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The Idea of Progress

The Idea of Progress

The idea of progress has a long history but it began to flower about three centuries ago. It was during the 17th century Enlightenment that the idea that all humanity could lead happy worthy lives here on earth first emerged.

Their arguments hinged on the understanding that the world is logical. That science and rationalism give us the means for creating better lives for ourselves. The drivers of progress are of our own creation. Language, science, commerce, community, morality and governance. Unfortunately, many of these have failed.

Other ideas of progress failed also. One which dominated during the twentieth century was the idea that advancement would come through some form of collective. The nation-state or communism.  Yet whenever an ideology such as nationalism, fascism, or communism, became the chief organising principle behind a society, state violence followed.

Nazi Germany is the prime example. But Soviet Russia and Communist China also committed unspeakable crimes in the name of progress. The idea that the enlightened few have the duty and right to impose progress on the uneducated masses seduced all these societies. Sacrificing the individual for the sake of collective advancement.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, or the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, proved that people didn’t agree. The use of intimidation by those in power will always appeal to the perpetrators. But the idea that progress relies of the subjugation of the individual to the interests of the collective has lost almost all its appeal.

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Progress in modern times associates with material progress driven by science and new technologies. For all the good that science has brought, however, there is still a question. Science brings huge power to change the world. Are we capable of using it for the good?

The common belief is we are not.

There are plenty of examples around us that show the detrimental impact of modern science on mankind and the environment. Nuclear weapons and biotechnology illustrate the harmful applications of useful technology.

Plastic was once recognized as a useful invention. Today it is one of the biggest contributors to environmental disaster. Power stations generate electricity, but are huge contributors of carbon dioxide. The internet is a treasure trove of information. But it also contributes to the proliferation of pornography and crime. Science is not harmful, but scientific progress does not always map onto that of mankind. A 2008 survey on public perceptions of science reflects these sentiments. While 80% of those surveyed claimed to be amazed at scientific achievements, 46% felt that science had done more harm than good.

It is clear that science needs governing. It needs linking to moral progress. And it needs guiding to better to serve the use of humanity. 



It is a similar story with economic growth, the other pillar of material progress. Optimists believed that business would bring prosperity and that in turn would bring enlightenment. On the first half of this promise, business has more than delivered.

A famous observation by Joseph Schumpeter was Capitalism had made silk stockings once available for Queens available to ordinary factory workers. Stephen Moore and Julian Simon, authors of the book “It’s Getting Better All the Time”, observe that prosperity has been instrumental in bringing about enlightenment.

We are more open and free than any time before.

Even the most stoic proponents of capitalism, however, will agree that it hasn’t brought the contentment of its citizens. And that business left to itself brings corruption, inequality, and cartels. As well as damage to the environment and systemic crashes that hurt the poor the most. Business, as with science, needs governing.

Economic progress, like scientific progress, is not aligned to the progress of mankind. This statement sounds strange because we tend to believe that scientific or economic progress is the measure of human progress. However, GDP growth is not the same as welfare of the common man. Wealth does not assure happiness.



This is because of status consciousness. A natural instinct of the ego for status amongst one’s own group. Despite having all basic needs met people still crave more. It is good to rise in the world, but it feels much less so when everyone else is doing the same. Not everyone can own a nice house or fancy car, but as long as some do others will want it. As wealth grows, the competition for status symbols only become more intense.

And not only does material progress not seem to be making people feel happier. People also fear the ill management of this progress. The ice caps are melting, the earth is heating up, forests are vanishing, social bonds are weakening and privacy is almost a thing of the past. Life is becoming a dismal slog in an ugly world.  The next generation may be worse off than this one.

For all the challenges, though. It is too easy to be dismissive of progress. Much disgruntlement is the result of rising expectations.

In the affluence of today’s West, people take equality, health and prosperity as a right. Developing countries believe it their right also and something within their reach. A 100 years ago the world was struggling to rise above poverty, pandemics and oppression.

People measure themselves against the standards of today not the beggary, pestilence and serfdom of yesteryear. That’s progress.

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