John Gray Says Human Progress Is a Myth

By Johannes Niederhauser


John Gray, photo by Justine Stoddart.

Haven't we humans come such a long way? In the past 200 years alone we've managed to abolish slavery (by moving it to the sweatshops of the Third World), rid our lives of industrial pollution (by moving it to the factories of the Third World) and introduced peace, human rights and democracy to various undeveloped hinterlands through long, mindless, bloody conflicts.

We really are the sparkling glint of diamond in the otherwise shabby lump of coal that is the modern world, and anyone who hasn't tasted the ethical sweetness of Western progress surely will soon, presumably via extended bombing campaigns. We have Fair Trade acai berries, high-speed internet and pop-up scrunchie markets; we are still basking in the afterglow of the Enlightenment, while the rest of the world drags its feet through the Dark Ages.    

Noted political philosopher, author and regular contributor to The Guardian and the New Statesman, John Gray's latest book is about how all of that is bullshit. The Silence of Animals deals with the touchy subject of human progress – which, Gray asserts, is a myth. Considering the fact there seems to have been genuine progress in the fields of science, medicine and technology, I was a little confused by that, so I called him up for an explanation.


John Gray's book, The Silence of Animals.

VICE: First of all, could you explain what you mean by the term "progress" and why you think it's a myth? 
John Gray: I define "progress" in my new book as any kind of advance that's cumulative, so that what's achieved at one period is the basis for later achievement that then, over time, becomes more and more irreversible. In science and technology, progress isn't a myth. However, the myth is that the progress achieved in science and technology can occur in ethics, politics or, more simply, civilisation. The myth is that the advances made in civilisation can be the basis for a continuing, cumulative improvement.   

Do you have any examples to back that up?
Take slavery. If you achieve the abolition of slavery, you can then go on to achieve democracy. Again, the myth is that what's been achieved is the basis for future achievement. My observation of history is that this isn't the case for civilisation. Of course, I strongly support advances in civilisation, like the emancipation of women and homosexuals and the abolition of torture, but all that can be easily swept away again.

I see. So there was the supposed abolition of torture in the US, but it came back again in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Exactly. There were genuine advances in ethics and politics, but they were lost in an instant. And the ban on torture was notoriously "relaxed" by George W Bush and his gang in the world's greatest democracy, not by some obscure dictatorship. Back in February, 2003, before the Iraq invasion, I published a spoof article called "A Modest Proposal" in the style of Jonathan Swift. Based on actual developments in liberal political theory at the time, I argued that torture would be needed as an instrument in the struggle for world-wide human rights.

What were the reactions like?
People found it ridiculously, perversely misanthropic and pessimistic. Even those who perceived it as satirical, which it was, of course.

Typical liberal humanist outrage. Some topics are just untouchable.
Less than a year later, however, pictures from the tortures in Abu Ghraib came out. It wasn't difficult to foresee that this would happen – hence that great achievement of the necessary ban of torture is very easily forgotten. Something like torture, which is completely beyond the boundaries of civilisation, can become renormalised at any time.

I sometimes think of us people in the West as masters of self-deception.
Oh sure.

We perceive ourselves as highly ethical. Shop at the right store and you feel like you're saving the world, but the clothes we wear are being produced by wage-slaves in the Third World. We’ve only outsourced slavery, we haven't banned it.
Yeah, we’ve changed the name and we've outsourced it. And we've done the same thing with pollution. We've outsourced heavy industrial pollution to China and India so that we can be very clean. But they produce the goods that we actually use. I feel the same as you, but I wouldn't describe it as hypocrisy because hypocrisy suggests we actually know what the truth is.


Tony Blair and George Bush, bringing progress to the wider world. (Image via)

So it's even worse – complete delusion. 
Think of Tony Blair. People regard him as a liar, but I believe that's too much of a compliment. I think he lacks the moral development to engage in falsity. Whatever he spoke, he believed. Another example: many people from the political left think of Western intervention in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan as concealed resources grabbing. But many people – commentators, politicians, certainly Blair – believe that they're actually promoting enlightenment and progressive values throughout the world.  

You don't think it's concealed imperialism?
No, because it's done with a genuine belief that their beliefs are the beliefs of the world. They suggest that Western countries, despite the great problems they have, are the meaning of history. That is a myth. Western countries do have many virtues – we're having this conversation, which we couldn't do in many other parts of the world – but they also have great difficulties. Behind every myth, there is this demand for the meaning of life.

But human beings need meaning in life.
I'm not denying that we as human beings can create meaning ourselves, but there's no ultimate meaning inscribed in the universe or in history. My advice to people who need a meaning that's beyond what they can create is to join a religion. On the whole, they are older and wiser myths than secular myths like progress.

Would you say the myth of progress is sort of a religion in itself?
Oh yes, it is. Our secular myths are just religious myths rebottled, but with most of the good things taken out.

So, in that sense, is contemporary atheism also a religion?
Atheists always turn red when I call atheism a religion. If atheism means what it should mean: to not have any use for the concept of God, then, in that sense, I am an atheist. But I'm not an evangelist. The fact that there were buses going around London saying, "There is probably no God" is completely ridiculous. You can definitely call atheists religious when they're being evangelists and trying to convert the world to their belief.


London's atheist bus. Photo by Jon Worth at atheistbus.org.uk.

Are they ever successful?
No. The biggest conversions taking place at the moment are Africans to Islam and many Chinese to Christianity. So atheism is a side-joke of history compared with that. What we see today is rather a huge expansion of traditional religion. Atheism is a media phenomenon.

Let's turn to another modern myth: happiness. I recently went to some talk titled, “Will happiness save the world?”
That's wonderful.

Shouldn’t we just give Prozac to everybody so that they're all equally happy?
I don't think that happiness – in the modern sense – is at all a sensible goal. Because when happiness is the goal, the risk is that people become more cautious and less adventurous than they would be. Happiness is a myth of satisfaction. The belief is that if you arrange your life in a certain way, then you'll have a certain state of mind. But I think a more interesting, fulfilling way to live is to just do what interests you, because you never know in advance whether you'll be satisfied or not. 

Yet so many people try to calculate their life and perceive themselves as optimisable machines.
Yeah, people seem to wish to be able to engineer their own mental state. And, as you say, if you start doing that, then it's a quick step to chemical engineering. As we know in America and elsewhere, there's an enormous amount of anti-depressants used, which people didn't do in previous times. Does that mean they were depressed all the time?

Oh yeah, definitely.
I've called progress the Prozac of the thinking class before. People have often said to me, “If I didn't believe in progress, I wouldn't be able to get up in the morning.” But as the belief in progress is only about 200 years old, I usually ask them “What were people doing before that? Lying in bed all the time?”

That's the heritage of the Enlightenment. Everything before that was just the Dark Ages.
Oh yes. The whole of human history up until the Enlightenment was a prelude to us. It's completely absurd. The Enlightenment would have it that everybody who lived before it – people like Shakespeare – was an undeveloped human being. The proponents of the Enlightenment and the idea of progress like to think that they are an important chapter in this vast historical narrative. In fact, that narrative doesn't exist. It's a rather silly fiction.


(Image via)

Isn't the belief that everything will get better and that the world is now moving towards a blessed end-state kind of schizophrenic, in the sense that we've actually been living in a deep crisis since the 1970s?
The rapid movement in technological advancements creates a phantom of progress. Phones are getting better, smaller and cheaper all the time. In terms of technology, there's a continuous transformation of our actual everyday life. That gives people the sense that there is change in civilisation. But, in many ways, things are getting worse. In the UK, incomes have fallen and living standards are getting worse.

And advances in technology don't mean that things are necessarily getting better in the grand scheme of things.
Oh, absolutely. Technological progress is double-edged. The internet, for example, has more or less destroyed privacy. Anything you do leaves an electronic trace.

Some people even want their mind to be transferred into the Internet to be digitally immortal.
That's kind of moving in a way, but also utterly absurd. Even if it was possible to upload your whole mind on to a computer, it wouldn't be you.

There seems to be a wide misunderstanding of what it means to be yourself.
Yes. You haven't chosen to be the self that you are. You're irreplaceable. You're a singularity. We are who we are because of the lives that we have. And that involves having a body, being born and dying.

Especially dying.
Yes, especially. A lot of contemporary phenomena, like faith in progress, is really an attempt to evade the reality of death. In actuality, each of our lives is singular and final; there is no second chance. This is not a rehearsal. It's the real thing. It's very easy to escape that reality with religion, but I don't despise that – if that's what you need, then that's fine. What I certainly do despise is the emergence of religious needs in people who despise religion. But not the needs themselves.

Uploading yourself to the cyberspace sounds a lot like going to heaven when you die.
I don't live my life on the basis of religion and I don't subscribe to it at all. But the idea that human beings will be recalled from the dead at the end of time is more credible than virtual immortality, because it's supposed to be mysterious – it's supposed to be a miracle and inexplicable. In that sense it's a more credible view than this utterly bizarre nonsense about uploading our minds into cyberspace. I mean, what is the reality of cyberspace? Cyber-war. In fact, everything behind all that talk about virtual immortality is a Christian world-view.

Follow Johannes on Twitter: @JohnVouloir

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