I read this interesting interview with Terry Eagleton, of whom I am becoming a bit of a fan. Here is an extract which particularly interested me.
“Dawkins,” [Eagleton] contends, “has a Panglossian vision of progress. A view from North Oxford. Indeed for all his self-conscious modernity he turns out to be something of an old-fashioned Hegelian believing in a Zeitgeist (his own word) involving every increasing moral progress with just the occasional ‘reversal’. History is perpetually on the up. Not even beaming tambourine-banging evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish. What is this but an example of blind faith? What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?”
(When I confronted Dawkins in 2007 with his description of the Holocaust as “a temporary setback”, he at first insisted that it was still appropriate to believe in general moral progress. He thought that the idea of such progress was “plausible” but agreed that my scepticism deserved attention. It was, he finally said, “a fair cop”.)
It is Dawkins’s stated belief in the inevitability of progress that, according to Eagleton, marks him out as a particular kind of humanist.
“Dawkins deeply believes in the flourishing of the free human spirit which makes him a liberal humanist rather than a tragic humanist. He believes that if only those terrible guys out there would stop stifling and shackling us, then our creative capacities would flourish. I don’t believe that. As a Marxist I reject that simple liberationism. I’m not against humanism. I’m for a humanism which recognises the price of liberation. And that’s what I call tragic humanism. The only idea of emancipation worth having is one that starts from looking at the worst, that starts from Swift’s race of odious little vermin. If you’re the kind of humanist who can understand what Socrates meant when he said it would been far better if man had never been born, you’re on. A humanism like Dawkins’s and possibly that held by Hitchens isn’t worth all that much. It’s too easy.”
Any thoughts? Personally I felt like applauding at this.
I can see progress in terms of science, medicine, technology etc. I can see moral progress in the abolition of slavery for example. But I can also see how western progress has come at the expense of other parts of the world; how the wealth distribution across the world is far less equal than it has ever been; how we are most likely destroying our climate as a side effect of our progress and even though we know this is probably the case, we aren’t doing anything much about it.
I do not think salvation of the human race lies in liberty and reason alone, although I am in favour of those things. “Liberty is always dangerous, but it is the safest thing we have” (Harry Emerson Fosdick). I think controlling systems produce general conformity but do not produce any exceptional goodness. Liberty, on the other hand, is a high-risk high-gain strategy. Freedom of conscience and action gives people the opportunity to reach the kind of sincerity which I think leads naturally to empathy and goodness… but a bad side effect is that a fair number of people will probably abuse that freedom and use it to do bad things. We can’t bury our heads in the sand about that.