The story of the HR Director is a familiar theme in business today, as companies measure progress purely in terms of shareholder value, while ignoring grave injustices to workers, the consequent tsunami of costly social dysfunction, and the increasingly real prospect of societal breakdown. Of course, the situation is no less troubling in regard to the major issues of the new millennium – globalisation, automation, transhumanism, and environmental degradation. Is justice being respected or flouted? Is progress real or illusory?
In an age when debate seldom goes beyond specious sound bites, those who aspire to leadership need to think more seriously about the concept of human flourishing and its components. Human flourishing is quite simply the fulfilment of human potential, people being inspired to be the very best they can be as individuals in contributing to the well-being of the communities they are part of – family, school, workplace, neighbourhood, and nation. But that flourishing can only be built on the rather more complex notions of justice and progress.
The word justice is often used cynically. However, against the “might is right” attitude accepted with such docility today, justice is still correctly understood in terms of Plato’s suum cuique, giving each person what is due to them. And what are the things that are due to all human beings, unless they forfeit them, through criminal activity, for example? Respect for their dignity as human beings, freedom to be the best they can be, a proper education that develops mind, body, and character, a sense of belonging to a family and a community, meaningful work, a home, material sufficiency, and the personal responsibility to strive to serve the good – all these things promote human flourishing, and the true measure of any culture, country, corporation, or community is the degree to which they are achieved.
This classical understanding sees justice as the on-going restoration of a proper order among people in any community. It is a dynamic process in which the debts constantly incurred in the flux and flow of everyday life are settled, and socio-economic equilibrium is maintained. Justice presupposes the natural rights of all human beings, rights that have precedence over the power of the state. If such rights did not exist, man-made laws would be the sole determinant of what was right and wrong, and there would be no criterion by which governments could be held accountable.
Progress is also a poorly understood concept, largely because of a tantalising myth that continues to grip the public imagination in spite of its frequent debunking at the hands of history and current affairs. Progress obviously requires change, but is not synonymous with change for the simple reason that things often change for the worse. Progress also frequently involves growth, but again there is no synonymy because the growth of ignorance, deserts, or cancer cells would hardly advance the cause of human flourishing.
The modern myth of progress developed during the 18th century Enlightenment, as public intellectuals like Voltaire and Diderot, and philosophers like Hume and Kant, building on the inspiration provided by Descartes and Newton, misguidedly repudiated 1000 years of European history as the “Dark Ages”, and proclaimed a new Age of Reason that would see the unstoppable advance of humanity in realising its full potential. The Christian vision of eternal life was replaced by the Gospel of Progress, the achievement of heaven on earth. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, even among many nominal Christians, faith in progress and human perfectibility effectively became the working religion of the modern world. To be part of modern civilisation was to be convinced that humanity had entered upon an era in which the growth of knowledge and material resources would be endless
The Gospel of Progress went wrong when it glibly dismissed the past as ignorant and inefficient. Its adherents, and they are the vast majority of people today, blindly commit the Whig fallacy, ignoring the bewildering complexity of facts about the past in their attempt to portray it as a mere preparation for the utopia under construction in the glorious present.
The Whig fallacy was famously exposed by Professor Herbert Butterfield of Cambridge in The Whig Interpretation of History, as the attempt to study the past solely with reference to the present, as if previous generations were significant only insofar as they contributed to the emergence of our world today. Butterfield pointed out that there is only one unassailable truth that emerges from properly-researched history. It is that the entire sweep of the past, with all its complexities, entanglements, all its unexpected twists and turns, and intricate interactions, produced the forbiddingly complex present we have to try and comprehend. More than anything else, history shows how crooked and questionable the ways of human progress have been, and to pretend that the trials, travails, and tragedies of previous generations were simply the necessary groundwork for the golden age we are supposedly about to enter upon, is to become a purveyor of totalitarian omelettes.