ISIL and Progress

Not Progressive

Not Progressive

People like this fail… because the future is won by those who build, not destroy.

One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.

Barack Obama

A few months ago a reader tried (unsuccessfully) to explain to me that hunting and eating meat were aberrant behaviors because though they are activities enjoyed by most people in most countries for the whole of human history, humanity is evolving in a new direction.

Which, I tried to explain (unsuccessfully), is a load of bunk, because evolution is a blind process with absolutely no ethical meaning. There is no such thing as “more evolved” or “less evolved”, there is only the question of whether or not one’s decedents have survived over the millenia, and since we cannot guess future conditions, the question can only be answered after the fact, not before.

Invoking future evolution as a reason to condemn a behavior is, so far as I can see, ridiculous. So is invoking ‘progress’ and ‘history’. Saying something is bad because it is ‘not progressive’ just invites the question: progressive towards what? To what goal are we magically progressing, and why should I want it to come about? To say something is ‘on the wrong side of history’ is equally stupid: how does the speaker know where history is going? And if even if he could know the direction of history, why should we all want that particular version of it?

Where do these ideas come from?

1. Western Civilization has some Christian roots, which gives us Westerners a linear, rather than circular notion of history: God made the world, and Christ is involved in some mysterious process of redeeming it which will be perfected when he returns in glory. But even a quick reading of the New Testament shows that this coming of the Kingdom is a process which passes through such dark events as persecution and martyrdom. The individual Christian’s job is to be good and pray hard. The coming of the Kingdom on the other hand is the work of God: unexpected, unpredictable, and mysterious. It is a kingdom “not of this world”. Individual Christians trying to bring about the Kingdom of Christ using the tools of this world are not kindly remembered by history, from Constantine to Torquemada.

2. Even as Western Civilization has secularized, this notion of linear history has increased. God has disappeared, but history keeps moving of its own accord towards a glorious conclusion. In this view, history begins more or less with the Enlightenment. Once the light of reason shines upon mankind, there is nothing to stop it from convincing people, and nothing to keep enlightened people from bettering the world through science and education, the military conquest of backwards races, and the guillotine for people opposed to enlightenment.

3. Marx for his part claims to understand the scientific structure of history itself: history must move towards the dictatorship of the proletariat, and smart people are getting on the right side of history, trying to speed up the process with purges and Gulags.

4. The enlightenment view collapsed in 1914, and the Marxist view in 1989. What we are left with is “progressives” who believe things will keep getting better, even if they can’t explain why. The only thing contemporary progressives are sure about is that they should be running the world by virtue of their moral and intellectual superiority. This creates an intellectual closed circle: something is right because it is progressive, something is progressive because all the right sort of people agree that it is.

But beyond the myopia of contemporary progressives is a messy world where history does not move in straight lines. Humans have the same instincts as always, some nobler and some baser. The question is not whether something is on the right side of history; the question is whether or not it is just or unjust, more on our good side, or more on our bad side. If we are not careful, who is to say that ISIL is not not the future of humanity? They are certainly doing everything in their power to make it so.

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