It is obviously easy for people today to be enchanted by the myth of progress. The astonishing advances in science and technology, in medicine, food production, lifestyle convenience, transportation, digital media, and space exploration, all trumpet the triumph of humanity. Yet alongside these remarkable achievements we have democratic erosion, societal decay, cultural conflict, environmental degradation, financial meltdown, economic instability, geopolitical flashpoints, genocidal wars, and more. The spectacular growth of global business and the staggering fortunes made by some are offset by the debilitating economic insecurity and social exclusion of many, many more. These realities make all claims of progress seem hollow, and we find ourselves tormented once more by the ancient tension between justice and progress.
Few people think deeply enough to see the obvious incompatibility between a belief in progress and a commitment to multiculturalism. Values are created by culture, even in a culture that proclaims personal choice as the supreme value, and different cultures inevitably have conflicting ideas about what progress means and whether it is even desirable. To take a few simple examples, millions of people all over the world see the triumph of low-brow, permissive junk culture as obvious social regress, and while the most reputable research continues to emphasise the importance of the traditional family to the well-being of individuals, communities, and societies, Western establishment elites openly promote the promiscuity that undermines it.
In reality, progress is simply the process of improvement, of making something better than it was before. Logically, human progress must entail the advancement of humanity, not just some people, but the whole human family. Modern medical science seems to have provided precisely that, improving the quality of life for all, though cases like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments between 1932 and 1972 remind us how easily human perversity can turn progress into regress. The American Constitution is a famous example of political progress that has held up the beacon of freedom and creativity as a model for all humankind, but the corruption of that system by creeping centralisation, executive overreach, judicial activism, and partisan conflict, again demonstrates the ever-lurking threat of regress.
History not only makes clear that material progress is a major aspect of civilisation in all its forms, but also how swiftly that material progress is undermined by intellectual failure and a loss of virtue. One of the great modern philosophers of history, Arnold Toynbee, in his celebrated A Study of History, came to the conclusion that human progress is neither linear and inevitable, nor cyclical and recurring, but that it depended on the way people exercise their intellect and their freedom.
Material progress without ethical and intellectual progress is a chimera, and the people in power in politics and business seem oblivious of the lessons of history. Almost 70 years ago the acclaimed historian, Christopher Dawson wrote in Religion and the Rise of Western Culture that “It would be a strange fatality if the great revolution by which Western man has subdued nature to his purposes should end in the loss of his own spiritual freedom, but this might well happen if an increasing technical control of the state over the life and thought of its members should coincide with a qualitative decline in the standards of our culture.”
Dawson was addressing the greater civilizational issue, but the challenge to leaders can be seen at all levels. In the midst of our inspirational technological advances and all the political panegyrics about our brave new world of the Third Millennium, Professor Paul Light of NYU commented on how people in the US civil service are shackled by misleadership: “Federal employees appear to be more motivated by compensation than mission, ensnared in careers that cannot compete with business and nonprofits, troubled by the lack of resources to do their jobs, dissatisfied with the rewards for a job well done and the lack of consequences for a job done poorly, and unwilling to trust their own organizations.”
In terms of simple logic, there can be no human progress without justice, because injustice degrades humanity. Science and technology cannot alter this simple fact of life, and cannot save us if we wilfully tinker with the unchanging reality of what it means to be human. Without the wisdom and virtue to pursue the good of all as our first priority, we are much worse off than all the civilisations that preceded us, for the simple reason that our destructive capabilities are so much greater. We would do well to heed the warning given by G K Chesterton in The Napoleon of Notting Hill:
“Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization, many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”