Thoughts on Progress

Epistemic status: Strong beliefs, loosely held

When thinking about political beliefs, lately I find myself identifying as a progressive.

What do I mean by progressive? In a paragraph: We are capable of progress, of changing the world to be better for humans. We can improve life for humanity through innovation. We should work to make life better for ourselves and for future generations. We can make life better for people not just by making it worse for others but by improving it for everybody. We can choose ambition over decline.

In examples: We should be throwing more resources at colonizing Mars. We should laud people trying to solve aging. We should conceive of ourselves as teammates in a common task.¹

In a sentence: We can make life more dope, so we should.

This seems more primary to me than beliefs about taxes, abortion, or pronouns. It seems primary (determinant of object-level beliefs) to me in the same way "authority vs liberty" or "right vs left" are for many people.

Both of those are binaries (or gradients), of course. So what's the opposite of progressivism? On the right we call it traditionalism: The belief that positive change lies in returning to a previous equilibrium or that experimentation is too risky to be worth pursuing.

But there's a kind of anti-progressivism on the left too: the belief that the only progress possible is moral progress. That the ideal future looks like the present but more equal. Anti-progress lefties look on transformation with suspicion. Could space colonization be an instrument for furthering inequality? Could life extension solidify the power of elites? Because advances in collective wealth might disproportionately benefit groups that have already benefited they don't count as progress for the anti-progress lefties. For them only movement toward equality counts as progress.

I suspect this isn't a historical constant and that (right to left) and (anti-progress to progress) used to be more strongly aligned. Communists once believed in utopia. Contrast this to anarchists I used to know who argued that after a revolution we'd need to adjust to a world without refrigeration—what a resignation!

I don't see many progressives nowadays and I get the sense that we used to be common. If this is true, why did the progressive attitude disappear? I haven't really read progress studies but I can think of a few with low confidence:

  • We are experiencing a "great stagnation", i.e. a lack of progress. Without progress we don't have progressives to cheer it on.
  • Environmentalism, for whatever reason, is largely a pessimistic movement.
  • Western culture has, broadly speaking, become more distrustful of sincerity, and progressivism is sincere to a fault.
  • Western culture has become more technocratic, so ordinary people think only experts can innovate.

Whatever it is, at present there are right- and left- anti-progressivisms. I think there is a central mistaken belief for each. For the right: The belief that past social orders were good. They weren't! If they were they wouldn't have dissolved! Even if we were to return to a past social order or a facsimile of one (say, an idealized 1950s), why won't we leave it again?²

On the left: The belief that society is a zero-sum game. That to win, others must lose. That for the environment to heal, humanity must fade. That for inventors to innovate, they must exploit workers. I think this is a serious mistake. Society is a mixed competitive-cooperative game. We are capable of innovations that make life better for humanity in general (refigeration, vaccines, solar energy, etc.).

To be fair to both of them, they contain important truths. It is possible to change society for the worse. Elements of society are zero-sum.³ But we can pursue progress while being careful to leave escape hatches and while working to ensure gains are shared equitably. You can build something that only the rich can afford (computers were only used in institutions…), and you can work on innovating until it's so cheap it's ubiquitous (…now there's one in your pocket!).

Richard Hamming, of Bell Labs, would make life difficult for fellow scientists by asking them "What are the most important questions in your field?" and "Why aren't you working on them?" I wrote this blog post to help clear things up for myself but I'll end with the same questions phrased for progressives:

What are the most important projects in the world?

Could you be working on them?


"Fedorov understood the single common nemesis of all human beings to be death, and that getting rid of it could serve as a common rallying point around which all human beings could agree."

My examples here are "futurist"-y to demonstrate the scope of progressivism, but I think there are plenty of short-term goals for progressives. I also would identify as a progressive before identifying as a futurist because I think the humanist associations with progressivism are important.

  1. This also applies to primitivists.

  2. I've seen it suggested that intellectuals often see society as zero-sum because their social environment, academia, is indeed violently competitive.