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 the 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; a 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.

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Reply to Progress, Humanism, Agency

In general I think I’m on the same page as Jason here.  Instead of saying a lot of words about how I think this is important and useful, I’ll instead just poke at the parts I think could possibly become stronger.

Progress is not a single thing

There’s a lot of people talking past each other with regards to progress.  There are a lot of blanket claims that progress is happening (things are getting broadly better for people on average) as well as claims to the opposite.

I think the ‘yeah huh, nu uh’ back-and-forth between “things are getting better” and “things are getting worse” is quagmired at this point.

So it’s maybe worth admitting that there are metrics that people find important that are getting worse with time.  Most of these are benchmarked to relativist reference points (e.g. income inequality can get worse even if everyone has access to strictly more value) or normative (if assaults are decreasing slower than your growing circle of consideration for what counts as assault, then your perceptions could be that assault is increasing).

I’m not sure what the right approach is here, but it seems that over the last little bit, reinforcing the “things are getting better” with lots of graphs and stats etc hasn’t actually changed public opinion all that much.

(I remain surprised that the reactions to “Better Angels of our Nature” when it came out — I still regard that as better than “Enlightenment Now”, despite the latter doing more work on the philosophical concepts of progress; what matters to me is the actual change)

Humanism as the source of value / Utilitarianism as the standard of value

I think your definition of humanism is laudable but vague.  It weakly answers the question of “whence value?” but stops there.

I think your alternative source of value is better described as “naturalism” instead of “romanticism” — if only because the latter seems to suggest philosophical romanticism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism) instead of the conservatism you described.  (This is mostly a minor nit about naming things, not actually a criticism of the point)

So I think “Humanism as the source of value” makes sense, but it doesn’t give us a metric or measurement or point of reference to compare to in terms of value.

I think that standard of value (or the system of utilizing that) is utilitarianism.

I think consequentialism and utilitarianism are not without their issues (hopefully writing up more of them soon) — but I think they make a strong standard, in particular by forcing a consistent set of preferences between alternatives of value.

What is the measure of Agency?

I ask because I don’t know it — and also because it seems critical to rectifying some liberalism (the John Stuart Mill kind = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Liberty) with utilitarianism/consequentialism.

It seems reasonable to consider differently the expected harm of someone who directly put themselves in harms way, vs the person who was put into harms way by the state — though naive metrics for utility (e.g. expected QALYs, etc) would be the same.

The VNM utilitarians would claim that there is some term in the utility function for agency, but (so far as I know) have not produced actual numbers and metrics for how agency trades off with e.g. mortality.

Admittedly this is mostly a critique of utilitarianism and not of your point on agency.

I think the point about agency in the face of the future is essential, and the people that will change the future will probably be almost exclusively people who think they can change the future.

What should be in the core ideas for progress?

I am biased here, but I think a philosophy of progress necessarily must include a philosophy of risk.

Technological progress creates harms and downsides (or risks of downsides) in addition to benefits and upsides.

I think a philosophy of progress should have reified concepts for measuring these against each other.  I think it should also have reified concepts for measuring the meta-effects of progress on these other metrics for progress.

Secret first point of progress

I would be a little bit remiss if I didn’t include to me what was the most surprising part of learning about progress so far: almost all human progress (in the sense of the moral imperative you gave at the end) is scientific and technological progress.

To the extent that this is not the case, I haven’t found strong evidence of it yet.

To the extent that it is the case, I think we should be more clearly specifying that the moral imperative is for scientific and technical progress.

(P.S. - I have so far found the book of middling quality but full of interesting concepts by which to merge a philosophy of progress with things like utilitarianism and existential risk https://www.routledge.com/Risk-Philosophical-Perspectives/Lewens/p/book/9780415422840)

Thanks for the detailed thoughts Alex! An incomplete reply:

I agree that “human well-being as the standard of value” leaves a lot open. That's deliberate because I think that not everyone in this movement agrees on how exactly we should interpret, measure, etc. human well-being. Utilitarianism is one but not the only approach. It is an important topic for us to work out.

Agree with you about philosophy of risk / philosophy of safety. These are issues I am thinking about. For one preliminary, narrow case study see “How factories were made safe.”

I disagree that almost all progress is scientific/technological, if by that you mean that no significant moral/social progress has happened. The transition from monarchy to republics, the virtual end of slavery, and great progress in equal rights for women are three major points of moral/social progress that have occurred in the last ~250 years.

“Optimism” can mean different things

I like the distinction between Descriptive and prescriptive optimism. Can you crosspost that post to LW?

Status: Wrote while reading, the post gets around to covering the same stuff, largely.

2 and 6 seem like the exceptions.


1.

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?

Maybe you don't. (Simple model that is not meant to be entirely accurate:) Suppose there's a society where aristocrats live in mansions and everyone else lives below the poverty line. In a way, technological and industrial progress that didn't affect the lives of non-aristocrats, wouldn't change things a lot. A world where more people can buy a plane ticket, is a very different one, from a world where only a few can.

A world where everyone can use the internet would be a different one. And for 'declinism' we have - 'the internet was better when there were less people on it'. I disagree with that one.

Broadly, I'd say that things don't all have to be better, even if most are. Something that's really good can have some small downsides, even large risks - that require care to handle, so they don't explode. 'Nuclear power might be helpful for space missions.' and all that.


How do we justify that improvements to material living standards are good?

Tautologically correct. It seems reasonable to ask something like 'how do we figure out what changes are good, and what are bad, so we can move forward to a better world.' In a lot of areas, that doesn't seem hard, though.


2.

Thus progress is criticized from the left because it encroaches on the environment

This could use some pushback. Progress on tech that enables people to have these 'better lives' and doesn't produce carbon emissions are appreciated in those circles, are they not?

That's not to say that a large, vaguely defined group of people can't be largely ridiculous.

, and from the right because it represents modern “materialism” and “decadence.”

Whatever they care about, I think the price of housing is also relevant to them. Material concerns are still relevant, even if it's because of their necessity in other matters.


3.

fatalism
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.

optimism

the belief that we do not need to, and that everything is already perfect.

Jokes aside,

Another is the idea that progress depends on limited natural resources, and that as these resources run out, progress will unavoidably stall.

The other case for 'do you want to depend on oil forever? Because it won't last forever.*'

*Relevant to plastic as well.


4

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.

I feel like I've read this article before from somewhere else.


5

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; a 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.

Oh.


6

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.

In contrast:

fatal fears

a) If we don't understand what went right in the past, it may go awry, plunging us into darkness (without electricity and civilization and plumbing and the internet, losses more terrible than the missing light).

b) Today's world is delicate. A stray asteroid could set the world on fire. (We need to expand.)

romanticism

example: The stars beckon.

(The obvious flaws could be, not understanding, and consequently not being able, to bring about a brighter future. Also romanticizing the present -> not noticing its flaws -> ? -> making things worse.)

Declinism

Those rates are going down. We must bring them back up!

(Modus ponens versus Modus tollens, and all that.)

I agree with your three premises. However, I would recommend using a different term than "humanism".

Humanism is more than just the broad set of values you described. It is also a specific movement with more specific values. See for example the latest humanist manifesto. I agree with what you described as "humanism" but strongly reject the label humanist because I do not agree with the other baggage that goes with it. If possible, try to come up with a term that directly states the value you are describing. Perhaps something along the lines of "human flourishing as the standard of value"?

Do you disagree with something in

the latest humanist manifesto.

Or is the baggage found elsewhere?

As someone who believes in moral error theory, I have problems with the moral language ("responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment", "Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.").

I don't think that "Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals" or "Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness." Rather I would say some people find some fulfillment in those things.

I am vehemently opposed to the deathist language of "finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death." Death is bad and should not be accepted.

I assume there are other things I would disagree with, but those are a few that stand out when skimming it.

I tend to be fairly quantitative, and skeptical of any and all "ism's" and aware that the problem with most frameworks is in the construction not their application.

So what does that mean in the context of progress, humanism and agency.  Well it means you throw out the humanism.  Progress collapses into the expansion of human agency.  The expansion of human agency is actually enabled by women's rights, public health and nutrition.  Tough to have agency without first giving half the population rights and some power over their bodies, and then tough to have agency without clean drinking water and basic health care and food.  

Turns out that despite the wonderful inflection in wealth in the 1850's -- by 1970 1 out of every 2 people in the world still lived in extreme poverty which meant they were malnourished and physically stunted.  So in terms of progress there are 2 great inflections - the 1850's and then the inflection in the 1970's when we started the march from 50 pct of humanity being in abject poverty to the current roughly 10 pct.

This is all a simple redux of Hans Rosling / Factfulness / Gapminder.  

In terms of human progress, the process of eliminating abject poverty, such that humans can develop in a fashion that they have not been abused and are able to exercise agency -- well that's the base condition we are trying to get more and more of the world to.  And as humans are able to exercise constructive agency, it seems they tend to cooperate and do amazing things.  (This positive assumption of the nature of humanity is an interesting one because a lot of people who seem good because they want to do good things for other are actually impelled to do good because they think their fellow man is basically bad and they need to offset that - which is really weird).

But back to progress and agency - which are really just different sides of the same coin.  I would say that progress is always and everywhere the result of expanded human agency.  That is all it is and where it comes from.  It's just that enabling agency requires trust and historically trust has been hard because most people have been malnourished and living in awful circumstances and they had the capacity to lash our.  This is the old scarcity model of economics and allocating resources and the sort of prisoner's dilemma basis of game theory and philosophy.  Note that this simple framework for agency also offers another possible simple metric for progress as counting when and where people are playing win-win games or designing win-win growth oriented systems versus win-lose or redistributive or punishment based systems.  The cultural evolution is from playing win-lose games to win-win games and this is actually much easier to survey than it is to even begin to define enlightment and humanism which are hopeful concepts but logically leaky as all hell.

Getting back to Rosling, the problem of human progress is now moved from how do we get the population out of abject poverty so that constructive agency can even be discussed to how to we expand their capacity for agency by increasing their effective wealth.  This is where I really think Gapminder's Dollar Street is a great resource.  Gapminder categorizes extreme poverty as income level 1, and those who are just above that as income level 2.  Folks in level 2 income level live in a structure with a door and may have shoes and a bicycle and some basic appliances - but no motor vehicles or other fancy stuff.  This is where the 40% of the global population that escaped level one in the last 50 years sits now.  So the issue of progress isn't "humanistic" - but the work to enable these billions of people to live better and pursue their goals.

And this is where we go back to what happened between 1970 and 2020 that got so many out of extreme poverty.  Yasheng Huang in Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics basically captured it -- the Chinese government innovated by governing less.  The key innovation the Chinese government introduced which may have created more wealth than any other was something no one really talks about.  Huang expressed it as ensuring the corporal security of the entrepreneur -- or, they stopped executing people for entrepreneurship.  This shift accompanied the liftoff in Chinese growth, and preceded any sort of real property rights -- and note that property rights in china remain contingent to this day, so the whole idea of needing property rights or other things we are taught matter in the western economics is a little questionable.

So the Chinese experience of addressing extreme poverty, or going from China having produced the most poverty in the world to it being able to reduce poverty by an unprecedented amount, may be seen as having been achieved by the government choosing to stop aggressively and deliberately limiting human agency.  I think most people have missed this important but fundamental lesson about progress, agency and governance from the Chinese development process.

So Rosling, Gapminder and the basic income and health stats as documented in Factfulness clearly address that despite the human psychological biases to see problems, we are making amazing progress.  That progress can be measured in many ways but the best simple way may be by looking at where the global population is across Gapminder's four income tiers, which are illustrated in Dollar Street.  The key to our amazing progress in recent history was strangely enough the decision of the government of the world's most populous nation to allow a small degree of human agency, and that government still has the capacity to enable further advances in human progress by making further steps in allowing the agency of its people.  Most people in government's actually don't believe that their fellow citizens are good, and that is why they go into government and seek to limit the agency of their peers -- this instinct which is rooted in the same psychology which fails to see human progress is also the key limit to human agency and human progress.

Human progress first saw an inflection point in the accumulation of wealth and knowledge that began in the 1850's and I would argue another inflection point has been the liftoff of getting 9/10ths of the human population out of abject poverty.  The next key step in human progress will be how we get the majority of humanity to the point of having the wealth and resources for effective agency?  

Economically, the best proxy we have for effective agency is involvement and participation in a consumer economy.  So we currently have about 3 billion people on the planet with enough money to be consumers and really only 1 billion with most of those resources (income tiers 3 and 4 in the gapminder framework).  But you've got another 3 billion who have lift off and are on their way.  Their governments will try to stop them in different ways - so the traditional development of domestic institutions, etc. "narrow path" described by Acemoglu is unlikely to accomodate these folks.  And then there is a fundamental capacity problem for everything if we try to imagine doubling number of consumers in the world from 3 billion to 6 billion in the next 20 years.

Solving this problem will require creativity and the application of human agency on a scale we haven't seen before.  The alternative is human misery.  And that is all in the numbers and doesn't require any "isms"....