Waylaid Dialectic

October 29, 2011

Social Progress?

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 7:59 pm
Tags: , ,

There’s no doubt that physically and materially we human beings are doing better than ever before. The proportion of the world’s population living in poverty is almost certainly declining, while human development indicators are improving almost everywhere.

But much of this is simply thanks to the marvels of technology.

Setting technological change aside is there any evidence that humans have actually become more ethical in their conduct or are we every bit as brutal and unjust as our savannah based ancestors? Is there, in other words, such a thing as social progress?

Steven Pinker clearly thinks so. Or at least he’s clearly convinced that human societies have become considerably less violent. Despite the fact that technologies of killing have become considerably more potent we do a lot less of it than ever before. If he’s right this is pretty good evidence of social progress.

So is he right? I’m no expert but the related work I’ve read suggests he is. Still I’m not sure, so I’ve been eagerly devouring reviews. Positive ones here, here, here and here. Although John Grey hates it (unconvincingly in my opinion) and Chris Bertram does a good catch on the table that was in the Guardian but is otherwise less convincing than John Quiggan is in his comments box. Brad Delong has a good comment too.

For what it’s worth:

1. I think Pinker’s right on violence. It is decreasing. And I think this is good evidence of some social progress.

2. However, even if there have been achievements they are clearly still over shadowed by the scale of what remains to be done.

3. And the potential for a catastrophic reversal in what has been a broadly possible trend is still real.

4. The main problem I have with the Whig view of history is not that their hasn’t been any progress but rather that the Whigs rarely deserve any credit for it. Even if Pinker is right the trends he describes owe little to the types of elites who will be congratulating themselves after reading the book and, instead, owe much to people out towards the margins of history. The Pacifists, the odd religious types, the proto-hippies, the socialists. All who got sneered at as being impossibly idealistic while they quietly made the world a better place.

[Update: Some debate in the Boston Review, with Pinker’s defender winning handily.]

[Update: A superb, and damning, review by Timothy Snyder in Foreign Affairs. Also, listen to Pinker speak on the book at the LSE here.]


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