Progressive Cannibalism: Progress, Democracy and Ethics

Available Online for Conference 'Ethics in Public Life' (2010)
The recent election of Barack Obama to the office of president of the United States evinces a reengagement with what is often termed ‘progressive’ politics. Such a politics promises to hold the potential for the betterment of society, and of us as individuals – be it through, inter alia, job creation, healthcare reform, or an end to the international financial crisis. An easy identification of progress as improvement, however, is bound to include several pitfalls, particularly when understood in a linear normative sense. Indeed, the twentieth century is littered with examples of organised violent and destructive human acts, often committed in the very name of ‘progress.’ Not surprisingly, then, theorists today are sceptical of a concept which seems to contain singular measures and unrepresentative adjudicators of progress. This paper will address some of the shortcomings associated with traditional accounts of progress, and will try to remedy these by providing an alternative model based upon Iris Marion Young’s ‘inclusive democracy.’ It is hoped that this will allow for a retaining of ‘progress’ without which judgement and hence accountability of political leadership seem nigh on impossible. While the larger question of establishing what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ looms large in this context, the paper will also address questions surrounding human agency and the possibility of change. Throughout, the discussion will draw upon the work of perhaps the most ardent supporter of progress, John Dewey. Dewey’s obvious enthusiasm for the concept can be harnessed in order to rearticulate progress as a multiple, complex, and democratically devised notion, which is both ethically and politically valuable. Thus I propose to rehabilitate ‘progress’ and to re-establish it as a concept worthy of ethics, politics, and our lives more generally.
Keywords Progress  pragmatism  John Dewey  Iris Marion Young  democracy
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