The Roots of Progress

Progress, humanism, agency

An intellectual core for the progress movement

I’ve said that we need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. This implies that the world needs, not just progress studies, but a progress movement: the advocacy of a set of ideas.

What are those ideas?

I see three premises at the core of this movement: progress, humanism, and agency.

Progress as a historical fact

The starting point and motivation for progress studies is the historical fact of the enormous improvements in material living standards in the last ~200 years. This observation is so generally acknowledged and incontrovertible that Deirdre McCloskey calls it “the Great Fact.” Everyone in the progress community looks back on the last few centuries and concludes that, no matter how we interpret or caveat it, something obviously went very right.

A sharply contrasting position is declinism: the idea that that world is getting worse. A declinist might think that the benefits of energy are not worth the costs of pollution, that the value of cars does not redeem their role in accidents or congestion, and that the pleasures of social media are outweighed by its psychological and social harms. Perhaps even hunter-gatherers were better off than us moderns, and agriculture was a mistake. (Some won’t go this far, but express agnosticism on the question, or are simply indifferent to material progress, greeting it with a shrug.)

But if progress is real and important—how do we judge this? How do we justify that improvements to material living standards are good? That technological and industrial progress represents true progress for humanity?

Humanism as the standard of value

Humanism says that the good is that which helps us lead better lives: longer, healthier, happier lives; lives of more choice and opportunity; lives in which we can thrive and flourish. This is the standard proposed, for instance, by Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now.

To be clear, this need not mean simply satisfying our base material needs, such as full bellies and warm beds. It can encompass everything that makes life worth living, including psychological needs such as excitement, adventure, romance, beauty, knowledge, exploration, and human connection.

Opposition to humanism often comes from some form of romanticism. One form is the romanticization of nature: nature as a loving, protective “mother”; or a “natural” lifestyle as clean, safe, and healthy. Another is the romanticization of the past, of “simpler” times or of lost traditions. Thus progress is criticized from the left because it encroaches on the environment, and from the right because it represents modern “materialism” and “decadence.”

Humanism says that when improving human life requires altering the environment, humanity takes moral precedence over nature; when it requires overturning tradition, life today and in the future takes moral precedence over the legacy of the past.

A belief in human agency

Agency is the belief that our future is shaped by our choices and actions. We have a large degree of control over our destiny. Thus, continued progress is possible, but not guaranteed.

I deliberately choose “agency” instead of “optimism,” for clarity. “Optimism” can mean different things. Prescriptive optimism is a philosophical attitude that orients us towards confident action. Descriptive optimism is a prediction about where things are headed—which is contingent on the facts of any given case. If these two forms of optimism are conflated, it can cause confidence to slip into complacency. I think this is why some progress writers, such as Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling, resist the label of “optimist.” Rosling called himself a “possibilist;” I have proposed “solutionist.”

The opposite of agency is fatalism. Fatalism takes many forms. One is the belief that we are unable to comprehend complex systems or to control them; that tinkering with them will inevitably create unintended consequences and is therefore too dangerous to be attempted. Another is the idea that progress depends on limited natural resources, and that as these resources run out, progress will unavoidably stall. A common error that many forms of fatalism make is to assume that no new breakthroughs in science or technology will be made, simply because we do not see them coming and cannot give evidence for when they will arrive. In any form, fatalism sees progress as a fluke of history: we had a good run, it was fun while it lasted, but now we need to get used to lower growth rates, trending to zero or even negative.

Progress is messy; solving problems often creates new ones. To believe in human agency is not to deny this, but to believe that the new problems are often better ones to have, and that those problems can be solved in turn.

My identification of these three core ideas is partly descriptive and partly prescriptive. I think these concepts will strongly resonate with most of my readers, but I have chosen and formulated them according to my own beliefs, in a way that I think will form an intellectual basis for a progress movement.

All this leaves a lot of room for discussion, disagreement, and debate, not only of the consequences of these ideas, but even of their definition and interpretation. How much of the last 200 years has been good, exactly? What about war, pollution, inequality? What constitutes human well-being? People desire many things; which of their desires are legitimate, healthy, valuable? Should we attempt to aggregate well-being (as in utilitarianism); and if not, how do we navigate conflicts between individual interests? Should we include the well-being of animals in our standard? How much control do we have, and how do we manage risks—such as the risks of tinkering with complex systems? These are important questions that I hope we’ll have healthy debates about.

I’ve deliberately left out any explicitly political premises. The progress community includes a variety of political opinions, from libertarians to progressives. Just recently, we’ve had Eli Dourado emphasizing the role of regulations in slowing growth; the Innovation Frontier Project proposing increased federal spending on R&D in geothermal energy; and Ezra Klein advocating increased economic growth so that there’s more to redistribute to the poor. I would like the concepts of progress, humanism, and agency to serve as common ground from which we can have productive debates. With a shared goal, we can examine what policies and principles actually achieve that goal, and everyone can try to prove their case with history, economics, ethics, and logic.

When Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison coined the term “progress studies,” they called for a “broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress” and “targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up.” I framed the issue as: “if progress is a moral imperative, it is also a moral imperative to understand its causes, so that we can protect them and reinforce them. We need to ask three questions: How did we get here? … Why did it take so long? … How do we keep it going?”

I think the three ideas I’ve outlined are necessary and sufficient to motivate such an endeavor. Declinism, romanticism, or fatalism would defeat that motivation. But a belief in progress, humanism, and agency entail it.

Comment: LessWrong, Reddit

Social media link image credit: Flickr / Joe Haupt

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