Certainly Australia’s European settlers were convinced that agriculture and industry were a civilised advance on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and that agriculture was ripe for modernisation so that surplus could replace subsistence: wasteland could be appropriated and turned over to cultivation for the benefit of all so that improvement was manifest, not just in the mind. ‘Improvement’ was the preferred word for man’s selective breeding of new crops and domesticated animals. White Australian settlers regarded themselves as a superior race, the Aboriginals being backward and in need civilizing improvement to ring them up to an acceptable standard of living.
Self-improvement – human nature
Of special interest was the idea of improving human nature. Given the fresh circumstance of settlement and the possibility of reward for honest toil convicts could be converted from criminals to useful citizens. Indeed Australia’s first generation, known as ‘currency lads and lasses’, were described by Commissioner Bigge as taller, fairer, stronger and healthier than the free settlers, indeed taller than their British counterparts, and with a distinct way of talking. They were generally industrious, free of criminality and more than 80 per cent of the men and 75 per cent of wrote their own name on the marriage register. Boys enjoyed sport especially foot races and ‘knuckle’ boxing and ‘afford a fair hope of great and progressive improvement in the population of the Colony and its Characters’ This suggested the tantalising possibility of human perfection, a transcendence of original sin and our broken human nature. The objective of moral progress was loosely described in terms of industry (hard work), sobriety (clearly alcohol was a major factor), and prosperity. Above all it was agriculture that was seen as the supreme mode of moral improvement, for both convict and Aboriginal. Improvement of the moral character of the natives was to be a major theme of early settlement along with the suggestion that they could be refashioned when separated from their families – a view that became state policy.
It is this aspect of the Enlightenment project that makes us uncomfortable today, the contrast in outlooks of European and First Australian: for the European the overwhelming confidence in the rightness of change, a disrespect for the land, its rhythms and history, and desire to dominate and subdue for purely human ends, introduction of alien plants and animals, the individualistic formation of all kinds of boundaries, both literal and metaphorical so alien to Aboriginal communality, and an overwhelming preoccupation with economic growth through a complex division of labour.
Karl Marx characterised societal history in progressive evolutionary terms, from tribal to feudal to capitalist to socialist while Malthus pointed out that human populations, like those of other organisms, grow to outstrip the food supply after which they are inevitably cut down by famine and disease until an approximate food equilibrium is reached once again. In spite of the two World Wars of the 20th century with the paradigm of technological change as advance almost any social change is regarded in the same way.
The 18th century Enlightenment carried the torch of moral improvement and progress. This was an intellectual revolution of hope, direction and a feeling that humanity was maybe, at long last, heading in a positive direction. Politically the new constitutions were trying to write the potential tyranny of ruling dynasties and monarchies. Science was opening up the secrets of the natural world on a global scale and technology was giving humans unimagined and unprecedented improvements in communications, manufacturing, trade and much more.
But it seems that all this went sour. The hope of the, the American Revolution led to Civil War, the French Revolution ended in the slaughter of the Terror with the Russian Revolution following a similar path seemingly ending in the atrocities of Stalin’s regime. The tyranny of kings and queens was replaced by the tyranny of the ‘people’ as manifested by their leaders like Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot. The Industrial Revolution brought dirt, grime, factories and wage slavery.
If the lessons of history cannot be learned then are we condemned to continually repeat the errors of the past?
Many of the items of Program 1 can be simply measured but what do we do when as individuals and groups we aspire to different things, and when we have different visions for desirable futures. Given such subjectivity it would appear likely that we fail at the first hurdle of establishing common goals.
Quality of life. Sustainabiity.
Poverty, and even simplicity, can lead to a lack of flexibility and choice. Widespread poverty is bad for the environment.
Our modern interconnected and globalised world has been constructed in large part on the mutual material benefits of commerce and trade. Social benefits of not only material comforts and infrastructure but health systems and even individual freedoms have flowed into societies built on thriving economies. If we assume that economic flourishing has opened up options to people once restricted in their life-choices then societal progress can be defined as the collective direction of peoples’ choices, what has been termed – revealed preference.
While one of today’s greatest global problems is the alleviation of poverty, within the developed world it is now clear that the values of the market are not sufficient in themselves. We must measure our lives in more ways than just the Gross National Product.
Happiness & well-being
Perhaps the strongest argument against progress is that it has not increased our happiness. And insofar as happiness underlies all that we do, and since it has not increased with progress, then progress counts for nothing. This has given rise to a search for uncontroversial values common to humanity as a whole; values that we can all accept, measure, and therefore find practical in our daily lives. These values have centred on the ideas of happiness and human well-being.
While at first glance ‘happiness’ and ‘human well-being’ look like toothless motherhood statements they are rapidly becoming the foundations of a universal globalised objective ethic giving substance to the idea of progress and its measurement. Far from being imprecise and obscure concepts the United Nations has introduced whole programs based on their strength.
With human well-being (sustainability progress) as a universal moral baseline we are making use of a broad contextual base that allows us to move forward, to progress in relation to the question ‘how can we make the world a better place?’ The pursuit of sustainability progress entailing harmonious coexistence with the community of life and future generations as an international policy provides a universal foundation and goal among the many competing value systems –though hardly different in many way from utilitarianism which seeks the common good, sustainability is a more transparent concept attached to an international program and policies for the future. As a moral goal sustainability progress is not subjective, there are better and worse ways of achieving it in the material world.
Massive historical average decrease in human violence, lower infant mortality, longer life expectancy, increased gender, racial and religious equality, few would doubt our overall moral improvement. However, as discussed elsewhere, such judgments can only be made using a baseline assumption that human flourishing or well-being is a given, and the possible formation of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement does not render this invalid. Almost all humans display a strong will to live and flourish as a defining part of their nature as living organisms.[p. 48]
We can, on the one hand, think of progress in a very general way through our attitudes and beliefs towards such wide and abstract categories as humanity, factual knowledge, space, time, matter, value, spirit, and mind and, on the other hand, practical day-to-day matters like life expectancy broad categories like life-expectancy ……
Now, human progress is increasingly being understood as much more complex than this, including the values that underpin our life together, goals that relate to our wellbeing as individuals and as communities, and the effective and sustainable use of our resources for the wellbeing of future generations.
Based on the idea of an ongoing conversation about what kind of society we want to be, ANDI will develop clear, ongoing measures of our progress towards that vision: an Australian National Development Index.
Evolution by natural selection made progress a necessary law of nature and gave the doctrine its first scientific formulation, not a advancement towards a single goal but, by adaptation, to goals that were appropriate for the particular circumstances. The increase in organic complexity has been paralleled by an increase in social complexity of globalisation.
What can upset this trajectory?
Catastrophic climate change and nuclear war – not inevitable. Global Zero movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Why is this counter to the perceptions of many people?
Cognitive bias that ‘availability heuristic’ – sense of danger is not based on objective facts. News is about what happens not what does not happen.
We confuse changes in ourselves with changes in society.
We are all social critics and pessimists get greater respect than optimists.
Why has it happened?
Rise of institutions that support it – government is a disinterested third party better than individuals, an evolving global leviathan of UN evolving on average improving. Since 1945 very little conquest of territory. WHO set best-practices etc. Improving markets China and India switching to market economies. Advancement of science with public health.
Broadening the circle of justification and concern rather than following tradition, tribalism, conformity, gay rights have almost totally collapsed. Making your case beyond your own interest group. Observing facts, reason, life, health, and happiness are common ground and universal values rather than local ones.
‘If it bleeds it leads’ but positive too if rapid news and very difficult to keep a secret. Sexual abuse, bullying, has become widely publicised and this is an advance – both cause and consequence of our expanding cycle. We can quickly regress to evolved human reactions that are easily moralised. Absolute terms things getting better but inequities cause resentment but extreme poverty is a first concern.
Individual events can be misleading of general trends. Pessimism can turn into fatalism and revolutionary fervour and desperate actions.
Religion has, in general, followed the tide of humanism. The Church now accepts evolution and other scientific discoveries etc.