Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Essays

The Problem of Perishable Progress

And its demand for constant upkeep.

Stuart Whatley and Nicholas Agar

Air, Rail, and Water, study, 1937, by Robert Delaunay (1885–1941); photograph Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

Late in his life, in the 1820s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe weighed in on a debate about human progress that had been stirring Western philosophers for at least twenty-three centuries. A civilization may develop for millions of years, Goethe told the German poet Johann Peter Eckermann,

But let humanity last as long as it will, there will always be hindrances in its way, and all kinds of distress, to make it develop its powers. Men will become more clever and discerning, but not better nor happier nor more energetic, at least except for limited periods.… The world will not reach its goal so quickly as we think and wish. The retarding demons are always there, intervening and resisting at every point, so that, though there is an advance on the whole, it is very slow. Live longer and you will find that I am right.11xJ.K. Moorhead, ed., John Oxenford, trans., Conversations of Goethe with Johann Peter Eckermann, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1998), 275. First published 1930.

Other voices in the first half of the nineteenth century were not as nuanced in their views. Grand theorizing about “Progress” had reached a fever pitch, and was becoming a defining intellectual force behind industrialism and modernity. Building on the French Encyclopédists’ sketches of universal history, thinkers such as the positivist Auguste Comte described a “law of human progress” that could be used to explain the entirety of history and to predict the general course of human development in the future.

Comte, who suspected that human societies ultimately follow the same kind of deterministic laws as those observed in the physical world, was simply following an influential strain of Enlightenment thought about progress to its logical conclusion. In the seventeenth century, René Descartes and Francis Bacon had both broken forcefully with the ancient intellectual tradition, arguing that nothing can be taken for granted. Rather than reflexively honor the Greeks, the Romans, or the Church, Descartes and Bacon advanced the view that much of the knowledge handed down through the generations was a mix of unfounded metaphysics and obscurantist cant.

For his part, Bacon described the great philosophers of the past, from Aristotle to Augustine, as spiders, spinning webs from their own minds with no reference to reality. He argued that we should act more like honeybees, insisting that only by combining reason (our own faculties) with experimentation (the flowers of the field) could we acquire reliable knowledge about the world. It was on this intellectual bedrock that the scientific and industrial revolutions would rest.

Yet far from representing a sharp break from the dogmas of the past, the Cartesian and Baconian streams combined with another expanding intellectual tributary: Puritanism. The Puritans of the seventeenth century saw the new science not as a threat to their beliefs but as a gift from heaven. It was through science and technology that God’s kingdom on earth would be achieved. In the millenarian worldview of the time, ideas about “Providence” and “Progress” were more or less synonymous.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the role of a divine interlocutor was increasingly made redundant by substitutes such as the “invisible hand,” the “cunning of reason,” dialectical materialism, and other secularized prime movers. Yet while it was acknowledged that human progress could be explained without recourse to superstition, the doctrine of progress remained faith-based to the core. “Fundamental to the idea is faith in the value of human knowledge,” the sociologist Robert Nisbet explains in History of the Idea of Progress, “the kind of knowledge that is contained in the sciences and the practical arts, and faith also in the capacity of such knowledge to lift humanity to ever-higher levels of human life.”22xRobert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (Oxfordshire, England: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 128. First published 1980.

Hopeful but Impatient

It is this particular faith in the ameliorative power of knowledge to which Goethe was referring two centuries ago, and that still underpins our ambitions for technology today. Where once the doctrine of progress inspired socialist reform projects like those envisioned by the Russian rationalist Nikolay Chernyshevsky, it has now been taken up by libertarians and other techno-optimists who believe that as long as people are free to do as they please, their organic acts of creation will automatically “make the world a better place.”33x“The Launch of HumanProgress.org,” Cato Policy Report (January/February 2014), 3, https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/policy-report/2014/1/cprv36n1-3.pdf?queryID=204b4e0e79a4ff39ad796cace0936cca.

Like the Puritans, we today are not just hopeful but impatient for timely technological solutions to all of our most vexing problems. In America, despite certain subcultures of antiscience crankery, 82 percent of respondents to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey indicated that they were confident that “scientific developments will continue to improve lives”—and so they have, most recently with the rapid development of vaccines against COVID-19.44xCary Lynne Thigpen and Cary Funk, “Most Americans Say Science Has Brought Benefits to Society and Expect More to Come,” Pew Research Center, August, 27, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/27/most-americans-say-science-has-brought-benefits-to-society-and-expect-more-to-come/.

Yet we also should recognize that in much of today’s technology-hyping rhetoric there are echoes of eighteenth-century Encyclopédists like Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, who averred that “progress leads to further progress” as a matter of course.55xAnne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, “A Philosophical View of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind,” The Turgot Collection, ed. David Gordon (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011), 323. Turgot essay first published 1750. An early technological determinist, Turgot believed that as long as humanity’s store of shared knowledge could be preserved through writing and printing, it could only ever increase and become more useful. Like many other theorists of teleological history, including St. Augustine, he analogized the “human race” to a single individual who, since “its infancy” (i.e., for centuries), has been steadily advancing.

Never mind that, as an individual, humanity could be like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, soon to be cut short in its prime after having spent its time on earth pursuing meaning in all the wrong places. We in fact are not a single unit moving toward or from anything. When one hears such claims, one immediately must ask what progress even is, by what criteria it should be assessed, and whether such conceptions are consistent over time.

Progress can be defined in many ways. In Nisbet’s overview, it is simply “the idea that civilization has advanced in the past, is now advancing, and in all likelihood will continue to advance in the foreseeable future.”66xNisbet, History of the Idea of Progress, 4–5. To Steven Pinker, it is “the idea that the world is better than it was and can get better still.”77xSteven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York, NY: Viking, 2018), 39. Both definitions of progress come close to the one offered by the early-twentieth-century historian J.B. Bury: “The idea means that civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction.”88xJ.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origins and Growth (New York, NY: Project Gutenberg, 2010), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4557/4557-h/4557-h.htm. First published in 1920.

But each of these definitions raises more questions than it answers. If, following the capture of Raqqa in 2013, one were to ask an Islamic State leader whether his civilization was advancing in a desirable direction toward a better world, he would have answered in the affirmative. This is an extreme example, to be sure. We raise it not to suggest that everything is relative, but rather to show that progress is not nearly as rigorous an idea as its common usage implies. In our technology-driven society, it tends to comprise means (average lifespans, incomes, mechanical conveniences) but not ends (individual or collective meaning, the good life). Until such terms are clarified, we cannot possibly hope to manage our collective expectations about the future.

Moreover, even if everyone were to agree about what constituted progress, no one could actually know which actions and innovations would prove to be progressive, as opposed to inconsequential or even regressive. Whether a particular episode can be slotted into a grand narrative about progress is usually a matter of interpretation. In 1945, the United States demonstrated the destructive power of the atom bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, inaugurating a new era of nuclear deterrence. Did that feat actually reduce the chance of future wars between countries and thereby amount to “progress” in some fashion?

Such questions can be debated endlessly. Those with an optimistic outlook are like the Encyclopédists, celebrating humanity’s steady climb upward from its primitive infancy. Some, like Turgot, even see past errors as inherently progressive, trusting that even the worst moments will fit into the grand teleological scheme.

But if one insists on imputing a moral arc to history, it is all too easy to invert the picture, as did Walter Benjamin on the eve of World War II:

A [Paul] Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.99xWalter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (Boston, MA: First Mariner Books, 2019), 201. First published 1955.

Ultimately, claims that treat progress as a metaphysical feature of history or as an automatic byproduct of human ingenuity will run into contradictions. Whether we as a species are “better off” than our ancient ancestors, whether we are marching toward a “better” future—these are not always actionable questions. This is because there is yet another problem with viewing humanity as a single maturing historical entity: a process of “hedonic normalization” will forever limit our ability to feel substantially “better” than past generations.

Progressing toward Hedonic Normalization

Hedonic normalization is “the propensity for human beings to form goals that are appropriate to the environments they experience as they come to maturity.”1010xNicholas Agar, The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn’t the Answer to Everything (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3. Among other things, this feature of conscious existence perpetually limits our capacity to appreciate the benefits of new technologies over time, because it operates at the generational rather than the individual level.

There is a paradox to how we approach technological progress. When we imagine the possibilities opened up by driverless cars or drugs that reverse aging, we are considering what these technologies will do for our own present well-being. The first affordable, safe driverless car would surely deliver a greater improvement than, say, an iPhone 11 in the hands of someone who already owned an iPhone 10.

Yet we can already foresee that the first driverless car actually will add only modestly to subjective well-being in the long run, because the people who experience the initial excitement about the initial breakthrough will be replaced by people who are hedonically normalized to it. The cabins of driverless cars will increasingly be filled with riders who take their hands-off experience for granted, much as postmillennials regard the Internet today.1111xIbid. These future people naturally will abhor the idea of relinquishing their technologies, but they also will feel rather complacent about them.

As individuals, we can pine for the druglike effect of technological progress, and we can even satisfy it temporarily from time to time. But the implication of hedonic normalization is that our collective thirst will never be quenched. One can see this pattern clearly in cancer research. In the 1940s, Sydney Farber achieved miraculous remissions of leukemia with chemotherapies that continue to be therapeutically effective. Today’s cancer patients, however, submit to chemotherapy not with a sense of wonder but with resignation—or at least a resigned hope.

Chemotherapies have become ever more clinically effective since Farber’s day, but these improvements have had a diminishing effect on our expectations of progress against cancer. Anyone who had to choose whether to develop cancer now or in the 1940s would obviously pick the present. And yet, Farber’s objectively inferior treatments packed a much greater hedonic punch in his own time than did the marginally better ones that have followed ever since.

Such is the nature of progress. With each passing generation, the expectations placed on technology and human ingenuity are renewed. Aspirations achieved today will be regarded as wholly insufficient by members of the society of 2100. Few in the rich world could imagine going about their days without heating or air conditioning, yet that is what the bulk of humanity still does, and always has done. Because so many of our material and technological advances have been inherited, we take them for granted and demand more. If there ever comes a time when people live to be a thousand years old, a millennial lifespan will no longer be considered adequate.

This tendency has been addressed time and again in the world’s wisdom literature. Among classical philosophers like the Stoics, the pursuit of external advantages was regarded as foolhardy. At least since the Enlightenment, though, the impulse within every individual to “better his own condition” has been recognized as an unyielding force that should not be suppressed, but, rather, harnessed in the interest of society. Yet even early apologists of self-interest, such as Adam Smith, recognized the complicated hedonic effects of this form of progress. “Sudden changes of fortune,” Smith observed, “seldom contribute much to happiness.” In fact, he saw the tendency to accommodate oneself to one’s situation as a “never-failing certainty [of] human nature.”1212xAdam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2010), 17. First published 1759.

There is an important distinction to be made between the intergenerational phenomenon of hedonic normalization and that of hedonic adaptation, which describes how we as individuals respond to positive and negative events in our lives. Some researchers have speculated that hedonic adaptation involves a complete return to a happiness “set point,” implying that with enough time, unexpected benefits or costs will leave someone no better off than she was before. Others agree that such adaptation occurs but doubt that it runs in a complete cycle back to a pre-set baseline. Someone who is permanently injured in an automobile accident will not remain at the height of misery indefinitely, but neither will he ascend back to his previous level of subjective well-being. Rather, he will be reminded of the capabilities he has lost every day when he gets out of bed.

In any case, even the staunchest skeptic of hedonic adaptation must accept that intergenerational hedonic normalization is a robust fact of life. Why else would adults feel the need to lecture today’s youth about how easy they have it? When the Internet arrived, its hedonic benefits soon became obvious. Suddenly, one could locate distant lost cousins, exchange letters instantly, browse online catalogues, and access more information than had ever been available to humans at any other time in history. But the “digital natives” born into the Internet Age didn’t feel any of the windfall effects experienced by “digital immigrants.” Trying to get eighteen-year-olds excited about these benefits is like trying to get them to marvel at the wonder of electricity or running water.

To be sure, young people can certainly appreciate today’s technologies intellectually, when they consider them in a historical context. But, hedonically, they are fundamentally bound up with them. Not only do digital natives fail to experience the same excitement felt by digital immigrants when they use today’s technologies, they also are more dependent on them. If the average digital native were forced to surrender access to the Internet, she would probably suffer a much greater blow to her well-being than the average digital immigrant would. An older adult would still remember the days before the Internet, when people had real friends instead of Facebook friends. To feel the same sense of deprivation felt by the digital native, the digital immigrant would have to go further, to a time without color television or the polio vaccine.

Because digital natives are normalized to the digital age, they cannot possibly have a true sense of what life was like before. Even though they can “Google it,” doing so will not afford them a genuine understanding. They are left with the insights offered by imagination. This indelible feature of history has important implications for any discussion of progress, for in order to say that our subjective well-being benefits significantly from the technologies we were born with, we must adopt an absurd assumption about the happiness of people in the past.

When Pinker, touting the wonders of modern entertainment offerings, writes that “it’s hard for us to reconstruct the gnawing boredom of the isolated rural households of yesteryear,”1313xPinker, Enlightenment Now, 260. he is absolutely correct, albeit not for the reasons he himself suggests. The scenario is hard—indeed, impossible—to reconstruct, because we are being asked to believe, preposterously, that the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived suffered from what Pinker, writing in the Internet-addled present, calls “gnawing boredom.” For all we know, many of the people of yesteryear would look on us with the same condescending pity that contemporary evangelists of progress heap on people of the past. After all, ours is the generation suffering from crises of “post-truth” politics, chronic loneliness, and “deaths of despair.”1414xNoreena Hertz, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart (New York, NY: Currency, 2021); Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020). An early explanation of the concept of “post-truth” may be found in William Davies, “The Age of Post-Truth Politics,” New York Times, August 24, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html.

Suppose that you were suddenly teleported to a Roman city in the first century CE. You would have no modern technologies with you, and no return ticket. After the initial wave of shock or excitement, the lack of familiar modern contrivances would almost certainly start to have a depressive effect on your well-being. Before Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii under a sea of molten lava and ash, quotidian life in the city would probably have seemed rather miserable to a time traveler from the twenty-first century.

We are not implying here that the Pompeiians enjoyed the more scatological features of their daily lives. We know from historians that they did not; hence the need for street signs warning “Shitter—make sure you keep it in till you’ve passed this spot.”1515xMary Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (London, England: Profile Books, 2008), 56. The difference is that the rotting vegetables, animal dung, human excrement, and flies had much less of a deleterious effect on the average Pompeiian’s sense of well-being than they would have had on the sensibilities of a time traveler from the twenty-first century. To city dwellers up until the age of the automobile, shit-filled streets were roughly tantamount to standstill traffic or online spam today.

The same basic caveats apply to future technologies. Assuming that human civilization does not degenerate into the kind of postapocalyptic scenario depicted in Mad Max, a time traveler visiting the twenty-third century from the present would doubtless be awed by what she encountered, whether it was advances in space travel, the eradication of disease, or methods of extending human life. But the people she would meet would be hedonically normalized to these technological wonders.

What do these journeys of attitudinal time travel tell us? Based on our own firsthand experience of the present, we can assume that, on average, people in the past were not radically more or less “happy” than we are today; and we can presume the same about people far in the future. The upshot is that technological progress can never do as much as its evangelists would like us to think it will. Even if technological innovation didn’t create new problems of its own, even if it didn’t make human civilization ever more dependent on an increasingly complex and fragile architecture, it still could never satisfy the demands we make of it.

The common errors we commit when thinking about the future could be dismissed as harmless quirks of the human condition, except that they tend to distort our priorities. The more that we focus on technological fixes for our problems, the less attention we pay to all other potential solutions. Faced with this realization, we might choose to channel the archetype of Cineas rather than Pyrrhus.

Pyrrhus was a legendary Greek warrior-king who could never find satisfaction (and who is now mostly remembered as the inspiration for the idiom “Pyrrhic victory”). Having launched a campaign against the Romans in Italy, Plutarch relates, Pyrrhus longed also to claim Libya, then Carthage, then Syracuse. When asked by his adviser Cineas what he would do once he had subjugated the entire world, Pyrrhus replied that he would rest easy. “We’ll drink bumpers, my good man, every day, and we’ll gladden one another’s hearts with confidential talks.” But Cineas responded with the crucial question: “Then what stands in our way now if we want to drink bumpers and while away the time with one another? Surely this privilege is ours already.”1616xArthur Hugh Clough (ed.), John Dryden (trans.), Plutarch’s Lives: Volume I (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2001), 530. Translation first published 1683, edited version 1864.

Consumed by impatient ambition, Pyrrhus squandered the chance for satisfaction, and was eventually killed in action. We should remember him as an archetypal tragic victim of hedonic adaptation. As an individual, he had a choice to stop and say, “I have earned the privilege of repose.” But making such a choice at the collective, intergenerational level is another matter. A Pyrrhus-like impulse for constant improvements will follow from whatever achievements we as a species make to extend our lives and improve our material condition.

It is easy to imagine how future developments could satisfy our present selves. But then again, our future selves will have a different outlook, and later generations will not know our current perspective at all. Indeed, they will feel as though their own journey of conquest has not even yet begun.

Collectively, then, we should draw a distinction between moral and material progress. A society makes moral progress when it abolishes slavery, and material progress when it boosts household incomes or invents labor-saving gadgets. Sometimes material progress represents a form of moral progress, and sometimes it does not. Some social scientists argue that the ubiquity of smartphones has created an epidemic of mental illness and depression in young people.1717xJean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” The Atlantic, September 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/. The obesity epidemic afflicting many advanced economies has muddied the picture of our progress in supplying basic needs.

At the same time, most people agree that modern welfare-state provisions to support the elderly, the disabled, and other marginalized and vulnerable groups constitute a moral victory. Particularly in an era when lifespans have been, the last few years aside, steadily lengthening, most Americans would regard a return to the days before Social Security as simply barbaric (though there are plenty of economists who would like to see people continue working further into their silver years).

Here, one can see the soft impacts of material progress. Owing to improvements in material conditions over the decades, our collective commitment to protect vulnerable subsets of the population has strengthened. But that is because many of us will have children and all of us will grow old.

Accordingly, we should recognize that pessimism can have a constricting effect on our willingness to take risks or make sacrifices for the benefit of others. When people think the world is “going to the dogs,” they tend to become more defensive and self-seeking, thinking in zero-sum terms and jealously guarding their hard-earned gains against the illicit claims of others.

By contrast, when we collectively sense that we are making material progress, we are all more willing to pitch in. If we believe that everyone is rising together, we can expect that our own comparatively small sacrifices will be paid back in spades. If we trust that our children have a good chance of being better off than people are today, we will act to make that projected outcome a self-fulfilling prophecy, doing what we can to effect positive change in the world.

Still, we should be ever mindful that our material advances are equally capable of either serving or undermining the moral ones. While hope springs eternal, progress demands constant upkeep.