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Monday, May 2, 2011

Have We Progressed?

Two posts back, I shared my understanding of a talk by Reb Shmuel Lewis.  The Torah insists that human morality can and must progress; that history is not cyclic but rather linear or teleological.  We are heading towards a better world.  The example Reb Shmuel gave was slavery, which was once accepted as an inescapable part of reality and is now abhorrent to all of us.

My post triggered complex reactions from many of you.  No one left a comment on my blog site, but, as is always the case, I received many comments by email and Facebook, and each one made me think again.

I don't know any slave owners personally.  But I am certain that my wardrobe includes clothing and my kitchen cabinets include foods that were produced in part by the hands of slaves.  In the year 2000, a report by the US State Department noted that 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 had been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee, and cocoa plantations on the Ivory Coast alone.  And where is all that cotton, coffee and cocoa heading?  You guessed it -- our wardrobes and kitchen cabinets.   The Slave Free Chocolate coalition estimates that cocoa production worldwide uses 100,000 child slaves.

On the other hand, in 2008 the UK's Fair Trade Foundation announced a total of 4.12 billion dollars of fair trade sales worldwide, and the fair trade movement is slow but growing in the US and Canada.  Many chocolate companies in particular make a point of selling only products that do not rely on exploitation (at least, not severe exploitation.)

So now I am posing it as an open question, on the evening after Holocaust Memorial Day.  In the past millennium, humanity has made astonishing progress in science and technology, but have we made any progress in matters of the heart?

Please tell me what you think.  If you are unable to leave a comment here on the blog site (many people have told me they've tried to leave comments, but their efforts were lost when they clicked "post"), send me an email at ilana@post.harvard.edu, and give me permission to copy your email into an anonymous comment on my site.  Let's get a conversation going.


  1. I claim no authority for my opinions, but it seems obvious both that (A) the world as a whole has made incredible progress in acknowledging the value of every person over the last millenium and yet at the same time (B)people's capacity for wicked behavior and self-deception have not really changed throughout recorded history. I'm not even sure why we would think (A) should have anything much to do with (B).

  2. I think we have better ideals, e.g., democracy, universal equal human rights etc. We also have huge populations that live relatively securely most of the time, which I am not sure how many people in past history were privileged to do. However, when you look at the world - one small example is the one you gave about slavery - we have a very long way to go to make obsolete many horrors and injustices. I don't think it matters whether we have or have not made progress, we still need to do everything we can to make human life better.

  3. Perhaps it's because of the advances we've made, that we can now turn our attention to the horrors in the parts of the world that we don't always see (that includes those "parts of the world" quite close to us). While it seems that despotic and hateful people exist in many places, there is some progress in removing those in power (Mubarak, eliminating them (bin Laden). The horrors in Darfur and other places still persist, but it does seem we're on a better path.

  4. I hesitate to say that our age is better than any preceding one because I can hardly claim objectivity - and the human heart still imagines evil from youth. Most days the best I can do is try to keep an open mind.

  5. Robert Gordon wrote:
    In his recent lecture at Weizmann, Adin Shteinzaltz summarized Jewish
    contributions to world culture. Second on his list is the belief in a
    messiah, which he interprets to mean that history is not cyclical and that
    the world continues to be improved. In our post-Holocaust era, this is
    difficult to see. This is why, says Shteinzaltz, this is a belief rather
    than something provable.

  6. Ted and Vivian you both noted our societal values have progressed. Ted made the important distinction between societal values and matters of the heart, which may be eternally unchanging. Vivian noted that the world cannot change in its entirety all in one step, but our part of the world has changed. Keeping in mind that our part of the world is small - 85% of the world's population still live in abjectly poor countries -- my question to both of you is this: have our values as a society really progressed, or have we simply exported our evils to places where we can't see them?

    My father's comment, drawing on Adin Shteinsaltz, is very much in line with my own thoughts. Because I still like to believe that our values have progressed, that history is taking us somewhere. I believe Fair Trade will take off, it just takes time, and the developing world will be brought out of poverty someday. William James wrote that a defining characteristic of religious faith is a deep optimism about the universe that can neither be proved nor disproved.

  7. While we all condemn slavery, many of us do not know where the items we purchase are made and the conditions under which they are produced. That is for the finished items, let alone the way the components were made/grown.

    Once upon a time, everything was local and you would know the conditions, now that is not the case. Do any of us know where all the parts of our cars, computers, cell phones, clothing, furniture, etc. were made? I doubt it.

    We live in a global world so we need to be more aware of the conditions in other countries. Having said that, I don't really have any solutions. I don't know where the components in my computer come from. The Save Darfur t-shirt that I'm wearing was made in Mexico (I just checked the label) and I don't know the working conditions in Mexico. I don't know where my jeans were made.

    As for buying Fair Trade items only, they are usually more expensive. (I don't think there are such things in computers.) I'm unemployed and not buying much of anything, but when I do buy, price is a major deciding factor. (Why is it that Fair Trade and recycled items tend to be more expensive?)

    I think we all need to keep in mind the conditions of those making the items we buy. It would be good if there was an easy way of doing it so we couldn't claim ignorance.

    Thanks for posting this and helping bring awareness to these issues.


  8. Betty, The irony of a Save Darfur tshirt having possibly been made in a sweatshop will stay with me for a long time.
    I don't know enough about Fair Trade to explain why it is so expensive. Can anyone else out there answer the question? Does the extra pay to the farmers and laborers explain the difference? Niche markets in general are more expensive. Ideally, Fair Trade would someday no longer be a niche market.