Progress the history of all mankind cries out against it wrote the Enlightenment philosopher Kant in the Eighteenth Century. The daily toll of famines, wars and murders seems to support his view. As does the dissatisfaction and distress with which most people view their lives. And science seems in some sense to have made things worse.
Lives are longer, healthier, less dangerous then before. Information and education are more available than at any time in human history. Yet nuclear peril and environmental disaster hang overhead over-head, threatening to reverse it all. As any movie of apocalypse can show you, scientific progress does not always equal progress for mankind.
Nor that of economic progress. This may sound strange for we often see economic growth as the purpose of life and government. Yet like with science, economic growth does not map onto progress for mankind.
Wealth has doubled across the Western world since the 1960s, yet happiness levels have not moved. Beyond a certain level rising wealth does not improve citizen’s happiness. Partly it is a failure of education. Under the shadow of capitalism we are educated to be efficient producers and consumers. Less education is given to the need to acquire the skills to live a productive happy life. How to have meaningful relationships and find meaningful work. How to understand the modern world. For all the improvements to education it is still inadequate. It does little to prepare citizens for modern life.
Some view progress as a widening circle of emancipation. Religious minorities, woman, blacks, homosexuals, all were persecuted at one time. Then there is emancipation from feudal hierarchies. From slavery and caste systems. Emancipation from poverty and the fear of daily survival. Emancipation form autocracy and dictatorship and rent seeking-elites.
And everywhere there is hope. Kant’s belief in progress rested on people’s aspirations for the world. And on signs that they were being realised.
Progress is slow and frustrating and you may feel thwarted by dashed ideals. At this point you need a sign. For Kant the sign was that people believed and wished for progress, whether it materialised or not. If enough people wish for a better future then there is a chance it might happen.
Now we no longer need wish for our children to survive, that they will do is more or less given. Although not yet hundred percent guaranteed. Weapons that could inflict horrific damage on the planet and huge parts of it population also protect us from threatening asteroids that could do more damage. And while we seem to be heading toward some form of climate change we also poses the technology to control the planet in ways unimaginable before.
We measure ourselves against what others do, have and have achieved. We set standards against those of today not the pestilence beggary and serfdom of yesteryear. That’s progress. And there’s every chance it could continue. Have a little faith. Look out for signs, however slight. 200 hundred years ago democracy was a slur, is it any chance we haven’t got it right yet. Progress is slow and comes in increments. It is all around you nevertheless.