2.5 The Absence of Institutional Mechanisms Specifically to Create Progress


In contemplating the turmoil of alleged progressive ideas one is reminded of "the tossing sea of steel" in Macaulay's description of the Etruscan army advancing upon Horatius at the bridge when "those in front cried 'Backward' and those behind cried 'On.'" That progress should be the accidental outcome of contending forces has been the rule throughout history. But with the embracing of progress as an ideal, in the last three hundred years (Bury, 1920), it follows logically that specific social institutions should be set up to engineer progress. Their task would be to examine and adjust those pressures which otherwise lead to social earthquakes and to direct the movement as smoothly as possible in directions scientifically evaluated as progressive.

It might be said that we have such a mechanism in political democracy, and so we do relative to the crustacean life of totalitarian dictatorships, but democracy can be merely adjustive rather than progressive and needs research eyes that it does not yet have. Chapter 9 here is substantially concerned with the planning of the evaluative and directive institutions that would accept progress as an integral necessity of the social organism. In this section it is proposed to take a preliminary look at the necessity for such organization, chiefly by noting the confusion and conflict which arise from the present lack of such organizations.

Some readers may wonder why the above attack on the inadequacy of the rationalist, a priori approach to social reform has been made, since at least it can be said that rationalists refuse to be bound by tradition, and consider themselves the forces of progress. Admittedly, in the eighteenth and perhaps the nineteenth centuries, the rationalists earned the gratitude of those eager for progress. But today the easy belief that we know just what progress is, and that it can be ensured by pursuing liberty, equality, fraternity, longer education and fuller stomachs is not good enough. It can easily degenerate, for example, into that satisfaction of the wants of the id which we study in more detail in Chapter 6.

Subjective, a priori goals are likely to omit much that is important. For example, the ideals of the French Revolution arising before Darwin, were necessarily pre-biological, and also had no regard for the energy and pollution considerations which the vast advance of the physical sciences brought about. (Yet they were carried over with no real change into the October Revolution of 1918.) But, above all, we must recognize that the purely rationalist approach is useful to criticize and destroy rather than to invent and create. Like the knife of a less skilled surgeon, rational argument may take away some valuable but not yet understood organ even as it removes some hated obstruction. (The destruction of religion in France in 1800 and Russia in 1920 may be such an instance.) In demolishing superstition (as did Voltaire), or vested political prejudice (as did Diderot and Paine), or long accepted axioms in the intellectual climate (as with Hume and Locke), there has always occurred some destruction (generally temporary) of other and vital values which reason alone could not justify. This serious damage is made greater by the common association of rationalism with the optimistic postulate that all change is progress.

By contrast the empirical, scientific approach to social problems or any other matter is capable of replacing old growths by new inventions. The steam engine, X-rays, penicillin, and so forth, were not the products of "reason" but of science, which uses reason but is much more. And similarly in social construction, investigation, discovery and invention of new devices that demonstrably work better is essential. These are not found by a priori fiat from some belief that to advance we have only to be more rational in the speaker's own definition of the term!

Since all systems in time become obsolete and have to be removed, it would seem inevitable that governing authority must be periodically attacked. But this is far from saying that all attack on authority is progressive. Indeed, unless we wish to live in anarchy, authority in the abstract must endure. "The King is dead. Long live the King." Moreover, so long as there is social structure and human knowledge, there will tend to be the best accepted values in the one and the most mature and considered human judgment in the other. The question we shall raise later in this book and it is a large and difficult question is whether it may not be possible to build the research basis for progress, and the machinery for self-modification into the governing authority itself. Rigidity, for psychological and social reasons, is a part of all human behavior, but there are clear historical and contemporary instances of this rigidity being greater at the bottom than the top of society. (This is one of many reasons why the oversimplified Left-vs-Right formulation of political action needs to be recognized as obsolete.) The rigidity against which the progressive has to fight is in the future less likely to be found in the governing "authority" than in the thinking habits of the mass.

As a fact of history and biology it must moreover never be forgotten that although change is desirable, the chances of any random change being an improvement are decidedly less than fifty-fifty. It helps if we turn here to a well-investigated field of organic change: that of gene mutation. Of all mutations that occur in genes, the vast majority are deleterious. They go backwards to atavistic forms, or to new expressions that upset the harmony of the organism so severely that it fails and dies. Change must occur for evolution to proceed, but in any one step the organism must retain ninety-nine hundredths of its integrity if it is to avoid internal cancer or external defeat and collapse in the face of environmental demands. Similarly, the social body has, shall we say, a right and a duty to maintain the authority of large parts of its own "program" in face of "reason," though it should not and cannot do so in face of "experience."

But the effect of the alleged rational attack on authority as authority (not against specific, possibly fallacious views of authority) has been well illustrated in this generation as typically a growing contempt for moral authority of any kind among the general population, and a rueful and bewildered readiness of authorities, from parents to university presidents, to abdicate moral leadership. For example, there has occurred through rationalist arguments an abdication of values in sexual morality, in everyday civil order, in the punishment of crime, in defense of one's country, in relaxing what constitutes the harder, disciplined core of intellectual education, and countless other areas (Archer, 1958). If it be argued that there has been a substitution of new values, not merely an abdication, one can only point out that practically nowhere (as one would expect from the above stated nature of rationalism) has there been a construction of new moral restraints. In most historical periods of rationalist activity since the sixteenth century the social change has begun with what Crane Brinton (1938) called "the defection of the intellectuals" (meaning, of course, a section of the intellectuals rejecting their culture in favor of whatever revolutionary movement was popular at the time).

It will be discussed later, as a datum of social psychology, that these "intellectuals" are more frequently from literature and the arts than from the intellectuals of science. (Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Pasteur, Jenner, Einstein and others in science who upset the establishment were not primarily concerned to upset and were almost wholly concerned with reforming the scientific "establishment.") Lacking the reality-testing procedures of science, the literary or political "science" intellectuals are particularly prone to confound change with progress, and to take their departure in rational, logical argument from entirely a priori postulates, e.g., that pleasure is the logical goal of life, that all men are equal, that rivalry between societies is bad, that all strife is bad, that some men are naturally slaves (Plato), that the natural ecology of existing species should never be disturbed, that if it is medically possible men should live forever, that education can always be pleasant, that man is naturally monogamous, and so ad infinitum through the world of the "self-evident."

In the domain of ethics, which is our principal concern here, the effect of the literary intellectual leaders in this particular generation has been to persuade the educated man that the supreme sin is to take a "bigoted" stand on any ethical point, and that he had best let the words "right" or "wrong" fall into desuetude. A frequently associated assertion is that the humane person puts blame for criminal acts not on the criminal but on the society which brought him up. We are invited to cringe in collective guilt, when the most educative and remedial use of guilt might, for example, be (on the verdict the present psychological research) to seek to increase guilt in the criminal and the relatives immediately responsible for bringing him up. If society's sharing in the blame (but not the complete transfer of blame to society) were simply a more widespread recognition of scientific determinism, it would admittedly be to that extent an advance in comprehension of our social world. And it would be valuable to recognize that some forms of society are by this definition more guilty than others (crime is low in totalitarian societies such as Russia and China and authoritarian ones such as Italy). But the assertion of the guilt of society actually comes from the "reflex" liberal, responding directly with mixed-up humanistic and sentimental reaction, remote from any attempt to understand by intensive social scientific research what is actually happening. An empirical, deterministic approach would on the other hand, ask what the criminal does to the morale of society as much as it would ask what society does to the criminal. A scientific interest in understanding the proliferation of crime must consider a two-way causality. It must also include both environmental and genetic causes and consider the possibility that when society allows palpable genetic defects to perpetuate themselves in the criminal, it may be increasing criminal cultural values in society at large. In any case, if it were found that punishment discourages criminal behavior in the criminal individual and deters those on the brink of committing criminal behavior, scientific determinism would end by supporting the "illiberal" practice of blaming the criminal. The rationalist who also embraces science therefore does so at the risk that it may wipe out his fondest a priori "principle".

A particular development which almost inevitably grows out of rationalism in the modern situation is a belief in inherent ethical relativity. (A distinction has already been drawn above between this and situational relativity, in which the authority of some fundamental moral value is admitted and the variations are considered to be appropriate situational adaptations different compass courses to the same port.) The result of accepting inherent relativity is of course, the weakening of moral force and authority anywhere. The rationalist encampment in the ruins of revealed religious authority thus creates in modern society a neurotic type of indecision on vital questions of ethical values. The culture scarcely dares to teach on moral matters. A Harvard psychiatrist recently summed up the problems of a large section of alienated students who came to him in distress by the remark of one of them "My parents never told me what to do." John Gardner, the Secretary for Education and Welfare, reminds us (1968) that "Every great civilization has been characterized by confidence in itself." In Western culture, and particularly among the "intelligentsia" of Europe, this confidence in its values is at a low ebb. As Barbara Tuchman, the brilliant authoress, stated in an address to the National Conference on Higher Education (Chicago, November 7, 1967, 22nd Congress) the missing element in our morale is the willingness to stand up and say "This is what I believe. This I will do and that I will not do. This is my code of behavior and that is outside it."

Unless the authority of a culture makes such definite stands, its value as an experiment is vitiated as in any sloppily carried out experiment. Fully recognizing that its moral values are not absolute, but only the best that can be divined, a society ought still to be uncompromising about enforcing them, though all the time intellectually examining them. One reason for the lack of respect for ethical values and it is the problem this book seeks to solve is that the moral truths adopted are patently not "the best that can be divined." Granted a rejection of subjectivity, and an attempt to find an objective and progressive scientific basis for moral decision however, ethical authority could become once more respected.

The young rebels and non-rebels are no less idealistic than in any other period of history; and they have more time and education to attend to these problems. They should be encouraged to attack them, rather than be bobbed off by safe and trivial distractions. At heart, most of them find the erosion of firm moral values painful and discouraging. The universities are justly criticized by society for not having constructively channelled this idealism by conveying such basic truths as that (a) human nature being what it is, people kick against necessary restraints as readily as against false ones, rationalizing that the first type actually belong to the second, (b) modern science should be capable, in principle, of guiding progress in moral values as positively as other fields of progress, eliminating the need to depend on the a priori assertions of revealed religion.

Thus the attack made here on rationalism is by no means an attack on reason, which is the indispensable right hand of progress against superstition, though relatively ineffective without help from the left hand, which is scientific experimental method. Nor is it a disparagement of the need constantly to question authority personal and institutional authority as distinct from the authority of scientifically-tested ideas. But it is an assertion in accordance with what Becker (1932) well states, that St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and Voltaire in the eighteenth (despite the rationalist advances claimed for the latter) alike depended on reason and on faith. Moreover, the basis in faith was no less important (though sedulously hidden) in Voltaire. In spite of science having introduced a radically new method, the bulk of reformist writers on social and ethical questions are still simple rationalists. If they decorate their arguments with references to Freud, or Keynes, or Margaret Mead, the outcome, claimed as a "modern scientific, intellectual, avante garde position," is grievously tainted and distorted by slavish adherence to wholly arbitrary value presuppositions. Almost without exception they are fashionable, mass values. As a recent biographer of Browning, commenting on the herd reaction of the contemporary literati against this then revolutionary poet, observes, "the intelligentsia have never been noted for firm individual independence of mind" (Ward, 1967).

To reach new values for social progress we are going to need the critical and creative independence of the scientific worker. And the individual alone will not do; for advance needs in addition, the massive support and organization necessary for an undertaking that is as formidable as research on cancer or any other highly complex problem in science.















Back to Table of Contents