Monday, August 23, 2010

Progress and the persistence of evil

Reviewing Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Brendan O'Neill summarizes some of the material improvements that have made life easier for almost everyone:
.... There are more people (or “mouths to feed,” as the pessimists insultingly refer to us) than ever, yet we are better fed and healthier than ever, too. Since 1800, Ridley points out, the world population of human beings has risen sixfold—from 1 billion to over 6 billion—yet in the same period, average life expectancy has more than doubled and average real income has risen ninefold. In just the past 50 years, the average human “earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children, and could expect to live one-third longer.” ....

...[A]mong Americans officially designated as “poor,” 99 percent have electricity, running water, and a fridge; 95 percent have a television; 71 percent have a car; and 70 percent have air conditioning. .... How much backbreaking female drudgery was wiped out by the invention of the washing machine? How many man-hours have been saved by the availability of cars for shopping, school-drops, and visiting relatives? How much healthier is our food, and longer-lasting, now that virtually everyone in the Western world has a refrigerator? ....

In short, being better off does, generally speaking, make us happier. And, says Ridley, while the environment might be taking some serious body-blows in China right now, in the longer developed West, it is improving. “In Europe and America, rivers, lakes, seas, and the air are getting cleaner all the time. ... American carbon monoxide emissions from transport are down 75 per cent in twenty-five years.” And so on. The more developed a society is, the more resources that can be devoted to cleaning up the environment. Once China and India reach the West’s level of development, the better their air and water quality will become. ....
And yet, as a favorite essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, argues here, however much success there has been in ameliorating human suffering and want, moral evil continues and grows even as we fail to see it for what it is:
.... The Enlightenment held out the hope that with enough of this “proper study,” man would come to know himself sufficiently to eliminate the evil and suffering that had always beset his existence. Man would obtain something like a Newtonian knowledge not only of the universe but of himself, with all the predictive and mechanical advantages that such understanding had brought in the study of inanimate nature.

And in a certain sense, the promise of the Enlightenment has been triumphantly fulfilled in our modern societies—surely as regards natural evil. Thanks to rational inquiry, to take but one instance, the infant-mortality rate since Jenyns wrote has fallen 98 percent. We live lives cleaner, more comfortable, and freer from pain than those of any people who have ever existed. Nobody today has to endure one-hundredth of the physical tortures, brought by illness and the efforts to treat it, that Philip II of Spain and Charles II of England had to endure. ....

But an uninvited guest has arrived at this banquet of human advancement: evil. Whether men behave better or worse, individually or in the aggregate, than they did before the Enlightenment, is probably a question that we cannot answer approximately, let alone definitively. But what is certain is that moral evil has not only failed to disappear but has taken on a more deliberate, calculated character. ....

The two greatest moral catastrophes of the twentieth century, wrought by Lenin and Hitler, were perverse effects of the Enlightenment. Lenin and Hitler were creatures of the Enlightenment not in the sense that they were enlightened, of course, but in the sense that they believed they had the right and the duty to act in accordance with their own unaided deductions from their own first principles. Everything else they regarded as sentimentality. Lenin preached no mercy to the non-proletarian, Hitler none to the Jew. The truth of their theories, supposedly rational and indubitable, was more evident to them, more real in their minds, than the millions killed as a consequence of those theories. If a syllogism ended in a command to commit unspeakable evil, you did not doubt the premises or the argument but obeyed the command.

This post-Enlightenment way of thinking continues to have its defenders. The celebrated British historian Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, said not long ago that had the Soviet Union turned out much better than it did, the deaths of 20 million to achieve it would have been a worthwhile price to pay. One cannot accuse Hobsbawm of thinking small.

That evil has not disappeared pari passu with German measles puzzles and troubles us. Evil remains a conundrum, as evidenced by Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s recently published book On Evil. Eagleton is not one of those Marxists for whom, like the late historian and Stalin apologist Edward Hallett Carr, the problem of evil does not exist. “I don’t think there are such things as bad people,” Carr once said. “To us Hitler, at the moment, seems a bad man, but will they think Hitler a bad man in a hundred years’ time, or will they think the German society of the thirties bad?”

Eagleton sees clearly that this will not do. Helping him in this recognition is that he is a Christian as well as a Marxist, and no Christian can believe wholly in social determinism. The problem of the human heart is real, not just a remediable social artifact. The relationship between society and human behavior is dialectical, Eagleton believes. Society has its effect, but it is acting on an already imperfect nature, which in turn is bound to produce an imperfect society.

Significantly, Eagleton begins his book by citing the case of two ten-year-old British boys who abducted, tortured, and killed three-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993. Here is the opposite of childhood innocence, for the two boys knew that what they were doing was deeply wrong but went ahead and did it anyway. The human mystery is that neither their environment nor their nature can fully explain them. Man is not only wolf to man; he is mystery to man.

So the Enlightenment project has failed, at least in explaining man fully to himself. However successful it has been in other regards—and we are all, even its bitterest enemies, children of the Enlightenment—we do not know ourselves any better than we did in Jenyns’s and Johnson’s day. Self-understanding may even have regressed since Johnson, for no man was better at self-examination than he. If more people proved adept at it, perhaps the prevalence of evil would decline. .... [more]
Thanks to Insight Scoop for pointing me toward the Dalrymple essay.

The American Conservative -- Down on the Upside, Modernity's Uninvited Guest by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal Summer 2010


  1. Moral evil continues to grow? The Enlightenment has failed? What absolute rubbish. What planet are you living on? The world is big and complex, making it all too easy to point to negative developments as a seeming answer to optimistic analysis. However, there is no denying that humankind has achieved fantastic progress in the last couple of centuries across a broad front -- and, in fact, there are powerful reasons why that happened, and can be expected to continue operating. (A more thorough analysis of these points can be found in my own 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism. See

  2. Did you actually read the essays? Neither of them argues that the Enlightenment has failed, nor that enormous progress has not been made. But, as Dalrymple [and Eagleton] argue it requires an almost Pollyannaish reading of recent history to argue that similar progress has been made in human behavior.


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