The problems of society – Part two: The paradox of progress

The problem cluster of interest to me is environmental degradation. The problematic behavior causing environmental degradation is the repeated prioritization of progress and material improvement over environmental prudence. This behavior is prevalent in the West (Europe, Russia, the United States and Canada) much of Asia (China, Japan, India, and South Korea), Central America, and the global South. The arbitrary value judgment underlying this environmentally destructive behavior is that “progress” is good; particularly, progress defined as advances in science, technology, and social organization intended toward overcoming the limits of the human condition and improving material luxury. The pervasiveness of this paradigm is made most obvious by our dichotomizing the world in terms of developed and developing nations. The global norm seems to be to believe that the purpose of human life is to rapaciously improve our material luxury, even well beyond our biological necessities. With a continually increasing population and an unparalleled prioritization of progress and industrialization, it’s easy to see why this value judgment has yielded a litany of environmental problems. But progress, generally speaking, is not a new value. So to understand it contextually, we must trace the idea through the history of philosophy.

The modern idea of progress goes back to European Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and so on. The influences of these philosophers’ ideas are seen in the foundations of many modern societies and institutions: Locke and Smith in the US, Kant in Germany and the UN, Marx in Russia and China, etc.

But from where did these Enlightenment thinkers inherit their value judgment? For they were not philosophizing in the state of nature. The utopian character of many Enlightenment political philosophies is a secularization of Christian millenarianism.  The Enlightenment project was one aimed at creating heaven on Earth through progressive improvements in science, technology, and social organization.

Yet again, Christian millenarian philosophers were not original in their thinking either. Indeed, Albert Camus, with his 1936 thesis Neo-platonism and Christian Thought, illustrates the common thread that runs from ancient Greek philosophy to medieval and early modern Christianity. The Enlightenment, consistent largely of philosophers educated in dogmatically Christian states, inherited their style of reasoning from Aquinas, Augustine, Plotinus and other Neo-Platonists, who, as Camus shows us and the name implies, were inspired by Plato. Particularly, Plato’s distinctions between the world, the realm of the forms, and the form of the Good. The value of life, the truth of it all, for Plato, is not here in the world, but in the heavenly forms and the form of the Good.

So now it is important to contextualize Plato’s thinking. Plato lived in Homeric Greece where, traditionally, human life was seen to be governed by chance, luck and fate, personified by the many gods. The journey of living was, like other animals, just to make the best of one’s circumstances until death. But Plato rejected this as the human condition. He thrashed against the idea of our cosmic insignificance, pining for humans to be special. So he came up with an idea that elevated our status from that of other animals: Rationality connects human consciousness to the transcendental realm of the forms and the form of the Good. By knowing the form of the Good we can take command of and improve our condition to escape the struggles of Homeric fatalism. Thus the foundation of the modern faith in progress was laid.

Plato’s famous tripartite distinction between the empirical world, the realm of the forms, and the form of the Good was easily adapted to Christian thinking. Augustine, in particular, saw Plato as describing the Earthly realm, Heaven and God, further even unto the Holy Trinity. Then, through the utopian rationalism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment these philosophical constructions were secularized by new thinkers, whose ideas were then looked to for the political foundations of much of the modern world.

Since Plato, the idea that there is some ultimate good has been steadfast. What form in particular the form of the Good takes, however, has changed. It has been reinterpreted and recast by countless scholars and social leaders. In any case, the particular form of the form of the Good is an arbitrary value judgment. It is the seed of society. Today, we judge scientific, technological, and governmental progress to be good. We believe that the resulting materially luxurious lifestyle is synonymous with human well-being. It is from this root valuation that our behavior and thus our problems emerge.

Therefore we must question the goodness of progress. Given the extent of environmental damage the world over and the fact that other problems like social equity, economic disproportionalities, and political stagnation and insolvency are so grave, it should be clear that progress as our root value is problematic. In many cases, our progress has actually exacerbated the problems it aimed to solve. As if in a disturbing screenplay, we see that consequences are looming. Yet we value progress so much that we are unable to deprioritize it. Even at the risk of rendering the Earth uninhabitable.

So progress as our root value has its issues. But we don’t want to cut down the whole tree because revolutions are messy. Besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong with people trying to improve the human condition. This pursuit is a natural human desire served historically by western monotheistic fundamentalism and currently by secular liberal humanism. The drive for progress is going nowhere. So it’s just what we think constitutes progress and the extent to which we prioritize that pursuit over other values that is problematic. It is paradoxical to prioritize progress so much so that it undermines the resources that enable our progress to begin with. Not to mention the inherent irrationality of the idea that we can achieve infinite improvements in material wealth from a finite set of resources.

So, what can be done? How can we fix the tree without completely uprooting it? My suggestion is by no means to do away with progress as a value altogether. That would be unrealistic and undesirable by any account. A return to primitive living would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to sell. And I am a beneficiary of the progress of the anteriority like any other and thus cannot wholeheartedly complain. But if the industrial pursuit of material luxury leads to extensive environmental degradation, and environmental degradation undermines progress’ enabling resources, then we must, if we want to keep progressing, either moderate our rapaciousness or make our consumption environmentally sustainable. Yet our relentless dedication to progress and industrialization, not to mention the heavy entrenchment of the fossil fuels industry in the American political system, prevents either from happening. Progress is so high a priority that it will eventually prevent us from progressing. Hence, the paradox of progress. But the effects of the paradox are not yet at their climax. There is still time to mitigate the damage that has been done and prevent further exacerbation. So, to enable our deprioritization of progress and material improvement when necessary, say, when its pursuit begins interfering with our biological, non-arbitrary needs, then our idea of what constitutes progress must be tweaked. This subtle change is as simple as remembering that human well-being is not necessarily synonymous with constant improvements in material luxury. We must learn to be content. If we cannot, then the paradox of progress will overwhelm our societies.

At its core, this redefinition of progress is a Taoist project. The virtue of contentment as acclaimed by Taoist philosophy, is antithetical to the insatiable pursuit of material improvement. Contentment cannot be attained through the pursuit and fulfillment of desire, but through relinquishing desire itself. For desire and discontent are a funny thing when they work together. They feed into one another. One desires because she or he is discontent, and is discontent because he or she so desires. But utter control of one’s circumstances cannot be seized. Discontentment cannot be quelled in this manner. It can only be overcome by tempering desire itself. Such was Plato’s struggle.

Through Socrates, Plato argues that the soul is just when desire is ruled by rationality. But if he had truly held himself to this standard, then his Republic would have considered the origin of a city, rather than the origin of a luxurious city. Plato’s rationality, and thus the justness of the Kallipolis, fundamentally gives way to the appetitive desire for material improvement when Socrates concedes to Glaucon that the city will not be the “true” and “healthy” city, as described from 372a – d, but one “with a fever.” This concession literally constitutes the historical textual embodiment of the philosophic foundation of the value judgment prioritizing progress over environmental prudence.

However, the Republic may be a sort of proof by contradiction – a sneaky critique of luxurious society. That the luxurious city becomes one of pragmatically impossible social organization may be Plato’s way of subtly suggesting that the true utopia is actually the healthy city. If this is not the case that the Republic is a proof by contradiction, then the contentment argument certainly applies. But if it is the case, then Plato’s true utopia, the healthy city, is consistent with the virtue of contentment. To diminish desire itself is the way to contentment. If one is content with existence, then the answer to the normative question, the appropriate action, is to not act. If we temper our desire for material luxury, we can reduce our environmentally degrading behavior at its source. This is my vision for applying the virtue of contentment to the modern conception of progress. Though this tweak to the idea of progress should not be taken to the Taoist extreme. To argue against action of any kind beyond the fulfillment of non-arbitrary purpose is just silly. A compromise – a middle way – between the two virtues is preferable.

Thus, the overarching question, to which the entirety of this thought process is ultimately devoted is, can the environmental effects of the paradox of progress be mitigated by reconciling the virtue of progress with the virtue of contentment?

JM Kincaid

The problems of society – Part one: The normative question

The state of nature, for lack of historical evidence, is really just a thought experiment. But it’s still useful. I’m thinking about the period of human existence before any complicated society had come about. There must have been a time when the human way of life was still similar to our primate next of kin, at least for a little while; something along the lines of Rousseau’s natural man.

Suppose, for the sake of metaphor, that the state of nature is a simple hill.

As the human brain, and in turn, consciousness, memory, and symbolic communication, developed over the course of evolution, human beings must have, at some point, begun to ask the fundamental normative question that emerges with complex self-awareness. I imagine the first human ancestors to stumble upon the normative question experienced something like this: I realize now that I am conscious, and I have the sense that I can choose to act. So…what should I do?

Generally speaking, asking what should be done amounts to asking what is worth doing. The normative question projects the expectation that there exists a purpose with some intrinsic or consequential value that makes it worth taking on. Positing should therefore presupposes value, for it’s only by the presupposition of worth that normativity is possible. The question doesn’t assume a particular value, however. It can only assume that value, as an abstract possibility, exists. If the normative question were to assume a particular value, then that would mean that a judgment has already been made, as particular value is inherently a question of judgment. But the normative question is supposed to be prejudgment. So the question can only assume that value judgment itself is possible. It puts an “insert value judgment here” into the normative equation.

The mind can answer the normative question in two ways. It can conclude that there is no purpose worth its effort, and no action would occur. Or it can be motivated to act by the particular value of some purpose, and action ensues. What purpose in particular someone decides is worth pursuing is really just a variable. It is a subjective, arbitrary value judgment. So it could be anything. What’s important is that conscious action, when it occurs, is motivated by some purpose, the end of which has some perceived intrinsic or consequential value.

But this is only an account of conscious acts. A conscious act is an action consciously motivated by a subjective value judgment. Some things, of course, we just do with no real conscious involvement. These actions are unconsciously driven. An unconscious act is an action motivated by the value of fulfilling an objective condition. They are acts including foraging for food and drink, searching for mates, and sleeping. Like conscious acts, these also fulfill certain purposes and carry normative force. But these purposes are not based on arbitrary value judgments. They are based on non-arbitrary value, as they address our objective biological necessities. Unconscious acts are motivated by non-arbitrary purpose with non-arbitrary value. This non-arbitrariness is why it is so shocking when people make it their objective to not fulfill these purposes, like hunger strikes, vows of celibacy, or staying awake indefinitely.

Engaging with non-arbitrary purpose accounts for much of the human experience. Like any other animal, biological necessities are the main motivation for behavior and constitute the majority of our daily cycle. But in between birth, foraging for nourishment, searching for mates, sleeping and death, there are pockets of time that we restlessly seek to fill with purposive, and thus meaningful, activity. This restlessness stems from the nagging existential nature of the normative question; we long for meaning and significance. It is in these pockets of time that we create purposes for ourselves based on subjective, arbitrary value judgments that make our lives feel meaningful.

So, let’s return in our minds to the image of the simple hill. Prehistoric human social life likely originated around the collective fulfillment of non-arbitrary purposes, and in the process of securing those objective biological needs, they developed common arbitrary values and behavior. There is no way to really determine how that process played out, but the end result is that people live in proximity to one another, have common arbitrary values and exhibit similar behavior based on collective social norms.

These common arbitrary values are like philosophical seeds planted in the simple hill. Eventually, the seeds sprout roots and, through the proximate habitation of people and the collective evolution of arbitrary values, become established social norms. These constructions then grow into a complex trees, which branches off into different aspects of society that we call social, political, and economic life. However, because humans aren’t perfect, the various trees and branches will have their imperfections. These imperfections are the problems of society. They are problems like social inequality, political insolvency, vast wealth gaps, violent conflict, and ecological destruction. Such ecological destruction includes but is not limited to diminished biodiversity, global climate change, habitat destruction, extensive air and water pollution, deforestation, and the anthropogenic overwhelming of several of the Earth’s elemental cycles (Carbon, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, etc). Because environmental quality is intimately linked to the fulfillment of objective biological necessities, ecological degradation, in particular, is a problem of the highest fundamental importance and priority. To not prioritize overcoming the ecologically destructive trends of human society is a case where the pursuit of an arbitrary purpose and value obstructs the fulfillment of non-arbitrary purpose and value.

Most often, people try to solve the problems of society by tending to the branches themselves, pruning the immediate problems that are plainly in view. This is a worthwhile strategy. But, frequently we reveal that the policy solution to one problem has ripple effects that cause other problems which must then be addressed with polices that themselves have ripple effects that cause problems, and this continues indefinitely. This Sisyphean phenomenon is not necessarily a fault, it’s just one of the conditions we have to think about. Our lives are just too short for the extent to which we can manipulate our environment. We don’t live long enough to see the ripples of our actions touch the shore, so often we act with a false sense of impunity. The long-term effects of a generation’s decisions aren’t felt until latter generations, after all. The pruning method, however, is not the only option.

There are two routes that can be taken toward solving the problems of society, and they should both be used. It’s just difficult for one person to do everything at once, so one chooses. We can prune the problematic branches we can see, or, trace the problems of interest to their common, less visible root value. In the latter option, the strategy is to apply a subtle change to the root and use the ripple effects to help ameliorate a cluster of problems at once. I am partial to this strategy, in particular, to solve the cluster of problems referred to collectively as environmental degradation.

We cannot forget that the real commonality between all of these environmental problems is human activity. But we can’t help being human. Certainly none of us asked to exist. It just happened. We can’t change what we are, or that we feel internally compelled to behave in some way. So the environmental problems that arise from our behavior must be addressed through paradigm and behavioral shift. A reversion to primitive living or asceticism are not a realistic solutions. A less radical change is the appropriate response.

Problematic conscious actions are motivated by some conception of purpose with an underlying arbitrary value, so if changing paradigm and behavior is the solution, the solution can be attained by changing the motivating root value. But the root is below the surface. It hides as an unconscious assumption beneath a vast majority of our conscious actions, making it difficult to identify, much less change. With time and attention, however, one notices common threads and can identify the root value of the problem cluster of interest. The method is as such: first, identify the target problem cluster. Next, find the common paradigmatic and behavioral link between the various problems. Then, identify the common value motivating the problematic activity. Once the common value is known, the question becomes how we should tweak it to improve the problem cluster. This requires understanding the value in the context of its evolution. Given the proper context,  the appropriate tweak reveals itself.

Continue to Part two: The paradox of progress…