Saturday, 29 July 2017

Moral Progress - Really?

The great liberal assumption is that the human race, aided by Science, is moving towards a kind of moral singularity and perfection. The movement is a movement from primitive atavistic darkness (often presided over by religion) into radiant and increasing clarity. One thinks of Fidelio being released from the shadows of his gloomy dungeon by his brave wife Leonora in Beethoven's opera. We move from an enslaving obscurantism to a modern freedom based on scientific rationalism. This is the classic ‘Whig view of history’ and the one which informed the thinking behind the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, such a premise accepted makes us likely to view the past as something which we can patronize and condescend to as one enormous ancien régime stretching back into the mists of time. There is little that can be learnt from our antecedents and, indeed, we may consider them, in their benighted state, to be more evil than we are and, as a result, even pity them. Enlisted to prove moral advancement are things like the ending of Slavery by Lord Shaftesbury, the electoral reforms of the 19th century, female enfranchisement, the release of women from being shackled to the endless cycle of childbirth and death in childbed and the legalization of homosexuality in the 20th century.

And yet, when these excellent and desirable things (I am in no way suggesting that they are not praiseworthy or regrettable) are examined there may be other explanations than the one which characterises them as evidence that the human race is getting better and better. They can be explained as the corrections of the temporary moral aberrations or strayings to which mankind is prone or they can be explained as the results of sociological evolution due to political, scientific and technological advancements. Often something as simple as the movement, as a result of technological advances, of greater numbers of people upwards on Maszlo’s pyramid of needs is all that is needed to explain what has happened.

Black Africans enslaved other black Africans before white Europeans from Holland or England arrived on the scene and saw the opportunity to grab a piece of the action. They yielded to the temptation to get rich quick; in other words simple greed. Once the trade was established it, inevitably, was exposed at home to the Christian moral context of the age which found it wanting and, eventually and rightly, made it untenable to continue it. Slavery still exists in the world, including in the UK, and still has to be sought out and corrected each time it raises its head, though. The temptation has not gone away.

The industrialisation of the 19th century and the move of the rural populations to the towns made greater enfranchisement a possibility and even an imperative. This was not a moral advance but a sociological one. Newly evolved populational pressures made it necessary to give wider representation in order to avoid events like the French Revolution. This was a form of pragmatism. In primitive societies women were tied to their purely biological functions of childbirth and rearing. As society moved up Maszlo’s pyramid of needs women became freer from such shackles and, in their freedom, rightly demanded that they participate in society. In time this was achieved in spite of the opposition of some wedded to older ways, perhaps for reasons of the personal advantage they derived from the status quo. Modern birth control – a purely technological advancement – freed women even more meaning that they could, rightly, participate in and begin to share in directing society even more. Those, and there were plenty, who resisted such change may have done so for bad and selfish reasons but all that they represent is eternal human badness and selfishness, not the badness and selfishness of everyone in the past.

In a race that reproduces itself sexually homosexuality was often, not always (as is attested to by Ancient Greece), viewed with suspicion. It is not surprising that something so obviously differing from the dominating biological norm of procreation was thus viewed. We have now reached a stage where that suspicion seems conclusively to have been unjustified and so feel able to cease to see it as a threat. This is a sociological rather than moral evolution. It happened purely because it was able to happen.

Contrary to what the progressivists might assert there is plenty of evidence that we are not moving towards a moral singularity. As I have already mentioned, slavery has never been eradicated and will often reappear in modern societies. Feminism did a great deal of good for women in the latter section of the 20th century but, in spite of this, the internet has caused a situation now where some young men will regularly depersonalise young women, view them as pornographic objects and demand that they behave as such. It’s a new form of an old vice and we have to be vigilant in challenging it when it arises. Prostitution, still flourishing healthily in most societies, is known as the oldest profession for a good reason. It's a case of plus ça change.

The Whig view of history sees all citizens as encouragers of or opposition to the movement towards the moral singularity. You are either part of the solution or part of the problem and it is this which can make political discourse peculiarly vituperative. If you don’t accept the Great Progression the only explanation can be that you are a moral degenerate and, therefore, evil for why would anyone seek to oppose such an unquestionable good? The main reason, of course, is not opposition to it but a simple disbelief in its claims.

So what is the status of morality when placed against the historical perspective? My view, backed up with reading literature and history from twenty different centuries, is that nothing changes. Humans have always gone in for, still do and always will, lying, cheating, bullying, selfishness, greed, arrogance, violence, theft, bribery, jobbery etc etc. The sins skewered by Dante in the 14th century bear a remarkable resemblance to those which beset modern society and which we find in our newspapers today. We have no cause to look down on our ancestors. Indeed, my reading often makes me admire characters from the past who are superior to us and from whom we can derive much wisdom and pleasure.

We have to be alert to the social and political changes that events and developing technology bring with them but we do not have to believe that there is anything new under the sun as far as human morals are concerned.

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