Is the world and humanity making ‘progress’?

From my very shallow understanding of post-modernism I understand it represents a rejection of the idea of progress associated with modernism/the enlightenment. It’s a position which probably makes sense, but that I think is pretty profoundly dispiriting. If society/humans/the world isn’t tracking towards some objectively better state, what’s the point?

When I was younger I used to take it for granted that things were getting better. I thought I could see it in the endless advances of technology, and in the social indicators like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) showing that things were improving. But as much as that view of the world is attractive, as much as I would love it to be true, I’ve got my doubts. When I was talking about the idea with my parents they pointed out that the twentieth century witnessed a whole lot of horrors which cast a huge shadow over the idea that human society is getting better. Were events such as the holocaust temporary instances of human evil, or are they rather recurrent events if you consider them on a large enough time scale? It was said after World War 2 that genocide would never be allowed to happen again, yet the late twentieth century and early twenty first has seen multiple instances of crimes against humanity. Who is to say a calamitous event of human creation couldn’t happen again at any time? Have we really created institutions capable of stopping the most evil acts of humanity?

In some senses, the endless process of technological innovation is also another reason to pessimistic about progress. We like to think that technology can solve all our problems, but less attention is paid to the problems so-called fixes create in turn. Some even go as far to say that almost all of humanities problems are the result of technological innovation.  We simply don’t know what the long-term consequences of technology will be on our societies and environment.

Another problem with the progress is that it’s a subjective, normative notion. Each person’s idea of what progress means is inevitably clouded by their personal views on a whole range of topics and their ideological viewpoint. The Tea Party in the United States views the healthcare reforms as evil and a sign of the takeover of government, and are willing to go as far as to shut down the federal government to stop the reforms. On the other side progressives might view it as one of the biggest legislative achievements of recent decades. Hence depending on your politics either progress was being made, or the country took a huge step backwards. While there are definitely things that almost everyone would agree are desirable, the areas of disagreement remain huge.

Perhaps a healthier way of looking at the situation is by viewing the activity and state of the world as an ongoing process that doesn’t lead towards any particular ‘good’ end. Much like painting an old wooden house, if you have the objective of finishing painting all the walls inside and out, you are bound to come to terms with the reality that by the time you  “finish”, there are new surfaces which need to be painted. Likewise humanity is probably always going to be going forwards and backwards in fits and starts, depending on your point of view. Perhaps the best any of us can do is try to temporarily improve the world we live.

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