In one sense, the concept of progress is simple, straightforward, and uncontroversial. In another sense, it contains an entire worldview.

The most basic meaning of “progress” is simply advancement along a path, or more generally from one state to another that is considered more advanced by some standard. (In this sense, progress can be good, neutral, or even bad—e.g., the progress of a disease.) The question is always: advancement along what path, in what direction, by what standard?

Types of progress

“Scientific progress,” “technological progress,” and “economic progress” are relatively straightforward. They are hard to measure, they are multi-dimensional, and we might argue about specific examples—but in general, scientific progress consists of more knowledge, better theories and explanations, a deeper understanding of the universe; technological progress consists of more inventions that work better (more powerfully or reliably or efficiently) and enable us to do more things; economic progress consists of more production, infrastructure, and wealth.

Together, we can call these “material progress”: improvements in our ability to comprehend and to command the material world. Combined with more intangible advances in the level of social organization—institutions, corporations, bureaucracy—these constitute “progress in capabilities”: that is, our ability to do whatever it is we decide on.

True progress

But this form of progress is not an end in itself. True progress is advancement toward the good, toward ultimate values—call this “ultimate progress,” or “progress in outcomes.” Defining this depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

To a humanist, ultimate progress means progress in human well-being: “human progress.” Not everyone agrees on what constitutes well-being, but it certainly includes health, happiness, and life satisfaction. In my opinion, human well-being is not purely material, and not purely hedonic: it also includes “spiritual” values such as knowledge, beauty, love, adventure, and purpose.

The humanist also sees other kinds of progress contributing to human well-being: “moral progress,” such as the decline of violence, the elimination of slavery, and the spread of equal rights for all races and sexes; and more broadly “social progress,” such as the evolution from monarchy to representative democracy, or the spread of education and especially literacy.

Others have different standards. Biologist David Graber called himself a “biocentrist,” by which he meant

… those of us who value wildness for its own sake, not for what value it confers upon mankind. … We are not interested in the utility of a particular species, or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them. … Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet.

By this standard, virtually all human activity is antithetical to progress: Graber called humans “a cancer… a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.”

Or for another example, one Lutheran stated that his “primary measure of the goodness of a society is the population share which is a baptized Christian and regularly attending church.”

The idea of progress isn’t completely incompatible with some flavors of environmentalism or of religion (and there are both Christians and environmentalists in the progress movement!) but these examples show that it is possible to focus on a non-human standard, such as God or Nature, to the point where human health and happiness become irrelevant or even diametrically opposed to “progress.”

Unqualified progress

What are we talking about when we refer to “progress” unqualified, as in “the progress of mankind” or “the roots of progress”?

“Progress” in this sense is the concept of material progress, social progress, and human progress as a unified whole. It is based on the premise that progress in capabilities really does on the whole lead to progress in outcomes. This doesn’t mean that all aspects of progress move in lockstep—they don’t. It means that all aspects of progress support each other and over the long term depend on each other; they are intertwined and ultimately inseparable.

Consider, for instance, how Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen defined the term in their article calling for “progress studies”:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.

David Deutsch, in The Beginning of Infinity, is even more explicit, saying that progress includes “improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.”

Skepticism of this idea of progress is sometimes expressed as: “progress towards what?” The undertone of this question is: “in your focus on material progress, you have lost sight of social and/or human progress.” On the premise that different forms of progress are diverging and even coming into opposition, this is an urgent challenge; on the premise that progress is a unified whole, it is a valuable intellectual question but not a major dilemma.

Historical progress

“Progress” is also an interpretation of history according to which all these forms of progress have, by and large, been happening.

In this sense, the study of “progress” is the intersection of axiology and history: given a standard of value, are things getting better?

In Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, the bulk of the chapters are devoted to documenting this history. Many of the charts in that book were sourced from Our World in Data, which also emphasizes the historical reality of progress.

So-called “progress”

Not everyone agrees with this concept of progress. It depends on an Enlightement worldview that includes confidence in reason and science, and a humanist morality.

One argument against the idea of progress claims that material progress has not actually led to human well-being. Perhaps the benefits of progress are outweighed by the costs and risks: health hazards, technological unemployment, environmental damage, existential threats, etc. Some downplay or deny the benefits themselves, arguing that material progress doesn’t increase happiness (owing to the hedonic treadmill), that it doesn’t satisfy our spiritual values, or that it degrades our moral character. Rousseau famously asserted that “the progress of the sciences and the arts has added nothing to our true happiness” and that “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection.”

Others, as mentioned above, argue for a different standard of value altogether, such as nature or God. (Often these arguments contain some equivocation between whether these things are good in themselves, or whether we should value them because they are good for human well-being over the long term.)

When people start to conclude that progress is not in fact good, they talk about this as no longer “believing in progress.” Historian Carl Becker, writing in the shadow of World War I, said that “the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited,” and asked: “May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?” In 1991, Christopher Lasch asked:

How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?

Those who dispute the idea of progress often avoid the term, or quarantine it in scare quotes: so-called “progress.” When Jeremy Caradonna questioned the concept in The Atlantic, the headline was: “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?” One of the first court rulings on environmental protection law, in 1971, said that such law represented “the commitment of the Government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material ‘progress.’” Or consider this from Guns, Germs, and Steel:

… I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.

The idea of progress is inherently an idea that progress, overall, is good. If “progress” is destructive, if it does not in fact improve human well-being, then it hardly deserves the name.

Contrast this with the concept of growth. “Growth,” writ large, refers to an increase in the population, the economy, and the scale of human organization and activity. It is not inherently good: everyone agrees that it is happening, but some are against it; some even define themselves by being against it (the “degrowth” movement). No one is against progress, they are only against “progress”: that is, they either believe in it, or deny it.

The most important question in the philosophy of progress, then, is whether the idea of progress is valid—whether “progress” is real.

“Progress” in the 19th century

Before the World Wars, there was an idea of progress that went even beyond what I have defined above, and which contained at least two major errors.

One error was the idea that progress is inevitable. Becker, in the essay quoted above, said that according to “the doctrine of progress,”

the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards. … At the present moment the world seems indeed out of joint, and it is difficult to believe with any conviction that a power not ourselves … will ever set it right.

(Emphasis added.)

The other was the idea that moral progress was so closely connected to material progress that they would always move together. Condorcet believed that prosperity would “naturally dispose men to humanity, to benevolence and to justice,” and that “nature has connected, by a chain which cannot be broken, truth, happiness, and virtue.”

The 20th century, with the outbreak of world war and the rise of totalitarianism, proved these ideas disastrously wrong.

“Progress” in the 21st century and beyond

To move forward, we need a wiser, more mature idea of progress.

Progress is not automatic or inevitable. It depends on choice and effort. It is up to us.

Progress is not automatically good. It must be steered. Progress always creates new problems, and they don’t get solved automatically. Solving them requires active focus and effort, and this is a part of progress, too.

Material progress does not automatically lead to moral progress. Technology within an evil social system can do more harm than good. We must commit to improving morality and society along with science, technology, and industry.

With these lessons well learned, we can rescue the idea of progress and carry it forward into the 21st century and beyond.


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