The Meaning of ‘Progressive’

The term ‘progressive’ only has meaning within context. Whenever someone says something is ‘progressive,’ we must ask: what constitutes ‘progress’ for them and what values does their view of progress assume? Having done this, we can question whether their notion of ‘progressive’ really is so at all.

For example, some hypercapitalist objectivists assume that the central source of value in human life is the degree to which the economy flourishes or prospers. So, even if there are many species who are being exterminated in order to obtain the products that fuel the economy, they would claim that the greater the rate of consumption, the more ‘progressive’ the state of affairs. This to me, is a patently unprogressive situation, for two reasons:

(1) exterminating species decreases the overall intrinsic value of the world; a world with many species has a greater degree of richness (diversity and harmony) than a world with few species. A rich world is more valuable than a barren world; richness is more intrinsically valuable than barrenness. Therefore, to exploit species to the point of extinction is irrational because it decreases the value of our world rather than increasing it.

(2) exploiting a species to the point of extinction is self-defeating even if we assume for the sake of argument that the consumerist thesis that things in the world are valuable if they continue to give is products. This is because if we exploit a species to the point of extinction, it no longer exists in the world; therefore, we can no longer cultivate or extract products from it. Therefore, by exploiting a species to the point of extinction, we undermine the instrumental value of the world as well.

Since this sort of strategy is self-defeating and decreases both the intrinsic and instrumental value of the world, I consider it unprogressive, rather than progressive, even if it would produce more products and fuel the economy a great deal for a short time. In the long run, it would leave us and our world poorer than it had been before.

Update: Christopher Lalonde commented on this blog post by adding another example: “Some bands claim to be progressive…but their first album is good then after they slowly produce poorer quality music…how is that progressive?

I replied that this was a “great example. We can go deeper into it, though; what is ‘progress’ in music for you and what is progress in music for the band? Which values are you looking at and which values are they considering? There is a difference here that would be interesting to discover.”


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