For centuries now, conservative thinkers have argued that significant social reform is impossible, because human nature is inherently limited. The argument goes something like this: sure, it would be great to change the world, but it will never work, because people are too flawed, lacking the ability to see beyond their own interests and those of the groups to which they belong. They have permanent cognitive, motivational and emotional deficits that make any deliberate, systematic attempt to improve human society futile at best. Efforts to bring about social or moral progress are naive about the natural limits of the human animal and tend to have unintended consequences. They are likely to make things worse rather than better.
It’s tempting to nod along at this, and think humans are irredeemable, or at best, permanently flawed. But it’s not clear that such a view stands up to empirical scrutiny. For the conservative argument to prevail, it is not enough that humans exhibit tendencies toward selfishness, group-mindedness, partiality toward kin and kith, apathy toward strangers, and the like. It must also be the case that these tendencies are unalterable, either due to the inherent constraints of human psychology or to our inability to figure out how to modify these constraints without causing greater harms.
Must it be? If it’s not absolutely true, it can’t be provisionally true? Sounds fallacious to me. And isn’t this a question that could only truly be answered in hindsight, looking back on the human experiment from its endpoint? Speaking of which: as we were just discussing, it could very well be that the Enlightenment cosmopolitanism of which the authors make so much in this article is itself dependent on unavoidable material limitations. “The mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.”