Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?

I want to take a week or two out from the 16-part series on the “God and the Modern Self” to address an issue that is on my mind. Recently, I seem to have heard an increased use of the idea of progress to justify certain moral, social and political changes. I don’t want to take up the specific changes that are being advocated, and I don’t do politics on this blog. But I do want to consider the rhetoric of progress because it seems completely confused and confusing. After all, this blog is about “thoughtfulness in religion.”

A few days ago I heard an advocate condemn his opponents because they are “on the wrong side of history.” And quite often lately I hear people speaking of making progress or suffering regress in certain moral areas. So let’s think about progress. It should be clear that there can be no progress unless there is a goal toward which one can move closer. If I am on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York City, my arrival in Kansas City clearly marks progress. I am getting closer to the destination. In general, then, progress is movement toward a goal. We consider progress good when the goal at which it is aimed is desirable. If the end is not desirable, we don’t usually consider movement toward it positive. For example, we speak of a person’s change toward worse health as regress or decline rather than progress toward death, though, if death were desirable, we might call movement toward it “progress”.

Now it is possible for one person to consider the end toward which things seem to be moving as good whereas another person considers it bad. Hence one person’s progress can be another’s regress or decline. My point is that we use the word progress for movement toward an end, and judgment about the quality of that movement depends on our judgment about the worthiness of the goal. There is nothing inherently good about “movement toward an end.” Everything depends on the nature of the end.

Since the Enlightenment, two main types of progress (“movement toward an end”) have been recognized as desirable: scientific progress and moral progress. Since the early 17th century, scientific progress has been measured by the extent of movement toward bringing nature under the control of humanity. Every scientific advance moves us closer toward complete understanding and therefore complete (or at least maximum) control. We want to subject nature to our wills and make it serve us and add to our comfort, health and happiness.

What passes for moral progress follows the same trajectory as scientific progress. Just as the goal of modern science and technology is liberation of human beings from servitude to the ordinary course of nature, the aim of modern moral progress is liberation of the individual from domination by political authority, oppressive social structures and divine and natural moral law. The unarticulated goal implicit in the modern understanding of moral progress is complete liberation the human self from all self-alienating forces into absolute self-determination and unfettered “pursuit of happiness”.

I emphasized the word “unarticulated” because the rhetoric of progress could not be as persuasive as it is if it stated this goal openly. Everyone knows that absolute independence is impossible for human beings, and anyone who claimed to have attained it would be dismissed as crazy. And yet total liberty and autonomy is the ideal by which all “oppressive” structures and forces are exposed and condemned as immoral and unjust.

Universal moral law, natural order or divine purposes are given no role in guiding and restraining the arbitrary, self-determining self. The reason for this exclusion is obvious. The rhetoric of progress views these guiding and restraining structures as oppressive by definition.

We can draw two conclusions at this point: (1) the modern rhetoric of progress aims at a goal impossible to attain, and (2) if it were attained, chaos, anarchy and nihilism would engulf the world. The rhetoric of progress works only so long as it hides its final goal and fails to attain it fully. How shall we judge a moral ideal that, were it attained, would destroy the world?

Allow me to point out one more contradiction in the modern idea of progress. As persuasive as the rhetoric of progress is, it has not been able to persuade everyone. Even though its ideal is total freedom from authority and oppressive structures, it seems to have no moral objection to using social and political power to destroy its enemies and coerce the unwilling to move on to the next phase of human liberation from oppression. The means (coercion) subverts the end (freedom). And since the end can never be attained, the means, which is the exercise of coercive power, replaces the end. The end becomes a mere moral justification for the means. (On second thought, perhaps using coercive power is not inconsistent with the end. If the ideal end consists in the individual self’s exercising power over itself, it makes sense for an individual in a position to do so to use coercive power to attain even more autonomy for the self.)

Conclusion: the fundamental problem with the modern idea of progress is that it measures progress as movement toward a bad end.

Next week: Movement toward what end could be considered “progress” from the perspective of Christian faith? What is the end and what kind of means of moving toward it are consistent with the end?


2 thoughts on “Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?

  1. Rob Bertram

    I’m not sure if I agree with you on this one. When people talk about progress (at least in my understanding), they talk about ways in which 1) diverse groups of people can come together and live in a society where individual rights are respected so far as they do not violate the rights of others, and 2) how political decisions are subjected to the will of the majority without violating the rights of minority voices.

    In some cases, the term progress even limits the rights of certain individuals. The very concept of progressive tax structures bias against those who are wealthier in the tax burden in order to increase revenue and take the burden off those who do not have as much.

    To me at least, it seems the ends of progress are not clearly agreed upon.


    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to read and reply to this essay. I think you are completely correct that on many occasions when people speak of progress they have in mind these things. My concern, however, is that they are not thoughtful enough about why they consider these movements morally sound “movements toward a goal.” The first step is to clarify the end game, the goal toward which they implicitly aim. Only with that clearly in mind can we assess particular milestones in progress. My analysis leads me to think that at bottom of the western idea of progress is goal total liberation of the individual, which, since it is impossible, will have the ironic effect of state coercion.



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