progress and its perils

Despite poverty and natural disasters around the world, many of us wealthy folks (if your reading this, I’d consider you wealthy) still think the world is a pretty good place. I mean, all the really bad stuff happens out there (e.g. Haiti earthquake). We send money, but mainly we are just spectators. Thus we become immune from truly identifying with hardship. We think our world, with all its scientific and technological advancements, is pretty good.

Well, I recently came across an article in The Economist that questions our belief in progress (no, I’m not a regular reader of this magazine, but Santa put it in my stocking:). The article critiques the very notion that our world is on a one-way track to Utopia. Now realistically, I know at least some of us acknowledge not all is right with the world. Yet even in acknowledging modern society’s deficits, how we live doesn’t always correspond with a thoughtful realism, due in large part to a troubling sense of entitlement we’ve developed. In the words of the article, “people born in the rich world today think they are due a modicum of health, prosperity and equality. They advance against that standard.” Sadly, our realism for the perils of progress only applies to others. We still expect perfection, even at others' expense.

The article continues by suggesting that part of the problem is to equate technological and scientific developments with social progress. Has all science benefited humanity (e.g. nuclear and biological weapons)? Obviously, what’s intended for good and can be used for evil. As the authors suggest, “scientific progress needs to be hitched to what you might call ‘moral progress.’” This need for moral progress is even more telling in economics – a situation in which “it is good to go up in the world, but much less so if everyone around you is going up in it too.” The illusion of our progress is exposed as in our quest for individual success we realize there isn’t room for everybody.

Drawing on the work of philosopher Susan Neiman, the article closes with a sort of secularized alter-call. With too much emphasis placed on the elusory good of science and technology, “moral sensibility” needs attention - the principle that we should guide progress by “what is right despite the costs.” And while I agree willingness for “acts of principled self-sacrifice” would go a long way towards counteracting our often-selfish endeavours, I’m still left wondering who determines the content of moral sensibility? Me? You? God? Government? I’m not convinced that to suggest “moral progress…is up to us” really changes anything. It’s a rally cry, sure. But to what? Well, back to ourselves – the ones who created the problems in the first place.

As a religious person – a Christian – I still hold out hope for the input of religious ethics in our critique of social progress (Susan Neiman does to a degree as well, but through the lens of reason. See here). While I’m not ignorant of religion’s own culpability to fail, religious ethics can provide a content for conceptions of “moral progress” that generic human goodness fails to provide. Religious ethics provide a story of goodness, not just an idea - a story in which we don’t rely solely on our own ability to live well. Amidst the ongoing failure in humanity's so-called progress, religious ethics bring the simple acknowledge that we need help.

God help us!

On a lighter note (and much funnier!), this video offers a comical critique of technological advance, bringing into sharp reality just how absurd our assumptions around “progress” are:


Post a Comment