Why it’s the wrong way to think about history and progress.
Jacob T. Levy is the Tomlinson professor of political theory and director of the Yan P. Lin Center for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders at McGill University and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. He is the author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.
“What will be on the wrong side of history in 50 years time?” The very question is one of superstition and myth. In fact, the very idea that there is a wrong or right side of history has been the moral justification for a variety of historical horrors that were steeped in ideas of modernity and technological mastery.
Martin Luther King Jr., who famously encouraged hope by saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” later offered a different approach. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote: “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.”
The superstition that the passage of time reveals moral truth has a lot of sources and a lot of variations. The fifth-century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo railed against those Christians who sacralized the expansionist history of Rome as the steady progress of God’s plan to unify and Christianize the world.
Even though the empire’s fall seemingly proved his point, Christians went on sacralizing history, and left behind intellectual habits that believers in secular scientific progress have never shaken off. We see modern variations all around: the so-called Whig theory of British and American history as the ongoing natural progress toward liberty; the European imperialist doctrines that justified conquering supposedly backward peoples to morally uplift them into the present; the contempt of the “barbaric” Middle Ages cultivated by the early modern absolute monarchs and anti-Catholic Enlightenment philosophers alike.
The problem isn’t the belief in moral right and wrong but the belief that history manifests and reveals them in some natural way. Understanding, and doing, the right thing is hard, an ongoing struggle that every person and every generation faces. Ideologies of history as moral progress try to make it easy. They treat some group of us in the present as having clear moral knowledge that was unavailable to the past, and that isn’t shared by everyone in the present, to whom we then get to feel superior. They’re on the wrong side of history! They’re barbaric, medieval, archaic, primitive.
I understand the psychological roots of the superstition: not only a thirst for right answers to be revealed with certainty but also a smug pride in ourselves. But I don’t understand how unshakable it is, even after the 20th century.
Humanity’s compounding scientific and economic knowledge simply doesn’t translate to similar growth in moral knowledge. Indeed, sometimes the development of new technological prowess and new organizational capacity opens the door to new evils, evils we misunderstand if we think of them as some leftover from the past. The Holocaust was new, not just a bigger pogrom. The atrocities of communism under Stalin and Mao were new; so was the trans-Atlantic chattel slave trade; so was the genocidal conquest of the Americas. Murder, war, and slavery are old, but our new capabilities combine with new ideologies to create awful new phenomena out of those old impulses.
Before we attribute magical moral powers to the passage of the next 50 years, we should look backward in 50-year increments and ask: How many old moral errors keep coming back? How many new ones get introduced? Even if it happens to be the case that the current generation is the most enlightened in history (which I doubt), has the progress toward that been so smooth that we’re really sure our grandchildren will be better still?
There is moral improvement over some time spans, in some places: the fall of Jim Crow or of communism in Eastern Europe. But those aren’t the verdict of history or the historical revelation of moral truth, any more than the return of measles or of neo-Nazis represents the verdict of history. In the next 50 years, some things will change, and some people will congratulate themselves for it. And about some of the things they’ll be right, and about some they’ll be wrong, just as is true today.
There is no back of the book in which we get to look up the answers, and adding 50 more years’ worth of pages won’t change that.