Making Sense of the Progressive Mind

People who reject secular progressivism, especially in its more highly developed forms, are often puzzled by its proponents. Do they really believe what they say they believe, for example, that diversity is always strength, or traditional religion and morality are dangerous and irrational bigotries, or there are no significant differences between men and women?

Some say they don’t really believe such things, at least the informed and intelligent ones don’t, but just find them politically useful as claims. That view would make secular progressivism a matter of cynical demagogy and power seeking.

Others say they believe what they say they believe, but do so because of psychological quirks or historical particularities. Leftists are perpetual adolescents always in rebellion, or they’re so horrified by slavery, segregation, colonialism, Nazism, or the Wars of Religion that they find anything other than compulsory equality and rejection of transcendent claims intolerably dangerous.

Such views don’t explain the position secular progressivism holds in public life today: its increasing grip on institutions and professions, its extension to ever more aspects of life, its success in remaking mainstream political and religious movements in its image, its ambition to silence all opposition, its resilience that enables it to come back from all reverses. When non-progressives say some new initiative is silly and won’t last—“gay marriage,” “micro-aggressions,” or whatever—they’re routinely proven wrong, at least on the second point.

Such successes argue for an outlook that is rooted in basic and enduring features of modern life and how modern people look at the world. They show that even what seem like absurdities can’t be laughed off, but must be taken very seriously, because there’s more thought and institutional momentum behind them than might appear.

What I’m calling progressivism, which is the dominant view of our time, has a theoretical and an institutional side. On the theoretical side it might be summed up as a tendency toward scientism, the view that an idealized version of modern natural science is the unique model for knowledge and reason. That view denies qualitative distinctions and turns goods into preferences, because it wants to accept only what is publicly observable and quantifiable. It also implies a sort of moral egalitarianism: preferences define what is good, and all preferences are equally preferences, so they are equally valid and have an equal claim to satisfaction. To reject a preference is baseless discrimination against the person whose preference it is, and thus a form of hatred and oppression.

It’s worth noting that scientism is not scientific, and often aligns itself with obfuscation. Science is a matter of what works in a concrete sense, and lets the chips fall where they may. If observations such as brain scans show basic differences in how men and women think about things, science accepts that. Scientism in contrast is a matter of ideals and standards of legitimacy, so its adherents typically accept other progressive ideals and standards, including radical egalitarianism. When confronted with adverse scientific findings they’re likely to resolve the conflict by denying that the findings imply anything and attacking those who suggest otherwise.

On the institutional side, progressivism might be summed up as the attempt to organize social life rationally toward explicitly chosen goals, principally maximum equal preference satisfaction, but also the coherence, effectiveness, and stability of the system. With the latter point in mind, the preferences to be treated equally must be limited to those that fit smoothly into the system, chiefly those relating to career aspirations, consumer goods, and private indulgences. In contrast, goals related to the things traditionally considered most important—God, the good, beautiful, and true, loyalty to family and community—have to be suppressed as disruptive or reduced to the level of private hobbies or consumption choices.

Both the theoretical and institutional sides of progressivism are immensely powerful. Scientism has the prestige that comes from the extraordinary success of the natural sciences in extending man’s control over nature, and the practical advantages that come from the enormous growth of formal education and occupational certification. Also, it encourages a cult of the expert and rejection of the intuitive that enables it to rule out other more commonsensical points of view without a hearing. It is assumed that people who don’t fully accept scientism and associated views haven’t been trained properly, so they’re uneducated or stupid. To the extent they make judgments based on ordinary human ways of thinking, which are based mostly on informal pattern recognition, they’re insisting on the reality and importance of tendencies and distinctions that haven’t been demonstrated to exist and matter. That means they’re ignorant bigots who want to enforce their prejudices on others, and what they say isn’t worthy of a response.

Institutional progressivism, the attempt to make all social life part of a single rationalized system, has the prestige that comes from alliance with science and technological ways of thinking, as well as from the power and pervasiveness of the modern state and modern methods of economic organization. More and more of life has been integrated into large formal institutions run in accordance with official ways of thinking. Such institutions—corporations, educational institutions, government agencies—now bring us up and educate us, inform and inspire us, and provide the setting, projects, and rewards to which we devote our best efforts.

That situation leads intelligent and high-functioning people to identify more and more with such institutions and the ways of thinking that motivate them, and to find the purpose of their lives in their careers. Such tendencies profoundly affect their outlook on life and the world. Consider, for example, the way such a person is likely to view the sexes. All societies have viewed sex distinctions as basic to human life, largely because of their function in family life. Progressivism, however, insists that no form of family life is better than another. To say the contrary, for example to say that marriage is less real between two men than between a man and a woman, or there’s something wrong with unwed motherhood, or living together without marriage, is considered intolerably discriminatory. Progressives thus want to treat family life as an optional personal activity with no specific form or function, so that each can make up his own version and change it at will.

It follows that today the sort of intelligent, educated, and ambitious person who is likely to lead opinion has no way to understand what sex differences are about. Experts will tell him that evidence regarding them is mixed, since evidence can always be viewed as insufficient when people want to avoid a conclusion. So he will doubt their reality, and to the extent he accepts them he will see them as a random collection of meaningless traits that developed under very different conditions and have historically been used to support oppressive institutions like the natural family. And it will be perfectly clear to him that the kind of people who take them seriously are the kind of people from whom he wants above all to distinguish himself—the stupid, the uneducated, the provincial, the traditionally religious, the bigoted, the low-status.

With that background, it becomes very unlikely that a career-oriented professional, who has been trained to consider counter-intuitive beliefs a mark of superior knowledge, and belief in equality the very essence of morality, will accept the existence and importance of sex differences. If he can’t quite deny them, he will find ways to minimize them, obfuscate them, shrug them off, change the subject, and so on.

Similar considerations apply to other progressive views that seem odd to non-progressives. Once it is accepted that counter-intuitive views are better, since they suggest special expertise and oppose traditional assumptions and stereotypes, that all human society must be continually reconstructed in the interests of efficiency, equality, and rationality, and that success in life is success within the institutions that promote such views, the sky’s the limit. There’s almost no limit on how nonsensical people’s opinions may become—as indeed we see around us.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared December 2, 2015 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above depicts the “three wise monkeys” scene from the 1968 science fiction motion picture Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall. 

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).