On October 25, 2018, Big Think published a video titled “The cult of disruptive innovation: Where America went wrong.” In it, they interviewed the American historian Jill Lepore. I will include a transcript to part of what she said, because I think it is particularly significant:
To my view, a lot of our contemporary crisis derives from an abandonment of the idea of moral progress. So, when the country was founded in the 18th century, its framers subscribed to the idea that progress is moral. And that idea of progress came from Christianity. The Pilgrim’s Progress is the journey from sin to salvation. Enlightenment philosophers, like the guys who drafted the founding documents of the United States, didn’t necessarily share that Christian notion of a journey from sin to salvation, but they understood progress in the United States and its founding as an experiment [that] would lead to political progress because it was designed to improve the lives of the most people, that people would act in the sense of a common endeavor, as a republic, that our obligations would be to one another in the form of community and that we should understand achievement as moral progress. That changed over the course of the 19th century when progress came to have a real technological caste – think about the railroad, the telegraph, the camera. People began to think of progress as advancing like a train on a linear track, and each machine would make the world better because things would go faster and goods would become cheaper. And very quickly that idea of moral progress was replaced by progress as prosperity. So, if you were to ask how things are going for the country, the country is prospering, we have made progress. And the slippage from “We’ve made a more just society” to “A lot of people are making a lot more money and goods are cheaper for people to buy,” that’s a real slippage. So then, in the 20th century, progress is even sort of less new forms of production and accelerated forms of production, but accelerated forms of consumption. So, the more people are buying, the more goods people have, [that means] “the standard of living is rising,” therefore we have progress. In the second half of the twentieth century, the idea that there even is progress, technologically-driving progress, begins to fall apart because of Hiroshima. So, people look at the world and [ask], “What’s technological progress gotten us in the middle of the century?” We have built a bomb that could destroy the whole planet, and by the 1950’s we’re destroying the environment, and it may be possible that human life cannot live on this planet indefinitely under these circumstances, or even for the next several centuries. So, there’s a real crisis in the idea of progress. By the time you get to the 1980’s and 1990’s, there’s a new generation of technological utopians, and they start talking about “innovation” as progress. Innovation, historically, as a word, means progress without any concern for morality. Innovation, in the 18th century sense, is bad. Innovation is novelty for its own sake – like, “Just invent it and who cares what the consequences are.” Innovation is historically actually a dreadful and damning thing to accuse someone of. … So, by the 1980’s, there’s such a kind of reckless heedlessness in American businesses. It’s the sort of mergers age, like Wall Street grubbiness…like “the greed is good” kind of thing, that this heedless innovation is fine because this “creative destruction”…this is the engine of economic growth. And nothing else matters – the public good, moral integrity, decency, goodness for more people, the health of the Republic. All that matters is innovation. And then, by the 1990’s, [the question asked is], “Is it disruptive innovation?” “Is it more radically innovative?” “Does it disrupt existing models of business and disrupt existing industries?” And so you get this real embrace of heedlessness as an American value or a corporate value, which is a complete abdication of the [true] spirit of progress.
So, let me see if I have this right: the Christian view saw progress as moral progress, that is, the transition from a state of sin to a state of holiness, and ultimately salvation. During the Enlightenment, the concept of morality was separated from its Judeo-Christian roots in an attempt to find an objective basis for morality without explicit recourse to God or the categories of traditional philosophy. Yet, at least then there was still some belief in objective morality, and a sense that true progress was growth in virtue (and on a societal level, a growth in justice). Yet, with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, progress became reduced merely to technological progress, which led to the spread of the most morally abhorrent iterations of capitalism. This, in turn, led to materialist and consumerist worldviews which then to the moral degradation of society.
Gee, I wish there had been someone who had warned us against this over the course of the past, oh, let’s say century to century and a half. Wouldn’t it have been great if there was someone who would fight against such forces as Communism, Fascism, racism, moral relativism, the oppression of the poor, extreme capitalism, and consumerism, all within the context of a rational defense of traditional values? Oh well.