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Peter Copeland: Progress is much more than outcomes — it is the quality of life


We tell ourselves a few different stories about the question of progress: the Enlightenment, the Marxist, and the Postmodern prominent among them.

All boats have been steadily rising, unevenly, and in fits and starts over time, but exponentially so after the Enlightenment. This is the view of progress as improvements in quality of life.

To others, progress is a bit of a mirage. Yes, we are healthier, wealthier, and safer, but the core of what it means to be human, and its challenges remains unchanged — we are selfish, cruel and domineering. The strong oppress the weak in a new guise.

You might also think, who’s to say? Isn’t talk of progress really a non-starter? There’s little meaning to life beyond what we make up in our own little heads. Self-actualization and determination are the only games in town.

Though onto something, there are problems with each.

For all the data points and statistical arguments marshalled in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Max Rosen’s Our World in Data, and Marian Tupy’s Human Progress, the problem is one of method. You’ll never find wood with a metal detector, and you just can’t smell a sight.

Through our own experience, we can all come to realize that happiness and fulfilment are much more than improvements in quality-of-life indicators. As we know, after a certain threshold of meeting basic needs and income security, there are diminishing returns. A troubling realization that even yuppies and social climbers inevitably stumble upon is that many people who are considered poor and unsuccessful — by the standards of quality-of-life metrics — are actually happier than themselves, and even significant portions of people in wealthy countries.

The gap in the Enlightenment story is that the good things in life are not found in the amount of a thing possessed, or the raw, abstract ability to choose from a dizzying array of possibilities, but in the quality of a life lived.

The Marxist-tinged accounts view social life as antagonistic, an ever-changing landscape of oppressive dominance between groups.

Like a virus that moves from host to host, the activist spirit spreads from cause to cause, seeking equalization of power, material differences, status and recognition through ever more coercive measures. Ironically, it achieves the opposite by spawning a growing web of regulatory, legal and organizational structures that concentrate power among large organizations and governments, the very cause of pernicious imbalances, stifling and smothering those whom it aims to uplift and protect. It is neglectful of the fact that life’s goods, both personal and cultural, are the fruits of agency, something that cannot be socially engineered, or ‘redistributed’. As the saying goes, equal at all costs — equally poor, unfree, unemployed and unfulfilled.

The problem with the postmodern view is that at its heart lies contradiction: creating and living by values that one believes to be fictitious, contingent and somewhat arbitrary, and yet also affirming and practicing them — a self-deception that is hard to sustain. The result is often cynicism, sarcasm and an ironic distance, supposedly the signs of superior wisdom, but really covers for a deeper malaise.

Quantity over Quality

Rather than pure progress characterized by quantities and abstractions, the unjust dominion of the rapacious west, or heroic relativism, we can have a much more nuanced view.

Advances in science and technology enable the skillful manipulation of the natural world to achieve things that were unthinkable to previous generations, from wealth and health to a capacity for — but not necessarily achievement of — richer, more fulfilling lives.

Our institutions have developed to such an extent that we are protected from the great harms and evils that were more commonplace in times when life was more dangerous, resources were more scarce, and collective wisdom was more diffuse.

Without the scaffolding of institutional wisdom and stability — the inheritance of civilization — we wouldn’t be able to replicate and improve upon successes with each passing generation. Nor would we have the connection to a past, and an ideal of the future, which are essential to human life.

Yet, the boons of progress have come at the expense of a proper understanding of human dignity and the inherent value in things, in favour of injections of artificially induced highs and a shallow vision of life.

Our civilization has lost the sense of the true, the beautiful and the good. The zeitgeist is characterized by a paradoxical turn inwards. Subjectivity determines every person’s ‘truth’ and as such, is the most important value in our society, yet we collectively refer to value judgments as mere preferences, or tastes because they are supposedly subjective.

Blotches on paper are called art. Choices are deemed good if they are the product of crude autonomy, whether they lead to health, wisdom and fulfilment over time, or temporary flashes of excitement in the pan and isolated, lonely, adult children later in life.

The cultural declines evident in stale, empty, repetitive forms of life that valorize work and consumption more than family and friendship are recognizable to all. Signs, to be sure, that have been seen many times before in Greece, Rome, China, and Mesopotamia at their apexes – civilizations who slowly decayed and imploded from within, under the weight of their own contradictions. Unlike Yuval Noah Harari’s vision of Homo Deus, we may be entering a state of cultural devolution, as our upright homo-sapiens begins to slouch into her desk chair, hunched over a screen — homo-docilis.

Characteristic of our age is a truncated vision of the good life stemming from a narrow view of what counts as knowledge, how we know it, and the extent of our powers of reason, confined to the physical and the mathematical, for instrumental and theoretical purposes alone.

Consequently, we’ve adopted the technocratic approach to problem-solving in every domain and even to the art of living itself, conceiving of happiness and fulfilment as outcomes that require the inputs of the rational application of technique and choice in piecemeal fashion.

The perspective is ubiquitous. In economics and public policy, what is thrift and saving, when you can finance growth by debt-leveraged consumption? Having trouble sleeping? Don’t change your habits, take a pill. Trouble finding a mate? There’s pornography for that. Balancing family and a career? Freeze your eggs and put off marriage. Need to get out of the hustle bustle? Listen to some nature sounds and practice mindfulness for a few minutes a day. Want to learn about something? Read the summary, watch a video, or ask google.

By finding technocratic fixes to every problem, the underlying causes are swept under the rug, stymieing the cultivation of the very things we are ultimately trying to foster — personal character, and social capital. Simply, they cannot be had without commitment to friends, family, place, purpose, a belief in and practice of morality as standards discovered outside of one’s self, including a sense of, and devotion to that which is transcendent.

Much of this is found and nurtured in a community. It is a word used so frequently today, not because it is descriptive of any given situation, but because it is aspirational. There are so few genuine communities to speak of — just a vague sense of sharing characteristics with members of a group that one will never see, and who probably, one does not even engage in shared projects with. The irony is that seeking them online or at a distance further undermines their quality, and the ability to make and maintain lasting connections.

Progress is much more than just outcomes — it is the quality of life lived. In this regard we are declining at an accelerating rate and our ability to respond to the challenges of life is dependent upon our personal and social capital, which are being eroded by technocracy, restless and misguided activism, and libertine liberalism. While there is a story of continuing technological progress, that is not the case insofar as human wisdom is concerned. More and more, there is less wisdom to be found from the latest book by a New York Times columnist, top academic, or entire University departments than there is around a Bingo table at a retirement home.

It is really this worldview that holds such power over us — the delusion that salvation lies in the application of technical rationality for instrumental purposes. To be cured of it, people do need a new common-sense revolution but not of the public policy sort. A true return to the obvious, and the everyday. As we are all fatigued by polarization and isolation, it means stepping away from toxic spaces online, spending time with family and friends, and those who don’t think like you or share the same background, in places where different social classes sit with one another, side by side — places of worship and community groups are good places to start.

We can build on the strengths of the Enlightenment, address the wrongs of the past, and attempt to quell the spiritual malaise of this era of decadence and relativism, but it requires a little less of the social engineer, the radical, the yuppie and the hippie, and a little more back to basics.

In this era of Promethean self-assertion, we must ask ourselves if our flourishing is dependent upon our ability to improve upon our natures, or whether it comes from accepting, celebrating and developing ourselves within those natural limitations? In this age more than ever, we risk emphasizing the former at the expense of the latter, missing the forest for the trees.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon: We do have a collective action problem. It’s called the state


Recently, Trent University Professor Christopher Dummitt took us all to task for our insufficient dedication to the collective — which, he worries, leaves those who “call for national sacrifice” on behalf of “the collective will” in a bind, bereft of the obedience they deserve.

Dummitt’s alleged “collective action problem” betrays a fundamentally illiberal misunderstanding of the social contract on which Canadian society is based. In short, we do not scamper about in the shadow of a Leviathan that stands apart and above us demanding obedience and “national sacrifice” like some sort of angry God.

Rather, and for centuries now, our social contract is based on voluntary association in freedom and harmony, with mutual respect and mutual tolerance, which also extends to people Dummitt (or I) may find genuinely offensive.

The reason we do not live under this Leviathan is because, in a liberal social order, the collective “we” is made, precisely, of us. When we are joyous, “the collective we” is joyous. When we thrive, it thrives. When we hurt, alas, we feel our pain. The collective is not separate from us, spontaneously generating a separate brain with separate goals. It is us. It derives its form, its strength, its power, and most of all, its legitimacy from the individuals who make it up.

This may seem quite obvious. Alas, the conflation of state and individual, of a separate “we” standing above the real “we,” has long been popular among those who crave power over others. Mussolini distilled it as: “It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity.” The individual still serves a very important function, of course, as the raw material — the cannon fodder, if you will — on which the collective paints the future.

A distinction between voluntary rules organically decided, such as politeness or etiquette, and regulation imposed through the state apparatus, ultimately backed by the use of force, is precisely the point of disagreement from those who think there is too much government control, not too little.

There is a world of difference between asking a favour and demanding it at gunpoint, and blithely conflating both as something “the collective” wants utterly misses the point. Failing to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary cooperation can take one to a very dark place of effectively endorsing totalitarianism in deed where one would never do so in word.

The state can potentially be a helpful servant, when controlled by proper institutions and traditions, but can also be a terrible master. We believe that we must always remain vigilant to the lessons that history has written in florid crimson about the risks of serving a “collective” that stands apart and above us.

The rest of Dummitt’s essay lays out specific harmful consequences of his alleged “collective action problem.” A hedonistic turning away from prudence and self-denial, the declining prestige of and deference paid to experts and parents, the denial of a national culture and “trampled” institutions and traditions that have left people with a “hollowed out” sense of belonging.

A classical liberal might argue that all of these ill effects, and many more, are not due to our insufficient obedience to the state, but rather to our turning too much over to the state. We have shifted from a bottom-up society of individuals interacting voluntarily, to a society governed by an army of remote bureaucrats only tangentially, even perfunctorily, connected to the people they allegedly serve but more often rule.

Instead, classical liberals dream of a society where families can educate their children as they see fit — perhaps emphasizing character over fealty to political fads, for instance. And they dream of a society where they can attend church or social events, seek their livelihood and calling, and yes, maintain their cherished traditions without an army of bureaucrats using cutting-edge studies imported from U.S. universities as a battering ram against the family and against the voluntary associations that sustain the liberal order.

The simple fact that we use words to refer to groups of individuals, whether as a society, a community, a market, or a “collective,” does not erase the individuals themselves. It does not subsume them into some Borg-like energy ball as a plaything for our masters to use for good or ill. And so, rather than a society of masters and servants, we dream of a community of free association, free consent, and mutual tolerance that goes both ways. Yes, certain communities or regions can have discernable characteristics of their own — Iceland tends to generate a lot of poets, while the Dominican Republic raises amazing bachata dancers. But this changes absolutely nothing about the fact that communities are composed of individuals, not some sort of abstract Uber Volk.

And so, while we can agree with Dummitt’s praise for prudence and personal responsibility, friends of liberty would insist, in the strongest possible terms, that it must be voluntary. After all, sacrifice that is voluntary is noble, while sacrifice demanded at gunpoint is the source of humanity’s greatest tragedies.

After we have lost so much to COVID-19, it would be a cruel stroke indeed if the pandemic were used as an excuse to upset the relative harmony and social peace under which we, in the Western world, have lived for centuries, and ardently hope to sustain and even to expand.