This blog post is part of the series on the belief in progress.
Today I shall deal with a form of argument that I find particularly puzzling in relation to a trend towards progress. It is the argument from imperfection "The world is not perfect therefore there can be no real progress". Presented like this it naturally sounds absurd.
I suspect that what people mean by this type of argument is really "We haven't yet achieved X. Please don't tell everyone that we've made good progress towards Y because then they'll have less incentive to try to achieve X."
Consider the following points:
1) We have not yet eradicated disease: Many bacterial infections have become immune to almost all of the antibiotics that we have available to combat them.
2) There is still much superstitious belief in the world. People still consult mystics, get conned by alternative therapies and believe in magic.
3) We are still waging war with each other and we have yet to find a way of resolving conflicts that doesn't boil down to the threat of force.
4) In modern times we have still not managed to de-stress our population. The past stresses of rationing, disease and social inequality are slowly being replaced by new stresses of modern life including the pressure to work longer hours and be on call 24/7.
The obvious problem with all arguments of this type is that they tacitly assume a higher standard for modern life and thus amount to viewing the past through rose tinted lenses.
If you are convinced that progress is occurring that does not imply that you believe that setbacks cannot occur or that we will eventually reach a perfect state.
The sort of progress that is plausible is the progress of the stock market. A long term trend upwards with many setbacks of various magnitudes and with the trend only visible when viewed with a sufficiently long time frame.
A belief in progress does not entail right wing or conservative politics. Neither does it form a convincing argument against working to improve our world.