melting wax
July 10, 2005 1:00 AM   Subscribe

Is Civilization Decaying? Will technological progress be accompanied by moral progress? Notes on a 1923 debate between J. B. S. Haldane (Daedalus) and Bertrand Russell (Icarus). "As John Brunner pointed out in an article in the New Scientist in 1993, these two books ... inspired two generations of science fiction writers."
posted by painquale (11 comments total)
Well, the world is a better place then it was in 1923, but society deteriorated pretty seriously in the next two decades.
posted by delmoi at 1:47 AM on July 10, 2005

It's typical of people who don't understand science and technology to be frightened by it. New technology is always seen as evil because it disrupts old power structures and forces us to rethink old models of how society worked. That coupled with the mistaken belief that "things were so much better back in the day when everything was simple!" makes us forget that the only reason why we live so well today is because of the myriad of scientific and technological advances we have to enjoy.

Let the academics prattle on in their ivory towers about the evils of progress. Anyone who applys science-fiction to real life can't be taken seriously.
posted by aerify at 2:14 AM on July 10, 2005

Q: Is civilization decaying?

A: No.
posted by sotonohito at 6:37 AM on July 10, 2005

Yes, technological progress is being accompanied by moral progress. Bit by bit moral & philosophical progress is becoming more scientific and more practical (a book on excising Marx from the left.. its short, read it).
posted by jeffburdges at 6:44 AM on July 10, 2005

I don't think civilization is decaying, and there has been progress in defining morality, but that said, I think that a lot of the progress was due to people who were willing to aggressively question the current definitions of morality. Instant dismissal of the idea that we could be doing some things worse as a society will, I think, lead to a slow in moral progress.

(Also, I haven't read enough Singer to judge his views, but I've read a little about Utilitarianism, and I just don't think it is very.... widely accepted. I think it is a fairly fleshed out logical view of morality, (I do have some problems with it, but I don't really care to argue that), I just don't think that it is really how people think about morality, and I'm not sure that its existence is a single argument that disallows the possibility of moral decline).
posted by SomeOneElse at 8:08 AM on July 10, 2005

aerify, academics often lead the charge in technological innovation. Most of the initial research showing that the new drugs and cool technologies are possible has been done by academics. Don't tar all academics with the same brush you use for the jabbering arts.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:21 AM on July 10, 2005

“Technology only gives us tools. Human desires & institutions decide how we use them.”
--Freeman Dyson
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 11:54 AM on July 10, 2005

Interesting stuff, especially considering the article linked to yesterday on slashdot about how the Amish selectively adopt modern technologies and why/how they go about doing so ( article).
posted by basicchannel at 1:11 PM on July 10, 2005

affirmative. a perfect example is the cell phone. the cell phone is a good idea gone horribly wrong.
posted by brandz at 7:33 PM on July 10, 2005


Utilitarianism is tacitly accepted by a enormous number of philosophers and intellectuals, and their arguments have a reasonably wide impact. The reason is that utilitarian arguments are usually just rational or pragmatic deductions based on (a) evidence and (b) the principle of minimizing suffering. For example, most pro-choice arguments are utilitarian (with the notorious exception being the objectivity/libertarian "an unborn child is a parasite" perspective). Even Singer's extreme pro-animal arguments has had an enormous cultural impact. No, people don't think like Singer, but they are listening to utilitarian arguments.

I'm not a utilitarian myself, but more objective measures like suffering should improve results over tradition, i.e. I don't believe in minimizing suffering, but it's a reasonable approximation today. Beyond this, one needs to figure out what is meant by moral, which leads us to my objection to utilitarianism:

It seems unlikely that the "minimize suffering" meme has what it takes to survive against all competitors, and (meme) survival is the ultimate judge of "moral decay" and "right." A more hardy meme might be "accelerate human memetic / scientific / technological evolution, even through pain and suffering if needs be" i.e. an aggressive transhumanism (as opposed to a Kurzweil's utopian / masturbatory transhumanism). To put it simply, a happy society will fail next to a society which evolves faster. Its just the useless suffering today which makes utilitarianism indistinguishable from transhumanism, i.e. developing Africa increases the percentage of the worlds population which are scientists.

Anyway, go see the movie Kensey if you have any doubt that science and technology translate into moral progress.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:19 AM on July 11, 2005

The wife and I were picking up photo prints from Sams Club yesterday afternoon. ..Part of a desperate attempt to make our house look like something out of one of those home design magazines in time for her mom’s visit. DeAnja worked voraciously. And cracked voracious whips in my direction. She did everything, ..except for placing sporadic colorful bowls everywhere to achieve balance.

I’m glad my family knows that I’m a slob. Good that I don’t have to keep up appearances that I have it all together. Apparently DeAnja would like to prove to her mom that yes, she can live with Drew and, somehow still maintain higher levels of tremendous organized style. It’s amazing. You guys should see her in action.

Anyway, leaving Sams Club, miraculously avoiding the five gallon impulse purchase of cheeseballs and only holding our photos, that lady who stands by the door checking everybody’s receipts said the usual “Thank you have a nice day” in the most awful pathetic manner. Her facial expression and tone of voice said something different, like: “I hate myself and I hate my life and every one of you stupid people in line with your stupid receipts I’m going to stab myself in the face with a sharpened spoon.”

It was awesome.

Photos in hand, walking toward our car, DeAnja and I had just finishing up laughing about this lady when we strolled past a group of 5 individuals hastily eating fried chicken inside a brand-new yet somehow incredibly dirty Lincoln Towncar out in the hot parking lot.

At this point I tell DeAnja that our culture is no longer in a mere state of decline, but rather some sort of freefall. She agreed.
posted by thisisdrew at 3:42 PM on July 11, 2005

« Older ribbit.   |   Me So Gourmet Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments