The accretive nature of scientific development supports a forward-looking view of technological progress but the same cannot be said, given our history, of moral or even political progress.
The so-called gains we’ve made in Western moral and political life are all too fragile. Historical examples of progress interrupted and, indeed, even reversed, abound.
Take homosexuality. There seems to be little if any hostility to the idea in antiquity. That all changed, radically so, with the advent of Christianity. Only now are we starting to see a loosening of anti-gay law and social strictures.
Take torture. The United States became a signatory to the United Nations Conventions Against Torture in the late 1980s and ratified it shortly later in the 1990s. We all know what happened after the 9/11 attacks. As recently as December of last year reports are that nearly half of Americans support the practice.
Take democracy. Support for democracy, even with the data presented at its most optimistic, shows a downward trend. Similarly, across the entire globe a wave a nationalistic populism — from Modi’s madmen of the BJP, to Jinping’s jingoists, to our own Trumpkins — is calling into question the durability of liberal democratic norms and practice.
History is full of cases of humbling reversals of progress. How proud must the sultan’s of the Ottoman Empire have felt at its apogee when surveying their world, so superior in culture and martial exercise in comparison to all contemporaries. And now their former territories are rife with strife, misery, poverty, and humiliation. Imagine the Romans of the third century looking out over the forum. Was there any doubt that this exercise of global dominion would endure forever? Could the thought of barbarian subjugation and ruination even be entertained? What about the Spanish empire? As they conquered an entire continent could they even imagine that in the not-distant future their whole culture would go on a siesta they still haven’t even woke up from? The Greeks once produced Socrates. Now they have Golden Dawn.
We look at ourselves and the wonderful gains we’ve made in the economic and social spheres and see a permanent — or at least durable — situation. But, if history is any guide, it may very well prove that this flowering of liberalism that brought us these advancements will soon wither and so with it all the progress. Liberalism is young and certainly not the historical norm. This makes it fragile. But despotism has centuries of practice and has therefore grown robust. It’d be nice to think that liberalism will endure but in all likelihood this liberal period of civilization, limited though it is to just a small portion of the planet, will be looked back on as the aberration rather than the norm of political and social organization.
We should, however, strive to keep the liberal project alive. But the prospects don’t look good.