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In Defense of Progressivism

One central tenet of contemporary conservatism is traditionalism. Put crudely and generally, traditionalism is just the view that we ought to take our history seriously. More specifically, it is the view that we ought to respect and preserve the ideas, beliefs, and practices of those that came before us: we ought to respect and preserve that which our forefathers lived and died for. I do not find anything obviously objectionable about this view. The problem with traditionalism is not that it promotes history or calls us to preserve and respect the views of past thinkers, but that it often results in a status quo bias.

The status quo bias critique has been applied in various fields of discourse in specific ways. It has a general form however. Generally speaking, a status quo bias is the preference for a tradition just in virtue of it being the norm. Therefore, the general formulation of the status quo bias critique states that it is irrational (or unjustified) to oppose the change of a tradition merely in virtue of it being a change (instead of, say, opposing change because of consequential considerations).

It is my view that a status quo bias will often lead to the view that a particular set of ideas or texts—whether political, religious, or otherwise—are infallible. This works in reverse as well: the acceptance of any idea or text as infallible will often lead to a status quo bias. This will then lead to the opposition of any attempt to change or improve upon such ideas or texts. Any proposal that implies that such ideas ought to be ignored, challenged, changed, or compromised will also be opposed. This opposition will not be grounded in concerns for consequences, justice, practicality, nor in the search for further understanding, but only on the grounds that such ideas and texts, as they were conceived and written in their particular time and place, are infallible (or nearly so) and exhaustive and thus in need of no alteration.

It will come as no surprise that this view is in direct opposition to progressivism. Progressivism states that any modification to a particular idea, text, or practice can only be justified by reference to something beyond tradition, by reference to something beyond the status quo. Progressivism states that to say that something is the case or that something has been the case is not an argument for why something ought to be the case. Progressivism recognizes that traditions themselves often result from reform, that is, from the breaking of previous traditions. Progressivism also does not recognize the existence of eternally infallible ideas or texts because it does not take for granted that the particular ideas, beliefs, rules, and regulations of a particular age and culture will be justifiable or applicable to a later age and culture. In this regard, progressivists are anti-Platonic: they reject the eternal fixation of ideas in favor of a contextual or situational approach.

It was during the late nineteenth century that progressivism became linked with American pragmatism, perhaps the only school of philosophy that is uniquely American. Everything stated above about progressivism is true of pragmatism. In many ways, pragmatism was the application of Darwinian theory to our ideas, beliefs, and practices. It is no accident that pragmatism was birthed but a few decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Like Darwinism, pragmatism couched its language in terms of adaptability. It taught that our ideas, beliefs, and practices were only good insofar as they helped us get along in the world, insofar as they were useful, insofar as they helped promote our current goals and interests. As our environment will inevitably change, so will our goals and interests. Therefore, so must our ideas, beliefs, and practices.

This is the problem, says the pragmatist, with overstating our dedication to particular ideas, texts, and practices of the past. This is the problem with infalliblism. This is the problem with traditionalism. History has shown us that the justification of particular philosophical, political, religious, and moral beliefs of the past—while ever serving as a guide for our future—can never guarantee their justification in the future. This may be because the past beliefs were never justified to begin with (e.g. slavery) or because their justification was not universal and is no longer applicable in a different age and culture.

On this view, traditionalism itself becomes justified by reference to progressivism. Why should we study history? Why should we respect, and if necessary preserve, the views of our forefathers? Because doing so will have positive consequences for our future; because it will help us weed out the beliefs and practices that are no longer justifiable; and ultimately because it will further our understanding as to what it means to form a just society.

One reason why so many residents of the United States have become so suspicious of progressivism is because they see it an enemy of constitutionalism. Because progressivism promotes the changing of our beliefs and practices in light of new situations, they think that it may eventually lead to the destruction of the constitution itself. I offer four responses.

(1) We have already modified our constitution in light of various new circumstances. Such amendments are widely considered to be improvements upon the text and are far from undermining the text itself. (2) As such, we already recognize that our constitution is neither infallible nor exhaustive. The constitution was written and ratified by a select group of individuals who drew from the resources of their own minds and the minds of previous thinkers. But just as the ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Rousseau are neither infallible nor exhaustive, neither are the ideas of Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. (3) The American constitution is itself evidence of the country’s progressive origins. It was not by upholding but by breaking with the traditions—traditions that were viewed as unnecessary and unjust—of the Old World that allowed America to breathe. (4) Finally, there may come a time when the constitution will need to be rewritten entirely. But this should not, by itself, be a cause for alarm. All this may mean is that our views on justice, freedom, and so on have evolved to the point where the views of a group of individuals in the eighteenth century are no longer applicable to some future society. We should not be concerned with preserving tradition if it is recognized that such a tradition is immoral, unjust, or irrational.

It is for these reasons that I find progressivism to be, at its core, a wholly American philosophy. It is a great irony of history that traditionalism and nationalism have become so tightly linked in a country whose origin and primary philosophical contribution was and is based on principles that are inherently anti-tradition. If the United States of America is a great nation, it is not because of its adherence to tradition but because of its refusal to identify itself with any one particular tradition. If the United States is a great nation, it is because of its wholesale rejection of the very idea that tradition can be good without qualification.

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