Progress ≠ virtue

Leon Kass once delivered the Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities:

On returning to Cambridge, I was nagged by a disparity I could not explain between the uneducated, poor black farmers in Mississippi and many of my privileged, highly educated graduate student friends at Harvard. A man of the left, I had unthinkingly held the Enlightenment view of the close connection between intellectual and moral virtue: education and progress in science and technology would overcome superstition, poverty, and misery, allowing human beings to become at last the morally superior creatures that only nature’s stinginess, religion, and social oppression had kept them from being. Yet in Mississippi I saw people living honorably and with dignity in perilous and meager circumstances, many of them illiterate, but sustained by religion, extended family, and community attachment, and by the pride of honest farming and homemaking. They even seemed to display more integrity, decency, and strength of character, and less self-absorption, vanity, and self-indulgence, than did many of my high-minded Harvard friends who shared my progressive opinions. How could this be?

In summer 1966, my closest friend, Harvey Flaumenhaft, had me read Rousseau’s explosive Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, for which my Mississippi and Harvard experiences had prepared me. Rousseau argues that, pace the Enlightenment, progress in the arts and sciences does not lead to greater virtue. On the contrary, it necessarily produces luxury, augments inequality, debases tastes, softens character, corrupts morals, and weakens patriotism, leading ultimately not to human emancipation but to human servitude.

Rousseau complains that writers and “idle men of letters”—the equivalent of our public intellectuals, not to say professors—subvert decent opinion and corrupt the citizens: “These vain and futile declaimers go everywhere armed with their deadly paradoxes, undermining the foundations of faith and annihilating virtue. They smile disdainfully at the old-fashioned words of fatherland and religion, and devote their talents and philosophy to destroying and debasing all that is sacred among men.” …

No friend of humanity should trade the accumulated wisdom about human nature and human flourishing for some half-cocked promise to produce a superior human being or human society, never mind a post-human future, before he has taken the trouble to look deeply, with all the help he can get, into the matter of our humanity—what it is, why it matters, and how we can be all that we can be.

If it’s true that “progress in the arts and sciences does not lead to greater virtue” nor “human emancipation but to human servitude,” then we’re well on the path to dystopia.

What can the simple virtues of the heart do against such systemic corrupting influences? We can start by discerning whether what we experience in daily life meets the standard for true progress. We can judge whether it builds up or tears down.