Progress As Unity

Jamesvansteel By Jamesvansteel, 10th Apr 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Politics

An essay written on a possible conception of progress and how it can be used to gauge the relative success of a society.

Progress as Unity

A great difficulty arises when considering the nature and structure of human society as a process rather than as a collective entity. Whether man engages in this process actively or passively, or whether the results of human efforts are good or bad are questions of supreme importance, and yet an unspoken problem seems to underlie and precede them. If community itself, regardless of scale, can be thought of as movement, as a becoming, or as a means rather than an end only, then the process must have an intention if not an explicit purpose. Often the placeholder term “progress” is used in reference to the innumerable discoveries, achievements, and aspirations that have characterized humanity’s motion through history, but the definition of such a generalization varies as greatly as the minds of those who contribute toward it. Through analysis of our piecemeal evolution, political and social philosophers have furnished thoughtful explanations for what progress is and what contributes to its attainment, but agreement among them is rare and often too narrow. By comparing the conclusions and inclinations of several prominent political thinkers, a common value of social unity or a shared consciousness among social participants appears to emerge from their considerations of justice, morality, and freedom. F. A. Hayek’s notions of progress as evolving moral and intellectual adaptation provide a strong argument for society as a process, but the philosophical contributions of thinkers like Rawls, Knight, and Rousseau help to establish unity as the central social value by which that evolution should be judged.

Due in large part to the fundamental place of language in cognitive and social development, reflection and thought regarding the self and interactions with others takes on an inherently narrative quality. To be and to live as a human is to exist within a “story” or follow a journey that is comprised of personal and shared memories (Fivush and Nelson, 2004). In Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, he argues similarly that the individual and cultural developments we call human nature are “very largely the result of those moral conceptions which every individual learns with language and thinking,” suggesting that like individual growth, the social process is informed by a learned narrative structure of thought and values (Hayek, 126). Cultural and political histories serve as human society’s collective memory, and the development, revision, and retelling of this memory informs present values and goals. By understanding community as a result of this process of growing and learning, Hayek observes that the elements of society undergo this process as well: “institutions and morals, language and law, have evolved by a process of cumulative growth and it is only with and within this framework that human reason has grown and can successfully operate” (112). For Hayek it is clear that development is the primary trait of society, and the continually taught, revised, and improved narrative of this development is what drives its evolution through the generations.

Hayek’s equation of human nature with a process of learning gives weight to the conception of society as a continuous process rather than an “end in itself”. Although the relation between development and society is evident, for Hayek the relationship goes beyond characterization toward definition. He understands the term progress as goal of social development to be ambiguous and misleading, putting forth the perspective that “civilization is progress, progress is civilization” (92). The development of social institutions is progress itself, and progress is constituted by social development, but the direction or motivating force of this development remains unclear. Referring again to the biological evolutionary language of his previous descriptions, Hayek fleshes out progress as the “process of formation and modification of the human intellect, a process of adaptation and learning in which not only the possibilities known to us but also our values and desires continually change” (94). Through collective adaptation, the human mind itself evolves over time creating new potentialities and altering the social values that guide interaction.

Taken as the prevailing notions of what a civilization finds good, morally right, or beneficial, social values have developed in countless ways within and between cultures over time. Given that such values orient the structure of cultural institutions like religion, politics, art, and economics, each respective society builds upon previous values while simultaneously seeking to refine or improve them. In The Ethics of Competition, Frank Knight seems to agree with Hayek that “life is fundamentally an exploration in the field of values itself and not a mere matter of producing given values,” and that as individual wants evolve along with values, “our most troublesome want is our desire for wants of the right kind” (Knight, 34-35). This statement, however, is problematic in Hayek’s theory of social evolution for two reasons. First, Knight supposes that individual life is an exploration in the field of values suggesting that social values are not exclusively collective in nature nor do they necessarily take generations to change. More importantly, Knight implies that throughout the development of values and desires, man seeks the right kind of desires.

The suggestion that evolving society actively seeks a moral orientation independent of a human morality that is supposedly evolving itself contradicts Hayek’s theory that social development is the result of contingent adaptation. Hayek’s formulation explicitly rejects an independent guiding motivation, “it is a mistake to believe that we can draw conclusions about what our values ought to be simply because we realize that they are a product of evolution,” a mechanism closer to spontaneous biological mutation than guidance by a moral telos (87). Knight’s reference to desires of the “right” kind doesn’t seem to align with Hayek’s theory, which places assumed value in self-preservation and intellectual advance, and hints at a deeper narrative of progress than biological analogy.

For progress to have meaning in a narrative sense, the events of social evolution must have followed a discernable and coherent path leading to the present state of civilization. Hayek’s narrative of human progress is the tale of continual transition and adaptation that, through accumulation and communication of collective knowledge, have refined our technology and values to incredible levels. The motivation of this evolution, Hayek believes, is “movement for movement’s sake, for it is in the process of learning, and in the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gift of his intelligence,” and that such learning has brought about the great material and intellectual prosperity humans enjoy today (95, 97). As a result, (Western) society has reached such a point of efficiency that “the unsatisfied wants are usually no longer physical needs but the results of civilization” (98). Knight’s understanding of progress acknowledges Hayek’s truism about artificial desires, but sees those unsatisfied wants not as a recent development due to efficiency but as a guiding principle in human society.

In Knight’s narrative of social progress, greater intellectual achievement is only one aspect of human development, and this divide between biological and social desires has always existed:

“Human beings do not regularly prefer their lower and more ‘necessary’ needs to those not easily justified in terms of subsistence or survival value, but perhaps rather the contrary; in any case what we call progress has consisted largely in increasing the proportion of want-gratification of an aesthetic or spiritual as compared to that of a biologically utilitarian character, rather than in increasing the ‘quantity of life’.” (Knight, 33)

Again this challenges the Hayekian notion of progress as blind adaptation leading to intellectual and material wealth. Knight considers spiritual and aesthetic experience or refinement to be definitive of progress and such a conception would suggest an independent value standard or guiding force just as before. While Hayek extols the necessity of large material inequality to spur further “progress” through innovation and intellectual achievement, Knight’s subtler understanding of progress recalls the values of Enlightenment Rationalism, which sought social equality and harmony as the primary human goods (Hayek, 99-104).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the Enlightenment’s most influential and eloquent thinkers, challenged the social narrative that science, knowledge, and intellectual achievement were signs of progress at all. Addressing scientists in his First Discourse, Rousseau asks, “had you taught us none of these things, would we consequently be fewer in number, less well governed, less formidable, less flourishing or more perverse” (Rousseau, 50)? For Rousseau it is not the accumulation of material wealth or the application of specialized knowledge that characterize progress but the moral improvement of society as a whole. In his narrative, social virtue, individual autonomy, and moral integrity provide the standards by which the advance or decline of progress can be measured. The distractions of science, politics, and culture “spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which men are burdened, stifle in them the sense of that original liberty for which they seem to have been born, make them love their slavery, and turn them into what is called civilized peoples” (36). The oppressive weight of constrained society that Rousseau refers to increasingly removes man’s natural freedom and encourages idleness.

Between Hayek’s evolutionary theory and Knight and Rousseau’s narratives of higher moral progress, the foundations for primary and enduring social values begin to take root. For each, liberty plays a central role in furthering their respective narratives of progress. Hayek understands liberty in a progressive society as the most important condition that which provides for the uncertainty of the evolutionary process, “all institutions of freedom are adaptations to this fundamental fact of ignorance, adapted to deal with changes and probabilities, not certainty” (Hayek, 82). Social institutions that preserve and promote human freedom are the evolutionary result of society having been confronted with uncertainty and chance in past iterations, and liberty as a social value has been proven over time as precious to the individual and useful to the stable ordering of civilization. Hayek’s narrative of progress, then does assert a discoverable law in the evolutionary process that values freedom for “the opportunity it provides for the growth of the undersigned, and the beneficial functioning of a free society rests largely on the existence of such freely grown institutions” (122).

Rousseau sees freedom as something mankind is born with that society has an obligation to protect, along with one’s individual dignity and equality as a free human being. Knight considers life itself to be a free exploration of values in search of those that benefit the individual and society most. While affirming freedom as a guiding social value, progress as a narrative cannot owe its entirety to uninhibited freedom. Society requires structure and organization to function properly and to foster effective cooperation among individuals. Through evolutionary processes, Hayek asserts that institutions have developed over time that channel the freedom and creative energy of individuals into productive pursuits, while minimizing the damage done through the freedom of others (120). But Hayek argues that the freedom guided and constrained by social institutions is not natural but an “artifact of civilization, it did not arise by design,” meaning that before moderating institutions existed, freedom emerged from social progress in a more natural from because its effects served the process of society (107).

If unregulated liberty existed prior to moderating institutions that directed and blunted its potent social force, then freedom originally emerged for a different purpose or out of different circumstances than Hayek supposes. In more primitive ages, liberty in contrast to coercion by social systems affirmed the value and dignity of the individual against the collective. Rather than create discord, emergent freedom from social evolution would have served a positive, unifying role, as each participant in society felt themselves to be a willing participant in cooperation rather than the victims of coercion for the benefit of others. Liberty may also have given individuals the opportunity to differentiate and express themselves within society, fostering mutual respect and appreciation for individuals in a social context that would not exist without that capacity. Knight suggests that such self-expression extends into the economic realm as well, defining “economic activity as a sphere of self-expression and creative achievement” (Knight, 51). As essentially individualistic, freedom nevertheless serves this dual purpose of giving meaning and dignity to human choice while simultaneously encouraging social interaction. Hayek, Knight, and Rousseau all agree on liberty as a fundamental social value that enables the successful development of society’s progress.

In Free Market Fairness, John Tomasi argues that freedom, especially economic freedom, is an essential part of what he calls “self-authorship”. Tomasi views society as a social framework that must be justified and agreeable to its participants, each being an equal and respected member. By guaranteeing the protections and powers of self-authorship, members of a society are conceptualized as “moral beings with lives of their own to lead who are simultaneously committed to living with others on terms that even the weakest among them can accept” (Tomasi, 88). This conceptualization of the individual contributes greatly to social cohesion by encouraging respect and voluntary cooperation, but it requires more than just freedom to be realized. Tomasi’s self-authorship also demands the protection of social justice for each individual against the inequalities and contingencies of birth and life, although the results are, for him, more appropriately reached indirectly through institutional arrangements (232).
Knight, like John Rawls, identifies social justice as another important social value along with freedom that helps to create and sustain a sense of connection within a community that otherwise would be divided and turned against itself. For Knight, social justice is the attempt to respond to the ethical questions revolving around the priorities and distribution of social values and relates a given social system’s “treatment of the wants of persons and classes, but that is by no means separable from the question of ranking different wants of the same person” (Knight, 37). As equals, members of a developing society expect that a fair and beneficial society will provide them with reasonably equal social conditions, but accidents of birth as well as institutional frameworks often give rise to gross inequality instead. An attractive and effective system of social justice would compensate for these inequalities through social institutions that include and accommodate for each individual’s basic needs.

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls explores the conditions and nature of social justice as a stabilizing force that encourages participation in society. In its essence, justice serves as a mediator between the interests and actions of free individuals in a society. It works through law to create stable and reliable institutions upon which members of the society can depend to protect and provide for them as any basic society should. Treated as equals, effective institutions of justice confirm everyone’s good and thus create agreement on a public level. “Everyone’s good is included in a scheme of mutual benefit and this public affirmation in institutions of each man’s endeavors supports men’s self-esteem,” providing both a physical and psychological reason for members of a society to support and connect with one another (Rawls, 179). Again justice is seen as an important contributor to social cohesion and unity, establishing the interests of each equal individual as the primary concern of the collective.

As essential tools for encouraging voluntary social participation and creating a space in which each individual can feel respected and appreciated in their unique expressions, freedom and justice in their many manifestations present themselves in the narrative of progress as an ideals. While other social values may come and go in the continual development of civilization, the ideals of freedom and justice sit among those that transcend the process of social development itself by fostering the connectedness required to sustain community. Knight argues that the judging faculty of the human mind uses such ideals by “comparing actuality and preferability with these, and with each other indirectly, by so comparing them with an ideal” (Knight, 36) For him, ideals of value are prerequisites to intelligent criticism of social process, like progress, and for those ideals to have meaning for immediate circumstances they may lie outside the realm of the possible. Separate from the immediate social values that Hayek believes evolve with other institutions over time, freedom and justice as ideals of social value serve as the standards of progress through their unifying effects. Movement toward greater justice and greater freedom in a society symbolizes progress through greater interconnection and solidarity.

As a narrative process, human society has developed innumerable cultural and historical descriptions of its evolution, but that process must be measured by these ideals of progress to gauge if each society is serving its members well. Hayek observes that “human civilization has a life of its own, that all our efforts to improve things must operate within a working whole… and the operation of whose forces we can hope merely to facilitate and to assist so far as we understand them” (131).

Works Cited
Fivush, Robyn, and Katherine Nelson. "Culture and Language in the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory." Psychological Science 15.9 (2004): 573-77. JSTOR. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <>.
Hayek, F.A. The Constitution of Liberty. Definitive ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.
Knight, Frank H. The Ethics of Competition. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2011. Print.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Original ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. Print.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The First and Second Discourses. New York: St. Martin's Press Inc., 1964. Print.

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author avatar Kingwell
10th Apr 2015 (#)

Interesting and good share. Blessings.

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