Thursday, April 18, 2013

Does our hope for social progress depend on improvement of human nature?

jacket image for The Silence of Animals by John GrayJohn Gray's recent book, 'The Silence of Animals' is subtitled: 'On progress and other modern myths'. My main reason for reading it was to see whether it provided a serious challenge to the positive view of progress presented in my book, Free to Flourish.

From what I had read of John Gray's writings over the last decade I had expected that The Silence of Animals would be a book that could only be enjoyed by people who like wallowing in hopelessness. I was pleasantly surprised that I had a positive reaction to most of the book.

Rather than suggesting that we should wallow in hopelessness, the author argues the merits of contemplation, 'as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be'.  But how has it come about that increasing numbers of humans now have the capacity to devote some of their time to such an activity? Without acknowledging it, the author seems to me to be endorsing the progress that has given more people the luxury of being able to spend time observing the natural world, without having to focus on the usefulness of animals and environments as sources of food, shelter and other necessities of life.

As I see it, this book does not actually make a cogent case that human progress is a myth. The author's target seems to be a rather different beast - the idea that human nature improves along with the growth of knowledge. He writes:
'Science and the idea of progress may seem to be joined together, but the end-result of progress in science is to show the impossibility of progress in civilization. Science is a solvent of illusion, and among the illusions it dissolves are those of humanism. Human knowledge increases, while human irrationality stays the same. Scientific inquiry may be an embodiment of reason, but what such inquiry demonstrates is that humans are not rational animals. The fact that humanists refuse to accept the demonstration only confirms its truth'.

That is beside the point. As the author must once have known (as a person who has read the works of Friedrich Hayek) what most of us perceive as progress can be viewed as a process whereby the evolution of superior social rules has enabled some groups to flourish and for the rules of the more successful groups to become identified with civilization. This process does not depend upon human rationality. In fact, Hayek observed that in view of the rapid changes in human society that had occurred over the last eight thousand years it is not surprising that adaption of the 'non-rational part' of humans 'has lagged somewhat', and that 'many of his instincts and emotions are still more adapted to the life of a hunter than to life in civilization' (CoL, 1960, p 40).

The examples that John Gray gives of irrationality and inhumane conduct under communism and Nazism are also beside the point. The view that we are better people than our Stone Age ancestors can probably be dismissed as hubris, but that doesn't mean that there has been no social progress over the last eight thousand years.

In order for John Gray to persuade me that progress is a myth he would need to establish that the rules of the game of modern societies have reduced the opportunities for people to have happy and meaningful lives.  In my view that would be an impossible task and it is not surprising that the author does not attempt to do this. Our hope for progress does not depend on improvement of human nature. It depends on maintaining rules of the game that enable people to live in peace, to realise their potential as individuals and to enjoy a measure of economic security.

This book would have been much better if the author had defined his target more carefully as the myth of improvement in human nature or the myth of human superiority. Even as it stands, however, the book is not as bad as I thought it might be.  

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