March 28, 2010 at 6:28 pm (Humanism, morality, society)

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.

Hm. 😯

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.



  1. susanne430 said,

    It’s a nice thought to believe the world is getting better. Yes, we have more technology and some of us have more rights. But slavery is not dead. Sex slavery is alive and well in many parts of the world, sadly.

    Interesting post. I enjoyed reading this perspective. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  2. Achelois said,

    My opinion will be coloured by the fact that I don’t like Dawkins at all. He is a very intelligent man, but that is all he is, and sadly he is failing to see that his interpretation of progress is not shared by many and may not even be correct.

    Thanks for this post! Very interesting comment on Dawkins.

  3. sanil said,

    I’m a little more of a liberal humanist as described here than a tragic one, but I like to think I actually fall somewhere in the middle. Realistic humanist? My best friend is DEFINITELY on the optimistic liberal side, and I love talking to him, it sort of recharges my “faith in humanity” batteries. 😀

    I don’t think it’s true that we have to start with a “vermin” view, I think that can be damaging…but that is probably because I come from a religious tradition that always sees humanity that way and thinks humans are completely incapable of a single decent thought and we need God to take possession of our bodies to do anything good….so I’m a little bitter about that view. I think we need a balance, recognize the good and the evil in ourselves so that we can push strive for the good.

  4. Sarah said,

    Thanks for your comments!

    Sanil, I think I’m in the middle too… Very good point about religious teachings that make out that humans are rotten to the core, I have as much trouble with that as I do with the idea that liberty and reason are all we need to create an instant perfect world. I don’t think either view gets it right about how goodness arises, and both are overly simplistic.

    “I think we need a balance, recognize the good and the evil in ourselves so that we can push strive for the good.”

  5. cairolusakaamsterdam said,

    Very interesting!

    I think it is unfortunate that many people go to extremes: some blame religion for everything wrong in the world; others blame the lack of religion. I also think it is annoying that a lot of religious people seem to put very little faith in humanity…they seem to think that unless we follow religious commandments to the letter we will all be running around killing each other.

    • Sarah said,

      Yes, the world seems to be completely polarised about religion! Both sides seem to think there is an easy answer to the world’s problems, which I don’t think there is.

      • susanne430 said,

        I think there is an easy answer. It’s just hard to implement so maybe that makes it hard after all. Hmmmm.

        • Sarah said,

          I think Dawkins would agree with you on the “hard to implement” part! 😉

          • susanne430 said,

            Ha! 😀

            My “easy answer” is loving others like you do yourself, serving others (the greatest among you is the one who serves), honoring others above ourselves. Basically love, honor, service and selflessness. Not as easy as one would hope…. at least not for me! 🙂

            Can you imagine a world where we all looked out for everyone around us, put their needs above our own and sought to serve them in every way? And if everyone is doing this, we are all, essentially, being loved and honored and served and cared for. Sounds really ideal to me!

            Actually it sounds a bit like motherhood now that I reread it. Like I said, it’s not easy for me, the non-mother. 😀

            • Sarah said,

              I think this is more or less everyone’s idea of moral behaviour. The problem is how do you create conditions where people will readily behave like that? By giving them freedom or by controlling what they can do? By teaching them to use reason or teaching them to believe things?

              This is where I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I think reflection and sincerity is a prerequisite for moral behaviour, and you can’t make people do that. That’s the bottom line.

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