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the crux of the problem arises not out of psychology, but out of history



Several years ago, I took part in a conference of historians in London, addressing the question of whether there is such a thing as moral progress in history.

Since the conference was timed to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, I had assumed that the other participants would take an affirmative view. But I was surprised to find that I was the only one in the room willing to say there had been such a thing and indeed that there could be such a thing.

That said, the opposition to the idea of progress that I saw in my colleagues did not seem to me to go very deep. It seemed almost entirely professional and notional, without any echo in the conduct of their busy, well organized, ambitious and purposeful lives. No such thing as progress? Seriously? Who actually lives with such an assumption? Even our occasional efforts to sound fatalistic in our speech betray all the things that such speech silently presumes: that, as free and purposeful beings, we cannot help projecting certain ideals or goals, if even only short-range or proximate ones, into the inchoate future. This is particularly so in the United States, where every lamentation has a way of turning into a jeremiad, and thereby into a form of moral exhortation and a call to improvement and thus to become the polar opposite of fatalism. The language of true fatalism would be stony and resigned silence and that is not what we see or hear. There is a difference between what we think and what we think we think.

Still the idea of progress in history – the liberation of the Enlightenment, the grand choral ode of the nineteenth century, the marching music central to the rise and dominance of the modern West – has gradually become problematic to us. Not only is it our faith in the inevitability of progress that we question, but also the very idea that we would have any sure means of judging what progress is, if indeed it does occur.

Some of this can be attributed to intellectual fashion or cultural boredom, or the occasional metastasizing of the Western self-critical impulse into a raging self-hatred, what Pascal Bruckner has called “the tyranny of guilt.” But the nub of the problem arises not out of psychology, but out of history. The idea of progress received a rude and unforgettable shock from the First World War and we have not yet found a way to incorporate fully what we learned about ourselves from the cataclysm.

— Wilfred M. McClay, The Great War and the Future of Progress

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