Whereas a generation or two ago there was widespread confidence that economic growth, technological advance, and/or the spread of democracy would gradually create a better world, many today fear that these processes generate more problems than they solve. This skepticism regarding the possibility of progress is closely associated with three other attitudes. There is widespread doubt, at least among the intellectual class, that human reason and ingenuity can solve the world's problems. This doubt is related to a concern that the contemporary world is too complex and unpredictable for purposeful human action to have much impact on the future course of events. Finally, there is doubt that there are universal ethical standards: if humanity cannot agree on what is the nature of the good life, we can hardly work toward progress nor recognize it if we achieve it.
This book starts from a belief that there is considerable merit in these four related concerns. However, it will be argued that they need not lead to despair: the idea of human progress is still viable, though progress is not inevitable. This book will therefore outline a variety of goals for both activists and intellectuals to pursue in order to generate a progressive future for humanity. The legitimate concerns noted above regarding complexity, ethics, and the exercise of reason must first be addressed; it will turn out that answers to these three critiques will provide coherence to the various reform initiatives to be outlined. Firstly, a universal ethics can (ironically) be grounded in diversity by appreciating that diverse ethical perspectives often point in the same direction. This book identifies five types of ethical analysis and an 'ethical core' of statements supported by each of these. Secondly, complexity can be coped with in both scholarship and public policy analysis through the pursuit of interdisciplinarity and by organizing human understanding in terms of exhaustive classifications of the phenomena studied and theories and methods applied. These classifications are provided, as is a best-practice process of interdisciplinary analysis. Finally, the role of reason in human affairs can be enhanced by identifying and pursuing higher standards of human discourse.
How can we know that progress is neither impossible nor inevitable? The book performs a broad historical survey. This analysis hinges on an argument that it is indeed possible - indeed relatively straightforward - to identify what most people would consider as progressive with respect to a broad range of phenomena: higher incomes, less disease, more freedom, and cleaner environments. The book then evaluates whether progress has been achieved with respect to a wide array of phenomena over three time periods: the last couple of decades, the last couple of centuries, and the last couple of millennia. Regardless of the time period chosen, progress is observed for many phenomena, regress for many others, and both/neither for still others. Note that such a broad historical survey has never previously been performed. One important purpose of this survey is to overcome simplistic treatments of the subject of human progress: optimists all too often emphasize economic advances while pessimists stress environmental or cultural regress. Discourse regarding the possibility of human progress would be better grounded in a more nuanced understanding of human history.
For the purposes of this book, the survey serves a further critical purpose. Confidence in human progress can only be restored if viable policies exist to encourage this in those areas in which regress has been observed over at least one of the three historical time periods. Too much of the discourse on human progress assumes that certain types of progress - economic or political or cultural - are all-important. Widespread belief in progress requires a program that works toward progress across all phenomena. The final chapters of the book outline such a set of strategies. That is, for each phenomenon for which regress is observed historically it is asked whether there are strategies for achieving future progress. In some cases, the way forward is already fairly clear. In other cases it is necessary to perform further research in order to identify the path forward. Yet in all cases it is possible to hold out reasonable hope of future progress. And notably the various strategies are complementary: progress can be achieved across all phenomena. As noted above these various strategies do not depend on any simple ideology. The book is thus in full accord with postmodern suspicion of meta-narratives (grand explanations of everything or at least many things) while nevertheless transcending postmodern nihilism. It thus holds out hope for a brighter future, but a hope grounded in an appreciation of the complexity of the world rather than some over-simplistic ideology or grand theory.