12.02.2013 0

The case against progress

ProgressBy Marta H. Mossburg

Human moral progress is not a given, as progressives would like Americans to believe.

Take the ancient punishment of stoning, for example. A report in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week said the Afghan government is considering draft legislation to inflict as punishment public stoning on men and women who commit adultery.

Abdul Raouf Brahawee, the director of legislation at the Afghan Ministry of Justice told the paper that, “The Islamic Sharia instructs us to do so… There is a verse in the Quran about it.”

So much for 21st century enlightenment. Is this a case of former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton not properly communicating the importance of human rights and women’s rights – her number one priority? Or could it be that scientific knowledge and human nature are not fused at the hip but two distinct lines on the chart of life? It would be nice to believe in moral evolution. It’s very alluring to think that humans are inherently good and only need the right messaging or appropriate government prompts to create a more perfect union and world.

But it requires a permanent state of cognitive dissonance to accept it as true.

Look at Obamacare. People don’t seem to care that their previous health policies were “substandard” and the system immoral, at least to those who passed the legislation. Polls suggest they want both back, and so few are signing up for the new legally compliant and expensive policies that the system will blow up without major changes.

To take an older example, what about the War on Poverty? Has it done more to end poverty or impoverish the minds of generations of Americans who now take for granted being a ward of the state?

Even those at the top of society do not act according to the progressive worldview.

Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote brilliantly in 2011’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” about how even the smartest people make dumb decisions, limited in part by their own small sphere of knowledge and inherent prejudices. In one example he wrote about how he changed his method of grading after realizing how much weight he put on a student’s first essay to determine the quality of the entire exam. For example, if a student wrote an A essay for the first essay, he tended to grade the other essays higher, even if they were of lower quality because he had deemed that student an “A” student. The reverse was true as well.

And think about how people consume social media. Have we become more compassionate and more willing to give to those in need as we’ve become more connected? Not according to giving statistics, which show Americans’ charitable contributions holding steady as a percentage of gross domestic product over four decades.

Could it be that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter merely serve as platforms to amplify our best and worst traits and everything in between?

For those who see human existence as a long march of progress it might be unsettling to think that some of our biggest achievements do not improve who we are as people. But as Joan Didion wrote in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” “when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.”

She wrote that essay in 1965 when “fashionable madmen” were not yet the establishment.

Marta H. Mossburg writes frequently about national affairs and about Maryland, where she lives. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.

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