The idea of datedness is everywhere. It isn’t a new idea. But in the United States and across the West, it’s developed an increasing importance, as the view that history is mainly defined by patterns of racism, sexism, or other kinds of oppression has become increasingly influential. American schools and parents have become more reluctant to expose children to books traditionally considered classics that might be interpreted as extensions of these kinds of oppression today. Among adults themselves, attesting to a lack of interest in old books or movies can even be an expression of sensitivity about these issues. The cultural climate is changing so quickly that you can sometimes meaningfully distinguish the standards from 2019 from those of 2021. But does the idea of linear moral progress really describe the world we live in?

Jacob T. Levy—the author of The Multiculturalism of Fear and Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, and the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University in Montreal—thinks not. In his view, the notion of linear moral progress has a long and fraught history. Despite well known modern atrocities and contemporary threats to liberal democracy worldwide, Levy says, the conviction that humanity on the whole just keeps improving morally remains central to Western thought. Overly valorizing the present, Levy says, ends up making it much more difficult to learn from the past. It can also make it much more difficult to see new problems as we create them for the future.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy: You’ve written, “Before we attribute magical moral powers to the passage of the next 50 years, we should look backward in 50-year increments and ask: How many old moral errors keep coming back? How many new ones get introduced?” If I understand you correctly, you don’t just think that progress can be slow—in a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward sense—but also that things are not necessarily getting better. Or as you quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “Time itself is neutral.” Are there ways this moment is less enlightened than, say, ten years ago?

Jacob T. Levy: I think there’s been what’s referred to as liberal-democratic backsliding, compared with certainly before the 2008 financial crisis. Broadly speaking, the stability of liberal and constitutional democracy looks less clear and less entrenched. That’s what comes to mind most obviously.

Bovy: Are you referring to Trump, and to Trump-like leaders worldwide?

Levy: I mean the rise of generally nationalist, populist authoritarianism, with associated challenges to the separation of powers, minority rights, and federalism. This precedes Trump. The standard exemplar from before that was Viktor Orbán, Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India, and Netanyahu in important ways in Israel. The time horizon for the decay of Venezuelan democracy is somewhat longer than that, but you’re still seeing instances around the world in different kinds of political systems, different regions—the Philippines, Brazil—where what had looked like relatively entrenched, relatively stable liberal-constitutional democracy, starts to look a lot less so—and in some cases, like Hungary and Turkey, falling out of the category altogether.

Hello I’m Nik

Bovy: Why do you think the idea that this precise moment is the peak of human enlightenment has such staying power? As you indicate, it’s not hard to come up with atrocities that are very specific to modernity.

Levy: There are a couple of different reasons, and I don’t quite know the balance among them. Some are distinct to modernity. Since the early 19th century, or thereabouts, we’ve learned how to have systematic, persistent, compounding economic and technological growth, in a way that is a significant change from previous human history. That creates some steadily rising baselines that allow people to get used to the idea that every year is better than the next—that you should see material prosperity increasing, technology advancing. I think that’s true—but it’s a new idea, since 1800 or so.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in