Some people have a bad habit of praising things they like as “progress” and treating things in opposition to their likes as opposition to progress. Using such labels, it becomes easy to praise or vilify things via the poisoning the well fallacy. Define an idea as “progress,” and label opposition as opposition to “progress.” Portray that opposition to “progress” as “intolerance” and you can portray your opponents as bigots. Regardless of how well they refute the claims of “progress,” society paints them as “bigoted” before they open their mouths. Hence the religious freedom bills which are called “homophobic” on the grounds that they insist on the right to refuse participating in something they call morally wrong. Since “bigotry” is the only moral wrong in today’s society, labeling a person as a “bigot,” the person who opposes what is approved of by society can be ostracized, fired, sued, fined or jailed for daring to disagree.
The problem is, the term “progress” confuses technical progress with the improvement of society in general. We assume that things are better now than in the past, both because technology improves the quality of life, but because we see that a previous moral flaw in society has been eliminated and assume that the present is always better than the past. So people point to medieval concepts of punishment and the American legacy of slavery and segregation and argue that because we don’t do those things now, we have made progress in all areas and the past has nothing to teach us—except perhaps to serve as a bad example.
I believe this is a false view on how to look on things. Technical progress doesn’t mean moral progress. Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia are proof of that. It is a mistake to think of “Past behavior = BAD and Current behavior = GOOD.” What is really the case is that every era (including ours) embraces vicious customs which promote immoral and unjust behavior. In one era, it was burning at the stake; in another era, it was slavery; currently it is abortion, euthanasia, same sex “marriage,” and children born out of wedlock (among others). In the era which is caught up in it, people see nothing wrong with the vice and tend to be hostile to those who oppose it.
Benedict XVI, before he was Pope, wrote about the problem with this assumption, showing that we now have problems that result from problems we did not even have in past centuries:
I recall a debate I had with some friends in Ernst Bloch’s house. Our conversation chanced to hit on the problem of drugs, which at that time—in the late 1960s—was just beginning to arise. We wondered how this temptation could spread so suddenly now, and why, for example, it had apparently not existed at all in the Middle Ages. All were agreed in rejecting as insufficient the answer that at that period the areas where drugs were cultivated were too far away. Phenomena like the appearance of drugs are not to be explained by means of such external conditions; they come from deeper needs or lacks, while dealing with the concrete problems of procurement follows later. I ventured the hypothesis that obviously in the Middle Ages the emptiness of the soul, which drugs are an attempt to fill, did not exist: the thirst of the soul, of the inner man, found an answer that made drugs unnecessary. I can still recall the speechless indignation with which Mrs. Bloch reacted to this proposed solution. On the basis of dialectical materialism’s image of history, she found the idea almost criminal that past ages could have been superior to our own in not wholly inessential matters; it was impossible that the masses could have lived with greater happiness and inner harmony in the Middle Ages—a period of oppression and religious prejudices—than in our age, which has already made some degree of progress along the path of liberation: this would entail the collapse of the entire logic of “liberation”. But how, then, is one to explain what has happened? The question remained unanswered that evening.
Joseph Ratzinger, A Turning Point for Europe?: The Church in the Modern World: Assessment and Forecast, trans. Brian McNeil, Second Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 24–25.
He raises a good point. The person who believes in the ideology of “progress,” cannot accept that the past could have done anything better than the present and cannot admit that the present has flaws because it abandoned values from the past. Drug addiction is a modern problem with causes rooted in modern times because these times cannot provide for something it has lost.
The fact of the matter is the 20th century, which was touted as the century of progress, was the bloodiest and cruelest in history. Germany murdered six million Jews specifically because of what they were and victimized other groups as well. The Russian purges killed millions (something people denied until the collapse of the Soviet Union), the Chinese Cultural Revolution killed millions, Pol Pot killed over a million. In contrast, the Spanish Inquisition killed maybe a thousand people—over a period of 400 years. If mistreatment and suffering is the opposite of progress, then the “century of progress” was very regressive indeed.
I’m not saying that the era ought to be judged by the number of people killed of course. The point is we need to avoid the post hoc fallacy equating time with improved moral knowledge and assuming we have less evil in our time than in past centuries, and we need to stop thinking that opposition to the vicious customs of our era is opposition to progress. In this context, “Progress” is nothing more than an ideological label used to portray opponents of that ideology as being against progress and being worthy of our ire.
If we want to truly become enlightened as a society, we need to stop evaluating ideas with a calendar and start evaluating them on the basis of whether the assumptions are true, and if the assumptions are false, to reject those ideas.