have humans made progress

Have Humans Made Progress? Or Were We Better Off Before?

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“We have made enormous progress over the last two centuries.”

I think most people would agree with that. We have certainly seen a drastic increase in our power, which is some sort of headway. But is this real progress? What other metrics can we use to define human advancement? In this article I will propose a few ways we can measure our progress, suggest some factors we must consider, and then discuss the underlying question: have humans made progress?

Why you should care

In the future our metrics of progress must come to include things such as climate change, to ensure we advance this. We must constantly refine the standard idea of progress to reflect what is actually important.

The widely accepted definition of progress dictates the direction of society. During the Industrial Revolution, leaders saw power as progress; quality of life stayed the same, and power increased. However, we now measure progress more by general-wellbeing and therefore have seen significant growth in this regard. What you measure will improve.

This process of dictating what progress is should be a collaborative effort, if we want it to reflect the general will of the people, and to hold sway over our leaders.

Furthermore, without a universal definition of progress humankind will forever be wandering aimlessly. Different societies have different goals, and before we devise a true definition of progress, our advancement will be haphazard and contradictory.

Philosophy plays an important part in this. It is one of society’s great tools in the pursuit of wisdom as it attempts to construct ideals; what society should strive for. Through the application of philosophy may we refine our idea of progress.

Power is not progress

The agricultural revolution

Many see this event as a breakthrough, one that ushered in an age of prosperity. But the scientists Jared Diamond describes it as the worst mistake in the history of the human race”. Why?

In short, the agricultural revolution was a trap. Through a series of small improvements they began to gather more wheat. First they replanted it, then protected it, and finally curtailed their nomadic lifestyles to settle near it. Through this process they became reliant on wheat; they were trapped.

The problems came when the population started multiplying, due to the constant food supply. The work hours of individuals trebled. Communities became crowded, and disease spread. The surplus food necessitated rulers to allocate it, who then exploited workers. Life became miserable compared to the relatively happy existence of the hunter gatherers.

From this tale, we can divulge two valuable lessons: we cannot always comprehend the long-term consequences of short-term improvement, and an increase in power does not translate to progress.

Power is not progress

When asked to demonstrate human progress, we might point towards the power of our current society: lofty skyscrapers, gargantuan factories and hulking cargo ships. But do these signify meaningful advancement? Have humans made progress?

In my opinion there are two reasons why power cannot be considered an indicator of progress:

  1. It is morally incorrect. If society were to be optimized to increase its power, it would necessitate exploitation. Because why improve the lives of your workers when you can reinvest that profit.
  2. Power is a means to an end. Power has no inherent effect on our lives, rather what matters is how we use it. An increase in collective human power can bring about misery (such as in the industrial revolution), or great good; it is a double-edged sword.  

Power does not necessarily impact us in a meaningful way. It can either uplift us, or destroy life as we know it.

Is there a fixed definition of progress?

This question comes down to whether progress is dictated by the currently held values of society, or whether it exists independently, as an objective truth.

Progress depends on our values?

Consider a wealthy miser who made a New Year’s Resolution to be more generous. He will certainly celebrate if he can bring himself to buy his favourite niece an elegant dress. Conversely, an ostentatious beggar (who is desperately trying to break his insidious habit) will deride himself for purchasing the same gift. Different situations result in different values, and individual conceptions of progress change.

But are these conceptions of progress made equal, or are some societies more correct that others? Is progress purely defined by the values of those in power at the time?

This is the basic premise of relativism, that ‘good’ depends on our perspective, and therefore all are equal in their opinions. By extension this denies that there is an objective truth of progress; there is no fixed way of measuring advancement, an ultimate goal of all societies.

(note that there are many shades of relativism that are not as extreme or controversial)

Progress is objective?

But many dispute the claim of relativism. Most religions postulate an objective, independent good, dictated by a god. Others deny relativism due to its implications; (in its most extreme form at least) we are obligated to consider Nazi Germany as morally equal to our society, as there is no objective standard we are both being measured by.

To determine this objective measure of progress is no trivial matter. It is effectively an inquiry into the meaning of life. Only if we know why we are here can we truly pursue this end.  

Furthermore, it is arrogant for us to presume what our society values is the eternal definition of progress. We must realize that over thousands of years the human conception of advancement has been refined, and will continue to do so. As society develops, so will human our idea of progress.   

Whether we have made progress then, depends on our metric.

Methods of measuring progress

Quality of life

The is the most widely accepted metric for human progress, measured using systems such as HDI. It is certainly a practical measurement. But it has some potential shortcomings:

  1. Is the purpose of the state only to provide for the individual? What I mean is, do our governments have other responsibilities that supersede improving human well-being, such as increasing collective power, stability etc.?
  2. Is the purpose of raising quality of life not simply to increase happiness? If so is happiness not a better metric? Does raising quality of life serve any other purpose?

This paper defines progress as “sustainable and equitable improvement in the well-being of society”. This is in my mind a pretty good definition (if we are to assume the goal of society is to improve human well-being).

So have humans made progress according to this metric? Maybe not. While we might assume our quality of life has increased, this is heavily disputed. Many say hunter-gatherers were better off than civilized peoples. Additionally, the accelerating deterioration of our environment is clear proof that our current development is not sustainable. Further, inequality is increasing, showing our ‘progress’ to be non-equitable.

Happiness

Aristotle saw happiness as the ultimate purpose of life. People often dismiss this claim in favour of other theories. Is happiness the goal of a good life, or is it a byproduct of one? I’d love to read your thoughts about this in the comment section below.

But surely we are happier than before? Probably not, says Yuval Noah Harari. He outlines complementary reasons for this:

  1. Genetics. Our body maintains homeostasis. Just as it regulates blood sugar, it also regulates our happiness (which is caused by chemicals). It may fluctuate in the short-term, but it stays relatively constant over time.   
  2. The hedonic treadmill. As our luxuries increase, so do our standards. Humans adapt quickly to the great tragedy, or fortune.

Happiness, however, also falls short as a measure of progress:

  1. Some disregard it as it does not reflect changes in our environment. This may mean we either haven’t made progress at all, or that happiness isn’t a measure of progress.  
  2. Optimally pursuing happiness (in the biological sense) would mean stimulating sensations of pleasure in everyone, 24/7, in order to render them perfectly happy. But is this something we want?
  3. It suffers from the same problem as quality of life, assuming the state is for the purpose of the individual, not vice-versa.

Increasing human stability

Can we justify sacrificing human well-being for increasing our stability? Thomas Hobbes certainly believed so. He thought the role of government was to increase our stability, to prevent a return to the state of nature (in which our lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”).

In his mind every law, even unjust ones, should be upheld, as violating them increases chaos; he valued stability over human well-being.

Hobbes’ belief was based on the (possibly) false premise that the lives of hunter gatherer’s was miserable. However, we may derive from Hobbes’ thought another thing to consider. Should everything the state does serve the individual’s purpose, or does it have responsibilities that transcend individual wants. Can we justify prioritizing stability and power over human well-being? Is progress measured relative to the individual and what he wants, or the state as a whole?

An excellent demonstration of this is China. There, the individual serves the state (versus western society where it is largely the opposite way around). The function of the Chinese state is to harness the individuals for its own transcendent purposes, for the ‘collective good’, rather than the individual good.

Can we justify sacrificing individual well-being for greater stability, or some other ‘greater good’? Should we consider that progress? These are interesting things to consider.

Desirability

Another way for us to tell whether we have made progress is to test the desirability of our society. Would people from other societies see our civilization as better than theirs? Would they consider us a culmination of previous efforts, and would they want to live here?

The thing is, we don’t really know. However, we may speculate, and look at real world examples.

When the British colonized Southern Africa, or India, were they hailed as harbingers of civilization? No. They struggled and fought. But why? Maybe because they didn’t desire what we brought, or maybe because they didn’t understand its benefits (and didn’t like it being forcefully thrust on them). We might never know.

However, we must at least consider the possibility that our society is not desirable to those of the past, due to the frankly massive misalignment of values. They might not see modern western civilization as ‘progress’.

Some other things to consider

Holistic progress

If one person becomes a billionare at the cost of thousands losing their livelihoods, would we consider that positive? Likewise, if one society flourishes, but in the process enslaves and kills millions, destroys the environment, and condemns billions of animals to hellish lives, would we say that is progress?

Does the end justify the means? While Eurasian societies might have made progress, no case can be made that the hundreds of erased cultures and peoples advanced along with them.

The only argument that can be made here is one of the ‘greater good’, that the progress of the majority justifies the acute suffering of the (albeit large) minority. Is this a cost we can accept? Have humans made progress in light of these catastrophes?

A brief respite

I do believe we have made progress as a society, if simply because the alternative is such a foreign notion (which I am nonetheless still considering). However, I would not say that medieval Europe is an improvement over our lives as hunter gatherers.

I find it easy to accept that we have made progress over the past 60 years or so, but possibly not before that. This leads us to the conclusion that our (sort of) idyllic society might be temporary, that progress is not a constant trend throughout history, but something that happens in short bursts. As empires rise there is improvement, but when they fall chaos and suffering resumes. Progress may be a fluctuating phenomenon.

To demonstrate the fragility of our society we may examine a few major threats we face:

  1. Nuclear war, which was only narrowly avoided in 1983 by the instinct of one man.
  2. Artificial intelligence: possibly our last invention.
  3. Climate change which is already threatening human life.
  4. Advanced weaponry which allows for mass destruction.

Single events can easily tip the balance, and usher in unprecedented chaos, rendering our progress null and void. Just as the hunter gatherers fell into the trap of the agricultural revolution, so might we have fallen into the trap of information revolution.

So, have humans made progress?

In my mind, our metric of progress ultimately comes down to the purpose of life on earth. This is unfortunately an age-old question that we are unlikely to solve anytime soon.

If our purpose is to strive for happiness, then improving happiness is progress. If it is to live a good life (whatever that means), then that is progress. And if it is to further the good of the whole, then we should consider that to be advancement. You get the idea.

Wrap up

While I might have sounded a bit like a raving conspiracy theorist in parts of this blog post, I do think there is much to consider here. You probably shouldn’t take everything I’ve said 100% seriously. Rather, this blog post was written to provoke thought about the topic, which required some razzle dazzle.  

Refining our idea of progress is valuable, not only as a society, but also as individuals. Is increasing your power (wealth) truly progress? What do you consider to be progress in your own life? If you haven’t thought about it much, its certainly helpful to consider.

Now I pose this question to you: have humans made progress? What do you consider to be progress? I would love to discuss this with you in the comment section below.



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Marcel Zimmermann
Marcel Zimmermann
2 months ago

Hi Louis

What about Climate Change and the Environment?
Humankind has failed here. It affects our wellbeing and happiness fundamentally.

See the latest IPCC report: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/#SPM

See also Daily Maverick article: The IPCC’s latest assessment report on the climate crisis: Five ‘take-home’ messages for South Africa By Francois Engelbrecht and Pedro Monteiro• 16 August 2021: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-08-16-the-ipccs-latest-assessment-report-on-the-climate-crisis-five-take-home-messages-for-south-africa/

Regards
Marcel