Why I Choose To Be Progressive

Summary

My theory of Progressivism holds that knowledge improves over time, allowing us to better understand ourselves and our environment. Knowledge is advanced by individuals through both free and systemic inquiry. I encourage change through the application of better knowledge, resulting in a more perfect union.

My theory of Conservatism, by contrast, places value on past knowledge, emphasizing culture, history and authority (god, religion) as the source of knowledge. Conservatism suggests the status quo has been earned, and change should be resisted. It seeks to maintain our union as a function of what is or was, rather than what might be.


Human nature is both progressive and conservative. Ours is a story of incredible progress tempered by an appeal to conservation. We hope for that which can be, but hold tight to that which is.

We infrequently seek to understand the philosophical rationale for our actions, most often choosing positions based in a near-term calculus of that which we desire.

This article is meant to represent my current thinking on my own political philosophy. I recognize the choices I make, that my position is not mandated by facts, but rooted in desire.

We hold the power to choose our path, or to have our path chosen for us. I choose to value progress over conservation.

The Monty Hall Problem

Three doors, one prize. You’re asked to choose a door. The host then opens one of the remaining doors, revealing a booby prize. You’re then offered a chance to change doors. Should you?

Most people think changing makes no difference, assuming the odds are 50/50 they’ve chosen correctly. But, in fact, you’re better off changing, which increases your odds of winning from 33% to 66%.

When the host reveals the location of a booby prize and eliminates one door, additional data has been introduced. Using this data, a better decision can be made. [Read about the Monty Hall Problem]

This opportunity exists in nearly every decision we make. With time, there’s an increase in knowledge; that increase often allows us to make better choices. This is the core of my philosophy.

The appeal of conservatism is to guard against failure by taking refuge in what has emerged over thousands of years of human history. This position assumes that the random formation of history is equal to a controlled experiment.

Conservatives often require evidence for change, accepting the status quo without analysis. While there may be utility in caution, the reliance on caution as a guiding tool can have devastating affect. The primary difference between a choice made today and a choice made yesterday is that today’s choice is likely to be made in a context of more and better knowledge. At the very least, it is more likely to conform more closely with the dynamic desires of the individual, and no less likely to account for the well being of the community.

“We Can’t Just Stop”

In Tony Kushner’s heralded play “Angels in America,” a central theme is the tension between conservation and progress. Set against a backdrop of 1980’s political unrest, the main character, Prior Walter, is arguing with an Order of Angels over his role in the World:

Prior Walter: We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks. Progress, migration, motion is modernity. It’s animate. It’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should, we can’t wait.

The angels continue, arguing that they’re offering Prior a better path, a break from his suffering (he’s dying of AIDS):

Angel 4: This is the tome of immobility. Of respite. Stay in heaven, don’t return to life. Suffer no more. You choose.

Prior Walter: I can’t…Even sick, I want to be alive.

Angel 1: You only think you do. Life is a habit with you. You have not seen what is to come. We have. What will the grim unfolding of these latter days bring that you or any being should wish to endure them? Death. More plenteous than all heaven has tears to mourn it.

The slow dissolving of the great design; the spiraling apart of the work of eternity. The world and its beautiful particle logic, all collapsed, all dead, forever.

We are failing, failing! The earth and the angels. Oh, who asks of the order’s blessing with apocalypse descending. Who demands more life, when death like a protector blinds our eyes, shielding from tender nerve more horror than can be borne. Let any being on whom fortune smiles creep away to death before that last dreadful day break, when all your ravaging returns to you, when morning blisters crimson and bears all life away. A tidal wave of protean fire that curls around the planet and bears the earth clean as bone.

Prior resists. Even in the face of failure and pain, he states:

Prior Walter: But, still, still bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do. I have lived through such terrible times, and there are people who’ve lived through much, much worse. But you see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin. When they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live.

“We live past hope, if I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough; it’s so inadequate. But still, bless me anyway. I want more life.”

Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. We live past hope, if I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough; it’s so inadequate. But still, bless me anyway. I want more life.

A Ship in Harbor

“A ship in Harbor is Safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” We are creative beings. We risk, fall, rise and move on. The greater risk is to stop learning, stop moving, stop changing. Choosing the past can blind us to opportunities in the future. I echo Prior Walter’s faith.

I choose to be a Progressive.

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  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net Lincoln Cannon

    A problem with applying the Monty Hall problem as an argument against conservatism is that the game show player hasn’t already won, whereas conservatives have already won to the extent we are now winning.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Sure; “to the extent we are now winning”. But, that’s part of my point, and is expanded in the post that I’ve written for next week. Conservatism asks verified evidence of change, but requires none of status quo, other than an acknowledgement that the status quo exists, and perhaps that it benefits them.

    I find this to be contradictory. The existence of the status quo doesn’t imply a “win” unless you’ve studied not only the benefits of the status quo, but also the opportunity costs of what you may be losing by holding to the past or present and resisting the future. In your analysis, the conservative would claim the booby prize as a win, while I think one should calculate the lost opportunity in that equation.