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September 12, 2016 / Congau

Change or Preserve?

The world is not perfect, far from it, and no society is perfectly arranged. Everything can be improved and in order to improve we need to change. What is so attractive about the existing conditions anyway?

Conservatives want to preserve society the way it is even though it’s completely improbable that we live in the best of all possible societies. They imagine certain conservative values that have proven themselves throughout the ages and therefore have to be the best. But history mainly tells about errors and catastrophes and if it teaches us anything, it is that we shouldn’t act like our ancestors. The past was a mistake and the present is a mistake, and if the future is to be right, we have to do something different. That calls for a revolution.

But one strong force in human nature speaks against it: Habit. True, the existing order is far from perfect, but it’s the one that best fits the habit. It has formed the habit and the habit has formed it. Often it is not so important how things are done as long as there is agreement and we feel safe in a predictable environment. Therefore we wish for stability. (Even those of us who enjoy a changeable life need a basic stability.) All change brings a degree of stress and only the prospect of qualitative improvement above a certain level can make up for it.

Social change considered strictly in itself is an evil and it can only be justified if it leads to something good. Overzealous reformers and revolutionaries want to eliminate irrational conventions and don’t understand that their seemingly logical struggle is both pointless and harmful. A convention that doesn’t cause suffering should not be changed even if it is irrational, because it takes time to create a new one and conventions are necessary for human interaction.

But of course many people are suffering in present society. The world is fundamentally unjust. Conventions that are permanently oppressive to a big part of humanity are anything but harmless. Centuries of civilization and high culture may be guarding India’s caste system, but that doesn’t make it any more just. Nothing can attain moral value only because succeeding generations have developed habits and customs. What is moral must be capable of a rational defense and injustice can ultimately never be rational.

Morally neutral conventions should not be changed because it’s usually simpler and more effective to act according to habit rather than getting used to something new. But injustice should wake us up from our habitual sleep.

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