In a review of books, a comment on political philosophy:
But there is no denying [John Gray's] central insight, which is that such parades, if left unchecked, can turn quickly into military marches. Institutions progress but human beings don't, and their capacity for cruelty and violence is infinite.That phrase interests me: "Institutions progress but human beings don't." I like that: it captures something of the idea that I have often felt to be true, which is that institutions change how people act and talk in this way and that; but in their core, each generation is still as deadly as the last.
A pessimistic thought, to be sure. But British philosopher Roger Scruton is rather optimistic about pessimism. Indeed, in The Uses of Pessimism he prescribes "a dose" of that very tendency as the tonic for the kind of utopian thinking indulged in by thinkers such as Badiou and Zizek. We should respond to their irrational exuberance and "unscrupulous optimism", he suggests, through respect for custom and tradition; the "we" of unruffled compromise and gradual mutuality.
However, it's not clear to me that institutions actually progress either. We've talked about moral progress often in the past: about whether there is actually moral progress, or just change. We'd like to think so, but how would you set an objective standard as a measurement? If you go by what you personally think is right, then all you've proven is that people closer to you in time agree with you more than people further away in time. That's just what we'd expect to be true, regardless, because people have an effect on each others' thoughts and feelings about morality. All we've proven is that people we've rubbed up against are more like us, and more like others they have rubbed up against, than those people who have had no direct contact with us.
Institutions stand in by providing us something besides each other to rub against. Insofar as institutions are built of humans, rubbing up against one of them is like rubbing up against those people who have contributed to it. For example, you can readily rub up against St. Augustine by going to church or by going to a university. The two experiences will be different, though, because of the other people who have contributed to those two different institutions. Both could be valuable, but they will be different; and you'll be different, too, depending on whether you do one, the other, or both.
So if we can't judge from our own morality, what is the objective standard that we can use? Several candidates put themselves forward: Christianity in its many forms, Islam in its several, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Enlightenment, the Romantic period, Communism, and so forth. How to judge which one is the right "objective" standard? We can't use our own moral intuition and remain objective. Since these philosophies point in various directions, we have no way of knowing if we are steering to something better, or just moving around.
Nor can we project a line from our moral beginnings to where we are now, and thereby divine a path. There are so many different beginnings on record, for one thing: do we project from ancient China or ancient Greece? From Gilgamesh or what we can divine of pre-Columbian people in the Americas?
For another, there have plainly been cycles even when you can point to something that can reasonably be called a tradition. In ancient Rome, it was considered manly and honorable to commit suicide to avoid being disgraced by your enemies, or circumstances beyond your command. Later, the same faith Constantine the Great imposed said that this was sinful and wicked, the worst of sins. Now, we seem to be seeing a return to suicide as an ethic among a class of people who refuse to be ruled by their biology: who prefer to order their own death, in order to avoid the disgrace of suffering what they cannot control. Where was the progress? Was there a fall in the loss of the old Roman ethic, or are we falling now? How do we know?
If we do settle on a definition, we find that everything snaps into place: but, as we really have no final way of being sure that we have chosen correctly, we cannot make a final and certain claim about whether we are -- or society is, or humanity is, or a given institution is -- actually experiencing "progress" as opposed to mere change.
Faith is the answer. Reason can't serve as a guide until faith tells us where the end of the road should lie. Yet different men in different ages, or in the same age but from different traditions, may find that faith points them at different ends.
This is why I have held that moral progress is not possible. There are two roads that lead away from that conclusion.
The first is to say that morality is not important. As it is so uncertain, it must be unreliable; and we should teach ourselves to let it go. The best attitude toward morality would be never to fight over a question arising from it; after all, fighting is trouble, and why put yourself to trouble and discomfort for something that doesn't matter?
The other is to believe in the importance of faith: of fighting for what you believe even though you cannot prove you are right. It is to accept faith as reason's light: to trust your heart and do your best, according to what faith and reason tell you is right. If that means we fight, we are both fighting for the right as we understand it: and so, if there are souls, both your soul and mine is being trained to fight for what it believes is right.
If the first is right, our lives here are of little importance: the right posture is one of hedonism, doing what you find pleasurable and avoiding what you find painful. This is certainly the mainstream position in modern America, which believes lightly in a God who will love them and accept them largely without regard to what they may have ever done; or whether they ever did anything at all. Or they may believe in no god; and indeed, that makes sense also, since one of the things humans seem to want from their gods is clear direction on moral questions.
The second believes there is a strong break between those who strive for the right as they see it, and those who do not. If the last is true, natural theology suggests instead a God that is chiefly interested in the effects of conflict on your soul -- that is, in training souls to fight for the right.
To say that is to raise many myths, about wars beyond the walls of the world for which such souls are needed: 'The grey wolf watches the abode of the gods.' This view is found in the Eiriksmol, and in some variations of Christian theology that posit a war at the end of the world; but it is also present in a modified form in the Hindu religion, where there is no greater war, but only the current need for drama as a means of self-examination by the god of whom we are all, unknowingly, just parts ('O Arjuna! Neither you are slayer nor you can be slain by anybody').
There are two other roads, which both reject the original claim that it is impossible to establish an objective standard for morality. The first is to assert that reason does indeed endorse faith -- that reason is faith's light, just as faith is reason's. This is the road that Kant took, in asserting that both the respect he felt for the moral law he found in his heart and the awe he experienced in observing the starry heavens was the same sense: a kind of awe, which led him to recognize the smallness of everything about him except that moral law. It was what he saw, looking within, that could match the stars above. Faith here is faith that your experience of a feeling of respect from both these causes means something that your reason can determine. But this seems questionable: A man may feel that his favorite movie is as important as the survival of Ethiopia; or very much more important, if we judge him from his action of spending thirty bucks on the special edition of the movie when he already owns another copy, and when he might have donated the money to the starving. Does that prove something real about the minimal importance of starving in Ethiopia?
The fourth road -- to reject faith, and go with reason alone -- leads nowhere. Some men believe they have made this leap, but in fact it is impossible for a human mind to make. On matters of morality, you have to place your faith somewhere, if only in yourself or the people you find you most respect. As flawed as we are, placing your faith in the moral opinions of one man or a handful -- even the men you know best, even yourself -- is in its way a greater act of pure faith than anything asked by religion. I think both these third and fourth roads are not workable paths.