Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison wrote two months ago a piece in The Atlantic calling for a new discipline, Progress Studies that would be very much applied and focused on improving the human condition. In my previous links post I linked to no less than eight manifestos or responses of some kind that were published some time after the original article, all show some degree of approval of this new proposal.

In contrast, Twitter was a snakepit of snide and snark for a few days, with - what seems - mostly anthropologists and historians mocking the authors for either attempting to reinvent the wheel (X, you have invented X!) or for peddling a long-debunked underlying notion of Progress. Here's some examples of extended versions of what are mostly bad takes (1, 2).

I did try to look for more coherent arguments against the piece, looking for keywords like "debunked" or "naive" on twitter, but couldn't find much; nonetheless I believe there is at least a few points worth replying to, hence this article.

Progress Studies

Progress Studies (PS) as defined is a meant to be an eminently applied discipline, like engineering or medicine, and unlike theoretical physics, pure mathematics, or History.

In applied disciplines, there is a concrete object of study/application that is not to be merely understood, but improved. It is this what makes those fields intrinsically normative, in the sense of normative one could use to criticise PS. If we define a field as "The study of the nature of reality" that doesn't sound very normative, but if we define a field as "The study of how to improve human health and cure illness" we are introducing "improve" and "illness" and even "cure". Illness implies that something is a suboptimal state of affairs (That's why it has to be cured); health is assumed to be good, and that's why improving it is good.

As with any values, these are not undisputed; a subset of deaf people oppose cochlear implants that enable hearing in otherwise impaired people, on the grounds that it is an implicit attack on deaf culture.1 Similarly, back in the day, homosexuality was viewed by the psychiatric community as a paraphilia to be cured, again a value judgement.

Thus Progress Studies is a normative discipline, but no more than civil engineering is a normative discipline inasmuch as building cheaper bridges is an aim of the discipline, and no more than medicine for assuming that cancer is bad, and aiming to cure it. Normativity is not a valid critique, merely a description of the aims of a field.

But capital-P Progress feels different from cancer or bridges; these can be seen and touched, Progress cannot. Albeit that doesn't affect the conclusion of this section, it does raise another question: What is the 'Progress' in Progress Studies?

Progress

Defining what progress is is difficult, and even though many published manifestos and reading lists after the original call for Progress Studies, no one wrote at length just on Progress.

By Progress ultimately I'm referring to something as trivial -and vague- as getting more of the good things and less of the bad things, whatever those may be. One can look at Our World in Data or at Steven Pinker's books for some ideas as to the nature of these. This of course brings up the idea of tradeoffs and incomensurability. Are our lives better than those of hunter-gatherers? One can't have Alzheimer's if one's lifespan is not long, and one can't drop nuclear bombs on ones' enemies if there is no technology to do so.

There are various views one could take regarding progress:

  • The simple one is that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This is highly dubious and not widely believed.

  • The optimistic view of progress is that it is there, but that there are setbacks and oscillations, where progress happening is not something written in stone, but is instead something that has to be actively pursued. This is the correct view.

  • In the other camp, I can see three views

    • Progress is incoherent, to be addressed below.
    • Progress has upper and lower bounds and it merely oscillates -something that perhaps used to be believed by the Ancient Greeks, but that we can safely dismiss as unlikely and not believed by almost anyone
    • There has been no improvement in the human condition at all. This position is either subsumable in the first one (Progress is incoherent, insofar as what is incoherent cannot improve) or even more unlikely if taken at face value.

There's also the notion of the brittleness of progress, one should look not only at what has been achieved, but how robust it is; unlike in the millennia that preceded the current age, a limited number of individuals -mostly heads of state - have in their hands the capacity of reducing civilisation to nothing. Even without considering existential risks, some trends within the overall advancement of societies make it easier to carry out highly destructive acts of terror.

The main critique of progress I see that can be made is that either it is incoherent or vague, or that one cannot separate the bad from the good aspects of it; for example there is less malnutrition in the world than there used to be, but there is also more obesity and cardiovascular disease. Is that progress?

One could attempt to define a metric to measure progress all things considered, let's say that one reduces everything to Quality Adjusted Life Years, measures how many are generated every year, and if that goes up, we've made progress. Then, the issue is solved by narrowing down the definition sufficiently so as to avoid major disputes (Of course, disputes will remain about what goes into the calculation of the QALYs).

But I don't see a major need of precisely pinning down progress; solving world hunger shouldn't require coming up with the one and true theory of ethics. Instead, we can leave the general notion of progress as a vague, nebulous concept2, that has the potential to be an essentially contested concept; those that think that progress is possible think it is good, but then they may go on to disagree about what they mean by it. Like we embraced normativity, we shouldn't take vagueness as a strong critique here.

One can always question any given definition of progress. Indeed, if one values martial virtues, chiefly expressed during wartime, then we have seen a secular regress, not progress: war is not as common as it used to be. The liberalisation of social attitudes regarding drugs, gender, immigration, nationalism, or race can plausibly be seen as decline by some religions or political ideologies. From that optic, Progress Studies would have to investigate how to revert those trends and bring back a more traditional world.

But most people do have shared values, only that then they disagree about how to better achieve them. As one example if someone is opposed to immigration because of a concern about crime, then the tradeoff at hand for them is between freedom of movement and less crime. If someone is opposed to substantial tax cuts because that requires cutting down on welfare, then the tradeoff is between the welfare and rights of the taxees and the welfare of the poor3. But if we could have freedom of movement, no taxes, no poverty, and no crime, the three views describe would point to that as the preferred outcome.

Productivity growth

The closer we are to a world where literally everything that can get better does get better, the more agreement I would expect there will be on calling that an improvement over the previous situation. This is only possible by either using more resources (but resources are finite), or by using resources more efficiently. Efficiency is having the proverbial cake and eating it too; as we get more out of the same resources. Thus progress requires productivity growth, a world of zero productivity growth is ultimately a zero sum world where we cannot escape the tyranny of tradeoffs.

And from here, this is why in the original article introducing Progress Studies the focus is not so much in defining what progress is - we mostly share the same values - and instead focused heavily on this precise question: How to increase productivity. Doing more with less means discovering a way that was previously not obvious of utilising the same resources, it means innovating. This innovation can be both institutional and technological. It may well be possible to build tall buildings in a few weeks, but if their construction is not allowed, that capability cannot be put to use.

So to stop, say, climate change, one could heavily limit CO2 emissions starting now, travel less, eat less of certain kinds of food. Or, one could move to a world where we don't feel constrained, but do the same things (And more!) without causing CO2 emissions. Or if we do, we control them via geoengineering -which in turns brings in new problems of its own-. Similarly, in the debate over animal welfare, a solution more effective than leaving meat-eaters meatless or having vegans change their values is to produce cheap cultured meat and then everyone is satisfied4.

Progress Studies would look at how to move to this second world. This focus is not an attempt to hide from the reality, complexity, and unavoidability of tradeoffs5 faced at all times at every level of social organization. Those are to be acknowledged. It is instead precisely the recognition of their existence that serves as a catalyst to imagine a world where tradeoffs are not rubbed in our faces on a daily basis in the way they currently are.

1

It is - without deafness there is no deaf culture -, but that's not a bad thing by most people's values.

2

There are some attempts at making Progress more concrete: Tyler Cowen's "Wealth Plus" (GDP plus leisure and environmental quality, among others), QALYs, Sen's capability approach, the Human Development Index, the Social Progress Index, or the OECD Better Life Index. Of course, these have all been criticised!

3

In theory, as the bulk of public social expenditures do not target the poor

4

Except those who, for some reason, see animal suffering as a good thing.

5

Back in the day, there was a very brutal tradeoff between population and welfare: the more people, the worse their living conditions; such is the life in a Malthusian economy. One can imagine an old debate between a camp arguing for less population with a higher standard or living (to be achieved through coercive means perhaps), and another arguing for unrestrained growth, even if that leads to lower standards of living. The third way is of course to seek a way to achieve a sustained growth in both population and individual welfare.

Citation

In academic work, please cite this essay as:

Ricón, José Luis, “About the 'Progress' in Progress Studies”, Nintil (2019-09-06), available at https://nintil.com/progress-in-progress/.