hidden purpose, some power protecting its own interests. Thus the Tao is debunked, we "see through" its supposed authority, and the force of its commands and limits is "explained away." The result is what Peter Singer approvingly calls the collapse of traditional ethics. Lewis had a keen appreciation of what was happening in our intellectual culture. Recall again that remarkable passage from The Abolition of Man:
But you cannot go on "explaining away" forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on "seeing through" things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to "see through" first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.
To which many of our contemporaries say, "Precisely. To see through the first principles of ethics is to see nothing, which means to see that there is nothing except what we will to do; and, if there is nothing, all things are permitted." So speak the barbarians among us. Whether they rule us to the degree that MacIntyre suggests, I do not know. Whether they will rule us in the future depends upon our ability to argue — and to give public effect to the argument — that there is such a thing as moral knowledge. It is in the nature of knowledge that we can argue endlessly about what we know and how we know it. Or at least we can argue until, in the happy phrase of 1 Corinthians 13, we finally know even as we are known. Lewisí Tao provides one minimal foundation for such argument. My suspicion is that, while it is useful, it is too minimal; that a firmer and publicly effective understanding of natural law and first principles requires the specific acknowledgment of the God of Israel and the achievement of the Greeks, as these find expression in what is rightly called the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. That particularist tradition provides the most solid foundation for a truly universal ethic. But that is a discussion for another time.
The answer to the question of whether the barbarians will rule us in the future depends upon parents, religious leaders, educators, scientists, politicians, artists, and writers who are not embarrassed to give public expression to what they know about right and wrong, good and evil. The first proponents of the idea of progress, including moral progress, were right to believe that knowledge and progress are inseparable. There can be no progress beyond but only within the civilizational circle of the moral truths into which we were born, by which we are tested, and to which we are duty bound, in the hope of sustaining the circle for those who come after us. The alternative is the willed ignorance of nihilism.
Richard John Neuhaus. "The Idea of Moral Progress." First Things 95 (August/September 1999).
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