With the recent Scotus ruling, many have celebrated a sense of “progress” throughout social media. Rainbows have popped up on skyscrapers and online interfaces. Pictures pepper Twitter feeds and Tumblrs showing same-sex couples embracing, cheering, smiling, and waving flags. Some backlash is inevitable. But for the most part, most media outlets celebrate.

Certain words, like “conservative” and “reactionary” or (on the other side) “progressive” often make me wonder about progress–in effect, what it is and whether it exist. Personally, I think that the ruling is a sign of “progress,” but that progress is more complicated than we often give it credit for.

Take this situation. If a conservative is, by definition, someone who opposes changing the status quo and prefers more “traditional” values over more “progressive” values, then we have some odd alternatives. Either he or she is always (by definition) on the losing side of history. Or progress is not necessarily linear or inevitable.

The second of these hits to the sticky heart of progress, as one may have a harder time arguing against the raw progress of time and history–that it progresses–but we can easily argue that such progress is not some rosy, life-improving series of events. WWII, The Holocaust, the potential threat of climate change, the Arab Spring’s undoing, ISIS–such things complicate ideas of progress. “A Century’s Decline” by Wislawa Szymborska captures the feeling well:

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.
Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

Two traditional extremes come to mind: the Enlightenment mentality and the Relativist mentality. For arch-Enlightenment thinker Georg Friedrich Hegel, history had a goal and an orientation. It moved forward. For Hegel, historical progress was a state of Becoming that would eventually resolve all its conflicts and become Being, its original state. Thus, when conflicts arose–like despotism versus liberalism–thier resolution signaled an improvement.

In his own political writings, Immanuel Kant further argued that history must have progress, a thread examined by Josef Pieper in Hope and History. It was almost a (well-argued) no brainer.

Moral relativism, on the opposite extreme, eschews these absolute claims, making progress quite wishy washy. For a moral relativist, context defines the values and moralities that take place, with no single morality is better than another. For example, Herodotus’ comparison between The Callatiae and the Greeks. The Callatiae would eat their fathers’ remains as a sign of honor, a deplorable act to the Greeks, and the Greeks burned theirs, a deplorable act to the Callatiae. For Herodotus, this showed the dominance of custom aver absolute value.

We see a similar example with Nietzsche’s “old and new tablets”: that morals are essentially codified customs and can be changed.

A common critique leveled against moral relativism and cultural relativism, however, is that progress becomes impossible. Genital mutilation, homophobic legislation, racism, etc., are no “worse” or “less moral” than their “progressive” opposites.

But, one does not have to be nihilistic when faced with plurality. Indeed, Nietzsche saw this as his primary goal: to destroy life-denying values that included the nihilistic abyss and create life-affirming values through the Will to Power.  In other words, he posited that we needed a different foundation to morality. Since “God is dead” we can’t rely on vague notions of “the Good” (Plato), reason (Hegel and Kant), etc. Instead, we must make our own foundation, write our own stone tablets.

As a further complication, binaries like “good and bad” or “conservative and progressive” often over-simplify ideas of progress. Not all conservatives or progressives have the same values within their sub group. And not all progressive values are necessarily joy-creating.

Instead of using the sort of dialectic model that Hegel and others have used, we can look at progress as a “constellation of forces,” to use a phrase by John Muckelbauer. Different alternatives, values, heritages, etc., co-exist together and advance together in a sticky, stumbling, noisy nonlinear sense of progress.

With all this in mind, I think one has a simple, but daunting challenge: find the sorts of values that give shape to progress, while recognizing these complications. For example, reduced repression may be a sign of progress. General equality may be another. Increased happiness and quality of life may may be another. Increased compassion and understanding. Reduced hate and exclusion. many people agree these count as progress, as they feel progressive. They feel like an improvement. They feel like we are going someplace better. They hurt less and make joy.

All these criteria can act as a ruler of sorts, sizing up situations and events. While they do not suppose an absolute, they are justifiable. I can argue that making people happy and reducing suffering is a sign of progress, even if I can’t prove it. In this way, I think Scotus does spell progress, even though an inherent friction exists–i.e., some people are unhappy and may remain so.


One thought on “Progress

  1. My personal inclination is that such progress as there is is a result of more and more of us getting crunched together as time passes, either physically or technologically, forcing us to accommodate each other. That is, the same dynamics of small group cohesion get applied to larger and larger populations.

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