Meliorism – the belief that the world can be made better by human effort. ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Latin melior ‘better’ + -ism .


A selection of passages I’ve indexed in my wiki under “meliorism“:


Thus speak and stammer: “This is my good, this I love, thus does it please me entirely, thus alone do I want the good.

I do not want it as divine law, not as a human law or a human need; it will not be a guide-post for me to over-earths and paradises.

It is an earthly virtue which I love: there is little prudence in it, and least of all any common wisdom.

But that bird built its nest with me: therefore, I love and cherish it — now it sits with me on its golden eggs.

Friedrich Nietzsche


A man is alive when he is wholehearted, true to himself, true to his own inner forces, and able to act freely according to the nature of the situations he is in… he is at peace, since there are no disturbances created by underground forces which have no outlet at one with himself and his surroundings. This state cannot be reached merely by inner work… The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings. Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help a person come to life. Others make it very difficult.

Christopher Alexander


There are unhappy men who think the salvation of the world impossible. Theirs is the doctrine known as pessimism. Optimism in turn would be the doctrine that thinks the world’s salvation inevitable. Midway between the two there stands what may be called the doctrine of meliorism… [which] treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.

William James


We cannot continue the idea that human nature when left to itself, when freed from external arbitrary restrictions, will tend to the production of democratic institutions that work successfully. We have now to state the issue from the other side. We have to see that democracy means the belief that humanistic culture should prevail; we should be frank and open in our recognition that the proposition is a moral one – like any idea that concerns what should be.

John Dewey


I’m preparing a pragmatist attack on metaphysically-grounded conceptions of morality. To make a pragmatist attack means to suspend for a moment the question of truth or falseness, and consider only the practical implications of a belief. How does a belief affect the believer’s actions? A few preliminary points:

  • When a person believes in a morality endorsed by something beyond humankind, whether God or nature, he is less likely to take personal responsibility for it. Passivity is passed off as faith: reality will take care of itself. (Someone who believes in natural rights appears to honor rights by attributing them to nature, but is he as likely to defend them as someone who values his rights but considers them vulnerable?)
  • When a person believes in a morality that is not a matter of agreement between people, but rather something that comes down from an authority higher than humankind he is less likely to take seriously the obligation to persuade other people of its truth. He is far more likely to impose it on others who are equally convinced they know the truth but are mistaken.
  • When a person believes in a morality that exists to serve a cause higher than humankind, he is less likely to consider the human consequences of his morality – neither to himself nor to others who follow his morality voluntarily or involuntarily.
  • When a person believes in a morality that is beyond human reason, his critical defenses are dismantled. If empirical observation and reason can’t tell him he is being manipulated and exploited, what can? Further, if reason is suspended, how does a person know what has overruled reason and whether it is itself valid? What is being trusted, and why? How does a person even know it is a virtue, and not a vice?
  • If a person believes morality is necessarily metaphysically grounded, if he comes to discover that metaphysics is radically mysterious and not solid and static like land but liquid like the shimmering surface of a sea he might sink into the depths of skepticism and antinomianism and never think to reach out for a human hand or listen for a human word. He will reject morality itself as false, rather than his human – his all-too-human – view of morality.

Notice the tendency here: metaphysically grounded moralities tend toward extremes of passivity and aggression.

Obviously, these points do not address the question of whether there isn’t in fact a metaphysically-grounded moral truth, despite the practical consequences. That is a separate question.

This is also not an argument against metaphysics, per se. My attack is strictly limited the use of metaphysics as a positive grounding.

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