As I've written before, Chris Hedges is a nihilist. He flatly denies the possibility of moral progress, and vehemently asserts that any efforts to improve humanity will inevitably end in mass slaughter and destruction. He says so bluntly at the beginning of his book:Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses... We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the inherent flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history... All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in squalor and fanaticism. (p.10-11)
Previously, he countered Hedges by saying:
First, moral progress, though it may be slower than we would like, is real and it is undeniable. A glance over human history would offer as examples the abolition of slavery, the granting of equal rights to women and minorities, the emancipation of state from church, the flowering of democracy worldwide, the increasingly greater efforts at avoiding war through diplomacy, and many more. This is not to say that there aren't many evils remaining, nor that no new ones have arisen.
A stickler might note that the examples he cites are common in the West, but hardly worldwide. And conceding, even as an afterthought, that this is not to say that no new evils have arisen, well -- isn't that a large part of Hedges' point? We make progress on this or that specific front, but overall, plus ça change. The larger themes remain, with new variations on them appearing. As John Gray put it:
History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end. In fact, with human power increasing as a result of growing scientific knowledge, it can only become more violent.The core of the idea of progress is that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and can be easily lost.
This is a tragic view, as well as a staunchly conservative one, but it's hardly nihilism. As Hedges said, we do make moral advances, but we also make moral reverses. Cyclical, not linear. And it's foolish to put so much stock into state-granted "rights" as an indicator of deep-rooted progress. That which can be granted with the stroke of a pen can be taken away easily, too. Shall we go talk to some Japanese families on the West coast about what good all those Constitutional rights as American citizens were for their grandparents in the 1940s in the face of jingoist hysteria? Do we need to revisit some of the more ominous recent polls showing a worrisome number of Americans willing to trade their own rights for an illusion of security, let alone those of others like Muslims and Latinos? The United States a hundred years from now could just as likely be a Franco-style military dictatorship with severely curtailed civil liberties or a failed state with no worldwide influence, as it could a sorta-democracy with an uneasy tolerance for gays and atheists. As Gray also notes in other places, authoritarian states like Russia and China have proved that popularity, stability and economic power are not necessarily linked to an acceptance of American-style individual rights.