14 July 2007

John Gray on progress

I spotted the latest book by John Gray in a bookshop, and was a little confused because I remembered him as a classical liberal from reading his book Liberalism when I was a student. I wondered whether there was another John Gray. Wikipedia sorted me out: there is only one John Gray (apart from this one, who isn't relevant), but his views have changed over the years.

The links from the Wikipedia article are engrossing - this attack on Blair and neoconservatism is very persuasive, and led me to the 1999 speech I referred to in my previous piece. The discussion with Laurie Taylor about the religious and utopian aspects of modern humanism chimes very closely with the cryptocalvinism theory of Unqualified Reservations blog, which I have already praised.

But one of the major thrusts of his current arguments is one that would never have struck me as being necessary to make. In the Laurie Taylor piece, particularly, he is very keen to insist that there is not really any such thing as progress. We have progressed in technology, and science is dragged forwards as a result, but morality is not on a steadily improving track.

This is so obvious: anyone can tell the difference between a machine that works and one that doesn't, so technology does not regress unless the economy producing it is destroyed. It is hard to deny the science underlying working technology, so science tends to progress along with the technology - it can on occasionally jump ahead, and even drop back level again, but it does not fall behind.

There is no equivalent incontrovertible test between good morality and bad morality, so morality can wander all over the shop, go round in circles, or go wild. In the long run, one could say that good morality works for its society and bad morality doesn't, but so many other things affect the success of a society - movements of power and technology - that it doesn't constitute an obvious experimental test.

History is one damned thing after another; there is no meaning to our lives unless we choose to pick one; humanity can probably solve most of the problems it encounters, but more will come along and there is no good reason to believe they can all be solved. It's disorienting that people I consider sensible might doubt any of these things.

Black Mass is on my paperback list, anyway.

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