Wednesday, May 13, 2009

progress and Progress

Do you believe in progress? How about Progress? I read a post recently, and can't find it at the moment, about the difference between believing in progress and Progress. Little p progress refers to the scientific and technological advances that we have made over the centuries. We have clearly made this kind of progress. Life today is easier and by most any measure better than it was 100 years ago and much better than it was 500 years ago. It's hard not to believe in little p progress.

Big P Progress refers to human nature. Have we made Progress as moral creatures? Is human nature any different today than it was 1000 years ago? The argument made was that no, we have not made any Progress. Humans are as sinful and capable of depravity today as they have ever been. The example given was Hitler and his concentration camps, as evil a regime and as awful a treatment of fellow humans as there has ever been in history. Two thousand years after the time of Jesus and nothing has changed about human nature. No Progress.

I can almost go along with this line of thinking. Almost, but not quite. It is true that Hitler is a vivid reminder that there is still, and always, within the human heart the capacity for great evil. But it is also true that Hitler was defeated, the concentration camps closed and then re-opened as memorials to remind us that that we must never again allow this to happen. There was another more enlightened moral vision that rejected tyranny and that saw human dignity in every person, regardless of race or religion. People around the world rallied to that higher vision and fought to defeat Hitler.

It has not always been so in the western world. For much of western history kings and princes, often working in tandem with popes and religious leaders, ruled with a tyrannical iron fist. Democracy was a thing unheard of. Human life was cheap. Slavery was commonplace. Torture was practiced by church and state alike. Bigotry, racism, and sexism were endemic even among the most educated.

None of that is true today, with a few Cheney-like exceptions. We have made not only progress; we have made Progress. Our sights have been raised about what it means to be human and a member of the human race; we expect more from ourselves and others. Yes, it is still true that the capacity for great evil is there within us, and it is also true that we could lose the Progress we have made in our moral vision without constant vigilance and a continued dedication to teaching and practicing goodness and virtue, but the Progress we have made as a moral human community is real. Life is better, in little p ways and big P ways.

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