In Praise of Forgetting

For some years I've argued that 'moral progress' is a mere illusion. Joseph W. and I used to fight about this, in that joyous and pleasant way in which we contested each other's ideas. My sense is that mostly people's values change by encountering other people -- ideas 'rub off,' as it were. Now people closer to you rub off on you more than people further away. It is possible to be distant in both time and space, such that people further away from you in time will look less like you than people closer. That means that we should ordinarily expect to see an illusion of progress, because (a) we take our own values to be right, and (b) the further back you go, the less people agree with us.

There are some obvious additional factors that make it easier or harder for people to 'rub off' on you: sharing a language makes it more likely at distance; belonging to a civilization makes it more likely that you will share at least some values with your ancestors, too. Still, by and large I think it's obvious that you would think of society as progressing morally simply by looking back and discovering that, the further away from yourself you go, the less people agree with your (obviously correct!) moral values.

As a Catholic, I'm inclined to draw a big exception to this general rule, which is that real moral progress is possible if and only if we are moving toward divinely defined rather than human values. Only if we are speaking in this way can we speak sensibly of a real moral progress. Any other sort of talk of moral progress is going to prove to be illusory, a mere flattering of one's self and of those that agree with us.

(There is an inverse argument that most conservative fears of moral crumbling are likewise illusory: if you set any moment in history as your ideal, naturally as you get further away from it values will be more and more different. Thus, both of our usual political viewpoints on morality -- the ones animating progressivism and conservatism -- are wrong.)

I remind you of all of that so that I can present you with this book review.
This is a shocking book, and all the better for it. Many right-thinking and historically well-informed people with a lively sense of justice will be appalled, even outraged, by its central argument, yet it is an argument they will be hard put to refute. In his closing pages, David Rieff states his case with a cogency and directness that are not blunted by the fact that it is framed in the form of a rhetorical question: “is it not conceivable,” he writes, “that were our societies to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that they now do on remembering ... peace in some of the worst places in the world might actually be a step closer?”
I once heard a Buddhist argument that held something like: "To say that you have forgiven but not forgotten is to say that you have not forgiven." This is that argument in a developed form.

If you truly did forget, you would lose both any sense of moral progress, and any sense of moral crumbling. What would be left? Would it be enough?


E Hines said...

I'm not sure how you learn if you forget.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Well, you could learn the same way: by rubbing up against others you meet. You'd just forget that you did things differently before, and be in a state of equilibrium with whomever you were around.

Presumably it would be fairly peaceful (which is what the Buddhists wanted to get out of it -- an absence of resentment, an accord with whatever part of humanity was immediately present). Is that enough?

E Hines said...

Not even close. There's no learning there, only the emptiness of equilibrium. Which would be lost, too, because I will have forgotten that rub-off. Even if I did choose to remember the rub-off, there's only that equilibrium.

I prefer to do better over time. Maybe in the effort I'll actually wind up doing worse. The gain is worth the risk.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Well, it's not like we get to choose. It takes a lifetime of practice to even approach the ideals of Zen Buddhism, and even then they fall away as soon as you stop meditating.

E Hines said...

And yet I do choose, and have chosen, and will choose again. I do not pursue the ideals of Zen Buddhism, for instance.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

You choose not to try to do what you couldn't choose to do if you tried? :)

E Hines said...

Now you're projecting.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

It's certainly true that I can't sustain the state brought on by Zen meditation once I stop doing it, and go about interacting with others in ordinary life. If you could, it's a tremendous gift you're electing not to exercise. Which is, of course, your choice -- if indeed you have such a gift. If not, then it's no choice; you're just doing what you have to do.

douglas said...

If one "forgets", which I'm not sure is even possible, doesn't one not only lose memory and thereby both sense of moral progress but also sense of moral crumbling, but in addition to those, any idea how things should be better? With nothing to push off from, one floats in a moral Zero-G environment.

I suppose one also loses the ability to be grateful for the present, as there is nothing to compare the present to, even if it's true that one also loses the ability to complain about the present.

Eliminate the good, and there is no bad. It strikes me as a similar though somewhat different deal as the idea of peace under Islam- you can have peace when you all agree with what we believe and submit. Not a deal I'm interested in in either case.

But rereading the OP, I think there's a problem with Grim's argument about time and the illusion of moral progress, and it's this line:
" That means that we should ordinarily expect to see an illusion of progress, because (a) we take our own values to be right, and..."
Now, since, as I mentioned above, without some reference point, we float in a moral 'Zero-G', there must always be a reference point by which we determine what is good or not, and thereby whether we are any nearer the good today than yesterday. When you say "we take our own values to be right", that is a marker- our reference point, and so anything closer to that is progress in that framework. Change the reference point/framework, and change the very definition of progress- progress is of necessity relative. Of course, this also means that the time issue is relative- I suspect Grim, finding much of 'old' values of holding much truth, might well see moral decay, and would be right to claim such.

Then there's the fact that there are so many values and applications of those values that we are considering in judging whether or not there is moral progress or decay, it may be that one is true for some issues and the other for other issues, and so it may well be a mixed bag. How does one judge the 'whole', and for that matter, what is the 'whole'?

The review itself I found rather jumbled and short on specifics (and long on emotional pleas- and it seems from the review, so is the book. I think it's safer to say we need to remember so as to learn and determine a course for the future, but we also need to forget the emotional component of some things, but not because we need to forget that which has been inflicted, but because we must resist the emotional response, which when ungoverned, leads to exactly the sort of actions that elicited the response in the first place.

(Why do I have a feeling that this is going to be as rambling and lacking center as the book review I critique?)

Eric Blair said...

There is never a moral "Zero-G". I think this something lots and lots of philosophers have got wrong or didn't realize that it was staring them in the face.

There is no blank slate. To propose that as a thought experiment is to waste your time.

But, that "emptiness of equilibrium" is basically heaven, (or God) you realize. If God is perfect, and perfection is unchanging, well that whole Buddhist Nirvana emptiness thing sort of takes on a different meaning.

Grim said...

The 'blank slate' idea is actually a Modern one. Nobody among the ancients thought there was a moral blank slate at any point, nor obviously did the Medievals (for whom God was the first principle of creation, which was thus infused with moral truth).

The ancient idea is that there are of course goods, and we know something about them by nature. For Aristotle, happiness (by which he means a kind of virtuous flourishing) is the final good for human beings. Other things are good because they help us attain that final good. So there's no 'floating in Zero G' -- at least some things are known goods, like food (so you can remain healthy, and continue to flourish).

Eric's right that the experience of Zen meditation has a religious context, but one of the things that is supposed to fall away is any sort of doctrine or context. (That's one major difference between this school of Buddhism and many other schools.) The only point of the doctrine is to help you toward the experience; the experience just is. There's no reason Christians or anyone else can't meditate, and decide what to make of what they find by doing it.

So I don't think, Douglas, that the objection is a strong one. I might find myself starting with only the natural 'goods,' and learning to value other things by rubbing up against others. Forgetting would be like the meditation, in a sense. It would restore you to something like that natural state.

Of course, such a state is naive. Many painful lessons you might be better off forgetting, but only the ones whose lessons are holding you back now. Some painful lessons remain highly relevant to your world.

douglas said...

Well, lets take as given that the natural state- food is good, etc. is extant, but the 'forgetting' being discussed here is in reference to things beyond that- also, I don't think that was restricted to 'goods' or we wouldn't need to forget them, no? At any rate, he's trying to posit a path to a better state of morality as a society (unless I'm understanding things wrongly). If we have no reference than how does one determine what direction to move to improve the social morality? Forgetting means one will wander aimlessly seeking a path to a better social morality, as one cannot know where you are going if you know not where you've been (and whether it was an improvement or not over the situation previous to that).

Zero-g was probably a bad choice of analogy, perhaps wandering in the forest with no reference points and no memory of where you've been is more like it.

If it's just about finding a good state, and anything that reduces us to a 'good' natural state is good enough, then you're no longer seeking to improve or make any kind of moral progress.

I think your argument is sound in referring to judging the moral status of persons in history vs. individuals of today, but I think we can also say that there can be a moral progress of a culture, but that's something worked for, not assured by any stretch. Just as surely, there can be moral decline. Of course, you're also correct in pointing out that it's relative unless you believe in a fixed, divine truth.

As for the Buddhist saying- I say if you forget, what is it to forgive? IF you could forget, the forgiveness is easy.

douglas said...

Hm, on third take, I'm going to stick with the Zero-g analogy. It's exactly correct- if you have no memory, therefore no markers or reference point for orientation, then you revert to what's left- the internal, and the only thing there you can be sure is good is what fulfills your natural needs. Without reference, everything else is impossible to determine whether it's good or not.

Also, I think I was taking it to mean forgetting in general- not having a memory- as opposed to forgetting certain things selectively, which is arguably a good thing, but I think we do that as a culture all the time, so I'm not sure what he'd be arguing for exactly.

Grim said...

There's a kind of thought experiment: if there were only one object in a given universe with similar physical laws, how would it know if it were moving?

It's a similar sort of question. If it were accelerating, you could observe inertial effects. But if it were not...