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Ethics Explainer: Progressivism

by The Ethics Centre
17 August 2017

Progressivism is an ideology that tends to be associated with the political left. Different groups and movements have claimed to be “progressive” at different points in time. 

Some campaign for reform on social issues, others on political or economic grounds. But another way of understanding progressivism is as the ideological rival of conservatism.

Thinking about progressivism like this reveals a few ideas that distinguish it from its conservative counterpart.

Progressives tend to be optimistic about the future of humanity. They believe the course of human history is moving us closer to a state of peace, equality and prosperity. They also tend to believe in human perfectibility. They think politics, technology and education can overcome human failings and we can create utopia. As the name suggests, progressives believe in the possibility of moral progress.

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's work is important here. He believed moral progress was inescapable. He thought the forces of history shape humanity for the better, improving it and pushing it toward perfection.

Hegel believed history unrolled according to a 'dialectical' pattern where opposing sides clashed and compromised with one another. These opposing forces, which he called the “thesis” and “antithesis”, would clash before reaching a “synthesis”.

Each synthesis would then spark a new antithesis and the process would continue. Hegel thought each stage in the thesis-antithesis-synthesis series moved us closer to a state of perfection. His work is said to have inspired other progressive thinkers, most notably communist philosopher Karl Marx.

Immanuel Kant believed the necessities of global politics would force us toward a better future. He thought the desire for nations to trade with one another would mean they’d eventually stop going to war. He thought this era of commerce would lead to a time of “perpetual peace”.

Progressive thinking flourished during the Enlightenment period. Religious dogma, the divine right of kings and queens and the authority of institutions were challenged by a new era of intellectuals. Part of this questioning saw a decline in respect for theological ideas like original sin.

Christianity sees human beings as fallen, only able to be saved in the afterlife. By contrast, progressives think education, political reform and technology will unlock human perfection on earth. Today, new forms of genetic editing promise a cure to a range of illnesses and even death itself.

For example, transhumanists believe we can overcome the limitations of our humanity and mortality. They suggest a range of options, from changing our biology to uploading our consciousness into a supercomputer.

Efforts to create this perfect human through science have not always been pleasant. At times it has been outright barbaric. Eugenics movements aimed to breed some groups, like the disabled, out of society altogether. There are a range of examples of progressive scientists experimenting on vulnerable groups of people in recent history, suggesting a darker side to progress.

Transhumanists believe we can overcome the limitations of our humanity and mortality. They suggest a range of options, from changing our biology to uploading our consciousness into a supercomputer.

This is one reason why conservatives often urge caution around progress. They encourage us to be mindful of the potential side effects of new policy or technology. But progressives are often concerned this will inhibit life changing new developments. They suggest we deal with issues as they arise, rather than trying to predict them in advance.

Progressives often see education as the silver bullet for social problems. Like Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, they tend to believe all vice is the result of ignorance, not malice. They suggest humans are fundamentally good and education will bring out the better angels of our nature.

We can see this in the work of people like Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer. Pinker says since the Enlightenment, altruism has been on the rise and violence is declining around the world. Shermer suggests improved access to education is responsible for this trend. It has made each generation smarter than the last, meaning continual reductions in impulsive violence.

But some are sceptical whether education alone will fix all humanity’s woes. They agree humans are mostly good but don't blame ignorance for evil. Instead, they see war, conflict and violence as the product of oppression and inequality.

For instance, Karl Marx believed conflict between the wealthy and the working class was a central theme in human society. He believed the power imbalance between rich and poor was bad for everyone. He famously claimed people would be better throwing away hierarchies based on class and wealth. Only when we’re all equal, he thought, will we be able to perfect ourselves.

English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, a champion of women’s rights to education, suggested the path to human perfection might require both politics and education. She argued that political change requires us to educate marginalised groups. Otherwise, any change will continue to exclude the groups already on the fringes of society.

This explains why more women and culturally diverse have contributed to progressive thinking in recent decades. In the past, the leading progressive thinkers tended to be white men. Improved access to education has enabled a greater range of voices to help the progressive movement imagine what the perfect world might look like and how we could create it.

Now take a look at progressivism's ideologocal rival, Conservatism, here.

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