I will begin at the end, towards a working definition of "progressivism". Here, the definition provided by Michael Frederici in the ISI Web Journal "First Principles" may be helpful:
Progressivism is an ideology based on the idea that historical and social progress are inevitable. The idea of progress assumes movement toward some ideal or end that usually includes the perfectibility of human nature and human society. Progressives conceive of this end in various ways: history may culminate in an era of absolute freedom, social and economic equality, or some form of utopia. Given the predilection to progress, the past is viewed as an inferior state of existence with various afflictions that wither away over time. While some progressives consider progress inevitable, others believe that political, economic, and social reforms are necessary to achieve it.It is worthwhile to note that some progressive legislative goals - assistance to the poor, a social safety net for disasters, education for all, seem worthy in and of themselves. And, interestingly, philosophers known to be more conservative or libertarian in their views (Hayek, for instance) themselves advocated for social safety nets, to assist those in desperate straits. So what makes progressivism different than, say, justice-oriented Catholics? I believe that it is the teleology - the purpose or end - of the current progressives that makes them different. The same Frederici article cites the American Herbert Croly, who wrote in 1909 that:
Democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility. If human nature cannot be improved by institutions, democracy is at best a more than usually safe form of political organization. . . . But if it is to work better as well as merely longer, it must have some leavening effect on human nature; and the sincere democrat is obliged to assume the power of the leaven.
So, in short, the progressive seeks to use institutional power to improve humanity. The question naturally arises - how should human nature be perfected and by what mechanism? I believe the answer lies in the egalitarian aspect of modern progressivism.
Egalitarianism, which appears in various forms in society. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ("SEP") suggests three different forms: "intrinsic, instrumental and constitutive." With that said, although the definitions are not quite so clear cut in practice, the first one that concerns me is the definition of intrinsic egalitarianism. Again working with the SEP:
Intrinsic egalitarians view equality as an intrinsic good in itself. As pure egalitarians, they are concerned solely with equality, most of them with equality of social circumstances, according to which it is intrinsically bad if some people are worse off than others through no fault of their own.Given the things I have read and (especially) justifications for passing certain laws, I believe that this intrinsic type is often co-existent with instrumental, about which the (ever handy) SEP notes:
For those who are worse off, unequal circumstances often mean considerable (relative) disadvantages and many (absolute) evils; and as a rule these (relative) disadvantages and (absolute) evils are the source for our moral condemnation of unequal circumstances. But this does not mean that inequality as such is an evil. Hence, the argument goes, fundamental moral ideals other than equality stand behind our aspiring for equality. When we are against inequality on such grounds, we are for equality either as a byproduct or as a means and not as a goal or intrinsic value. In its treatment of equality as a derived virtue, the sort of egalitarianism — if the term is actually suitable — here at play is instrumental.So, the difference between the two is succinctly stated as: for the intrinsic egalitarian, equality (especially of social circumstance) is a goal in and of itself; for the instrumental egalitarian, inequality is the cause of other social problems, and so amelioration of those problems is the reason for seeking greater equality.
Again, I think these two are often blended. For instance, one could be an intrinsic egalitarian concerning "gay" marriage (absolute equality is required, thus requiring the state to recognize any definition of marriage), and an instrumental egalitarian concerning progressive taxation, believing it is necessary to help the poorest in society survive, with the reduction in inequality of income a byproduct of that effort. I should also note that advocates of these egalitarian position likely do not go about defining themselves as "instrumental" or anything of the sort. Therefore, the egalitarian progressive seeks equality, either in and of itself, or towards the end of amelioration of societal ills.
I think it would also be hard to escape the aspect of modern progressivism that holds that ethics in politics is about, in John Haldane's words, "promoting or respecting the good of persons, where that good is understood as consisting in the satisfaction of considered preferences....Human beings are subjects of consciousness residing in the extended bodies that also serve as instruments for the production of gratifying experiences." Haldane calls this philosophy "hedonistic consequentialism". Therefore, if it seems like much of the focus of the modern progressive is on consequence-free sex (maximum happiness, minimum worry), you've not missed the program, but are rather quite on target. This gives the teleology of much of modern progressivism I suspect - the idea that laws ought to be formulated in such a way so as to ensure that all people are equal in their ability to enjoy gratifying experiences. For instance, contraception at tax payer expense ensures that the poor as much as the wealthy are able to enjoy sex without natural consequences.
These are some of the aspects of progressivism which I find particularly expressed in the movement as we find it in the 21st Century. I will likely base some future posts on the ideas set forth herein, as the progressive movement, finding itself on the ascendancy for the moment, has all but cast off a camouflage of Christian Humanism upon which it relied in previous years, and is now nakedly pursuing the goals of hedonistic consequentialism. Thus, a fertile field for blogging.