The Modern Good Life, Part 3: The End of Progress

What is the modern “good life,” and how do we know if we are living it?  Is what we have now “good”? Can we honestly look to the past and say that the way we live now is better? And can we reasonably expect that things will continue to improve? These are the questions that started me thinking about this series in the first place.

In Part 1, I wrote about our peculiarly modern bias to action, and in Part 2 I discussed the different ways in which can become slaves to history. In Part 3, I will address our unconscious and seemingly unshakeable assumption of human progress and how our current historical “moment” is unsettling because it may be challenging its dominance.

Gen Y is supposed to be more optimistic than past generations: according to a recent article in Time magazine, 88% of its members believe that one day they will lead the lives they desire.  The “hope gap” (presumably the ‘gap’ is with reality) increases with age, apparently, as people get more disillusioned — but deep down we all remain, at heart, subscribers to a fundamentally optimistic narrative of our present. It is the progress narrative, articulated no better than by John Stuart Mill, its eternally optimistic Victorian proponent, when he said that the goal of progress was for individuals to live long, happy lives without physical or mental suffering, including “indigence, unkindness, worthlessness or premature loss of objects of affection.” Who can argue with that?

I’m sure many of you have heard of Whig History, the idea that humans are progressing toward an ever more liberal and enlightened society: freer, more peaceful, more democratic, more comfortable, and more convenient. Historians like to scoff that Whiggish histories are teleological, Eurocentric, and poorly sourced. We criticize the philosophies of Mill and G.W.F. Hegel, among others, who argued that modern European (now “Western”) society was located at the apex of historical development, and was its logical conclusion. We laugh that Mill and his contemporaries considered nineteenth-century British society to be the most advanced on the scale of civilizations, a trajectory based on liberal criteria such as constitutional checks on rulers, and freedom of the individual enabling the full use of his faculties. But in reality, we think the same thing in our own time.  We know that things been continually improving, and expect that they will continue to do so. And we expect that too will always be at the apex of historical progress.

Amongst all of this certainty, the past few years have been a stumbling block. Suddenly, the balance of media coverage is negative. Is it a temporary setback, we wonder, or a lasting trend? We feel a deep-seated unease as a reputable voice – or collection of voices – begins to think that the past was better than the present. And the main area in which we have concerns is ethical, societal, moral. We can see that technology is advancing, making us smarter (perhaps), wealthier, and more comfortable. But we are no more able to solve society’s eternal ills – poverty, violence, want, fear – than before. New technologies, government policies, or even human kindnesses still have not managed to create our Utopia.

Of course, it isn’t rational to expect Utopia. We all know that. But secretly, we hope that we can achieve it, and we have a vision of the future as “the best of all possible worlds,” as our Panglossian friends would say. And we want to be a part of it, and we want to help it along. We have a bias toward action.

So the question becomes, has the West become a slave to its own idea of progress? I wrote in my last post that today we are unique in seeing history and linear and cumulative. But have we been fooled, and is the “progress” we have seen not really progress at all? Could our technological progress be in fact contributing to a moral decline?

This line of thinking has certainly had its supporters. Several centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau contested the established idea of progress in his time: economic development, the creation of a state and protection of private property, and the ability to live comfortably. (It appears not much has changed since the eighteenth century.) As he wrote in his Second Discourse:

Due to a multitude of new needs, [man is] subjected…to all of nature and especially to his fellow-men, whose slave he becomes in a sense even in becoming their master; rich, he needs their services; poor, he needs their help.

It certainly isn’t a powerful exhortation to buy that new flat screen TV. Though it is perhaps a given that having more things engenders a need for more things, it doesn’t seem to say much for our evolution as a species. In Toward a History of Needs, Ivan Illich writes that “The model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour.” Most of us can walk almost that fast, with a lot less effort spent selling our souls for a salary.

Nietzsche continued this anti-progress train of thought in the Geneaolgy of Morals, deriding those who thought comfort and luxury were the end of life:

The diminution and leveling of European man constitutes our greatest danger…We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent…there is no doubt that man is getting “better” all the time.

For both Rousseau and Nietzsche, the economic and technological progress that had led to large societies, sedentary means of acquiring food (i.e. non-hunter-gatherer communities), and the general ease of life that Mill had in mind had caused humans to lose something along the way. This something was morality. They had different definitions but meant something of the same thing.

In truth, I don’t think morality is declining, not even with the advent of sexting, or video games, or La-Z-Boy recliners. It’s natural that, by measuring it against objective progress in so many other areas, the presence of our human constants of good and evil will inevitably make us feel like failures. Because there certainly is evidence of objective progress. Are we, the middle class in a developed country, better off today than 25, 50, or 100 years ago? In a multitude of ways, absolutely: we have extended many basic rights to larger populations (de jure and de facto), have much more advanced medical care (and likely better access to it), use a host of labour-saving devices which reduce the amount of manual drudgery we have to endure day to day, have technologies that allow us to control our reproductive output (and therefore our careers, financial situation, etc. better), and, perhaps most importantly, can access vast amounts of information near-instantaneously.

Utopia? Certainly not. But I feel pretty good about being part of a society that is free, and liberal, and generally supportive of those who can’t support themselves. And I have a recurring dream in which (dork alert!) John Stuart Mill comes to visit me in the present, and he’s pretty pleased with how things have turned out as well, though of course we still have a lot of work to do.

In an excellent article on the idea of progress, a columnist in The Economist writes that our constant striving for morality is like aiming for an “unattainable horizon,” and the eternal battle between forces of altruism and selfishness keep society on an even keel (clearly, this author also has a bias to action). I think it’s more important that we keep up the faith that we’ll get there. Gen Y has it right: optimism is one of the keys to happiness. Society may not be perfect, but we have to believe we can keep improving it.

I started this post series with Madonna, so it only seems appropriate to end with the Beatles: I’ve got to admit it’s getting better; a little better all the time.

Read the other posts in this series:

Part 1: The Bias to Action

Part 2: History and its (Ab)Uses

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2 Responses to The Modern Good Life, Part 3: The End of Progress

  1. Jeremy says:

    I am glad to see that you reject the so-called Taoist view you presented in the first post of this series in favor of the belief that we can improve our society and make *progress* toward something which we perceive as better. However, I am really disappointed that my rambling argument in favor of using the historical record as a kind of laboratory for our ideas which I made on Tuesday night didn’t stop you from writing what you wrote in part II. Is it possible I’m not as persuasive and compelling an advocate for the centrality of historical understanding as I thought? Nah…

  2. Kathryn Exon says:

    I dispute your use of the phrase “laboratory” when the whole idea of a lab is to be able to control the conditions in order to test out your theory – exactly the opposite of history. Conditions are set. They already happened.

    Apart from that, though, I do see the merits of learning from history…I just don’t think anything can be applied as the exact same because the context is different.

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