Moral and Technological Progress 2

It’s difficult to question the progress of technology and science. However, during the aptly named Progressive Era, the inexorable march of sci/tech became confused with the inexorable march of moral progress. The two shapes of time—moral and technological progress—became interlinked. Looking back at this interlinkage, i find much to admire in its resultant philosophy. I don’t agree with it entirely, of course, but it’s better than the progressivism of today. A Cathedral cleric writes about it disapprovingly:

It is a Whiggish temptation to regard progressive thought of a century ago as akin to contemporary progressivism. But, befitting the protean nature of the American reform tradition, the original progressives entertained views that today’s progressives, if they knew of them, would reject as decidedly unprogressive. In particular, the progressives of a century ago viewed the industrial poor and other economically marginal groups with great ambivalence. Progressive Era economic reform saw the poor as victims in need of uplift but also as threats requiring social control, a fundamental tension that manifested itself most conspicuously in the appeal to inferior heredity as a scientific basis for distinguishing the poor worthy of uplift from the poor who should be regarded as threats to economic health and well-being.

So, while progressives did advocate for labor, they also depicted many groups of workers as undeserving of uplift, indeed as the cause rather than the consequence of low wages. While progressives did advocate for women’s rights, they also promoted a vision of economic and family life that would remove women from the labor force, the better to meet women’s obligations to be “mothers of the race,” and to defer to  the “family wage”. While progressives did oppose biological defenses of laissez-faire, many also advocated eugenics, the social control of human heredity (Leonard 2005b). While progressives did advocate for peace, some founded their opposition to war on its putatively dysgenic effects, and others championed American military expansion into Cuba and the Philippines, and the country’s entry into the First World War. And, while progressives did seek to check corporate power, many also admired the scientifically planned corporation of Frederick Winslow Taylor, even regarding it as an organizational exemplar for their program of reform. Viewed from today, it is the original progressives’ embrace of human hierarchy that seems most objectionable. American Progressive Era eugenics was predicated upon human hierarchy, and the Progressive Era reformers drawn to eugenics believed that some human groups were inferior to others, and that evolutionary science explained and justified their theories of human hierarchy.

It sounds to me like the progressivism of the Progressive Era had yet to become one-eyed. Scientific and moral progress were coupled together, which meant that, for a brief moment in American history, one ideal kept the other’s excesses in check. This explains people like Margaret Sanger, who believed in the moral progress of racial equality but also realized that, empirically, the best way to achieve racial equality was through serious eugenic policies for blacks.

Today, in practice and in reality, moral and scientific progress are completely de-coupled. This explains people like [insert random progressive here], who believe in the moral progress of racial equality but have no empirical foundation for bringing it about, and so resort to a magical defensive tactic (“institutional racism!”) to explain why the good magic hasn’t happened yet. Today’s progressives are often outright hostile to notions of scientific progress.

Nevertheless, despite the reality, in today’s progressive and popular imaginations, moral and technological progress still are one and the same, inextricably linked. This is an epiphany I had while teaching class today. I overheard some students talking, and they seemed to reject a right-wing position as quickly and thoughtlessly as though they were rejecting the use of horse-and-buggy as a means of transportation to tonight’s sorority party. “Oh, people just don’t think that way anymore” or “We’ve moved beyond that kind of philistine thought” or “That is so how my grandfather talks!” As though notions of sovereign borders were as quaint as Ptolemaic cosmology.

Moral and technological progress are two non-overlapping time-shapes. The latter is empirically observable, the former is either a fiction or a temporary reprieve from Hobbesian violence safeguarded by high-trust civilizations. In the American Progressive Era, they were coupled together, with interesting and not entirely unsatisfactory results. Today, we operate only with the Progressive Era’s belief in moral progress, but this belief is, among the progressive elite, de-coupled from a concomitant belief in scientific and technological progress. No more checks and balances. The one-eyed, headlong pursuit of the Moral Prize hurtles us toward Left Singularity.

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5 responses

  1. That Leonard text, read upside down (of course), is absolutely fascinating. It’s simply stunning how effective the Cathedral has been at stripping all the rationality out of its own traditions, leaving nothing but the power hunger and delusion.

    October 11, 2013 at 12:48 am

    • Indeed. One mystery, though, is why abortion rights (the roots of which are thoroughly eugenic*) has remained popular among contemporary progressives. I assume Leonard is not pro-life, and yet his contempt for eugenics drips through on every page. I suppose in the 1960s abortion was simply enfolded into women’s rights (it’s my body, don’t police it!), leading to a convenient forgetting of its roots.

      *really, I should use the term ‘anti-dysgenic.’

      October 11, 2013 at 3:14 pm

  2. Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place

  3. LP

    There is only technological progress, so-called moral progress is just adapting to technological change. It is not a coincidence that slavery was abolished during the industrial revolution. It is not that we just happened to wake up one day after millenia of slavery and have a moral revelation that slavery is wrong. It was only when machines replaced human labor that slavery was abolished. Likewise, it was only with labor saving technology that women were able to leave the home. Can you even comprehend how much work it took to keep a family going without dishwashers, clothes washers, vacuum cleaners, and refrigeration?

    October 17, 2013 at 5:23 pm

  4. nymrod

    @One mystery, though, is why abortion rights (the roots of which are thoroughly eugenic*) has remained popular among contemporary progressives

    that’s starting to change. sex selective abortion, where girls are aborted at higher rates than boys, are already starting to undergo scrutiny. add in the near term certainty of finding homosexual genes, and hence abortive homocide, and abortion will one day be forbidden by progressive decree. it will then have always be that way we will be told.

    October 17, 2013 at 5:27 pm

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