What is Progress?

In my last post I gave several reasons why I think the ‘good society’ is a useful concept. There is another reason. The concept of a ‘good society’ may help us to think more clearly about progress.

What is the problem with progress? I am just about old enough to remember the 1950s when the most persuasive point used in favour of any change in Australia seemed to be: “You can’t stand in the way of progress”. A lot of good things were done in the name of progress but other things, particularly uneconomic public investment in dam building etc. gave progress a bad name. More recently the concept of progress has been confused by well-meaning people who have combined national accounting concepts with idiosyncratic values to produce meaningless indicators of “genuine progress”. Further confusion results from the tendency for people who still cling to long-discredited collectivist political views to be described as progressives.


The article in “The Economist” this week (19 Dec ’09 to 1 Jan ‘10) about progress and its perils discusses the popular view that while technology and GDP advance, morals and society are either treading water or sinking back into decadence and barbarism. The general message is that despite a general tendency to shy away from judgementalism many people yearn for a sense of moral purpose. The article ends by quoting Susan Neiman, a philosopher, who asks people to reject the false choice between Utopia and degeneracy: “Moral progress, she writes, is neither guaranteed nor is it hopeless. Instead it is up to us”.


I agree that people need a sense of moral purpose. A large part of the apparent decline in sense of moral purpose, however, can be attributed to a lack of moral clarity. In particular, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about the morality of modern consumer society. It is common to hear even avid users of new technology suggesting that the production of this stuff uses scarce resources but does little to add to their happiness in the long run. So why do they buy it and use it? Could it be because such stuff provides them with improvements in communications etc that are of enduring benefit, even though it has little effect on their emotional states in the longer term? The moral issue, whether it is good for us to have such stuff, does not depend on its transitory impact on our emotional states.


In terms of public policy, if progress means anything it must mean movement toward a good society, or movement from a good society to a better society. Changes can be counted as progress if they improve our capacity to live together in peace, provide us with greater opportunities to flourish or provide us with greater security.


However, the idea of progress also embodies optimism about the future of humanity – the idea that there has been a tendency for material, political, social, intellectual and moral conditions to improve throughout human history and that such improvement will continue in the foreseeable future. Roger Kerr has recently reminded us how inspiring the idea of progress was in the 18th Century. He argues that the idea that life tends to get better over the longer term still has potential to be inspiring today.


It seems to me that despite all the existing and potential problems faced by humanity there is a basis for optimism that advance of knowledge will continue to enable people to enjoy progressively better lives in coming decades.

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