Can We Improve?


Crispin Sartwell over at the NYT's The Stone:

Human beings have made progress in various areas, though it is often fitful, double-edged and reversible. But are we capable of substantial moral improvement? Could we someday be much better ethically than we are now? Is it likely that members of our species could become, on average, more generous or more honest, less self-deceptive or less self-interested? I have known individual people who have improved morally in various ways (and many who have made the opposite journey) but I’m not sure that as a species as a whole we are any better than we were 100 or even 10,000 years ago.

This question has been explored throughout history — we might turn to Confucius or Aristotle, or to Jesus or the Buddha, to help illuminate the matter. But I’d like to focus here on a more recent moment: 19th-century America, where the great optimism and idealism of a rapidly rising nation was tempered by a withering realism.

It is often said that the American character is inherently hopeful, always expecting things and ourselves to be better. There is perhaps no better embodiment of this than Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, in a lecture delivered in Boston in 1844, confidently awaited the emergence of “the young American”:

Here stars, here woods, here animals, here men, abound, and the vast tendencies concur of a new order. If only the men are employed in conspiring with the designs of the Spirit who led us hither, and is leading us still, we shall quickly enough advance out of all hearing of other’s censures, out of all regrets of our own, into a new and more excellent social state than history has recorded.

Emerson thought that “the Spirit who led us hither” would help perfect us; others have believed the agent of improvement to be evolution, or the inevitable progress of civilization. More recent advocates of our perfectibility might focus on genetic or neurological interventions, or — as in Ray Kurzweil’s “When Singularity Is Near” — information technologies.

More here.