Jacob Levy doesn’t like progressives

by Henry on July 24, 2007

Jacob Levy’s beginnings-of-a-response to Linda Hirshman’s piece on Rawlsianism as the root of all evil seems to me to be a fair bit off-target (this, from Matt Yglesias, is much better).

I recommend and second Marty Peretz’ reflections on the replacement of the word “liberal” with the word “progressive” over at The Spine. … At a somewhat different level of abstraction: “progressive” as a concept is tied up with a partly-inchoate philosophy of history that I’d have thought long since discredited. It doesn’t share in Marxism’s rigid determinism; but it does always tell a story in which one’s own side in political disputes happens to be the side of the future and the march of events. That tied together the racist imperialism of the Progressive Era, its anti-constitutionalism, and its technocracy: we enlightened white Americans with university degrees and a sense of good order and planning will drag non-white people, the uneducated, the messy chaos of the economy, and an archaic governing structure based on archaic ideas on the limits of state action into the future. Liberalism as such doesn’t believe it will necessarily win. Liberalism a la Isaiah Berlin and Judith Shklar, and behind them figures like Montesquieu and Tocqueville, is deeply inflected with a sense that freedom might be precarious, and the humane and human accomplishments of liberal politics might be precarious. The liberal sense of history is not necessarily pessimistic, but it shares none of progressivism’s certainty.

Jacob’s jibes about racist imperialism aside (it wouldn’t exactly take much effort to drag up some of the more sordid bits from the history of classical liberalism), his argument seems to me to rest on a false comparison. When Jacob talks about progressivism, he talks about it as a political movement; when he talks about liberalism, he talks about it as a tradition within political theory. This rather predetermines his conclusions; if your political ideals are thoughtfulness, recognition of limits etc, it’s … unsurprising that political theorists are going to come out looking better than politicians and political commentators. If you set up a fairer comparison, say by contrasting whatever tendencies there are towards overweening triumphalism among progressive political commentators with whatever tendencies there are among soi-disant liberal commentators, I suspect you’d arrive at a quite different set of conclusions (there seemed to me to be rather a lot of liberal triumphalism about the march of history and dragging non-white people and archaic governing structures into the future going around a few years ago; I’m not hearing so much of it now for all the obvious reasons).

{ 199 comments }

1

someotherdude 07.24.07 at 8:41 pm

I thought progressivism was another way to say American Hegelianism with a liberal/leftist spine and was/is Modern American Liberalism.

And then there is Classical Liberalism which has morphed into Libertarianism.

And they were all racist and essentially imperial since wealthy powerful white Americans thought that their views of the world must be embraced by the world…or kill trying.

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Christopher M 07.24.07 at 9:09 pm

Hmm. My initial reaction was just the opposite: sure, progressivism as grand philosophy may tend toward a certain triumphalism or sense of inevitable progress, but actual contemporary soi-disant “progressives” are well aware “that freedom might be precarious, and the humane and human accomplishments of liberal politics might be precarious.” But I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.

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Chris Bertram 07.24.07 at 9:29 pm

Goodness, I just read the Hirshman piece. Well Jacob deserves some credit just for beginning to respond, because I wouldn’t have known where to start. Of course, the empirical claim she makes is absurd, but worse is the suggestion that the function of liberal political philosophy is to promote the electoral success of the US Democratic Party. She held a tenured position at Brandeis? Jesus!

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John Quiggin 07.24.07 at 9:48 pm

I don’t know that much about the Progressives as a historical movement in US politics, but I agree with Jacob that “progressive” considered as a political label is meaningless triumphalism.

It was the very first in my long-abandoned Word for Wednesday series for that reason. To save the trouble of clicking on a link, I said

If no clear direction can be discerned in history, or if reversals lasting for decades are possible, the whole idea of ‘progressive’ politics becomes incoherent. Unfortunately, the idea is deeply embedded in political rhetoric and is therefore hard to get rid of. As long as the term ‘progress’ is taken to imply ‘progress towards something better’, people will try to attach its positive connotations to their political programs. Even the connotation of ‘something not necessarily good, but irresistible’, has a lot of rhetorical power, as in ‘you can’t stop progress’ – Marxist historicism is the extreme example of this. Former social democrats like Paul Keating justified adopting the political program of their opponents by appeals to progressive rhetoric, treating current trends as both irresistible and desirable simply by virtue of their currency. At this level, though, ‘progressive’ politics is little more than adherence to prevailing fashion.

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Martin Bento 07.24.07 at 10:01 pm

What Levy objects to seems to be suggested by the word “progressive” itself. What does it mean to advocate progressive positions if not to believe that your positions constitute “progress”? Meaning A) they are an improvement over competing positions and B) it is in the nature of things that they will, or at least are most likely to, triumph eventually. A is, of course, part and bparcel of any normative claim, and so useless for characterizing a specific political philosophy, but its wedding to B is quite problematic. It is hard to avoid applying B retrospectively, for example, to proclaim the current situation an improvement over all previous; a claim that the current power structure will tend to warmly endorse. A in isolation is devoid of content, and B, absent a much clearer conception of the future than anyone has, is false.

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Martin Bento 07.24.07 at 10:03 pm

John’s comment hadn’t shown up yet when I wrote mine. I think we’re on the same page here.

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Martin Bento 07.24.07 at 10:20 pm

Who was it that said that siding with the political force that you believed was of the future was the ultimate form of kissing the ass of power? Was it Milosz?

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Ben A 07.24.07 at 10:27 pm

When Jacob talks about progressivism, he talks about it as a political movement; when he talks about liberalism, he talks about it as a tradition within political theory.

This seems right enough. The difficulty, however, is that it is not clear that progressivism has much coherence as tradition within political philosophy, or even as an ideology. As John points out to be simply in favor of “progress” doesn’t have much content, other than (perhaps) assuming that the arrow of time just necessarily points towards goodness.

My (doomed) proposal would be to reclaim “progressive” as a label for a general pro-orientation towards change, a kind of antonym for Oakeshott’s “conservative temperament.”

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Henry 07.24.07 at 10:47 pm

Chris – fair enough – when I first began to write the post I had a bit about how, disagreements aside, there isn’t any comparison between Jacob’s response and the downright weirdness of the Hirshman essay, but it got lost when my post disappeared (and I forgot to put it back in when I rewrote).

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kth 07.24.07 at 10:51 pm

Part of the reason ‘progressive’ is a murky and not entirely useful self-description is that we don’t really have conservatives in the conventional sense in America. There isn’t this big constituency for custom and tradition, at least not among the political intelligentsia; nor for that matter can the Moral Majority movement be accurately characterized in Burkean terms. Mostly everyone is for progress, opinions merely differ on what constitutes progress.

Also, ‘progressive’ connotes strength more than ‘liberal’ does (regarding the surprisingly sane Peretz post that Levy cites). To be a progressive is to advocate marshalling the power of the state, not against foreign enemies so much as against the supposed failures of the market. Whereas to be a liberal mostly means (especially to non-liberals) letting people do whatever they want, not using corporal punishment on your kids, not believing in eternal damnation, believing in rehabilitating criminal offenders rather than punishing them, etc.

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josh 07.24.07 at 11:00 pm

I share Jacob’s aversion to the ‘progressive’ label, for three reasons:
1) As John Quiggin and Martin Bento, as well as Jacob, point out, the word itself suggests that one is in favour, or indeed on the side of or represents, ‘progress’; and I find this dubious (that’s a great quote possible from Milosz, by the way; thanks Martin). There’s no such connotation to liberalism, the name of which invokes commitment to liberty, and a spirit of generosity — which seem much better things to affiliate oneself with than progress.
2) Historically, the Progressive Movement, as Jacob notes, was associated with all sorts of nasty things. Now, Henry’s right that Progressivism isn’t directly analogous to liberalism as a strain of political thought; but I do think one can speak of Progressive political theory, or the political thought of the Progressive movement, as a distinct strain within political thought — albeit one which was quite varied, and never constituted a coherent political system (but then, neither has liberalism), and one which was propounded over a briefer period of time by a narrower range of thinkers, most of whom are much less often read than the ‘classic’ liberal theorists. I don’t think that all that Jacob says about ‘Progressivism’ as a tendency in political thought accurately fits all Progressive theorists — charges of racism and imperialism don’t seem fair to, say, Dewey — but he does identify one feature which I do think central to Progressivism: a fondness for technocratic rule, a tendency to regard politics as consisting of ‘problem-solving’ — and, in many cases, the assumption that such problems could best be solved by intellectual elites wielding social-scientific knowledge and techniques of social control. I certainly don’t think this is the worst approach to politics in the world; but I think one should be wary of it.
3) As if the term ‘progressive’ didn’t have enough against it, it then got appropriated in the ’90s by vaguely centrist, Clintonian Democrats. If the word’s earlier political connotations hadn’t been enough to put me off it, that settled things.

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Henry 07.24.07 at 11:42 pm

John, Martin, I think that is a bit beside the point I am making here. You can certainly argue against the term ‘progressive’ – but I don’t think that the specific comparison that Jacob is making here is on-target, given that it involves apples and oranges, and liberals such as Thomas Friedman (and indeed conservatives! c.f. Fukuyama) have their versions of the same trope. As I read it, ‘progressive’ in US parlance is usually a code word for ‘maybe kinda sorta faintly social democratic.’ That Hillary Clinton feels the need to describe herself as one says interesting things about a shift (maybe only rhetorical) in the center of gravity of the Democratic party.

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John Quiggin 07.24.07 at 11:48 pm

A central problem here is that American English doesn’t have a word for ‘social democrat’.

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John Quiggin 07.25.07 at 12:04 am

The comments are running slow today – I hadn’t seen Henry’s when I posted mine.

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leederick 07.25.07 at 12:45 am

I think the criticism is a bit unfair.

He is comparing apples and oranges, but I don’t get the sense he really has a choice. Ideally he’d like to talk about progressivism as a political theory as opposed to liberalism as a political theory. But he can’t, because as far as political theory is concerned progressivism doesn’t exist.

You can talk about “liberalism a la Isaiah Berlin and Judith Shklar, and behind them figures like Montesquieu and Tocqueville”, but you couldn’t put together a similar sentence regarding progressivism. Maybe you could mention Condorcet, but progressivism isn’t so much a political theory as a loose grouping of inchoate ideas. You can’t really discuss it on the same terms as liberalism, and dumbing the discussion down to comparing progressivist commentators with liberal commentators doesn’t really get us anywhere in terms of understanding the merits of the two positions.

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David Wright 07.25.07 at 1:10 am

From Hirshman, to Levy and Yglesias, to several of the posters here, there seem to be a lot people confused about what “progressive” actually denotes in the American political context today.

“Progressive” wasn’t invented to describe some historico-political systematic philosophy — there never was one. It wasn’t invented to distinguish Clinton’s policies from those advocated by other Democrats — Clinton was a practical fellow who didn’t waste time giving names to ideas. It wasn’t invented to recall the progressive era — whether one regards that era as a triumph or a tragedy, the voting public has no memory of it. It was invented for one simple reason: “liberal,” the adjective previously applied to Democrats, had become an epithet, so Democrats needed a new one.

I for one am quite glad Democrats have abandoned “liberal” because it was really a mis-appropriation of a long-standing term for a real, coherent world view that deserves more visibility in America. Americans have no idea what “classical liberal” means, “libertarian” conjures of pictures of gun-nuts, and “the ideas advocated by the editors of ‘The Economist’ magazine” is too much of a mouthfull. I’ll be happy when we can have “liberal” back.

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engels 07.25.07 at 1:55 am

What a strange set of responses. I certainly don’t have a native speakers grasp of the confusing ways in which Americans use political language but while I agree with Henry’s post and subseqent comments I am baffled by people saying that (i) the term “progressive” is meaningless (surely it’s basically just the opposite of “conservative”) (ii) belief in progress is obviously mistaken (iii) claiming to be on the side of progress (or ‘progress’) is somehow sinister (iv) progressives have dangerous tendencies towards technocratic elitism (and liberals don’t???) Very, very odd (to me at least).

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engels 07.25.07 at 2:22 am

Btw I wouldn’t call myself a “progressive”. It seems like one of those funny pieces of American politesse, like calling the toilet the “rest room”. But I thought it was harmless enough.

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tom hurka 07.25.07 at 2:34 am

The idea that embracing Rawls has hurt the Democratic Party politically is hardly a new idea of Hirshman’s. It was proposed (I believe) by Galston and then by Sam Scheffler, with specific reference to claims about desert. Ordinary voters believe that people deserve income if they work hard and contribute to others and don’t deserve it if they don’t. Rawls denied that claims about desert play any foundational role in distributive justice; in so far as Democrats accepted his ideas — an empirical question on which I have no firm opinion — they were cutting themselves off from many voters’ core ideas about justice. As I say, it’s not a new idea and it doesn’t sound crazy to me. (In this temple of Rawlsolatry I can’t help adding that Rawls’s arguments against economic desert are especially feeble.)

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John Quiggin 07.25.07 at 2:38 am

“Conservative” is nearly as problematic as progressive. As an example, how many US conservatives are keen to conserve unions, the legislative heritage of the New Deal or even the US Constitution (except for one amendment)?

Of course, the Canadians had the problem fixed in the old days with the Progressive-Conservative party which seemed to cover all bases.

21

Kevin 07.25.07 at 2:54 am

I just spent a long time last night on a post describing why I found Hillary Clinton’s self-appellation as progressive to be both wrong and irritating — someone who is as terrible as she is on campaign finance reform is emphatically not a progressive. So forgive me if I just steal from something I wrote a long time ago on the differences between progressivism and liberalism:

To borrow from Michael Sandel and Alan Brinkley, modern liberalism (not classical “don’t tread on me” liberalism, which we now call libertarianism) is rooted in the experience of the government-business partnership of WWII and is primarily concerned with a value-neutral federal government ensuring the equal distribution of rights. Meaning that Washington doesn’t take much of a stake in fostering any particular value in the people as a whole. Instead, it is committed to ensuring equal justice to each segment of American society, be they by gender, race, ethnicity, or occupation. In other words, the concept of the public interest is subsumed by variety of competing interests, and it’s the government’s job to act as a honest “broker state” ensuring fairness for all. Modern liberalism’s greatest success, of course, was the great and still unfinished civil rights revolutions of the 1950′s, 1960′s, and 1970′s.

Progressivism, on the other hand, is rooted in the Progressive Era of TR and Woodrow Wilson, and is primarily concerned with fostering some kind of virtue in the electorate and in preserving the prerequisites of citizenship. What’s the difference? When liberals talk of competing interests, progressives speak of the public interest. When liberals talk about the rights of individuals and the concerns of groups, progressives talk about the obligations of citizens and the needs of communities. While liberalism as a philosophy is value-neutral with respect to corporate power (it serves the needs of consumer-Americans), progressives want to know how this corporate power adversely affects citizenship. In the liberal view, government mediates betwen groups of people, while, in the progressive view, the people are the government. In the progressive view, carmakers, farmers, breadbakers, and gun owners; Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, we are all citizens.

22

Dr Zen 07.25.07 at 2:59 am

It’s always struck me as one of those names, you know, for things you can’t define but you know them when you see them.

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engels 07.25.07 at 3:04 am

I’m certainly puzzled when sections of the American right who favour turning the established social and legal order upside down call themselves “conservatives” (and when those who favour bigger government call themselves “liberals”). As I said, I’m not a native speaker of the language. I’d even agree that the term is in danger of losing its meaning. Nevertheless, the word “conservative” does have a straightforward definition (as Ben A pointed out above) as someone who is sceptical of change. I’d assumed “progressive” was its complement.

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John Quiggin 07.25.07 at 3:19 am

There’s a difficulty with “progressive” that doesn’t really arise with “conservative”. Scepticism about change makes sense. Support for change per se, regardless of direction, no doubt describes a sort of temperament, but not one that has much appeal in political terms. Or maybe it just doesn’t have much appeal to me.

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djw 07.25.07 at 3:35 am

Having not yet read Hirshman’s piece, what seems crazy to me is that the Democrats have adopted Rawlsian notions of desert in any way. If you’re going to tie welfare state provisions to Rawls’ rejection of desert, which strikes me as wholly unnecessary (many desert-based theories of justice can certainly justify it), but even if we did it the timing is all wrong. By the time Rawls is on the scene American Democrats were moving in the other direction.

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kth 07.25.07 at 4:23 am

Scepticism about change makes sense. Support for change per se, regardless of direction, no doubt describes a sort of temperament, but not one that has much appeal in political terms.

The opposite of “skepticism about change” isn’t credulity about change, but skepticism about tradition or the status quo.

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bill in Turkey 07.25.07 at 10:43 am

‘When liberals talk of competing interests, progressives speak of the public interest. When liberals talk about the rights of individuals and the concerns of groups, progressives talk about the obligations of citizens and the needs of communities. While liberalism as a philosophy is value-neutral with respect to corporate power (it serves the needs of consumer-Americans), progressives want to know how this corporate power adversely affects citizenship.’

If that’s right, then it looks like ‘progressivism’ is a form of civic republicanism.
(as decribed by Philip Pettit, Quentin Skinner, Michael Sandel etc)

I’m fine with that, as someone strongly sympathetic to CR. It certainly seems to describe one very prominent strand in the so-called progressive blogosphere. I’m not so sure it describes Hillary Clinton though.

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John Emerson 07.25.07 at 1:04 pm

“One who calls himself a liberal is nowadays diversely called by others a traitor, coward, parlor-pink, eclectic, jelly-fish, a selfish or muddy thinker who wants both to have his cake and eat it, rationalist, skeptic, conservative, radical…. But there is unanimity of opinion on one thing, namely, that liberalism is essentially negative, paralytic, and disintegrative. It’s boasted open-mindedness is nothing more than axiological anemia.”

Leslie Page, “Liberalism, Dogmatism and Negativism”, “Journal of Social Philosophy”, 5 (1940), p. 346.

Cited in John Gunnell, “The Descent of Political Theory”, Chicago, 1993, p. 136.

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Brett Bellmore 07.25.07 at 1:15 pm

“It seems like one of those funny pieces of American politesse, like calling the toilet the “rest room”.”

But we don’t; We call the room the toilet is found in the ‘rest room’; The ‘toilet’ is a plumbing fixture.

BTW, in the Philippines the same room is called the ‘comfort room’, so this politesse is scarcely limited to America.

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engels 07.25.07 at 1:24 pm

If you are going to define “conservative”, reasonably enough, as “sceptical of change”, rather than something transparently unreasonable like “rejects all change”, then you ought to extend the same courtesy to “progressive” and rather than defining it as “supports change per se” (which is certainly not an appealing position) define it as something like “optimistic about the possibility of positive change”. I don’t think this is meaningless, or stupid, nor does it seem to implicate one in the imperio-heteronormative assumptions, or whatever, some people are denouncing.

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John Emerson 07.25.07 at 1:26 pm

I think Bill in Turkey got it about right. American liberalism is a kind of hybrid justifying government action in terminology borrowed from classical individual-freedom liberalism, which was often anti-government. Progressivism seems more activist and pro-government, and proposes a positive program rather than simply a neutral sphere of freedom and tolerance.

I think that today’s progressivism should be called Progressivism 3.0 — Teddy Roosevelt would be 1.0 and Henry Wallace (bad precedent) 2.0. (Left, socialist-inclined Democrats I met in the Sixties might be 2.5). It’s just a new appropriation of a floating word and isn’t illuminated by a close examination of earlier historical uses of the word.

The regressive image of the Republican party (an accurate image) makes the term “progressive” attractive, and “liberal” has been smirched with a reputation for laxity, indulgence, relativism, and weakness. Partly this is just smears and slogans, but it does derive partly from actual liberal mistakes and from the liberal decision to try to ground everything on individual-freedom arguments.

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Stuart White 07.25.07 at 1:30 pm

The label ‘progressive’ has undergone a revival in Britain of late. Gordon Brown talks about building a ‘progressive consensus’. The centre-left Institute for Public Policy Research recently published a book, in collaboration with the Liberals, called ‘Beyond Liberty: Is the Future of Liberalism Progressive?’ (Full disclosure: I wrote a piece for it.) Indeed, the term is all over the place in the centre-left literature. Its interesting to wonder why it has undergone this revival. Partly because the old language of socialism is seen, rightly or wrongly, as carrying too much of the wrong kind of baggage. But why not then use a term like ‘social democracy’? Perhaps because social democracy is sometimes taken to be in opposition to something called ‘liberalism’, and the self-styled ‘progressives’ are interested in some sort of creative bridging of liberalism and social democracy?

While I’m all for that creative synthesis of liberalism and social democracy, I have my reservations about the language of progressivism. If somebody defines themselves as a progressive, I want to know what type of ‘progressive’ they are.

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J Smith 07.25.07 at 2:39 pm

I wonder if someone could explain something to me. How and when was the idea “discredited” that history has a discernible direction, as Levy said and as John Quiggin (comment #4) and others here seem to agree? It seems pretty clear that it has, broadly speaking and with many local exceptions, trended broadly “upward,” away from priestcraft toward science, away from absolute rule toward democracy, away from aristocratic systems of titled privilege toward systems of legal equality based on personhood, not noble birth, and so on. Just during the course of U.S. history, the franchise has expanded, not contracted, and legal rights have been recognized where they weren’t previously for one group after another: women, Catholics, ethnic/racial minorities, gays. We didn’t start out with everyone having those rights, then move to a situation today where no one does, but the other way around (if, again, not smoothly but in fits and starts).

If you don’t think that all this is in fact a trend, and one for which the word “progress” is apt, then how would you describe it? Or what do you think actually is happening — that history just churns around randomly, with democracy switching places every so often with theories of divine kingship; science developing for a while and then being forgotten in favor of Scripture-based dogma; broad rights being granted, then taken away, then fought for and granted again, then taken away again, etc.? I mean, what do you call the phenomenon that makes the world of today different from the world of a thousand years ago, which was different from the world of a thousand years earlier, which was different from a thousand years before that? What do you call the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment — just illusions of some kind? Do you think that those movements are just going to reverse, and in a few hundred years the leading countries in the world will be burning witches again? Are we just in a lucky upward swing of a big ferris wheel that keeps dipping back down again from one epoch to the next? Seriously, I’m just very unclear on how anyone can look at what’s happened in history in the medium-to-long term and not see it as (a) directional and (b) progressive.

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engels 07.25.07 at 2:58 pm

Just to be clear, I’m not condoning the use of the word “progressive” here in the UK, which would sound awfully NuLab to me (and anyway what’s wrong with “social democrat”?); I’m defending its use in the more impoverished linguistic environment of modern American political discourse — a kind of Appropriate Technology for a politically developing nation.

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someotherdude 07.25.07 at 3:37 pm

And another thing, it seems that most of today’s “conservatives” are actually “reactionaries.”

Many faux-libertarians within assorted “reactionary” activists groups use the rhetoric of libertarianism, i.e., anti-stateists and statists. However their actions reveal themselves to be right-wing statists, while the fancy themselves to be anti-statists.

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Nick L 07.25.07 at 3:40 pm

j smith – Careful, you’ll be giving postmodernists fits of apoplexy. Less facetiously: yes, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise and consolidation of the New Right, the intellectual consensus does seem to be that history is just a big butter churn or ferris wheel and there isn’t a natural, evolutionary tendency towards freedom and enlightenment written into history. In certain circles you will be savaged as a ‘Whig’, ‘enlightenment fetishist’ or an imperialist for suggesting there is any kind of progress in history, be it science, politics or culture. Certainly this position has some merit, its not hard to find embarassingly naive utopian rubbish written by 20th century ‘progressives’.

In my view ‘progressive’ does denote something important related to the content of left-liberal political ideology. Different ideologies are grounded by their social imagery. Central to fascism is the notion of national rebirth, hence the obsession with ancient myth. Conservatives dream of a recently passed golden age before society’s morals went to hell. Radical greens dream of anything-but-now, either the distant arcadian past or the far future when human beings are again one with gaia.

‘Progressives’ (both liberal and socialist) on the other hand saw the near future as being the promised land. Through reform in the here-and-now, a world of peace and plenty could be acheived in the foreseable future. The march of history was on their side and centuries of superstition, despotism and foolishness were ready to be swept away by modernity. This grounded and orientated the rhetoric and thinking of those on the left until the 1980s/1990s when this vision hit the rocks of reality. Those on the left are now more circumspect and so the word now seems to be primarily used by centrist politicians as a codeword for ‘social democratic’.

Still, progress and human improvement are still important tropes in ordinary political conversation between people of a left-wing and centrist leaning. Conservative initiatives are constantly described as a ‘step backwards’ or similar.

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loren 07.25.07 at 3:44 pm

A tangent, but what the hell, I’ll bite …

tom hurka: “Rawls denied that claims about desert play any foundational role in distributive justice … in this temple of Rawlsolatry I can’t help adding that Rawls’s arguments against economic desert are especially feeble.”

I wonder if what frustrates some moral philosophers about Rawls and his legacy to date is not the feebleness of his arguments when he’s read as a muddleheaded luck egalitarian. What pisses them off, I suspect, is the conceit (more prominent in later work but lurking in Theory) that political philosophy is importantly distinct from moral philosophy.

We can, within the Rawlsian framework, have constructive arguments about legitimate expectations and the demands of justice without pulling our hair out over, say, the latest fascinating ethereal nuance in perfectionism or action theory (“but what if the streetcar is yellow, the switch has nine vague states, the switch puller provisionally accepts a bayesian dynamic coherence account of rationality, but has a diffuse prior about effectiveness over the space of vague switch states, and one of the passengers is a neuroscientist researching the neurological basis of moral reasoning? what then?”)

So yes, if U.S. democrats were seriously seduced by (the van Parijs take on ) Rawls on desert, then there is a clash between that view and at least some (but not all) of the intuitions many voters harbour about economic desert (e.g. the fascinating experimental findings by Frohlich and Oppenheimer and Scott et. al.). But even granting that empirical claim and accentuating the point of conflict between luck egalitarian claims and voter intuitions, I’d hang the blame on the likes of van Parijs, Cohen, and Dworkin rather than Rawls.

Rawls, after all, came to believe that accounts of desert are bound up with comprehensive moral worldviews, making them controversial as authoritative accounts of legitimate expectations within a fair system of social cooperation. Thus, in Rawls’s mature view, his earlier argument against economic desert (such as it was) seems feeble, but he was really making no such argument.

Personally, I think both democrats and Republicans in the U.S. would do well to ponder the fleeting but pregnant remarks in Theory about campaign finance, which seem far more relevant to the sorry state of American democracy than abstract theoretical worries about who really deserves precisely what, and how much, in the marketplace.

And Hirshman? She’d do well simply to read the book.

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loren 07.25.07 at 3:59 pm

stuart white: “If somebody defines themselves as a progressive, I want to know what type of ‘progressive’ they are.”

That seems right to me. ‘Progress along which dimensions? at what costs, for whom? why these dimensions? why those costs?’ seems to get at some of the reservations expressed so far about the dark side of Progress. But that garbled mouthful doesn’t have ‘ummph’-factor of, say, “Equality of What?”, I readily admit.

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engels 07.25.07 at 4:17 pm

Less facetiously: yes, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise and consolidation of the New Right, the intellectual consensus does seem to be that history is just a big butter churn or ferris wheel and there isn’t a natural, evolutionary tendency towards freedom and enlightenment written into history. In certain circles you will be savaged as a ‘Whig’, ‘enlightenment fetishist’ or an imperialist for suggesting there is any kind of progress in history, be it science, politics or culture. Certainly this position has some merit, its not hard to find embarassingly naive utopian rubbish written by 20th century ‘progressives’.

Isn’t this a complete non sequitur? The fact that some soi disant progressives may have written “naive utopian rubbish” does not show that the thesis that “history is just a big butter churn or ferris wheel” has any merit, does it? And are you sure that this is “the intellectual consensus”?

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J Smith 07.25.07 at 4:36 pm

Thanks, nick l, I think those are useful ways of looking at the different basic philosophies. As to the po-mo, ferris-wheel / butter-churn view of history, it seems to me that it can be tested empirically (albeit retrospectively) against what it would predict. If there’s no particular direction to history, then we should expect, looking back, to see different political systems and epochs appearing and giving way to each other either randomly, or in some kind of cyclical way with the backslides as big as the rises that preceded them. So, for instance, the 20th century B.C., the 2nd century B.C., the 12th century C.E. and the 20th century C.E. should be all be equally likely to be democratic, or equally likely to be ruled by pharoahs, or equally likely to foster Enlightenment-style science, or equally likely to believe the earth is flat. But that’s not what we see; we see the more democratic, rational and enlightened centuries grouped toward recent times, the priests having lost power rather than gained (or re-gained) it, and the pharoahs long dead. So, the butter-churn theory’s prediction is falsified.

Hence there’s a need for another theory, some way of explaining this grouping of eras — this way in which their dominant social and intellectual systems are not randomly distributed over the 5,000 or so years of recorded history. What is that theory? It seems to me the “Whig interpretation” coherently explains the observed facts, as does some modified Marxian theory, although perhaps both are wrong (fundamentally and/or in details). At any rate, some theory is needed to which the word “progress” would seem to apply. Of course it would be fallacy to assume from the facts I’ve outlined that progress is inevitable — but it would also be a fallacy to assume that if it isn’t inevitable, it therefore isn’t happening at all. Short of some cataclysm that wipes out the Enlightenment (and granted, some of our conservative friends are working on this), I just don’t see how the idea that there’s NO progress, let alone no direction at all, can possibly be rescued at this point, however fashionable it may currently be.

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Kevin 07.25.07 at 4:45 pm

“I’m fine with that, as someone strongly sympathetic to CR. It certainly seems to describe one very prominent strand in the so-called progressive blogosphere. I’m not so sure it describes Hillary Clinton though.”

Bill, I couldn’t agree more. That’s what irritated me so much about Hillary’s claim. She’s emphatically NOT a progressive, as one can most easily make plain by referencing her cavalier attitude toward campaign finance reform. Robert La Follette and other progressives of the *real* Progressive era would roll in their graves. (Only in the 1920s, after the Red Scare, did progressives really begin to move toward a defense of “individual rights and freedoms” that Clinton said in her debate answer was central to Progressivism.)

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joeo 07.25.07 at 5:50 pm

I am with j smith. Progress happens. It isn’t foolish to consider universal health care or gay rights as part of that progress.

I still prefer the word liberal. If someone is going to attack you, you have to attack them back, not change what you call yourself.

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Nick L 07.25.07 at 5:55 pm

engels – sorry, although I said otherwise, I realise that was still being facetious in that section. I don’t agree with the ‘butter churn’ approach (for similar reasons that j smith proposes), but it does seem to be very powerful, if not dominant, within the academy right now. I’ve just been teaching a section of a university course on culture and international relations and I’ve had to wade through a great deal of material that regards notions of ‘progress’ or ‘enlightenment’ with scorn if not outright contempt.

To respond to j smith, I agree with most of what you say, but those who attack the notion of progress tend to follow Foucault in order to argue that, yes, although presidents have replaced pharaohs, modern society is no less oppressive because it institutionalises new forms of social control which turn violence ‘inward’. Or else they highlight the (very real) atrocities enacted in the name of reason and progress. But in the main it isn’t a rational argument that can be falsified, it simply seems to be a revulsion to the notion of progress itself and an adulation of unreason and ‘radical alterity’.

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Martin Bento 07.25.07 at 6:52 pm

There is a difference between regarding history as having a trajectory that is visible in hindsight and having one that is visible in foresight, and the latter is necessary if one is to align oneself with the “direction” of history. For a good while, movement towards greater government control of the economy was regarded as “progress”, as soon as the trend changed, those lessening government control could and did claim the mantle of “progress”, as Blair claiming to modernize the Labor Party. Which one is right? One can construct a theory to pretend to know, but the track record is not good. And the answer could be different even with complete knowledge of the future, depending on which time scale of the future you choose to reference. Trying simply to side with what currently looks like the future makes one an intellectual Yes Man. Since humans are given to faddishness anyway, this is probably not useful.

As for theories of historical progress, Whig history is probably the classic example of theories of progress leading logically, as I had suggested, to glorification of the present (or possibly constructed for that purpose, but to the same effect). Marxism is a little more complicated.

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Other Ezra 07.25.07 at 7:50 pm

I think it’s clear that a modern definition of “progressive” is still under construction. To me it’s seemed a matter of style: scrappy activists I knew in college in the late 90s used it, and then some Democrats took it up to be more cutting-edge.

When Rick Santorum first ran for Congress in 1990, he described himself as a “progressive conservative.” Again, I think this was a matter of seeming up-to-date.

But if the goal is to avoid the taint of the word “liberal,” after 20 years of Arthur Finkelstein politics, that’s just going to fail. Bill O’Reilly has been promoting his definition of “progressive” as “Marxist” (e.g., claiming that the progressive tax is straight out of the “Marxist handbook”!), especially in his non-stop use of the “secular-progressive” or “S-P” bogeyman.

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Martin Bento 07.25.07 at 7:56 pm

John E.

I don’t think liberals have been much grounding everything on individual freedom. Why do they not, by and large, favor drug legalization? The Libertarians have long since stolen their thunder on this. Liberal intellectuals like Dworkin explicitly argued that freedom is not a right in itself, save to the extent that it follows from equality. Personally, I’m not much a Libertarian, but I’m more of one than that.

As for the usefulness of the term “progressive”, the fact the Hillary can co-opt it even before the “true progressives” can get it well-established shows one problem with the term. It is so vague, it can be stolen without recourse.

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aaron_m 07.25.07 at 8:01 pm

Nick based on your responses to j smith and engels I don’t understand your original statement “Careful, you’ll be giving postmodernists fits of apoplexy.”

Why should we be careful to not aggressively contradict what postmodernists recite?

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SamChevre 07.25.07 at 8:42 pm

j smith,

Here’s my problem with history-as-progress.

I will agree that there is general progress in knowledge of the physical world. Newton knew important things that Galileo didn’t; Oppenheimer knew important things that Newton didn’t. The blast furnace makes more steel more cheaply than did the Toledo swordsmiths. Radio carries messages more efficiently than signal fires.

What I don’t see is progress in any overall sense in social organization or “rightness”. I don’t see a good argument that the 20th century (with Communism, Nazi-ism, the eugenics movement, easily available abortion, all the various mass slaughters in the de-colonializing world, etc) was in some moral or organizational way more advanced than, say, the 1st century.

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John Emerson 07.25.07 at 8:44 pm

Martin, I was mostly speaking about the period 1932-1968. “Liberalism” was a way of shoehorning Democratic Socialist or Labor politics into the individualistic American environment.

ACLU liberals are often as good as libertarians on the drug wars and related issues, but the Democratic Party isn’t liberal any more.

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John Quiggin 07.25.07 at 8:59 pm

To repeat Martin Bento, even if you regard the first half of C20 as an aberration, and conclude that, in a lot of ways the world has been getting better morally or organizationally, that doesn’t help in terms of the use we are discussing, in which “progressive” refers to one side of political debates in modern democratic countries.

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tom van dyke 07.25.07 at 9:18 pm

I like the clarification. Progressive = leftist, and I oppose leftism, which is an ideology, not a temperament.

Now, can I have my liberals back? Some of them were OK.

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aaron_m 07.25.07 at 9:54 pm

Samchevre,

“What I don’t see is progress in any overall sense in social organization”

“I don’t see a good argument that the 20th century…was in some moral or organizational way more advanced than, say, the 1st century.”

Well the idea that one baby is not born as inherently more morally valuable than another is an idea that has really been gaining some ground recently.

Many societies now reject the idea that boy’s are so much more inherently valuable than girls that it is morally justifiable for the former to own a wife/wives for the services she can provide (i.e. as we own non-human animals today).

The same goes for the idea that this or that race is not owed equal moral concern by virtue of their skin color. No state today legally enforces the status of some humans as property of others (which was common practice in legal orders all over the world until recently). And some of these states actually mean it.

Even the idea that killing people in other countries for money is OK because they are not Americans, or Brits, or Japanese, or Spanish, or whatever is starting to be questioned.

Protection of individuals’ property rights,
Democratic political rights,
Decriminalization of homosexuality,
etc…

Of course justice as a project is far from finished business. Yet all the moves noted above are in the right direction if we are committed to the idea that there are “no common inherent or circumstantial differences between people that could justify viewing some as valuable individuals that are owed our respect and concern but that could also justify treating others as things or as if they had no value at all.” (aaron_m, 2007 forthcoming)

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Jacob T. Levy 07.25.07 at 9:54 pm

Sorry I didn’t have time to reply either here or at TNR today. This has been instructive reading. At first I said to myself, “Hm. I think Henry’s right.” Then I read John, Martin, and leederick’s various comments, and decided, “No, they’re expressing the thoughs I had better than I did, and broadly they’re right.”

Henry’s clearly onto something that I’m comparing unlikes at some level; but a decision to switch from the word “liberal” to the word “progressive” calls for comparing those categories as they’ve come to us. “Liberal” is a category in political theory and political discourse but not the name of some one movement in American political history. (There’s no proper noun Liberal or Liberalism in American political history the way there is in British.) “Progressive” is precisely the name of such a movement– a movement Clinton draped around her shoulders in her comments.

While I don’t think I gave an unfair characterization of Progressivism, Henry’s certainly right that I pretty ungenerously failed to give any accounting of liberalism’s debits. I’ll probably still hold off on doing so while working through a response to Hirschman– because I think Rawlsian liberalism is liberal not progressive, and I want to defend Rawlsian liberalism. But writing the liberal-progressive post while thinking about how to respond to her meant that I gave an unbalanced view of the two traditions.

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Jacob T. Levy 07.25.07 at 10:05 pm

On the big question of progress: I believe in secular material progress, and there are moral benefits to material progress. But controlling for material progress I don’t think there’s secular moral progress. I just can’t look at a century that permitted Hitler, Stalin, and Mao and think that it represented a moral pinnacle of humanity up until that time.

The half-century that followed 1914 was a morally worse time than the half-century that preceded it, and was morally at least as bad as most of the worst times in human history until then. The 16th and first half of the 17th centuries– genocide in the western hemisphere, the birth of Atlantic slavery, and wars of religion in Europe– were probably morally worse than most of human history up until then.

The world’s been getting better for the last few decades, even controlling for material progress, and I’m hopeful about that continuing, but I don’t place inherently greater stock in “make things get better” than in “prevent them from getting worse.”

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J Smith 07.25.07 at 10:14 pm

Professor Levy’s right, this has all been instructive reading. (I’m sorry he’s so focused on the comparatively minor issue of defining liberalism vs. progressivism that he doesn’t have time to explain how and when the theory — no, the obvious fact — that histoy has a trend line was “discredited.”) As to the objection that the 20th century was no picnic, and therefore suggests that there’s been no moral or political progress since the 1st century, that was answered in a Stephen Pinker article in TNR a few months ago. I highly recommend it:
http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20070319&s=pinker031907

Here’s the “money quote”:

“…..perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga [is this:] Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.”

If you don’t believe it, read the evidence he cites.

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aaron_m 07.25.07 at 10:16 pm

“I believe in secular material progress, and there are moral benefits to material progress. But controlling for material progress I don’t think there’s secular moral progress.”

Uhh,

All the evil stuff you note is intimately bound up with material progress. Would it have been better not to have material progress at all if those types of events were not avoidable given such progress?

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J Smith 07.25.07 at 10:26 pm

Ah, OK, Prof. Levy posted his explanation simultaneously with my post. “The half-century that followed 1914 was a morally worse time than the half-century that preceded it,” etc. The fallacy here is plain — it’s focusing on overt violence at the expense of structural “violence” or its functional equivalents. The half-century that followed 1914 (i.e. 1914-1964) was horrendously violent, but it also saw the overthrow of the ancien regimes, the effective disappearance in the West of titled nobility (the House of Lords losing its power in the UK, for instance), the further spread of religious toleration as disabilities for Catholics and Jews were lifted, the granting of women’s suffrage, the New Deal (and its equivalents abroad), the end of the colonial empires, the Civil Rights Movement, and the beginnings of modern feminism and gay rights. In other words, many structures of oppression fell, and many alternative structures of tolerance and equality were either built or impressively started. NONE of those developments occurred in any earlier century, either, nor had the way been prepared for them yet. Again, if that’s not progress….. Well, what do we call it?

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Jacob T. Levy 07.25.07 at 10:29 pm

All the evil stuff you note is intimately bound up with material progress. Would it have been better not to have material progress at all if those types of events were not avoidable given such progress?

I don’t know. No, if the baseline is the material condition of humanity c. 1400; but surely there’s some level of prosperity that would have been worth trading off to avoid the Holocaust and the Cultural Revolution and so on. On the other hand, “prosperity” means, among other things, “relief from misery, disease, and starvation,” and it makes possible moral improvements beyond that level.

But “I don’t know” is part of my point– I don’t know how one can look at human history and see a clear trend-line other than the material-technological one, other than by cherry-picking. (The western capitalist democracies c. 2007 are better than the Spanish Inquisition– true enough, and yet…)

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J Smith 07.25.07 at 10:36 pm

Oh, and I might add that before 1914, overt racism, fascism and anti-Semitism were respectable opinions, as they had been for centuries, and they even claimed “scientific” grounding (in theories of racial superiority, etc.). Since 1964, in the West, they have not been respectable opinions even if the impulse to them hasn’t disappeared completely. Also over that time period, religious obscurantism lost further ground: In the 1920s, a teacher could be criminally prosecuted for teaching evolution in an American classroom; by the 1960s, creationists had basically lost that battle and were reduced to bleating for “equal time.” Does anyone think that’s going to reverse, and we’re going to see modern biology surrender the field back to the Bible-thumpers? Or that blacks, women and gays are going to go back to accepting legal disabilities of the Jim Crow variety? To suggest that the world has been “better for the last few decades” only, as opposed to fundamentally better (as the result of an ongoing trend), you’d have to answer “yes” to those questions.

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J Smith 07.25.07 at 10:39 pm

Levy and I are posting simultaneously. OK, before we go any further, Professor, you need to read the Pinker article. He cites hard evidence against your position, which you should at least have some kind of answer for. Plus, it appeared in the same magazine that’s been publishing you.

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aaron_m 07.25.07 at 10:45 pm

“I don’t know how one can look at human history and see a clear trend-line other than the material-technological one, other than by cherry-picking. (The western capitalist democracies c. 2007 better than…”

I am not too sure what you are getting at but I worry that it is an example of the ultimate expression of modern cultural arrogance. Justice, we can do it but there is no good reason to think that others can or want to.

As for the problem of cherry-picking, j_smith’s point is exactly that you are cherry-picking and ignoring evidence of trends.

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SamChevre 07.25.07 at 10:58 pm

j smith,

I have two problems with your responses.

1) You are way over-focused on the US and Western Europe. Since 1945, the US and Western Europe have been peaceful, and have made some changes that can reasonably be considered “progress.” It is harder to see that there has been progress in any kind of universal sense; the de-colonialization process in Africa and India/Pakistan has featured extremely high levels of violance and brutality.

2) You consider a several things progress that I consider not-progress. Loss of stabilizing social institutions isn’t necessarily a good thing, even when those institutions aren’t ideal in some theoretical way. Eliminating aristocratic vetoes, and traditional religious influences, enabled Stalin, Mao, and Hitler to do more damage than they could have done in a more constrained envronment.

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Martin Bento 07.25.07 at 11:01 pm

Let us not forget why the second half of the 20th century was less violent than the first: the key conflict of the period, the Cold War, could not escalate to unconstrained violence without destroying both societies. Is that moral progress? There is no way to say, but I think there’s a fair chance that previous eras would also have chosen not to be destroyed; they were fortunate enough not to have the choice, at least in such stark form, and therefore had the luxory of unrestrained warfare. Had Hitler and FDR both had nukes in 34, it’s hard to see how WW2 would have happened (possibly the Republicans would have come to power and sided with Hitler against Stalin).

While this seems a good thing, we will never really know how close we came to paying a cost that would have dwarfed all concievable benefit. I don’t think this is moral progress per se, it is changing constraints imposed by technology.

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J Smith 07.25.07 at 11:13 pm

The Levyian fallacy is the assumption that people don’t learn anything from historical experience. But it’s precisely because of the Holocaust, among other things, that there will never again — short of some catastrophic civilization-level collapse — be a Western nation that’s taken over by a political party that claims that everyone’s problems are caused by “die Juden,” and that this cancer on the body politic must be removed. That will no more happen than the Mayo Clinic will suddenly announce that real cancer is actually caused by demon spells after all.

And samchevre, of COURSE I’m focused on the U.S. and Western Europe. That’s where the trends are furthest advanced. Some of them either haven’t taken hold yet, or got started later, in the Middle and Far East. But, first, is there a serious chance that (say) the Sunni-Shiite warfare now roiling Iraq is going to ignite new Protestant-Catholic wars in the West, plunging us back into something resembling the 16th century? (Again, barring the collapse of Western civilization, and therefore the end of its history, after the big asteroid hits or something.) And second, are there no lessons at all to be drawn from the enormously rapid progress — first materially, and now politically (albeit in fits and starts, as it happened in the West) — we see having been made in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and several other “Asian Tigers”? Isn’t that a trend? Or are those countries, having seen what modern life is like, just going to lapse back into warlordism any day now?

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J Smith 07.25.07 at 11:23 pm

Also, samchevre, I disagree with one word in this sentence: “Loss of stabilizing social institutions isn’t necessarily a good thing, even when those institutions aren’t ideal in some theoretical way.” That word is “theoretical.” In fact those institutions weren’t ideal in highly practical ways — notably the way they severely restricted opportunities for women, treating them like property to be handed off from fathers to husbands. Considering that women are half the population, just how much human potential was squandered for how many centuries in the name of one allegedly “stabilizing institution”? (Which, by the way, if it were really so “stabilizing,” would not have been vulnerable to the demands for expanded rights and autonomy that eventually forced it to change.)

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engels 07.25.07 at 11:32 pm

Sam, most of the events you are citing – the decline of religion and the aristocracy, the increased availability of safe, legal abortion, the end of imperialism – are actually morally good things. Just so you know.

Also, you are repeating your previous BS about how the aristocracy resisted the Nazis: they didn’t.

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engels 07.25.07 at 11:34 pm

So can we have a show of hands for turning the clock back to, ooh, let’s say 1500 AD?

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Jacob T. Levy 07.26.07 at 12:03 am

Pinker: “Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.”

Pinker says that the years since 1989 are better than what came immediately before (true), that the last fifty years have been better than what came before (true), and that humanity is proportionately less violent than it was during prehistoric tribal times (which he has evidence for so I believe.)

But the comparison at the level of centuries in historic (rather than prehistoric) time seems tougher to me. True, Parisians no longer engage in cat-torturing as a public sport. But if we compare the 20th c in aggregate to most of what came before, we’ll find that a significant corner of humanity (western Europe and its offshoots) had less day-to-day coarse enjoyment of brute violence but an emotional deadening to large-scale, long-distance bureaucratic violence. Very refined Germans in the 20th c, and Americans, Belgians, and others in the 19th c., who would never have tortured a cat for fun sanctioned far-away genocidal or mass-murder level violence that I don’t think the refinement in personal sensibilities does much to compensate for.

And anyway, Pinker’s point of reference is always “now.” To see a trend-line, I’d want to know that we could stand at most points in the historical past and tell the same story: Life at time T consistently tends to be morally better than at time T-50, T-100, T-500 years. I don’t see it. We might be at a local peak, which can be very misleading about the shape of the overall curve…

Humanity seems to have learned some stuff since then. But the eighteenth century even more filled with the conviction that humanity had learned so much and made so much moral progress. So was humanity c. 1910. I don’t know how to be sanguine that lessons learned will stay learned, or that they won’t be rendered obsolete by new forms of horror.

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J Smith 07.26.07 at 12:18 am

OK, well, we’ve gone from “The half-century that followed 1914 was a morally worse time than the half-century that preceded it” to “the last fifty years have been better than what came before” (i.e. the opposite claim) in just 14 posts. If I may, Professor, you seem to be making — oh, what shall I call it — progress, maybe? :-)

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Jacob T. Levy 07.26.07 at 12:22 am

??

1860s-1910s > 1910s-1960s

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Jacob T. Levy 07.26.07 at 12:24 am

whoops– stupid html.

1860s-1910s better than the next 50 years which were worse than the following 50 years– a V-shape, not a straight line, and no contradictory claim that I can see.

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J Smith 07.26.07 at 12:36 am

A V-shape, perhaps, but with the “near” side of the V “higher” than the far side, correct? Or are you saying that there’s nothing to be said for the 1950s-2000s as compared with the 1860s-1910s, a period of intense and overt racism and sexism, not to mention imperial competition and arms races even among the nations of Europe? I mean, if the interventing period (1910s-1960s) was so awful, wasn’t it in consequence of those problems? And don’t the past 50 years reflect the lessons learned, or is it now basically 1867 again?

If we go back to where I originally proposed my own view of progress, I said it happens in fits and starts. But that doesn’t mean there’s no overall trend. To the contrary, because I think the gaining of historical experience is the engine driving the progress, I would expect there to be violent upheavals based on earlier problems, with those upheavals themselves then inspiring new and better arrangements. That isn’t precisely what we saw in the 20th century?

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loren 07.26.07 at 1:37 am

I see in some of these recent posts both the promise and peril of arguments for moral progress in history.

The promise: many of the goods outlined so far really are good: surely a great many thoughtful people would, upon reflection and after discussion, agree that fewer random killings and rapacious emperors, and more meaningful opportunities in life, are good things?

The peril: a temptation to castigate those sceptical of certain elements of your worldview (or even those who merely wish to complicate the picture somewhat) as dullards mired in fallacious reasoning and blind reverence of tradition.

The relevant cautionary tale seems almost too obvious to mention, but I’ll quote from it anyway, in case J. Smith has moved this important little volume to the back of the shelf …

“…’By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence — of words — of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ …”

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engels 07.26.07 at 2:37 am

Any takers for restoring the feudal system? Burning heretics and stoning adulterers? Replacing surgery with blood-letting? Shortening the life expectancy to around 30? Abolishing voting and the legal system? Scrapping universal education? Forgetting the theory of evolution and the position of the Earth in the solar system? Disenfranchising women? Bringing back slavery? Re-introducing colonialism?

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loren 07.26.07 at 2:44 am

Engels, is there someone here you think you’re arguing with?

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someotherdude 07.26.07 at 2:44 am

The shorter engels: THE FUTURE IS NOW!

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engels 07.26.07 at 4:52 am

Well, Loren, I’m certainly not arguing with you. How can one argue with pat formulas about “the promises and perils of arguments for moral progress”, cryptic mutterings about “the dark side of progress” and melodramatic allusions to Kurtz’ descent into racist murder which possess no discernible logical connection to any arguments anybody has here advanced?

I am arguing with anyone who doubts whether we have seen progress in the last thousand years. Unlike Jacob I don’t think you can neatly divide (or factor out) “moral progress” from progress tout court. However, you can also take most of the examples I gave as examples of “moral progress”, in the narrow sense that Jacob seems to want to understand it. (Incidentally, I’m not sure why a discussion which is supposedly about “progressivism” as a political movement, has to focus exclusively on “moral progress”, since one would expect such a movement to be concerned with living standards and the state of scientific knowledge amongst other issues.) I would also suggest that many of the positive developments I listed can be seen, pace Jacob, as part of discernible trends eg. towards (at least the principle of) human equality or towards a reliance on the fruits of rational enquiry rather than religious dogma.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 5:36 am

j smith wrote:

“Oh, and I might add that before 1914, overt racism, fascism and anti-Semitism were respectable opinions, as they had been for centuries, and they even claimed “scientific” grounding (in theories of racial superiority, etc.).”

You might not. Certain bad ideas from the 19th and early 20th centuries seem to be getting projected backwards to infinity. Fascism did not exist before 1914. Eugenics was invented in 1865 by Galston, a cousin of Darwin. Its basis was explicitly Darwinian, and I know of no set of ideas more specifically modern than Darwinism. While Plato also wanted elitist breeding, the idea of using such to transform the race itself required a notion of evolution to be coherent. “Scientific” racism is also a child of the 19th century. The bad ideas that animated Nazism had not been around for centuries. Arendt lays them out pretty well, and little predates the 19th century.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 5:50 am

Engels,

We are, both of us, raised in this society in this time and inculcated with its values. Would I prefer to live in the classical age, or in ancient China, or in the Amazon prior to colonization? It is easy to give a glib answer, but impossible to know, as I would be a different person if I came from such an environment with different values and preferences. The Middle Ages thought they were quite an improvement over decadent pagan Rome, and by their standards they were. Today, we can agree or disagree with this assessment.

Nonetheless, since I cannot know, I accept the values that I have and do regard the world I live in as having “progressed” in many respects from those of the past. I realize this conclusion must be regarded skeptically, however, and would be quite wary of the self-righteous stridency with which you seem to be insisting on the superiority of our world. It could well be true, but it is a bias we will inevitably have, so we should be willing to kick its tires a little.

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J Smith 07.26.07 at 6:01 am

Right, as engels say, moral progress can’t be separated from scientific / material progress, for this simple reason: Scientific progress doesn’t just happen, it comes about as old dogmas and old authorities are abandoned and conservative opposition to it overcome. Those are political and moral achievements too, and are therefore part and parcel of the progressive project.

And apropos of loren’s comment, yes, it’s important not to imagine that “overcoming opposition” means killing your opponents and the like. But what I’ve been talking about — and where I disagree with Prof. Levy, apparently — is the way in which we learn collectively from historical experience. The radical-messianic political movements of the past century or two have been proven not to work and to cause immense amounts of suffering. Therefore we know that those approaches don’t represent progress, and, therefore, no serious progressive will have anything to do with them.

That said, it’s important to point out the error in the butter-churn and “V-shape” theories of history we’ve been hearing. To summarize: the butter-churn theory would predict a random distribution of the things we value (equal rights, etc.) and the things we don’t (religious obscurantism, etc.) over the centuries of human history. But the distribution we actually see isn’t random but sequential, so the butter-churn view fails. Prof. Levy’s V-shape fails if he means by it that we come out of bad patches no better off than we went in, but I can’t believe he really thinks on reflection that that’s what happened between the late 19th and the late 20th centuries. The real “shape” isn’t a V but a kind of checkmark, with the bad stuff inspiring new reforms and new knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, so the later rise is higher than the earlier fall.

Finally, why does one’s view or interpretation of history matter? Because it goes to the question of what’s possible to achieve and of how and where to invest one’s political energies. There is, let’s remember, conservative opposition to everything good, socially, scientifially, morally, intellectually and politically. Do we fight that opposition expecting to beat it eventually and actually make things better, or grimly hoping just to prevent disaster from heaping upon disaster? Do we fight it in the name of progressive goals, i.e. substantively better lives for most people, or only “liberal” goals like Prof. Levy’s — preserving the rule of law, intellectual freedom and the like? They’re both important, but it’s a question of one’s priorities, of how one frames arguments, and of whether one believes that somehow the substantive outcomes take care of themselves once the liberal goals have been secured.

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J Smith 07.26.07 at 6:09 am

Sorry for the shorthand, martin. You probably know more about it than I do, but I’m aware that fascism is a modern development. Anti-semitism, though, which it fed on and radicalized, isn’t, nor was the broader idea that some groups of people aren’t really people at all, let alone part of our body politic, but instead a godless source of uncleanness against which no measures are too severe. I mean, that idea is plenty apparent in the Old Testament, so it goes back at least to the 1st millennium BC. And the treating of women like (at best) property appears to be as old as time, yes? (Which is an argument advanced in its favor by conservatives, BTW.) The point is, big progress against those ideas were made in the 20th century — they weren’t eliminated (no idea ever is), but they certainly ceased to be respectable, and Prof. Levy is therefore just being facile when he suggests that the late 19th century was as good and/or enlightened and/or non-violent a time as the late 20th.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 6:12 am

Has not Socialism been the dominant progressive political philosophy of the last 200 years or so? It may have been the Progressives who took on the label in the US, but they did so at a time when Socialist ferment was much in the air, and were influenced, I believe, by the Bellamy clubs and the Fabians. It was Socialism that held that society was moving in a certain direction, and that that direction was good.

The utopian socialists began by deciding what kind of society they wanted. This gave them a basis for regarding changes as moving to or away from that ideal, and thus a basis for normative claims regarding progress. However, their basis for arguing that their desired outcome was the natural trajectory of history was fairly weak. It just appeared so to them. Utopian socialism was a vision, and it was realized through narrative. Their normative claims were ultimately justified on the basis that what they valued was genuinely better in a sense they were prepared to defend on its own terms. Many of the positive social changes praised here originated with the utopians.

Marxism claimed to be a scientific theory of history. It also had normative claims, but it was possible to accept the theory and reject the normative claims (the formula became “I am Marxist in my analysis, but not in my prescriptions“); the normative claims were not the foundation. This became ethically problematic. If one’s premise is a set of normative claims, one can be held to normative, e.g., ethical, objections. But if one’s premise is simply that what one does is the inevitable direction of “history”, what point is there is raising ethical objections to the natural progress of history? Are not ethics themselves a product of the same historical process? I think Marx was correct in regarding his thought as anti-utopian. He was, however, the ultimate progressive. Marxism was a theory, and it was realized through method.

I think progressivism in the utopian sense is desirable: state your ideals and goals and justify them. Ask people if the world you envision is one they want. Constructing an argument that they are the inevitable, or even naturally prevailing, destination of history absolves you of moral responsibility for what you advocate, as no one need take responsibility for what is inevitable.

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 8:44 am

Thanks to j smith (especially) and engels for putting in the effort in this thread to reject some pretty poorly argued for claims, i.e. 1) we can’t make sensible arguments about what would count as ‘things getting better’ and 2) that there is no substantive evidence for improvements. I can imagine good arguments for 1) and then in correlation 2), but this would require some much more committed relativism than has been demonstrated here. People usually want to be half-assed relativists, e.g. be relativists and claim that there cannot be any such thing as progress one way or the other, and then become truthies and claim that things are/have been bad because of X,Y,Z. As for those that either knowingly or inadvertently (i.e. the half-assed relativists) reject 1) but argue for 2), engels’ sarcasm is well placed.

Martin says this

“We are, both of us, raised in this society in this time and inculcated with its values. Would I prefer to live in the classical age, or in ancient China, or in the Amazon prior to colonization? It is easy to give a glib answer, but impossible to know, as I would be a different person if I came from such an environment with different values and preferences.”

This kind of sounds like a reasonable thing to say as long as we completely abstract from any specific description of what we are talking about. But once I point out that I would in all likelihood have been a slave who lived a short life characterised by sickness and violence it becomes more than silly to suggest that it is impossible to know if current conditions are better. It becomes an incredibly dickish comment by someone who pictures themselves as one of the few in the “chosen class/race” (I must assume this if I am to be generous to the commenter and not conclude from the outset that they are completely irrational) in some fantasy past they are imagining.

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J Smith 07.26.07 at 10:29 am

Along the lines of what martin said, I like Franklin Roosevelt’s formulation, from his second inaugural: the point isn’t to substitute the ideal for the practical, but to wipe out the line that divides the two.

As to the danger that believing in an inevitable direction of history absolves one of ethical responsibility, I think it’s important not to see positive reform as inevitable, but rather as “logically favored over the alternatives.” Not only is that actually the case, I believe, but seeing things this way encourages one to keep up the struggle, since it promises a good chance of success while still requiring effort on our part.

I also agree with aaron about half-assed relativism, which I see a lot of in the academy. It’s all very easy to suspend judgment about which system is better, until you actually start talking in detail about what life has been like for most people in most other societies. (I guess we’re back to Rawls now.) Personally, I’m happy not to have been killed at age 31 by appendicitis, as would probably have happened in any other century. But the mechanisms that saved me weren’t just “scientific progress” in some abstract sense, important as that was; they were social reforms that freed researchers to pursue that progress, that made saving my life a matter of concern to strangers (including the French doctors who took care of it), and that organized society’s resources (through taxation and funding policies) to ensure that the means to save me were in place when they were needed. Give me all that over medieval China any day.

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engels 07.26.07 at 1:24 pm

“What, finally, is the practical application of all this?… Listen and I’ll tell you. The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It’s only the homemade pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto…”

—Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

As Foucault might say: Plus ça change…

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loren 07.26.07 at 2:09 pm

Engels: “… and melodramatic allusions to Kurtz’ descent into racist murder …”

Melodrama, hmmm, let’s see …

Engels: “Any takers for restoring the feudal system? Burning heretics and stoning adulterers? Replacing surgery with blood-letting? Shortening the life expectancy to around 30? Abolishing voting and the legal system? Scrapping universal education? …”

(chuckle)

Engels: “… which possess no discernible logical connection to any arguments anybody has here advanced?”

The relevance, as I see it, has to do with the complex psychology of our moral motivations and the resultant fragility of goodness, not with the obvious evils of racism, brutal exploitation, and mass killings.

I confess to largely agreeing with the broad worldview lurking in yours and J. Smith’s posts: I believe in moral progress through history, however fitful and halting it has been. I think `the arc of the moral universe’ really ought to `bend toward justice’, and I think reason, properly applied, can help us pull that off, through scientific and institutional advances, and careful reflection on preferences and values.

But I don’t imagine that there is one true arc, one glorious path, blazing through history and on into the future, pushing aside wrongheaded ideas and mistaken practices. And while I think justice has to satisfy certain minimum moral conditions, beyond those I suspect there are probably a variety of just ways of life, some of which I’ll no doubt find to be ‘foolish, perverse, or wrong’.

The real challenge, to my mind, is how we act when we find these ways of life that agree with us on certain moral fundamentals, but then move off in directions we believe to be mistaken.

A lesson I take from Conrad (in addition to the obvious one about the evils of colonialism) is that even the most laudable motivations may belie considerable psychological conflict and moral ambiguity, and that’s a worry worth keeping in mind.

I worry that sarcastic talk of restoring feudalism and witch-burning obscure these less dramatic but perhaps more relevant worries about how we encounter other values and practices that are not obviously evil, but nonetheless strike us as controversial.

I also don’t think this concern is merely half-assed relativism: it’s obviously shaped by the later Rawls, and it’s closer is spirit to the liberalism of fear that Jacob takes from Sklar in his very interesting book from a few years back.

Of course, some might still think that, at the end of the day, a liberalism that allows for diverse and conflicting (but nonetheless legitimate) claims about justice and progress must collapse into muddleheaded relativism. That, I think, is ultimately an argument we’d have to have about (at least) the viability of political liberalism and the possibility of constructivism in ethics.

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loren 07.26.07 at 2:34 pm

j smith: “It’s all very easy to suspend judgment about which system is better, until you actually start talking in detail about what life has been like for most people in most other societies. (I guess we’re back to Rawls now.)”

Personally, I have no problem saying that some systems are obviously better than others. When it comes to justifying coercion to enforce my favoured system, I get a bit queasy.

And that seems to me to be the unspoken difference here: pretty much everyone agrees that we’d rather live without widespread poverty, violence, and early disease-addled death, but we’re not all the same sort of liberal, and the progressive label perhaps hangs better on one sort of liberal than another.

Some liberals want to emphasize progress in realizing freedom in the world, and they are understandably sensitive to anything that even remotely smacks of cultural relativism. Thus mention of Foucault makes them bristle. This liberal rightly emphasizes the secular decreases in violence and mortality over history, advances of science and technology, and the spread of the rule of law. This liberal recognizes that the march hasn’t always been pretty, but thinks that, on the whole, things are getting better for more and more people, and this roughly tracks the rise of liberal values and practices.

Another sort of liberal is all for human development and personal flourishing, and accepts much of the evidence of progress in health, science, law, and the like. But this liberal worries perhaps somewhat more than her friend about the realities of power. This liberal is, to be clear, no friend of relativism, but she is more receptive to Foucault’s analysis of power, and she and her fellows are sceptical of any and all authoritative claims, even those dealing with liberal progress in history. This liberal worries a bit less about fostering personal growth and encouraging diverse ways of living, and a bit more about when the police can legitimately kick down your door and drag you screaming into the night.

Another take: the first sort of liberal pauses longer over Mill’s discussions of eccentricity, creativity and experiments in living. The second sort of liberal tends to dwell on the discussions of coercion and harm.

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 2:52 pm

Loren,

You make it sound as if we have been advocating perfectionism. We have been advocating justice not perfectionism or cultural homogeneity.

You say that you believe in moral progress and that what is just is knowable, but then you say that there is not one true notion of what is just that pushes “aside wrongheaded ideas and mistaken practices.”

This seems to suggest that we can’t be sure enough about what justice is to reject contrary views. You need to make a choice. Either we can or we can’t make knowable moral progress. Either it is true that homosexuality is morally wrong and just societies make it illegal for this reason or criminalizing homosexuality is “wrongheaded,” based on a “mistaken” moral view. One of these views is correct or we just can never be confident one way or the other.

We were not suggesting that mistakes in moral assessment aren’t common or that we shouldn’t be skeptical about our own held beliefs. But when we offered ‘sarcastic talk of restoring feudalism’ it was because some people here seriously argued that there are no clear signs of moral progress.

You note only the peril of making assertions about what is moral or just and getting wrong. What about the risk of not asserting what is just?

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someotherdude 07.26.07 at 2:56 pm

This kind of sounds like a reasonable thing to say as long as we completely abstract from any specific description of what we are talking about. But once I point out that I would in all likelihood have been a slave who lived a short life characterised by sickness and violence it becomes more than silly to suggest that it is impossible to know if current conditions are better. It becomes an incredibly dickish comment by someone who pictures themselves as one of the few in the “chosen class/race” (I must assume this if I am to be generous to the commenter and not conclude from the outset that they are completely irrational) in some fantasy past they are imagining.

Posted by aaron_m • July 26th, 2007 at 8:44 am

I mean this with the utmost respect; however this is the sloppiest and self-centered thinking.

I suspect a wage-slave earner in present day China would give anything to be White Anglo-Protestant Slave owner of the Old South. Or perhaps a Roman Catholic Italian Prince during the Renaissance.

I suspect a wealthy Iraqi being shelled and/or raped by Americans or fellow Iraqis would rather be a working-class Iraqi during the 1950s.

An African-American (c. 1800) slave would have a much better chance at freedom were he an African Doctor in Augustan’s Rome.

A Darfur (c. 2000) refugee would rather be a Puritan in Massachusetts (c. 1600s).

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 3:01 pm

someotherdude

Talk about sloppy!!!!

Your comparisons are certainly true. WTF is your point?

Picking somebody that has is bad today and comparing them to somebody that had it good then is not any kind of argument against the view that there is a trend of moral progress.

See all of what j smith said.

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 3:08 pm

Note that my point if the quoted post and in previous posts was that not state today gives legal recognition to slave ownership and this is a moral improvement.

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 3:08 pm

My point was not that bad things no longer happen.

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 3:14 pm

By the way saying “I mean this with the utmost respect; however this is the sloppiest…” is much less respectful that just saying “This is the sloppiest…”

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engels 07.26.07 at 3:14 pm

Someotherdude – Your comparisons actually support Aaron’s point which was that the question of whether one way of life is preferable to another is not radically indeterminate (or unknowable).

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 3:26 pm

Now, what I said was that, although I do believe the modern world has made progress, the facts that a) I cannot recover the subjective experience of living in pre-modern societies, and b) I am socialized to this world and so tend to value the things it values mean that I hold this belief critically. It may well be true, but I have reasons to believe it other than its truth (b), and no real way to test it in terms of subjective experience as engels suggests (a). Neither of those mean that modern progress is necessarily false, only that I should question myself when I find myself regarding my own society as superior to keep from falling into arrogance – kick the tires a little, as I said.

And arrogance, as we see here, is indeed the danger. Aaron regards this modest insistance on self-doubt as either dickishness or irrationality. Therefore, Aaron is arguably that one must *uncritically* proclaim the superiority of the modern world. That one must do so without acknowledging that one’s own perceptions may be flawed. And those, like myself, who insist that such judgements, while explicitly endorsing such judgements in at least some cases, also hold that we must examine ourselves skeptically when we make them are the enemy. Why is it that everyone in this thread who has stopped to sarcasm or personal attacks is on one side of this question?

The belief in the superiority of one’s own society is an arrogance that has led to enormous bloodshed and misery. When allied to a vision of progress, it is not even constrained by the need to preserve the status quo of that society. Both 19th century Imperialism and Communism suffered from this arrogance, and the world suffered mightily with them. Again, this does not mean that one cannot say that society has progressed, but it is a view before which hurdles should be placed, because we have reasons to believe it other than its truth, and because it lends itself to arrogance. It should be held provisionally, not as a certainty.

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 3:43 pm

What you said martin bento is that whether the middle ages or now is better is “impossible to know, as I would be a different person if I came from such an environment with different values and preferences.”

This suggests that what is good or bad is dependent on whatever values people happen to have and that there are no objective criteria for what is and is not just.

What I said and I quote was “We were not suggesting that mistakes in moral assessment aren’t common or that we shouldn’t be skeptical about our own held beliefs. But when we offered ‘sarcastic talk of restoring feudalism’ it was because some people here seriously argued that there are no clear signs of moral progress.”

And the substantive part of my “arrogant” and “uncritical” belief in the superiority of modern society has amounted to claiming that various forms of slavery are now viewed to be morally wrong.

Martin I do not understand why you attempt to so gravely misrepresent what I say when it is there for everybody to read in the thread.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 3:44 pm

Ah, some more comments slipped in. I should have refreshed before posting. Also, proofed (stopped = stooped, of course). In any case, I’m glad the discussion is getting less rancorous.

Loren, I think that’s a valid distinction. I know I am more suspicious of power than many liberals seem to be, though I’m not much for Foucault, who, for example, elides too many distictions between subtle cultural influence and direct coercion for me.

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engels 07.26.07 at 3:54 pm

Martin – This is starting to get a bit pointless. You’ve just posted a two paragraph long lecture on the “arrogance” of those who disagree with you (which was preceded by a similar sermon delivered to me on my alleged “self-righteous stridency”) which does not contain any serious argument for rejecting any of their substantive views, and half way through this exercise you stop to wonder “why is it the everyone who has stopped to sarcasm or personal attacks is on one side of the question?” And you really are being “dickish” if you are trying to impute to Aaron the claim that one can not acknowledge that one’s perceptions may be flawed, or that one must “uncritically [!] proclaim the superiority of the modern world”. He never said anything resembling that. Your claim in #79, if I may remind you, was that although you believe that your life is better than of an Athenian slave, you can not possibly know this is true.

Nonetheless, since I cannot know, I accept the values that I have and do regard the world I live in as having “progressed” in many respects from those of the past.

That is a far stronger claim than merely saying that one must question one’s beliefs about these things and frankly it is one which I find to be rather silly.

However, you do seem to be beating a steady retreat from substantive opposition to what J Smith and others have been saying to a statement that while they’re right about what they say you object to their manner of saying it. I suppose that’s progress of sorts.

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someotherdude 07.26.07 at 3:58 pm

By the way saying “I mean this with the utmost respect; however this is the sloppiest…” is much less respectful that just saying “This is the sloppiest…”
Posted by aaron_m • July 26th, 2007 at 3:14 pm

Point taken and I apologize.

I hate to get all “postmodernist” on you guys; however it seems that one’s relationship to power still determines how one may enjoy the fruits of Progress in the Modern World.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 3:59 pm

Aaron, as I said comments slipped in and I hadn’t refreshed the page recently. I was responding to the thread as of post #85, which was before you clarified your position. However, objective determinations of what is and is not just are pretty problematic. You can’t get an ought from an is, and I don’t know what “objective” means if not referring to the world of “is”. Actually, I think there are approaches to this problem, but it would be a major digression here. Just noting that there is a problem. And conceptions of justice have to be attenuated to the needs of a particular society. I don’t accept your premise, for example, that homosexuality is either right or wrong for all societies under all conditions. A society under threat of extinction from under population has a stronger argument against homosexuality than one suffering from overpopulation. That argument may not suffice, but the moral logic is different.

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engels 07.26.07 at 4:02 pm

Dude – I completely agree with your second clause, but that’s not “postmodernism” you know.

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someotherdude 07.26.07 at 4:11 pm

I was being bit sarcastic and failed miserably.

It would seem that the last thousands of years have proven that one’s relationship to power still determines how one may enjoy the fruits of Progress in the Modern World. Whether that modern world is Ancient China, Mayan and Aztec Imperialism, Roman Republic, Medieval Japan…you get my meaning.

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engels 07.26.07 at 4:11 pm

You can’t get an ought from an is, and I don’t know what “objective” means if not referring to the world of “is”.

I think you might want to look into this assumption. It is not at all obvious that the only objective truths must be empirical.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 4:12 pm

Engels, what I said is that belief in the superiority should be held critically, that one should “kick the tires a little”. Aaron, and evidently you, attack that position. If you attack the position that belief in the superiority should be held critically, but still proclaim the superiority, you are arguing that the belief should be held uncritically. I called you strident and sarcastic because you were. Do you deny that comments like this:

“Any takers for restoring the feudal system? Burning heretics and stoning adulterers? Replacing surgery with blood-letting? Shortening the life expectancy to around 30? Abolishing voting and the legal system? Scrapping universal education?”

are strident and sarcastic?

I’m not beating any retreat. How has my position changed?

Aaron, you have made many claims about the superiority of modern society, not limited to slavery. For example, you mentioned:

“Protection of individuals’ property rights,
Democratic political rights,
Decriminalization of homosexuality,
etc…”

I don’t object to any of these claims, but if you are concerned about being misrepresented, I don’t know why you misrepresent yourself.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 4:15 pm

Engels, you want to make an argument, go ahead. You have a way of making normative claims that has no normative premise and is therefore not circular?

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engels 07.26.07 at 4:20 pm

No, Martin, we don’t. You just don’t seem to want to read what we have written so it’s a bit pointless to try to continue this. If you found one of my comments “strident” then I apologise. It wasn’t sarcastic. But objecting repeatedly to someone’s tone in a single comment is really a poor substitute for engaging with his arguments. Unfortunately, I don’t see any point in taking this any further.

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 4:24 pm

“However, objective determinations of what is and is not just are pretty problematic. You can’t get an ought from an is, and I don’t know what “objective” means if not referring to the world of “is”.”

Subjectivism is also pretty problematic and there is no reason to think that it starts from some privileged position in comparison to objectivism. What I have been doing is trying to point out the kinds of things you would need to accept as morally indeterminate if you accept subjectivism. This is often enough to make people very skeptical to the idea and is a common strategy. Like I said before though there are very good arguments for subjectivism but few are willing to take on the consequences of that view in a serious way. Its a have my cake and eat it too thing.

I also have a hard time imagining what could count as decisive proof (e.g. similar to the evidence for gravity) for objectivism (i.e. that there are at least some objective moral truths) or subjectivism. I am not sure that one could get that kind of proof, but that does not mean that there is not a right and wrong answer. And it does not mean that conceptual arguments don’t give us reason to be more convinced by one view over the other.

“I don’t accept your premise, for example, that homosexuality is either right or wrong for all societies under all conditions. A society under threat of extinction from under population has a stronger argument against homosexuality than one suffering from overpopulation.”

Thanks for making a substantive argument. Once we fill in the blanks people have a tendency to take the consequences of their theoretical foundations more seriously. On the issue, the prospect that we would make ‘being a homosexual’ illegal just because of very low fertility is a truly scary argument. First it would be unnecessary for lots of technical reasons. Second on a moral level I equate the suggestion with making ‘being infertile’ illegal. And there is some scary shit that follows from that idea…

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 4:27 pm

Martin,

What engels is saying is that you are being disingenuous, and this just sucks the fun out of it for the rest of us. Beat us up for what we say instead of making up straw men and we will be like pigs in shit.

109

loren 07.26.07 at 4:47 pm

Aaron: “This seems to suggest that we can’t be sure enough about what justice is to reject contrary views. You need to make a choice.”

I don’t think I do, and I don’t think the point is whether or not we know enough to reject contrary views (I suspect we often do, but that’s neither here nor there).

I buy the ‘crooked timber of humanity’ thesis just enough to suspect that a widely acceptable account of legitimacy may allow practices and outcomes that seem perverse to me (widespread meat consumption as an unquestioned daily ritual, for instance), and perhaps in important ways unjust (ditto), but that nonetheless follow from a conception of justice that seems reasonable and legitimate from a broadly liberal point of view. I think we can know justice yet still recognize it as a complex and contested concept, even when there is broad agreement on certain core postulates (the wrongness of murder, rape, torture, oppression, etc). That’s a point about pluralism, not uncertainty (although they are not incompatible, of course – thus Rawls’s burdens of judgement and fact of reasonable pluralism, which incorporate both).

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engels 07.26.07 at 4:52 pm

#106 was addressed to #104. As to #105, no I’m not going to try to give a nutshell knockdown argument against moral scepticism, but I do not believe it is ultimately a tenable position. If you disagree I doubt there’s much chance of convincing you otherwise in the space of a couple of blog comments.

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aaron_m 07.26.07 at 4:54 pm

Your generalizations and avoiding putting your foot down somewhere is just a technique to avoid the point and to further avoid the appearance, in your eyes, of being an ‘enemy to pluralism.’

Is the wrongness of rape a “contested concept?” Is there room for pluralism there? I am not saying be a non-skeptical perfectionist, I am saying don’t be afraid of saying rape is wrong.

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J Smith 07.26.07 at 5:11 pm

This has been a very interesting discussion. If there’s anything it seems to me, in general, to reveal, it’s that those on the left who shy away from notions of progress — for whatever reason: Foucauldian relativism, fear of messianic leftist tyranny, or just a feeling that “the Whig interpretation of history” is passe — either don’t have any way of explaining why and how things are different in different historical eras, or they deny that the differences are improvements, or they concede they’re improvements but warn against drawing conclusions from them going forward. OK, the warnings are fine: progressivism shouldn’t be messianic political perfectionism (and can’t be, I don’t think, for reasons I gave in #80). But I’m surprised at the refusal of intellectuals, especially, to give a coherent account of the facts or to draw the most obvious conclusions from them.

At the point where Prof. Levy last checked in, for instance, he had just informed me / us that the half-century before WW I (call this his Era 1, for convenience) was a better time than the half-century following it (Era 2), but that the further half-century since then (Era 3, up to the present) has also been a better time than Era 2, the period of the World Wars and related horrors. Now, there are only two possiblities: either (a) Era 3 has been no better than Era 1, or (b) it’s been even better than Era 1. If you choose (a), then you’re saying that a period rife with the rising tensions that led to the World Wars, Holocaust, rise of Communism, etc., was as morally well-grounded as the period that followed and responded to those horrors by putting key reforms in place (like the founding of the EU). You’re also saying that the era when Jim Crow reigned and women were denied even the vote was as good as the period since the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of modern feminism. I can’t believe anyone seriously thinks that.

But if you pick (b), then, first, you’re conceding that there’s been progress (interrupted by Era 2, but still leaving us better off now than people were a hundred years ago), and, second, you’re obliging yourself — it seem to me — to explain that progress. Was it just random chance, or did the historical experience of Era 2 in fact inspire the new arrangements that have made for greater peace and justice in Era 3? It would seem obvious that that’s what happened, but this would mean that there’s not only been progress, there’s a discernible reason why (because societies learn from their historical experience). What I’m getting here is that some on the left would rather not admit to this, even if this leaves them arguing things that make no sense. I do find that surprising, I guess.

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engels 07.26.07 at 5:14 pm

Loren – Since I’m jacking this in now anyway I shall just say very briefly that you seem to be foisting rather a large number of views on people which are not suggesed by anything they have written. This might be an occupational hazard of trying to read off people’s political theories from their contributions to a discussion which centred on the question of whether any notion of historical progress could be sustained. I don’t think there is only one form of life, or one type of social arrangement, which meets the demands of justice and I certainly don’t advocate the imposition of a more just order on unjust societies by force. I’ve been mostly concerned with defending the notion of historical progress from charges like the following:

I don’t see a good argument that the 20th century … was in some moral or organizational way more advanced than, say, the 1st century.

I don’t know how one can look at human history and see a clear trend-line other than the material-technological one, other than by cherry-picking.

The remarks about feudalism, etc were not sarcastic but were made in earnest, against anyone who would say that there has been no progress (or “moral progress” to adopt Jacob’s rather loaded framing of the question) in the last 2000 years, or that such questions are indeterminate. As is evident from some of the comments on this thread and from public discourse the consensus behind progressive achievements such as the end of colonialism or the abolition of torture is far from unaminous so I would question whether “the real challenge” (which must seemingly influence our choice of rhetoric on all occasions) is how to deal with those who differ from us only on less fundamental moral questions. It seems odd to me that a “liberal of fear” would wish to downplay such issues.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 5:20 pm

Well, from my perspective, I’m getting the straw men. Maybe it will be more clear if I state my position systematically:

1) It is problematic to invoke “progress” in support of contested political positions. As I said: “There is a difference between regarding history as having a trajectory that is visible in hindsight and having one that is visible in foresight”.

2) What one regards as “progress” will depend on values partly given by one’s society, so one’s values will naturally tend to validate one’s own society.

3) Historically, including in recent history, claims of the superiority of one’s own society have justified and psychologically enabled behavior that dramatically violates values that I accept.

4)However, our society has experienced “progress” relative to previous ones as measured by values that I accept. I said this in comment #79 and reiterated it in comment #95.

5) The tension between 2 and 3, on the one hand, and 4, on the other, leads me to accept claims of superiority, but only with caution. Given our biases and their demonstrated bad consequences, we should look for other explanations to be sure what we are seeing is progress, and that the values that judge it such are sound. Hence, I pointed out that the relative peace of the late 20th century (compared to the early) is probably due to the threat of nuclear war, and it is debatable whether this constitutes moral progress, as it is not clear that earlier societies would have made a worse choice; the choice was not presented. This is not, nor did I present it as, an argument that all claims of moral progress are dubious.

6) I cannot arbitrate claims of one society being superior to another by referencing the subjective experience of being a member of a society dramatically different than my own, as that experience is not available to me. Hence, the response to “would you like to live in 1500?” is not a meaningful argument as the “I” that would exist in 1500 is not the “I” that is present to answer the question.

However, the position that seems to have gotten attributed to me, and that is being bitterly and sarcastically attacked, is that j smith’s original contention, that there are historical trends and that these may be regarded as “progress” by some set of values, is false. I never said this, and in fact said the opposite. Given that my position is only that claims of superiority should be regarded critically, I take attacks on my position as attacks on the criticality. I realize, Aaron, that you later said (though it appeared earlier in the thread) that you did accept a critical approach, but if that is so, then what is your objection to my position?

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 5:35 pm

Aaron, the situation I was picturing in the homosexuality example was a hunter-gatherer band that could not be viable if its population fell below a certain threshold. This is something that, I gather, happened quite a lot, and probably has something to do with widespread attitudes towards both homosexuality and infertility. A sci-fi situation where fertility is extraordinarily low because of, I don’t know, nuclear war effects or something, would present a different set of questions. All I’m saying is that the moral equation when the survival of society – the literal survival of the people, not some cultural matter – is at stake is different than when it is not. You seem to think this a heinous view. That sort of moral absolutism is also often associated with belief in the superiority of one’s own society.

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J Smith 07.26.07 at 5:45 pm

I think it also behooves me to explain something a little better, which is what I mean when I say that “societies learn from their historical experience” and that this is why, in fact, there is progress. I mean that certain arguments no longer resonate in light of what’s already been discussed and/or what’s just happened. So, in science, it stops being interesting at some point to argue that the sun goes around the earth; persisting in that view leaves you out of the real discussion, which is how we account for the new facts and observations we’ve been gathering about moons orbiting Jupiter and the like. And because people’s active careers tend not to last more than about 40 years, the last holdouts — not to put too fine a point on it — die out, and their arguments ultimately die with them.

In political affairs, similarly, a new group of elites comes along making new arguments, which resonate in ways they wouldn’t have before. Thus, in the Weimar Republic, social democrats made their arguments and even temporarily ran things, but they started losing elections (and losing control of other legitimating institutions and processes) to extremists who said Germany’s problems were caused by Jews and stabs-in-the-back, and that these problems would be solved by aggressive militarism and ethnic cleansing. After World War II, a party making those arguments would not have found many takers; the social-democratic claims — that the big problem was preventing any further wars among European nations, and that the solutions included securing their friendship through economic cooperation and the like — resonated a lot better, for obvious reasons, among Germans picking their way through the rubble created by the previous arguments and their collapse. Those are simple examples, and obviously the right lessons aren’t always learned, but this kind of dynamic is common enough in history, it seems to me, to explain why things have, overall, moved in certain directions rather than others, and why we should be confident in refuting conservative arguments to the contrary (which often amount to, “This is the best things are going to get, and if you try to reform anything further you’ll just screw everything up”).

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engels 07.26.07 at 6:14 pm

Martin – I said I’d go but I can’t resist:

1) All your example in #115 shows is that the rule “don’t persecute gays” can be overridden by exceptionally weighty consequentialist considerations. That’s not incompatible with moral universalism, in fact it’s probably the mainstream view.

2) The problem is that what you are now arguing is different from what you seemed to be saying in #79 and #95. Now you concede that “our society has experienced “progress” relative to previous ones” (as an objective fact) but all you said in #79 was that you “regard the world [you] live in as having “progressed” in many respects” that this “could well be true” but that it is “impossible to know” if this (subjective opinion) is correct. That is a much more sceptical position.

3) The fact that you can not access to the subjective experiences and dispositions of another person does not mean the question of whether you would prefer to be in their position is undecidable. Anyway, you have misquoted my question which was not “would you like to live in 1500″ but “should we turn the clock back to 1500 (if we could)”. This doesn’t require you to make a subjective comparison of the quality of your life versus that of an individual living in 1500 but an impersonal judgment on the moral state of the whole of society.

3) It is not a reliable form of deduction to reason: “I believe X, A is attacking me therefore A must not believe X.”

4) I am glad that you agree with J Smith, Aaron and myself that the notion of progress has not been discredited as that, rather than anything else, is the claim I was interested in defending on this thread.

Now I really am going.

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Martin Bento 07.26.07 at 9:23 pm

1) I never said my view on this was not mainstream, Aaron argued for a simply binary morality on homosexuality independent of context. Context matters. And his response spoke only of implications of my position that he happened to find scary, and of technical means to avoid the counterfactual, which are not relevant. And the context in which Aaron made his remark with his response to Loren’s attack on the notion of “one true moral path”. So, he was implcitly affirming one true, moral path.

2) I did not say “as an objective fact”, I said “as measured by values I accept”, an entirely different matter.

3) I took “Who wants to turn the clock back to the 1500’s”? as “Who wants to live in the 1500’s”? Apparently, you meant it as “Who would judge the society of 1500 as morally superior to our own”? OK, that’s what you meant. But I would not call it the most obvious interpretation of the question.

3b) (numbering problem here) However, it is legitimate to argue: “I believe X. A is attacking the arguments I put forward in support of X, attacking me personally for supporting X, and offering no alternative arguments in favor of X (at that point in the discussion). Therefore, A is attacking X.”

4) Well, maybe I won’t have to see anymore scarecrows with my name get slaughtered.

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loren 07.26.07 at 11:27 pm

Aaron: “Is the wrongness of rape a “contested concept?” Is there room for pluralism there? I am not saying be a non-skeptical perfectionist, I am saying don’t be afraid of saying rape is wrong.”

Aaron, it’s as if you haven’t really bothered reading what I’ve written (which is fine: I do carry on, but the downside is that you’re making strange-verging-on-insultingly-stupid attributions to me).

Of course I have no problem saying that rape is wrong. Murder? ditto. Genocide? Definitely against it. Oppressive, corrupt, inept, unaccountable regimes? Sign me up for the revolution.

These aren’t “contested concepts.”

But did you eat meat for lunch today, and for dinner? do you drive a car regularly?

If not, did someone you know do so, and pretty much do that regularly, every day?

There. I think you (or your friend) are complicit in injustice. Daily meat consumption and chosen commuter lifestyles are typically immoral, in my judgement.

Now, I’m guessing you, or your friend, will disagree.

Presto: conflict over a matter of morality, justice, progressive reasoning, and believe it or not it may actually matter a great deal to the future of the species, or at the very least our quality of life (ecologically speaking) in the longer term.

Who is correct? Do you have an answer that is obviously, knockdown on the side of right, and more pointedly, that would justify coercive imposition of that right answer on dissenters?

No, I didn’t think so.

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loren 07.26.07 at 11:30 pm

Aaron, I’m sorry for the “verging on insultingly stupid” quip. That was out of line, and not at all called for given your comments here. I just instinctively bristle at even the vague hint that I might think of the wrongness of rape as somehow contestable. Sorry.

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someotherdude 07.26.07 at 11:39 pm

So if Progress is inevitable, what are we progressing toward?

I think to many of us are confusing “progress” with “change.”

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engels 07.26.07 at 11:44 pm

Martin, you have not shown that “context matters”, as I said, you have just pointed out a well-known caveat which must be entered for all rule-based moral theories. This has nothing to do with the universalism/particularism issue.

Secondly, fine so it is your position that progress occurs relative to your values, which you do not believe can be objectively justified. It follows that you do not believe there has been progress, in any objective sense. (This is because, it turns out, you do not believe there are any objective moral truths.) Surprisingly enough, this is why people are disagreeing with you, and not because they have an “uncritical” view of progress or of the modern world. (If you want to know whether I have a critial view of modern capitalism you could look at other comments I have made on this blog.)

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loren 07.26.07 at 11:47 pm

Engels, fair enough.

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loren 07.27.07 at 12:26 am

engels: “As is evident from some of the comments on this thread and from public discourse the consensus behind progressive achievements such as the end of colonialism or the abolition of torture is far from unanimous … It seems odd to me that a “liberal of fear” would wish to downplay such issues.”

I dunno. I guess I don’t see the debate here at the twilight of this thread as dealing with terribly difficult moral-philosophical questions, because I don’t think your interlocutors seriously do dispute the core moral matters at stake, and instead are really pointing to other plausible metrics of progess, and reminding us that the happy and very real story of average improvements in life quality still hides considerable inequality, suffering, and subtle forms of coercion.

Yes, yes, I know some folks have come out swinging a bit, including Jacob, but when the rhetorical fun and, yes, the odd melodramatic flourish (“the horror!”) are stripped away, I think the real dispute among these latter posts probably is about how noisy the distribution is around the ‘progress’ trend line, and what costs progress has come at. I may be glossing over some real disagreements about progress, sure, but that’s how I see it.

But even if most people, on reflection, probably do accept something like (or important elements of) the progress thesis, I suspect that the ‘how to deal with persistent reasonable disagreement’ problem, while seemingly less dramatic, has the potential to be far a more difficult problem over the longer term that it might at first seem. But that’s a story for another day.

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aaron_m 07.27.07 at 1:00 am

In reply to some stuff loren said:

Yes! Result!

I would argue that if we think that reason should lead us to view just one thing as objectively morally wrong and we judge that societies increasingly recognize it as such, then we should be much more open to the idea that we can make knowable moral progress.

You seem to think that saying that rape is clearly morally wrong does not represent much of an argument against the view that we should generally take a sceptical stance towards moral claims. But I think the claim that rape is wrong has broad implications. Why is rape wrong? One could say something like; it is because individuals matter in a manner that makes it morally wrong to treat them as inherently less morally worthwhile than others. Individuals are all inherently morally valuable such that it is wrong to use them as tools in ways that cannot be justified to them. A lot of moral standards potentially follow from such a conviction (no examples, must sleep soon).

At the same time nothing is really non-contested. Martin is open to the idea that rape is ok if it is necessary for the survival of the tribe, and a lot serious philosophers agree. But non-contestability is not a good measure for assessing whether or not it makes sense to say that we are making moral progress. This is because nothing is non-contestable; we are just too imaginative for that.

Others will argue that contestability is decisive evidence for the strict sceptical stance. However once you reject this view for some things like rape, murder, etc… it is difficult to get back to generalisations that contestability shows that claims about knowing things about morality should by default be viewed as simply a reflection of some subjective cultural view, etc…. Why should contestability for rape not matter that much for our convictions but matter a lot when we say that non-human animals should not be treated as property? Of course there could be arguments for why the two cases are different. But now what is required is careful and specific substantive reasoning aimed to convince on why the cases differ or why they don’t. You have let the cat out of the bag and the generalisations used by those that really do not believe in morality just won’t do anymore to convince me that there are reasons to be sceptical of the view that criminalizing ‘being a homosexual’ is morally wrong. The wrongness of such criminalization seems to me to follow from the premise used to say rape is wrong. You and I now share a premise… :)

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engels 07.27.07 at 1:40 am

Loren, I wasn’t referring to the final part of the thread (and that is quite clear from the examples I gave). But that really is quite an amazing distortion of the issues which people have been arguing over throughout this discussion, and it really is obvious if you just look back through the thread. (When, for example, did I get into a “dispute” with someone about the “costs of progress”? It’s rather hard to see how I could have, since I never ventured an opinion on them.) Never mind. I don’t have any more time for this.

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loren 07.27.07 at 1:49 am

Aaron, I suspect we may share more than one premise, but I also suspect that we disagree on some core (or do I mean esoteric?) questions in ethics and political philosophy — questions that might take us even further afield in the waning posts of Henry’s thread.

But just to get a sense of where we stand: do you think we could (a) accept that generalizable moral knowledge is possible and can and ought to be authoritative, yet (b) have a tenable standard of political legitimacy that did not flow directly and exclusively from one account of justice, and that perhaps allowed outcomes that are significantly unjust on some reasonable views?

Do you think an account of justice is coextensive with a particular moral theory, or can we argue constructively about justice and legitimacy even across divergent moral systems?

More technically, I suspect our disagreement will be about constructivism in ethics, whether it constitutes a viable middle ground between contextualism and universalism, and also the monism-pluralism debate with regards to political liberalism.

But that’s probably an argument for another time and place.

(As an aside, the motivation for my example about meat-intensive diets is not that it is morally wrong to treat nonhuman animals as property, although I confess to finding a version of that view seductive. But my charge of injustice would appeal to the perverse ways in which workers are treated and resources used when a great many people demand a whole lot of meat).

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engels 07.27.07 at 1:59 am

Still the good news is that apparently at least we all believe there is moral progress (even if we don’t believe that this statement is objectively true). Even those of us, like Jacob Levy, who explicitly said that we didn’t. Because that was just the standard practice of saying the opposite of what one believes for rhetorical effect. Or something. Great stuff! Like I said: must dash.

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loren 07.27.07 at 2:02 am

Engels: by ‘costs of progress’ I had in mind the ideas floating around midway up the thread about material progress allowing moral progress but also enabling evil, and also the suggestion that decolonization (progress) did come with considerable brutality (surely a cost of that progress?). You’ve been debating with some of the folks who floated such concerns. Sorry if that wasn’t obvious.

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loren 07.27.07 at 2:21 am

Engels: “Still the good news is that apparently at least we all believe there is moral progress (even if we don’t believe that this statement is objectively true). Even those of us, like Jacob Levy, who explicitly said that we didn’t. Because that was just the standard practice of saying the opposite of what one believes for rhetorical effect. Or something.”

Here’s what I think is a good representative chunk of his very tentative remarks that have gotten you riled up …

Jacob T. Levy: “To see a trend-line, I’d want to know that we could stand at most points in the historical past and tell the same story: Life at time T consistently tends to be morally better than at time T-50, T-100, T-500 years. I don’t see it. We might be at a local peak, which can be very misleading about the shape of the overall curve… [my emphasis]

Humanity seems to have learned some stuff since then. But the eighteenth century even more filled with the conviction that humanity had learned so much and made so much moral progress. So was humanity c. 1910. I don’t know how to be sanguine that lessons learned will stay learned, or that they won’t be rendered obsolete by new forms of horror.” [again, my emphasis]

And here’s my charitable “distortion” of these and some of the other remarks …

“Yes, yes, I know some folks have come out swinging a bit, including Jacob, but when the rhetorical fun and, yes, the odd melodramatic flourish (“the horror!”) are stripped away, I think the real dispute among these latter posts probably is about how noisy the distribution is around the ‘progress’ trend line, and what costs progress has come at. I may be glossing over some real disagreements about progress, sure, but that’s how I see it.”

Again, reading Jacob’s entirely reasonable remarks, the constructive points I take away are that the distribution seems noisy, and while we can find trends in snapshots of the data, we shouldn’t rest complacent that the engine of history is happily driving us toward a morally better world.

But I can fully understand your less charitable dismissal, given the stance you’ve been taking here.

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Harold 07.27.07 at 3:25 am

There is progress and there is regress.

A problem arises when progress is used interchangeably with “Providence” — and is felt to be inevitable and to privilege one’s self or one’s particular group. Most people don’t believe in Providence these days, or that all change is part of a divine plan.

Of course, we should continue to try to improve things — we have no other moral choice, since to do otherwise would constitute depraved indifference. That is why I have no problem considering myself a progressive. But we have become all too aware that what can seem like progress (unlimited cheap manufactured goods, for example) can be the source of a new set of problems and unintended consequences — increased inequality, pollution, loss of cultural and linguistic diversity, for example. This was the insight of Rousseau, and it is as valid as it ever was.

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J Smith 07.27.07 at 3:47 am

someotherdude: So if Progress is inevitable, what are we progressing toward?

I think to many of us are confusing “progress” with “change.”

Just briefly, in case anyone’s still reading, my answers would be:

1. In terms of knowledge (aka “science”), we progress toward explaining ever more of what’s observable in the world and our lives without reference to mysticism.

2. In terms of society, we progress toward (among other things) a situation in which fewer and fewer people are seen as “others” and more and more are understood to be part of our moral universe and even part of the same polity. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable, over time, (a) to see people still remaining behind, with no real chance to find happiness or realize their potential, and (b) to imagine treating others as instruments rather than beings equal in dignity to ourselves.

3. Those first two points are related, because social progress is based on increasing knowledge and fosters it in turn.

4. We do see progress, not just change. If all we saw in history was change, we’d be just as likely, looking back, to see societies moving, say, from tolerance of minorities, gays, other religions, etc. to intolerance of them; or the voting franchise starting out broad, then contracting; or broad systems of cooperation giving way to warring tribes; or democracies replaced by feudal aristocracies; or naturalistic, evidence-based accounts of the cosmos, the cell, the atom, etc. giving way to mystical dogmas about these matters rooted in ancient holy writings; and so on. But while there are local exceptions, we do not, broadly speaking, see the movements I just described, we see their opposites (mystical dogmas –> science, feudalism –> democracy, etc.).

5. To me this demonstrates that progress is historically favored — it’s what tends to result from experience (including collective experience) and the knowledge this brings — but not that it’s “inevitable.” The struggles on behalf of #1 and #2 need to be kept up, because conservative opposition is forever trying to impede and undo these good things. But because progress is favored, those struggles also have a good chance of success; they’re not just fingers in the dike, holding back the cataclysm, even if it sometimes feels that way (especially in the era of George W. Bush).

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J Smith 07.27.07 at 3:51 am

Correction to #132: I think to many of us are confusing “progress” with “change” was someotherdude speaking, not me (I screwed up the italics). It’s the comment I was responding to, not a statement of my own view.

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someotherdude 07.27.07 at 2:03 pm

1. In terms of knowledge (aka “science”), we progress toward explaining ever more of what’s observable in the world and our lives without reference to mysticism.

Well, there goes most of humanity.

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someotherdude 07.27.07 at 2:05 pm

To me this demonstrates that progress is historically favored

Did History tell you this?

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engels 07.27.07 at 2:06 pm

Well Loren these remarks among others

I don’t see a good argument that the 20th century … was in some moral or organizational way more advanced than, say, the 1st century.

I don’t know how one can look at human history and see a clear trend-line other than the material-technological one, other than by cherry-picking.

seem to me to be disavowing any belief in social progress, and that idea is what I was objecting to. I do not deny that

the distribution seems noisy, and while we can find trends in snapshots of the data, we shouldn’t rest complacent that the engine of history is happily driving us toward a morally better world

and I’m really not sure whether anyone could! But next time I come across someone believes that the graph of history describes a perfectly straight line, and who is in favour of “complacency” about politics, I will be sure to give her the benefits of your “wisdom”.

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someotherdude 07.27.07 at 2:33 pm

After reading these posts, it would seem that American Progressivism is a mix of Hegelianism and Social Darwinism. The White Man’s Burden is heavy indeed.

The Neoconservatives and other fellow travelers on the Right used the language of progress “to bring the Middle East into the modern world” as one of the reasons for invasion and occupation of Iraq. European Imperialism was justified using this same logic.

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aaron_m 07.27.07 at 2:44 pm

someotherdude,

Could you please list those things noted in the thread as examples of progress that are not in fact progress, and explain why. Please give specific arguments on specific claims and not generalizations about how only stupid/evil people believe in progress.

Could you please note specific things we have said that amount to a justification for imperialism.

In other words I think it would be a good idea for you to do just a little bit of work here. Otherwise I am afraid may will conclude that it is difficult to take you seriously.

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someotherdude 07.27.07 at 2:48 pm

Engals,

It is hard to critique people’s “mysticism” while you claim to know what History likes.

140

J Smith 07.27.07 at 2:54 pm

Right, someotherdude, I’m sure you don’t benefit in any way from science. I’m sure you don’t fly on planes, or get vaccinations, or drink purified water, or make any use of medical services past the witch-doctor stage. Right? OK, then.

I’ve explained why I think progress is historically favored. If you object to the term, suggest another one. I don’t see what the problem with it is, myself — I also think that falling to the ground is gravitationally favored, which doesn’t mean that gravitation has any opinion about the matter (nor that falling to the ground is inevitable; if you can put aside your revulsion to science, check out one of those airplane thingies I mentioned sometime).

I don’t see how you can boil this remarkably complex discussion down to “American Progressivism is a mix of Hegelianism and Social Darwinism,” particularly if it’s actually true that you’re reading the posts. Just to note one of many counterexamples, point #2 in my previous answer to you (post 132) names a progressive aspiration that is poles apart from Social Darwinism.

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someotherdude 07.27.07 at 2:57 pm

Please give specific arguments on specific claims and not generalizations about how only stupid/evil people believe in progress.

I never said that.

I enjoy the changes that have happened in my community and believe in positive change. I also believe I would help other communities going through their own changes to positive ends. However, I hate looking like Candide by pro-claiming I live in the best of all possible worlds.

Before people with great destructive power start going into other societies to show them how to evolve, “just like we did”…some humility seems to be in order.

Each Empire that thinks its toys are the best always ends up looking a bit small minded.

I use the term “progressive” in everyday language because my political commitments are on the Left, however I am very careful to avoid the Candide factor.

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engels 07.27.07 at 2:58 pm

The Neoconservatives and other fellow travelers on the Right used the language of English Progress to “bring the Middle East into the modern world”. Campaigners for reforming the American health system use the same “logic”.

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aaron_m 07.27.07 at 2:58 pm

Let us have it dude!

But if your are going to try and sum it up in a one-liner it had better be good.

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aaron_m 07.27.07 at 3:01 pm

“However, I hate looking like Candide by pro-claiming I live in the best of all possible worlds.”

None of use make such an idiotic claim and none of us defended any of the other nonsense you are spouting.

Get serious buddy!!!

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someotherdude 07.27.07 at 3:02 pm

Engels,

Right, someotherdude, I’m sure you don’t benefit in any way from science. I’m sure you don’t fly on planes, or get vaccinations, or drink purified water, or make any use of medical services past the witch-doctor stage. Right? OK, then.

My mechanic saves my ass quite a bit, but I don’t go to him for every problem.

My doctor is a bit of a right-wing nihilist, so I don’t go to him for political advice.

What’s your point?

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aaron_m 07.27.07 at 3:05 pm

“What’s your point?” HA HA HA HA

After reading these posts, it would seem that American Progressivism is a mix of Hegelianism and Social Darwinism.”

Did you actually read the posts? Its going to be difficult to get your homework done unless your read the assigned literature.

147

engels 07.27.07 at 3:18 pm

Engels… What’s your point?

Ummm, that I didn’t write the post you have attributed to me?

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someotherdude 07.27.07 at 3:30 pm

Sorry engels.

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J Smith 07.27.07 at 3:38 pm

someotherdude, my point (not Engels’) is that your post 134 seemed dismissive of science. Which is rather an absolutist, unqualified position for someone who’s warning the rest of us against arguing in absolutes.

Hey, I have a question: Are you going to get older? How do you know? When you see a healthy little baby, can you predict that it will get bigger and (God willing) eventually become an adult? How do you know? Did the process of aging tell you this? At any given moment, there is zero visible evidence that any given person will age further. Yet we know they will. How? Inference, my friend. Noticing trends. There’s nothing mystical about that, see?

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engels 07.27.07 at 4:55 pm

The sad thing for me is I do take very seriously the argument that developments in recent history — such as the rise of fascism in twentieth century Europe, the Jewish Holocaust, the famines in British colonial India in the nineteeth century, Stalin’s purges, the accelerating destruction of the natural environment, the ever-present threat of Nuclear annihiliation and the resurgence and entrenchment especially in America, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall, of some of the most repulsive and retrograde forms of reactionary politics, with their irrational abeyance to religious dogma, extreme nationalism and xenophobia, worship of violence and glorification of material wealth and power, blind fatalism about the cruelty and iniquity of the existing social order and assaults on the social achievements of the twentieth century, including the foundations of international peace and co-operation — cast doubt on the very idea of progress.

Although I do ultimately believe that the idea of progress can be salvaged, I do not believe that this is at all uncontroversial or uninteresting (as Loren seems to think it is) and I think that there is a very important debate to be had on this issue. I took some of Jacob Levy’s remarks, as well as Martin Bento’s earlier posts, to be very interesting contributions to that debate.

Unfortunately, that discussion was soon made impossible by the familiar chorus of vapid po-moid claptrap.

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engels 07.27.07 at 4:57 pm

And that really is the last thing I am going to say on this.

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loren 07.27.07 at 5:33 pm

Engels, I wasn’t talking about complacency in politics, but more specifically in our normative commitments to core moral ideals (that might seem to be the same thing, but as I’ve said, I suspect there’s more than one legitimate political and philosophical path from those ideals).

Not that I think you or J Smith are personally complacent in this regard. Indeed, Smith clearly believes that such complacency is an enemy of the normative commitments central to his thesis about progress being historically favoured (“The struggles on behalf of #1 and #2 need to be kept up, because conservative opposition is forever trying to impede and undo these good things”).

My question for Smith is whether he thinks those normative commitments (to such things as knowledge and understanding, freedom and dignity) are what drives progress, or whether they simply keep on track his learning model of progress (“it’s what tends to result from experience (including collective experience) and the knowledge this brings”).

I’m inclined to the former view, whereas Smith says something (“because progress is favored, those struggles also have a good chance of success”) that makes me think he might favour the latter view.

The latter view, while more sophisticated in Smith’s rendering than the complacency Candide ridiculed, nonetheless seems too conducive to an unwarranted trust in progress as the favoured track of deep historical structures, rather than the halting and fragile fruits of our morally-directed labours.

That’s why, incidently, I find a caution worth heeding in Jacob Levy’s earlier comments (“I don’t know how to be sanguine that lessons learned will stay learned, or that they won’t be rendered obsolete by new forms of horror”) even if I don’t agree with some of his other points.

Of course I could have focused on those disagreements and joined you guys cheering for the enlightenment (rah), but I haven’t really felt like picking fights in this thread.

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loren 07.27.07 at 5:41 pm

yeah, I’ll sign off too. It’s been a good chat – thanks all (and requisite thanks to the CT hosts).

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loren 07.27.07 at 5:54 pm

“but I haven’t really felt like picking fights in this thread.”

I take that back: post 37 is looking for a fight.

now I really will shut up.

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someotherdude 07.27.07 at 10:30 pm

OK, OK, OK there’s progress…sheesh…just seems there is no ultimate end with this progress.

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J Smith 07.27.07 at 11:12 pm

Loren, if you’re still here, I think you’ve correctly characterized my position. I don’t think I’m a Candide, but I do tend to be the most optimistic member of whatever group of liberals / progressives I find myself in. I think it’s pretty clear that the normative commitments you refer to keep being favored or “selected for” because they provide the most robust basis for social organization. Alternative principles (aristocracy, racialism, etc.) tend to be unstable and to break down at some point — and human beings, while capable of immense folly and self-destructiveness, are also capable of noticing this and making adjustments as time goes on.

I also tend to think that people who are politically active tend to focus on what’s wrong and what they want to see improved. Combine that with the naturally short time-horizon of individual people’s experience, plus our natural tendency to overrate the importance and permanence of local conditions because they’re the most apparent to us, plus the awfulness of the particular local conditions we’ve been dealing with since the Reagan era, and I think it’s obvious why a certain pessimism would have become the default position of contemporary progressives. I make the arguments I do partly as a corrective to that.

Of course, the pessimism might prove justified, especially if some huge cataclysm — global warming, a nuclear attack, alien invasion, a big asteroid hitting the earth, etc. — scrambles the whole picture and sets us back several centuries. Global warming in particular really worries me. Still, I see no more reason to think that bad outcomes are inevitable than to think that progress is inevitable. Here’s hoping, anyway.

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Martin Bento 07.28.07 at 1:41 am

Aaron, you said this:

“Either it is true that homosexuality is morally wrong and just societies make it illegal for this reason or criminalizing homosexuality is “wrongheaded,” based on a “mistaken” moral view.”

If there are countervailing considerations that may legitimize condemnation of homosexuality, but can have justifications other than the notion that homosexuality is intrinsically wrong, then this statement is false; these two are not the only possibilities; criminalizing homosexuality in that situation is not necessarily mistaken, nor does it mean that homosexuality is morally wrong in itself or in other situations. I realize that countervailing considerations are not some novel concept, but taking them into account means taking the situation of the society you are talking about into account. As stated, your position does not just impose universal rules, but universal conclusions.

Engels says that people are arguing with me because I do not believe in objective moral truths. But if that is the argument, then what people should be doing is justifying the claim that there are such objective truths. The only thing we’ve seen like that is Aaron’s assertion that the subjectivity/objectivity question cannot be settled, but that there is no reason to privilege subjectivity. I think there is good reason to privilege subjectivity over objectivity as a default account of moral systems. Moral judgements exist in minds; this we know. That moral judgements have any existence or meaning independent of minds needs to be argued. Things that exist solely in minds are normally considered “subjective”. So the burden of proof rests with those who want to argue that moral judgements are objective.

However, subjective does not have to mean arbitrary, as least not if we reject the old Ortega y Gasset maxim that man has no nature, which I think there is good reason to do. I agree with the premise of the evolutionary psychologists, though not with all of their most common conclusions: moral instincts are an aspect of human psychology that evolved to enable us to function as social beings. I think this is what j smith is getting at as well. Regarding morality as instrumental enables us to evaluate it without having to claim that, for example, “theft is bad” is true in the same sense that “the moon orbits the Earth” is true.

In large part, I think our “moral progress” reflects less that we have improved morally (though I agree with smith that cultures learn) than that moral problems that were managable in the past have vastly worse consequences with modern technology and institutions. Racism, militarism, and authoritarianism were not new, but the Nazi’s showed where they could lead in the hands of a modern state with modern technology. We learned to constrain our appetite for War because nukes forced us to. And chronic tribal conflict in Africa may have been a manageable problem in the era of spears, it may even have conferred advantages, though I don’t know what offhand, but with modern weapons, transit, and communications, the consequences are much worse.

There is a lot more to say about this, but I don’t think there is any point if this thread is, as it appears, dying out. So I suppose I’m signing off too.

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aaron_m 07.28.07 at 10:40 am

I can play this game

“…what people should be doing is justifying the claim that there are such objective truths. The only thing we’ve seen like that is Aaron’s assertion that the subjectivity/objectivity question cannot be settled, but that there is no reason to privilege subjectivity. I think there is good reason to privilege subjectivity over objectivity as a default account of moral systems. Moral judgements exist in minds; this we know. That moral judgements have any existence or meaning independent of minds needs to be argued. Things that exist solely in minds are normally considered “subjective”. So the burden of proof rests with those who want to argue that moral judgements are objective.”

Martin’s argument does not succeed in shifting the burden of proof onto those that defend moral truths. This is because the claims he uses to defend this position are all truth statements about the way things objectively are. If we have reason to be sceptical about the idea that X is a moral truth the same reasons for this scepticism should also lead us to be sceptical of the conviction that we ought to be sceptical of the idea that there are moral truths. And it seems that the risks are similar for both kinds of scepticism. In claiming X is morally true we risk being wrong, which I take it Martin thinks is bad because we are imposing some moral truth of people that is not accurate (I suppose martin thinks it is bad in terms of the effects it would have on people). In claiming that we should be sceptical of asserting that any X is a moral truth we also risk being wrong. The down side here is that we will not demand that some actual moral truth be followed because of our scepticism. If so this will be bad for people affected by our lack of conviction.

Obviously the second kind of risk is something to worry about only if there are in fact moral truths about how people should be treated. But the interesting thing is that the first kind of risk is ALSO only a problem if there are in fact objective truths about how we should treat people. The implication is then that if there are not moral truths we do not need to worry about either of the two risks, and if we worry about only the first risk we are already committed to the idea that there are moral truths.

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aaron_m 07.28.07 at 11:28 am

What I say in #158 is not a rejection of skepticism as such, but rather a rejection of the claim that it is obviously better to avoid objective justice talk in favor of a highly skeptical stance to all moral truth claims as a default position. Instead I would say that the only thing we can do is let reasoned debate and a competition of ideas guide us (with measured skepticism), or not worry about it at all because we conclude that reason and evidence points strongly to the conclusion that there are no moral truths.

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engels 07.28.07 at 1:43 pm

Well, Loren, we’ve both said we’re done with this but it’s a pity you had to finish with a repetition of your silly jibe that I have been “cheering for the Enlightenment”. I have been attacking a specific claim made by several people at the start of this thread, that the idea of progress has now been discredited. This is a different albeit related issue to a general evaluation of the Enlightenment and I don’t really get why you insist on trying to fudge the issues at stake in this way. And on that point it really is difficult to pass over this rather desperate misrepresentation of what some people have been arguing about above (which I hadn’t noticed before).

Engels: by ‘costs of progress’ I had in mind the ideas floating around midway up the thread about material progress allowing moral progress but also enabling evil, and also the suggestion that decolonization (progress) did come with considerable brutality (surely a cost of that progress?). You’ve been debating with some of the folks who floated such concerns. Sorry if that wasn’t obvious.

1) The point that material progress allows for the possibility of greater good and greater evil was made by Aaron in #56, who has been defending the idea of progress, along with J Smith and myself. So it is not true that we have been “debating with folks who floated such concerns”; we were the ones who floated them!

2) I wasn’t arguing with someone who said that “decolonization (progress) did come with considerable brutality (surely a cost of that progress?)”, I was arguing with someone (Sam Chevre in #62) who denied that it was progress.

In view of all this I am forced to conclude that you are just hell-bent on misrepresenting the disagreement between us in order to cast me as an uncritical cheerleader for Enlightenment achievements, in contrast, of course, to your measured, qualified and critical endorsement (while doubtless patting yourself on the back for the way in which your sceptical attitude toward our core moral ideals has protected you from falling into this trap.) As ought to be obvious, this judgment is not justified by anything I have argued here and your insistence on trying to maintain it, by recourse to dark insinuations and groundless jibes, rather than any serious argument based on something I have said, does strike me as rather silly and unprofessional.

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Martin Bento 07.28.07 at 2:56 pm

Aaron, any belief we have may prove to be wrong, nonetheless, we feel justified in having some beliefs and not others. So we must have some basis for arbitrating beliefs other than certainty, which is never available. Looking at the consequences if A is wrong versus the consequences if B is wrong is, for example, Pascal’s wager. The consequences of wrongly being an aetheist are severe if there really is a God who will zap you into hell on death for your skepticism. The consequences of wrongly being a believer are just being mistaken. If one is choosing one’s beliefs as a gambler making bets, faith makes all the sense in the world. But that is not where reason leads.

Since we are going to have some beliefs about the world, and since these beliefs may be wrong, we need some way to arbitrate between beliefs that does not rely on certainty, and the one that seems to me the best is reason.

We have ample experience with things that clearly exist in minds, but do not have any clear existence, meaning, or consequence outside of them: dreams, for example.
Some people do feel that dreams express objective truths – for example, that they can fortell the future. It is very difficult to disprove this, especially as the claim is usually that they can, not that they unfailing do, and by coincidence they may occasionally seem to, but the claim that they can fortell the future is a claim to more than coincidence. So we cannot prove the question false, and it could only really be proven true if it were dramatically the case (extraordinary evidence), i.e., that it happened very frequently, which is more than is usually claimed. Given all this, is it reasonable to conclude that, since the question cannot be proved, the belief that dreams do and do not fortell the future are on an equal footing? Should we say that if the consequences of not heeding prophetic dreams are worse than the consequences of wrongly heeding non-prophetic ones (which may or may not be the case, but it doesn’t matter for the argument), then we should believe that dreams are, or can be, prophetic? I don’t think this is what reason calls for. Rather, I think reason calls for taking dreams are pure phenomena of the mind by default, and accepting contrary evidence if it emerges. This doesn’t deny that dreams may tell us interesting things about the mind, of course.

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aaron_m 07.28.07 at 3:41 pm

“Since we are going to have some beliefs about the world, and since these beliefs may be wrong, we need some way to arbitrate between beliefs that does not rely on certainty, and the one that seems to me the best is reason.”

I agree.

I also agree that on the balance of reason and evidence we should think that dreams do predict the future. I do not see what your argument is for the claim that such a view should be the default position. I think what you have done is taken the fact that most people believe that dreams do not predict the future and their requirement for a lot of evidence to the contrary if they are to believe otherwise as somehow showing that we accept the ‘dreams don’t predict the future’ as a default position prior to reasoning about the issue. This is plainly wrong.

Instead it is the case that most people just have a lot of evidence from their own experience that dreams do not predict the future. They don’t require to be proven wrong because they take ‘dreams don’t predict the future’ as a default position. Rather they have a lot of on experience and reasoning that convinces them that dreams do not predict the future and would need new evidence to convince them otherwise.

Furthermore both believing and not believing that dreams predict the future are “phenomena of the mind.” So all that stuff is just a side show(I am not going to do the job for you of working it out at the illogical aspects of what you seem to imply here because I am getting a bit frustrated with the trickery you employ to avoid the issues at hand). The stuff about consequences is also not relevant.

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aaron_m 07.28.07 at 3:42 pm

that should be “don’t predict the future” in my second line not “do predict the future”

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J Smith 07.28.07 at 3:49 pm

OK, since we’re still chatting….. :-)

Martin, about this: In large part, I think our “moral progress” reflects less that we have improved morally (though I agree with smith that cultures learn) than that moral problems that were managable in the past have vastly worse consequences with modern technology and institutions. Racism, militarism, and authoritarianism were not new, but the Nazi’s showed where they could lead in the hands of a modern state with modern technology. We learned to constrain our appetite for War because nukes forced us to.

I would say two things. First, I think you’re overstating the importance of the nuclear threat. Long before there were nukes, there was, for instance, a general retreat from pressing religious claims to the point of war. John Locke wrote his “Essay Concerning Religious Toleration,” which influenced the American Founders and others, after it had become clear that religious wars were lose-lose propositions. For the most part, the West has stuck by that insight ever since and has been a better place for it.

Even in the post-World War II era, there were progressive steps taken that weren’t inspired by the nuclear threat — the Civil Rights Acts in the U.S., for instance, and the beginnings of the Common Market in Europe. What motivated France, Germany and the others to start working together, I think, was the feeling that war, empire and ethnic cleansing had proven not to be the ways to solve Europe’s problems. Therefore it was time to try something radically different, like cooperating through closer economic ties.

You might say that that’s an example of the lessons of Nazism you allude to. (In fact, to some degree so were the Civil Rights reforms — they were helped along by the fact that people had seen where racism could lead when it was the basis of national policy.) Well, you’d be right, and that’s my second point: This is progress. This is how it works. People recoil in horror at what’s come before, and so they look for some better way. The postwar situation, in my view, isn’t an exceptional case that’s had some luckily good effects just in the last 50 or so years; it’s a fine example of what’s been happening in various ways for many centuries now. I believe most if not all of the progress we’ve seen in the last couple of generations — and it’s been extraordinary, no question, which is one big reason for my optimism — would have happened even if nuclear weapons hadn’t been invented.

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J Smith 07.28.07 at 4:03 pm

Just to be clear, I’m not saying the nuclear threat played no role at all. Concerns about the Soviets were one further reason for Western nations to band together, but I’m saying I think that by that point they already had plenty of incentive to do so regardless.

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Martin Bento 07.28.07 at 4:54 pm

Mr. Smith (or should I call you “J”?), I don’t think we have too much substantive disagreement here. My claim about nuclear war is specifically that it forced us to limit our use of military solutions to conflicts, not that it is solely or primarily responsible for everything that could be called “progress” in that period. The ideological conflict between Capitalism and Communism does seem to be to have been just as bitter as the religious wars of previous centuries, though. Look what America did in Viet Nam; got into the war on false pretences, killed millions, mostly non-combatant, extensively bombed neighboring countries (Cambodia and Laos) not directly involved. Also, during this period the US supported figures like Rios Montt, Suharto, Pionochet, even, in a limited way, the Khmer Rouge (because we were backing China’s ally against Russia’s). And not just “supported” – other than the Khmers, probably none of those figures would have been able to gain and hold power without US assistance (and the Khmers were largely the presumably-unintended consequence of the bombing of Cambodia). And the USSR and China were even worse.

So I would limit claims of “moral progress” in the sense that we have actually gotten morally better. It is more that our “bad” instincts are more constrained by contemporary conditions. And we are seeing novel forms of “bad”. Children randomly shooting up schools? Seems a recent development. Serial killers and other brutal murders apparently devoid of rational motive, including revenge (save perhaps vague revenge at the world). Maybe this has long been going on, but I wonder about it.

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Martin Bento 07.28.07 at 5:51 pm

Aaron you said:

“In claiming X is morally true we risk being wrong, which I take it Martin thinks is bad because we are imposing some moral truth of people that is not accurate (I suppose martin thinks it is bad in terms of the effects it would have on people). In claiming that we should be sceptical of asserting that any X is a moral truth we also risk being wrong. The down side here is that we will not demand that some actual moral truth be followed because of our scepticism. If so this will be bad for people affected by our lack of conviction.”

This is an argument from consequences. You examine the potential consequences of wrongful skepticism of moral claims (that actual moral truth will not be followed because of our skepticism) and the consequences of wrongful belief in them, attributed to me (I suppose martin thinks it is bad in terms of the effects it would have on people). You cannot take this position and then say that consequences are irrelevant; you are arguing consequences.

I did not base my argument on the notion that most people do not believe in dream prophecy. In fact, I never even said that was the case. Some do, some don’t; I gave no estimates of numbers.

However, you said:

“Instead it is the case that most people just have a lot of evidence from their own experience that dreams do not predict the future.”

This is a very poor justification. Belief in dream-prophecy appears to have been the majority view in the ancient world. If we posit that such beliefs exist because they simply mirror experience, we would have to conclude that dreams did indeed foretell the future in the ancient world, but have ceased to do so in the modern, for some strange reason.

And, yes, all beliefs are “phenomena of the mind”. If we accept some notion of truth, however, or even if we want to justify having some beliefs, then we have to hold that some of these mental phenomena reflect the world external to the human mind better than others.

Then there is this:

“If we have reason to be sceptical about the idea that X is a moral truth the same reasons for this scepticism should also lead us to be sceptical of the conviction that we ought to be sceptical of the idea that there are moral truths.”

Take the claim “unicorns exist”. Should we default to skepticism on this claim, or should we be equally suspicious of the claim that unicorns exist and the claim that they do not? (After all, belief and non-belief in unicorns are both phenomena of the mind). Should we really be skeptical of the skepticism for the same reason we are skeptical of the claim? We cannot prove they do not, of course, but in the absense of affirmative evidence, what is the reasonable belief, the default belief as I put it? Why should the claim “objective moral value exist” be treated differently than any other claim of the same sort?

Finally, I am not arguing in bad faith here, and the continual accusations of it are tiresome. If I am engaging in some trickery, show it.

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Martin Bento 07.28.07 at 6:56 pm

Let me amplify something here: the reason you default to skepticism on existential claims is that it is a necessary condition of having a coherent world view. Look at all the claims that could be made: Santa Claus exists, Spiderman exists, Heaven and Hell as the eternal fates after death exist, endless reincarnation exists, a divine injunction against eating pork exists, a divine injunction *to* eat pork (in some religion somewhere, I’m sure) exists. If you accept all possible such postulates, it is chaos. If you even regard all such postulates are equally likely to be true as false, it is chaos, as they wildly contradict one another, and reason would indicate that most must be false. To have a coherent world view, you must reject most, and to have a coherent world view based on reason, you must be able to use reason to justify why those you accept should be accepted when most should not be accepted. Hence, the burden of proof is on you to show that the things you claim exist actually do, not on someone else to show that they do not.

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Martin Bento 07.28.07 at 7:44 pm

One more thing:

“But the interesting thing is that the first kind of risk is ALSO only a problem if there are in fact objective truths about how we should treat people. The implication is then that if there are not moral truths we do not need to worry about either of the two risks, and if we worry about only the first risk we are already committed to the idea that there are moral truths.”

This is only valid in a restricted sense not implied by what I have said. If there are no moral truths, it does not matter *morally* whether we believe there are moral truths, but there are other reasons that we believe or disbelieve things than the moral. For example, we may wish to have true knowledge about the world. When a scientist seeks to understand the chemical composition of Jupiter, this is a matter of no obvious moral consequence, but that does not mean he has no reason for preferring one answer over another. He does: the criterion of truth.

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someotherdude 07.28.07 at 7:54 pm

It was “progress” for white Europeans, because the unleashed primal reactive forces on the less evolved/civilised nations.

It seems that, if the White Europeans are primarily comfortable, then all of mankind should be comfortable. And when White Europeans are not comfortable then all of mankind should be made to feel uncomfortable.

Progress indeed.

And then progress for whom?

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someotherdude 07.28.07 at 7:57 pm

The above was a response to the relative Peace of the Cold War.

The Cold War was great for Europe…not so much the Third World.

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someotherdude 07.28.07 at 8:16 pm

Sorry for posting so hastily.

I read #164 and rushed to post, when I should have “refreshed” the page to read Martin articulating my intensions, much more eloquently.

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Martin Bento 07.28.07 at 9:28 pm

I wrote:

“If there are no moral truths, it does not matter *morally* whether we believe there are moral truths”

I want to point out that I conceded this for the sake of the argument, but I would qualify it further before conceding it actually.

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J Smith 07.28.07 at 10:25 pm

Sure, Martin, we’re on a first-name (or first-initial) basis here. It’s just that with a rare, distinctive name like “Smith” I crave a little anonymity, you know? ;-)

You’re right we don’t disagree by much. But if we’re questioning whether there’s really been moral progress, we would need to look carefully at all the facts. It’s easy to remember Vietnam, My Lai, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, etc., because those happened within living memory. Recent events loom large, which exaggerates their relative size for purposes of the comparison in question — in this case, a comparison of degrees of evil or immorality.

Obviously past wars killed fewer people in total because there were fewer people to begin with and the weapons were less destructive. But Vietnam, indeed the East-West conflicts of the Cold War generally, are piddling compared to the evils of the old religious wars. People deemed “heretics” under the Inquisition (and you could get that designation for things like translating the Bible into the vernacular) were sometimes burned or buried alive. In one not-untypical instance — and I apologize for even quoting this, but I think these are the kinds of facts that are getting overlooked here: “When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church, where they remained for some years.”

Notice that that wasn’t some renegade outfit that ran amok, it was an act of official policy by the people in charge of two powerful groups back then. Vietnam just had nothing like this. U.S. actions there were horribly misguided, they were driven in part by racial animus, and things got out of control at times. I don’t want to become an apologist for American policy in Indochina. But, my god, it has never been U.S. policy to make examples of people by torturing them and hanging them in cages, particularly not for a “crime” like espousing the wrong religion. (If you want to argue that Guatanamo, the CIA black sites, the flushing of Korans down toilets, etc. are just as bad, well, [a] they’re not, [b] they’re considered shameful enough that their perpetrators try to keep them secret, and [c] it’s pretty clear that the Bush Administration is an aberration — no other U.S. administration has gone as far that we know of, and the Bush practices are not only violations of international laws and treaties that otherwise are generally respected, but they’ve been widely condemned elsewhere in the Western world and even by other American officials.)

The Stephen Pinker article I reference earlier, which appeared in The New Republic this past spring, gives other examples and cites studies that have tried to look past anecdotal evidence to see whether there’s less tolerance for violence today, overall, than there used to be, whether there’s more concern for the well-being of strangers, animals, etc. Short answer: There is. There’s still bad sh– happening, of course, but just try to imagine what the world would be like if the huge increase in power wielded by modern Western governments had not been accompanied by moral improvements like religious tolerance, opposition to torture and greater concern for civilian casualties. It would simply be unlivable, I think.

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J Smith 07.28.07 at 10:27 pm

That’s funny — a “c” in brackets becomes a copyright symbol. Well, then, I guess no pictures, descriptions or accounts of this discussion may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Major League Baseball.

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someotherdude 07.29.07 at 12:35 am

smith,

If a gang of rapists decide to bound there victims as to keep them from hurting themselves and the rapist, because it would get messy a woman and girl swinging their arms around…this could be “progress”.

Say the same rapist no longer torture their victims to death after the crime…instead, they feed them nice French food and kiss them sincerely before killing them quickly and safely…”progress”?

I hate to be blunt but, it’s begining to sound like some latter-day Postmodern Candide over here.

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Martin Bento 07.29.07 at 6:15 am

Hi J. The Pinker article is behind the pay wall, so I’ll have to do without it. I’m not subscribing just for that, especially since I don’t want to give TNR my money; they probably do more to provide liberal cover for conservative positions than any other single magazine.

In Viet Nam entire villages were destroyed, including for purposes of demonstration. Yes, people were burned alive; all the time in fact, by incendiaries hurled from the air, especially napalm. Here is a description of napalm from wikipedia:

“Some of its finer selling points were explained to me by a pilot in 1966: “We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The original product wasn’t so hot – if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene – now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter (WP – white phosphorus) so’s to make it burn better. It’ll even burn under water now. And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.”

Whether Viet Nam was well-intentioned is debatable, but there are two basic ways at looking at the Cold War of which it was a part: an ideological struggle between two belief systems, or a power struggle between two sets of individuals and institutions. These are the same two ways one can interpret the religious conflicts of Europe. I don’t see burning someone alive for being of the wrong religion as much worse than burning them alive for believing in the wrong economic system, but, of course, the US was nowhere near so discriminate as to hit solely or even predominately its genuine ideological opponents; it couldn’t be. There is no discriminate way to kill millions, especially not when much of the killing is done by dropping incendiaries in the jungle and defoliants on crops. Napalm has also been used in several other conflicts by the United States and others.

And, yes, napalm and similar atrocities were policies imposed from the highest levels; there was nothing renegade about them. The main reason My Lai specifically is so famous is because the soldiers went in and shot the people (also burning the village to the ground), which provided much less plausible deniability than bombing from the air.

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J Smith 07.29.07 at 6:26 am

someotherdude, if that’s an analogy to something, I’m not sure what. As best I can make out, though, you are a utopian political perfectionist who doesn’t think that, for instance, the Geneva Conventions, or Western governments’ abandonment of torture (with the recent unfortunate exception-that-proves-the-rule), or the increased discipline and professionalization of Western armies, etc., mean anything as long as there are still wars and people are still getting killed. However, you did concede a few posts back that there’s been progress. So, I guess you don’t like progress? I would remind you what the word means: moving forward, not arriving at utopia. You don’t think it’s good to move forward? Duly noted.

I’m not sure what literary character this makes you — I’m betting he’s somewhere in Dickens, though. But Candide, as I recall, believed the Panglossian view that “All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” not that “On balance, humankind learns from its mistakes and has, over time, embraced better, fairer, more moral ways of doing things, albeit with frequent backsliding, many local exceptions and a long way still to go.” If you know a character who espouses that philosophy, I’ll happily accept the comparison.

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J Smith 07.29.07 at 6:52 am

Martin, I really doubt that you believe that confronting the Soviets — whatever horrors were incident to that — was the same thing as wiping out the Anabaptists, or the Albigensians, or the Catholics, or the Jews (whom the Inquisition did not treat kindly, I might mention). No Western government today even begins to suggest that it’s wrong to be Jewish, let alone that it’s a casus belli.

The Pinker article starts with a description of a practice of three hundred or so years ago in which cats were burned alive as sport — not in secret or by some depraved, Michael Vick-ish underground, and not in a war zone, but as a mainstream public attraction that even “the better sort” attended. Today, if it’s reported that U.S. troops in Iraq are running over dogs for sport, it’s a scandal. Some are scandalized by the report itself, some by the fact of its being reported, but everyone agrees that running over dogs is wrong, even for troops in a war zone under enormous stress. That is a far cry from what used to be routinely accepted in war.

I think the use of napalm in Vietnam was a war crime. You might say, that proves your point — it was never prosecuted as such. But progress happens in stages, and one stage is recognizing and defining the wrong. We are not nearly as far along in actualizing the new moral vision I would like to see applied to warfare (which would basically end it), but I do think Western armies are on the whole hugely more disciplined than they used to be. And as to persecuting of people who believed in a different economic system, well, Joe McCarthy temporarily had the power to destroy some people’s careers, but no one ever turned him loose to torture suspected communists, hang them in cages, burn them like witches, etc. He would have had those powers in the 16th-17th centuries.

Here’s a question for all the doubters in progress: What do you think are the odds that Nazism, or something like it, will return as a mainstream political philosophy or the program of a governing party in any Western country, barring a general collapse of Western civilization itself? What are the odds that religious heresy or witchcraft will once again be prosecuted in the West, with people burned for it at the stake? If you think the odds of those things are low, then how do you deny there’s been progress? Because they clearly weren’t low all along.

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aaron_m 07.29.07 at 9:08 am

“Finally, I am not arguing in bad faith here, and the continual accusations of it are tiresome. If I am engaging in some trickery, show it.”

Oh really, no bad faith. Well how about this.

“You examine the potential consequences of wrongful skepticism of moral claims (that actual moral truth will not be followed because of our skepticism) and the consequences of wrongful belief in them, attributed to me (I suppose martin thinks it is bad in terms of the effects it would have on people). You cannot take this position and then say that consequences are irrelevant; you are arguing consequences.”

This is in reference to my statement about consequences in post #162, were I was clearly referring to YOUR USE of consequences IN POST #161. There you seem to imply that thinking about consequences was relevant to the issue at hand or my previous examples but you did not demonstrate any relevance of even explain why you were talking about it. My comment just like everything I said in #162 was a response to #161.

You have now tried to turn this into the ridiculous idea that I have been suggesting in general that consequences are irrelevant to our thinking about morality … Trying to make me look ridiculous in this was is what BAD FAITH ARGUING IS!!!!!!

Note, nothing of what you say amounts to a defense of the claim that we can identify certain default positions PRIOR to applying evidence and reason about what is and is not true. All you show is that we have good reason to not take seriously lots of truth claims people could make until we have substantial evidence for them. I never said anything like we should have the view that “unicorns are real” is just as likely as “unicorns are not real.” But the reason the two claims are not on equal footing is because of our evidence and reasoning and NOT because we have some way of knowing PRIOR to reasoning and evidence which of the two mutually exclusive truth claims is the default and which has the burden of proof. If we found ourselves suddenly in a different dimension of reality with different laws of physics, biology, etc.. we would not be able to identify what you call “default positions.” This is because all your examples are actually dependent on prior convictions about the way the world works.

You also demonstrate bad faith when you try to attribute to me an argument for the view that what most people believe is what should count as true.

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J Smith 07.29.07 at 2:26 pm

Martin (and others), the Stephen Pinker article is also available online here, without subscribing to the dubious TNR or anything else:

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

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Martin Bento 07.29.07 at 4:18 pm

Aaron, my post #161 was in response to your consequentialist argument in post #158. I thought that was obvious, but since your post #162 did not seem to acknowledge it, I demonstrated this in post #167 using direct quotes from your post #158. If you’re going to argue that argument is mistaken, you have to argue that what you said in post #158 is not a consequentialist argument. That still doesn’t establish bad faith, just a wrong argument, but it should be quite enough to keep you busy as #158 is clearly a consequentialist argument.

And I did not say you thought consequences are irrelevant; in fact, I based my argument on the notion that your argument was consequentialist, the exact opposite premise. You did, however, say that there were no relevant moral consequences specifically to believing that there are no objective moral truths . Post #158:

“Obviously the second kind of risk is something to worry about only if there are in fact moral truths about how people should be treated. But the interesting thing is that the first kind of risk is ALSO only a problem if there are in fact objective truths about how we should treat people. The implication is then that if there are not moral truths we do not need to worry about either of the two risks, and if we worry about only the first risk we are already committed to the idea that there are moral truths.”

The risks of which you speak, earlier in that comment, are risks of the *consequences* of believing that there are or are not objective moral truths. By stating that if there are no moral truths, we do not need to worry about the risks, you are saying that if there are no moral truths, there are no moral consequences to whether we believe in them. If that is not your argument, what is the argument of the above paragraph?

Pointing this out, however, is not arguing that you said consequences are irrelevant to the question of morality. Show me where I said that.

“But the reason the two claims [that unicorns exist and that they do not- m] are not on equal footing is because of our evidence and reasoning and NOT because we have some way of knowing PRIOR to reasoning and evidence which of the two mutually exclusive truth claims is the default and which has the burden of proof.

I have no evidence that unicorns do not exist. Other than the absence of evidence that they do, of what would such evidence consist? The notion that a horse could have a horn doesn’t violate my reason; given the variety of the natural world, it seems a minor variation. Nor does it even violate my prior conviction of how the world works. I can easily believe that unicorns could exist; I just don’t believe they do. That they could have magical attributes would contradict some aspects of my world view, but even if we define them minimally as horned horses, I do not believe horned horses exist. No reason they couldn’t; they just don’t. So my belief that unicorns do not exist is prior to the application of reason and evidence to the question even now. Reason does not rule it out, and negative evidence does not exist, AFAIK.

As I suggested in comment #168, if you want to have a coherent world view, you have to reject the vast majority of existential claims that can be made. Such claims are infinite and vastly mutually contradictory. Therefore, you cannot reject most of them based on reason and evidence; in your entire life, you will not begin to exhaust the list, and you will still be accepting an infinite variety of contradictory claims as equally likely to be true as not. You will not have a coherent world view, nor even one that is practical for the purpose of survival. What you have to do is assume the bulk of such claims are false, and then have some basis for believing those you choose to believe. Believing things unless you can see a reason not to won’t cut it.

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Martin Bento 07.29.07 at 4:51 pm

J, We were not “comfronting the Soviets” in Viet Nam in the sense that the Soviets were there to significant extent. We were instead fighting a government supported by the majority of the people North and South because they chose to ally with the Soviets. Our stated reason for doing this was to keep other nations in the region from allying with the Soviets – the domino theory. Since vast killing like this is obviously no way to win hears and minds, this has to be regarded as a demonstration. The entire war was one big demonstration killing.

The fact is that the United States sided with Mao and the Khmer Rouge against Viet Nam. In light of that fact, I don’t think we can see the war as an idealistic struggle against the horrors of Communism. Stalin was long dead, and both Mao and Pol Pot were vastly worse than Brezhnev. If you don’t think absolute numbers are relevant, the Khmers massacred a fifth of the population. These were not war opponents who were fighting back; this was pretty much just slaughter of the defenseless like Hitler. Did any authority in the Middle Ages massacre one fifth of his own population?
J, We were not “comfronting the Soviets” in Viet Nam in the sense that the Soviets were there to significant extent. We were instead fighting a government supported by the majority of the people North and South because they chose to ally with the Soviets. Our stated reason for doing this was to keep other nations in the region from allying with the Soviets – the domino theory. Since vast killing like this is obviously no way to win hearts and minds, this has to be regarded as a demonstration. The entire war was one big demonstration killing.

The fact is that the United States sided with Mao and the Khmer Rouge against Viet Nam. In light of that fact, I don’t think we can see the war as an idealistic struggle against the horrors of Communism. Stalin was long dead, and both Mao and Pol Pot were vastly worse than Brezhnev or Ho Chi Min. If you don’t think absolute numbers are a good measure, the Khmers massacred a fifth of the population. These were not war opponents who were fighting back; this was pretty much just slaughter of the defenseless like Hitler. Did any authority in the Middle Ages massacre one fifth of his own population?

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Martin Bento 07.29.07 at 4:52 pm

Sorry for the double post.

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J Smith 07.29.07 at 6:53 pm

Martin, I don’t deny that radical Jacobins like Pol Pot are evil, nor that the U.S. facilitated Pol Pot’s rise in SE Asia. But it was not U.S. policy to bring a radical regime like that to power in Cambodia. It was not U.S. policy to have Cambodians who wore eyeglasses killed on grounds that they might be educated. It was incredible stupidity to let all that happen, but I don’t think the crimes of Vietnam were deliberate in the same way as the crimes of the Inquisition, for instance.

But perhaps I’m wrong. I do think this at least is a productive discussion. You make some good points about Vietnam and modern war in general, and you seem to recognize that resolving the questions I’ve raised on this thread requires looking closely at historical specifics. That’s a lot more likely to lead to the truth, I think, than the kind of wholesale dismissal of the whole notion of progress that we’ve been hearing from some quarters.

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Martin Bento 07.29.07 at 8:19 pm

J. The US did support the Khmer Rouge. Officially. And unofficially too. Specifically, it recognized it as the legitimate government of “Democratic Kampuchea” even during the period when it was not, in fact, in power in most of the country. It and China fought successfully for the KR to retain Cambodia’s UN seat when they were a government in exile. It provided military aid to it in the attack on Viet Nam that triggered the Vietnamese invasion in response. And US Special Forces protected the Khmers in the small Western area where they held power after the Vietnamese established control over the rest of the country and brought the “killing fields” to an end. All of this is really inexplicable other than as official government policy. What the US argues for in the UN, or in which country it deploys its special forces, are not low-level rogue actions.

The enemy of our enemy was our friend. We were concerned with Vietnam and, behind them, the USSR, not with the Khmers and, behind them, China. So Nixon normalized relations with China and a powerplay ensured with Viet Nam and the USSR on one side (though the Soviets did not get too directly involved) and the US, the Khmer Rouge, and China on the other. That’s a little simple, but it was the overall alignment.

It is also worth noting that the KR leaders were, as the wikipedia article on them puts it: “were perhaps the most educated leaders in the history of Asian communism. ” They were University educated in Paris, almost to a man. Pot himself was academically mediocre, but not all of them were. So they cannot be put down as people unenlightened by modern ideas.

Likewise, I don’t see how not to attribute such things as napalm to deliberate US intentions. They were planned and approved at the highest levels, and they were done routinely. How could they be rogue actions? When you get into actual rogue actions, well, I had a housemate who had fought in Nam, and claimed he had seen a US soldier sexually violate a decapitated cadaver. I don’t think he was lying, as it was not a story he seemed particularly eager to tell. That, I grant you, is something that does not reflect the national intention, but perhaps it shows something of the psychological state the war created in modern people fundamentally like us.

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J Smith 07.29.07 at 8:31 pm

The point about educated “Kampucheans” was that the Khmer Rouge policy, as I understand it, was to slaughter people they thought might be educated, and to drive people out of cities and into villages. Of course Pol Pot himself was educated (in Paris, if I remember); that’s where he got the ideological justification for all that insanity.

Certainly the use of napalm was a deliberate act of U.S. policy. My point was that the U.S. didn’t, as a matter of policy, take individual people and light them on fire using napalm, the better to illustrate for the rest of the village / country / world what the consequences would be of embracing the wrong ideas. I believe that’s what the Inquisition would have done. But I’ve already conceded that I think the use of napalm was a war crime, and certainly not any kind of advertisement for the virtues of modern progress.

You haven’t answered some of my other points, like the fact that Western governments, possessed of napalm or no, do not target religious minorities for extermination or forced conversion anymore. But, whatever — as I say, I think the important point here is that the question of progress involves weighing these sorts of fine-grained facts, not just glibly pronouncing the modern world a hopeless mess (which I think is what too many liberals / progressives are unreflectively inclined to do).

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Martin Bento 07.29.07 at 8:58 pm

To be fair, the US does not seem to have full-throatedly supported Pot. It supported Sihanouk, who was a KR ally that had, at that point, no power independent of them. It also supported Son Sann, who was always trying to negotiate peace between various factions, and who was interested in a sane and democratic society, evidently. But for a couple of decades, there were only two real contenders for power in Cambodia, the Vietnamese communists and the Khmers, and between those two the US supported the Khmers. Geopolitically, this decision made perfect sense, too. Morally, well, that’s something else. Not that the Viet Minh were wonderful, but the Khmers were really impressively bad.

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aaron_m 07.29.07 at 9:09 pm

Martin,

‘There are no moral truths’ and ‘there are moral truths’ are both positive claims. And because they are both positive claims they both need to be argued for.

Just like ‘there are no unicorns’ and ‘there are unicorns’ are also both positive claims that need to be argued for.

In a world were we do not know anything we do not accept ‘there are no unicorns’ as a default. That would be just silly. We accept ‘I do not know’ as a default. But remember you were arguing that the subjectivity people do not have a burden to show that there are no moral truths. You seem to think that until the objectivists show that there are moral truths we should work on the assumption that there aren’t any. If we are really living in a state of complete ignorance on the issue then the default should be ‘we don’t know,’ but I would say that we have enough brain power and evidence to at least start looking at the reasons for and against the idea of moral truths and leave your silly default argument behind. And by the way a default of ‘I don’t know’ does not mean that we have a clear reason to avoid moral truth claims due to risk, as explained above.

As for substantive arguments I think you said something like ‘moral judgments exist in the mind therefore the burden of proof is on the objectivists.’ Hardly a compelling positive argument, eh! (e.g. it is not obvious that something must exist independent of minds to be true, for example minds (tee hee)).

On to my use of consequences.

I was noting that in your reply when you introduced the consequences issue you did not speak to the point I was making about consequences or explain at all what you were getting at. I was simply indicating to the reader that YOUR comments on that issue lacked substance.

My use of moral consequences was simply noting that you seemed to think that there was something of a problem with advancing moral claims that were not true. I was guessing that the problem you were thinking of was an underlying moral problem that actually committed you to the idea of moral truths. But maybe the problem you have in mind is that we would be believing in things that are not true and nothing more. Yet, I think you should stop framing the issue as a problem if you really do not think there are any moral truths. In such a world there is nothing wrong or bad with being delusional.

As to bad faith, do you really think that I fail to understand consequentialism and the way I was appealing to consequences in my statement? Did you really think that when I said that the consequence stuff does not matter I was making a massive blunder that related to everything else I had said previously in the thread?

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Martin Bento 07.29.07 at 10:49 pm

In this “world where we do not know anything”, how do we come to know things? Specifically, since this is the question we have been discussing, how do we come to know what sorts of things exist? Do we start by trying to conceive of every sort of thing that might exist and work through a process of elimination? That would be very hard, as it is not clear how one could establish the non-existence of anything without supposing prior knowledge of the world, and it’s a non-trivial problem even with such knowledge. And even if such a program were dramatically successful it would never succeed in lowering the set of possibilities enough to reach a coherent or even practical world view. Conversely, you could require positive evidence for things that might potentially exist.

And if we really require positive evidence for the claim “unicorns do not exist”, can we really make the claim? What basis is there for it other than the absence of evidence to the contrary?

As for this:

“”‘moral judgments exist in the mind therefore the burden of proof is on the objectivists.”"

No what I said was:

“Moral judgments exist in minds; this we know. That moral judgments have any existence or meaning independent of minds needs to be argued. Things that exist solely in minds are normally considered “subjective”. So the burden of proof rests with those who want to argue that moral judgments are objective.”

If you’re going to complain about people misrepresenting your ideas, you really should knock stuff like that off. The question is whether they exist *solely* in the mind. The activity that we call “the mind” does not exist solely in the mind. It can be objectively traced in considerable detail by EEGs. Tee Hee.

“Yet, I think you should stop framing the issue as a problem if you really do not think there are any moral truths. In such a world there is nothing wrong or bad with being delusional.”

This assumes strongly, as I said before, that the only problems are moral problems. Let’s apply this premise – that there is nothing wrong or bad with being delusional if there is nothing morally wrong with it – to science. By this criterion, science should evaluate theories by how they serve some set of “objective moral truths” not by whether they serve factual truth. If the moral consequences of Darwinism are bad, science should reject Darwinism. Now, whether the moral implications of Darwinism are actually bad is debatable, and will obviously rely in part on precisely which “objective moral truths” you accept, but for the argument it does not matter. Given the premise, do you accept the conclusion? With your position, I don’t see how you cannot.

In comment #180, you wrote:

“Oh really, no bad faith. Well how about this.

[quoting my comment #167]“You examine the potential consequences of wrongful skepticism of moral claims (that actual moral truth will not be followed because of our skepticism) and the consequences of wrongful belief in them, attributed to me (I suppose martin thinks it is bad in terms of the effects it would have on people). You cannot take this position and then say that consequences are irrelevant; you are arguing consequences.”

[your response in comment #180]This is in reference to my statement about consequences in post #162, were I was clearly referring to YOUR USE of consequences IN POST #161. There you seem to imply that thinking about consequences was relevant to the issue at hand or my previous examples but you did not demonstrate any relevance of even explain why you were talking about it.

The quote from #167 above contains ns *two direct quotes*, in parentheses, from your comment #158. Your comment in #158 was clearly not in response to my comment in #161, yet you responded as though it were, and accused *me* of bad faith for not responding to your comments in #158 as a response to #161.You attribute to me a claim that “thinking about consequences was relevant to the issue at hand or my previous examples” in the context of a bad faith accusation, which implies that this was not true. Now, you acknowledge that you were making a consequentialist argument all along and accuse me of bad faith for supposing you were so stupid as not to realize that. Speaking in good faith does not mean I have to assume you are coherent; it is your job to demonstrate that. On the current evidence, it is rather hard to maintain the position that you are even if I were inclined to assume such a thing “by default”, which, from courtesy, I am.

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Martin Bento 07.29.07 at 11:03 pm

J, on the education of the Khmers, I wasn’t responding to what you said about the suppression of the educated, but making another point. If we think modernity confers moral improvement, wouldn’t we expect to see this especially in people who were rigorously trained in modern thinking? Also, the Khmers were highly cosmopolitan, at least by local standards: they had lived in Paris and sometimes other countries, while most of their countrymen lived and died in a small geographical radius. Personally, I think the assault on intellectuals was largely consolidation of power; it left them the only educated people in the country.

As for this:

“My point was that the U.S. didn’t, as a matter of policy, take individual people and light them on fire using napalm, the better to illustrate for the rest of the village / country / world what the consequences would be of embracing the wrong ideas. I believe that’s what the Inquisition would have done.”

OK, but how does this compare to what the US did do? Its purpose was partly ideological, so it was attacking people for having the wrong ideas (to the extent that it was not ideological, it was simply a power struggle, which is, if anything, even less defensible. That applies to the Inquisition too, of course). It did set people on fire. The war was fought primarily to discourage other countries in the region from converting to Communism, Viet Nam itself being not of great consequence. So it was done largely for demonstrative purposes. The major difference seems to be that individuals were not singled out for their beliefs; rather villages and areas had fire rained down from the skies upon all. I don’t really see that as a moral improvement.

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someotherdude 07.30.07 at 1:27 am

Smith,

Your devotion to some mystical Moral Progress has you justifying American Imperialism, now you know how German exceptionalists felt in the 1920s.

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Martin Bento 07.30.07 at 2:53 am

Dude, although I think we have some agreement here, J has been unfailingly polite and has fairly argued throughout this thread, which cannot be said of everyone. So I would like to suggest that we please not take an accusatory tone with him. It is counterproductive to the discussion. Certainly the comparison you are making can be argued for, but it needn’t have the tone of an accusation. Thank you for your compliments on my writing, by the way.

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loren 07.30.07 at 2:54 am

Engels, I’ve no idea what Aaron was up to in post 56, but his question (whether sarcastic, baiting, whatever) clearly resonates with some of the posters and positions you and he and J. Smith have since been arguing against.

And I read post 62 (by samchevre, esp. “the de-colonialization process in Africa and India/Pakistan has featured extremely high levels of violance and brutality” and “Loss of stabilizing social institutions isn’t necessarily a good thing”) as I described: certainly he’s rejecting a universal thesis of moral progress, but he’s also doing just what I say he’s doing (see again my ambition here to engage in charitable mining of posts for interesting claims and positions).

Martin Bento in 63, 78 and 95 are also in the ballpark of the sort of thing I had in mind.

To be clear: I’m not trying to fudge the issues at stake (although I have no doubt you’ll continue to believe that this is what I’m up to, regardless of what I say here, but alas, while I obviously am obsessive enough to defend myself this far, I simply don’t care enough to repeat myself many more times: a near-200 comment blog post reminds me too much of my old Usenet addiction).

I’m choosing the issues that interest me, and interpreting some posts in that light. You pit yourself against the forces of darkness and their muddled pomo sympathists (I enjoyed your post 150). It’s a good fight, but I personally don’t think the forces of darkness and their pomo dupes have much by way of an interesting philosophical position. So yes, I do think it’s uninteresting arguing with them, although, like fixing the basement plumbing, I suppose it has to be done, and by someone who knows what they’re doing.

I also don’t think you need unabashed universalism and strong claims about moral objectivity to make the case for generalizable and authoritative moral knowledge, and I think my roughly constructivist position, if tenable (I’m still not sure, and there are strong arguments against my tentative stance) probably has implications not only for one’s philosophy of history, but more critically the sort of philosophical questions about history that one finds interesting and/or tractable.

Clearly our interests here are in the same ballpark, but not especially convergent. Alas.

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loren 07.30.07 at 3:01 am

“but I personally don’t think the forces of darkness and their pomo dupes have much by way of an interesting philosophical position. So yes, I do think it’s uninteresting arguing with them, although, like fixing the basement plumbing, I suppose it has to be done, and by someone who knows what they’re doing.”

I should also add, Engels, that I don’t think the chief protagonists in your debate here (Martin in particular, and certainly Jacob) fit my characterization above: they say interesting things, and there’s historical and interpretive complexity here – thus my desire to emphasize that complexity, not the thesis against moral progress that I don’t think ultimately follows from the evidence and interpretations they present. Being charitable with interesting people you partly disagree with doesn’t strike me as being insincere or malicious.

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Martin Bento 07.30.07 at 3:33 am

Welcome back Loren. I guess we’re all (but especially Engels) like the characters in that Gilbert and Sullivan show who keep singing “We Go! We Go!” until another character blurts out: “But you don’t go!”

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Martin Bento 07.30.07 at 3:44 am

Actually, I don’t think I have presented a thesis against moral progress absolutely. I just said that we have reasons we will tend to believe this that are independent of its truth. Therefore, we should treat such claims skeptically. That does not mean they are false. There are also some points about objective moral claims and such. The comparison between the Inquisition and Viet Nam is, for me, an example of being careful of such claims. It is always hard to see yourself and your own society with as cold an eye as you apply to others.

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J Smith 07.30.07 at 4:34 am

The comparison between the Inquisition and Viet Nam is, for me, an example of being careful of such claims. It is always hard to see yourself and your own society with as cold an eye as you apply to others.

I think we actually tend to go too easy on the past and to forget just how seriously evil things really were then. The evils committed within living memory tend to loom large, though, for obvious reasons.

(Oddly, this is reversed when people talk about works of art. You hear invidious comparisons of TV drama, say, to the brilliant achievements of the Elizabethan theater, with no acknowledgement that most plays of Shakespeare’s time were absolute dreck, and even his aren’t all Hamlet. But I digress.)

On this Vietnam comparison, basically it seems to come down to a different sense of what kinds of intentionality can be assigned to the national policy-making of big, bureaucratic modern states, plus what the particular intentions were behind recent American policies, plus what difference it makes that the destructiveness has increased in scale. I still think that attacking, torturing and killing a bunch of Anabaptists — hardly the most threatening group I can think of — and justifying this on grounds that they have the wrong theology of baptism, or whatever, is different from launching attacks — however misguidedly — as part of military operations against allies of a major power, under a doctrine that requires not targeting civilians as such, even if an incidental (though foreseeable) result of those attacks, given modern tactics and firepower, is burned villages and dead civilians.

But I grant that it’s a subtle distinction at best (as all the caveats indicate), and I will say this: As a believer in progress, I think that in another three hundred years — or, God willing, much sooner — modern methods of warfighting will also look absurd and immoral in the same way that the old religious wars and Inquisition look today. I really don’t think we’re just in a big cycle here, with equally (let alone increasingly) immoral acts being committed in every age even as the issues and parties happen to change. To go back to where we started — and to a question I wish I’d posed a lot sooner, since it’s forward- rather than backward-looking — I really wonder if the people who deny or question that there’s been moral progress look at contemporary Western societies and see any serious chance that they’ll somehow evolve from what they are now into the kind of mess they were for most of the time before 1950. Does the directional arrow really point both ways? If not, then there must be a name for the stronger tendency one way, and for me that name is “progress.”

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J Smith 07.30.07 at 7:09 am

someotherdude, I’m only justifying American imperialism (in Indochina, I suppose you mean) if there was nothing else to American policy there. I think there was, because I think opposing the Soviets was right to do, even if Vietnam was not a shining example of how or why. Or do you mean to say that opposing the Soviets was not right to do? That would put you in the same camp as an earlier group, too, the “Fellow Travelers” (I believe they were called).

Actually this raises another point vis-a-vis Martin’s argument: to the extent that American policy in Indochina then, or in the Middle East today, is what you describe and not what it’s presented as, it’s not popular with the American public (and still less so with other Western publics). The only way Americans can be induced to support these neo-imperialist elite projects is by having the Communist or Great Global Terrorist Menace waved in their faces. So, OK, they’re being duped — to some degree, certainly (although there really were Communist and now terrorist menaces) — but the very fact that this deception is needed attests to the progress that’s been made in de-legitimizing imperialism and military adventurism, does it not?

OK, now who gets the honor of the 200th post?

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