Most Progress Not In Morals

Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best. Herodotus 440bc

Over the eons, we humans have greatly increased our transportation abilities. Long ago, we mostly walked everywhere. Then over time, we accumulated more ways to move ourselves and goods faster, cheaper, and more reliably, from boats to horses to gondolas to spaceships. Today, for most points A and B, our total cost to move from A to B is orders of magnitude cheaper than it would be via walking.

Even so, walking remains an important part of our transport portfolio. While we are able to move people who can’t walk, such as via wheelchairs, that is expensive and limiting. Yet while walking still matters, improvements in walking have contributed little to our long term gains in transport abilities. Most gains came instead from other transport methods. Most walking gains even came from other areas. For example, we can now walk better due to better boots, lighting, route planners, and paved walkways. Our ability to walk without such aids has improved much less.

As with transport, so with many other areas of life. Our ancient human abilities still matter, but most gains over time have come from other improvements. This applies to both physical and social tech. That is, to our space-time arrangements of physical materials and objects, and also to our arrangements of human actions, info and incentives.

Social scientists often use the term “institutions” broadly to denote relatively stable components social arrangements of actions, info and incentives. Some of the earliest human institutions were language and social norms. We have modestly improved human languages, such as via expanded syntax forms and vocabulary. And over history humans have experimented with a great range of social norms, and also with new ways to enforce them, such as oaths, law, and CCTV.

We still rely greatly on social norms to manage small families, work groups and friend groups. As with walking, while we could probably manage such groups in other ways, doing so would be expensive and limiting. So social norms still matter. But as with our walking, relatively little of our gains overtime has come from improving our ancient institution of social norms.

When humans moved to new environments, such as marshes or antic tundra, they had to adapt their generic walking methods to these new contexts. No doubt learning and innovation was involved in that process. Similarly, we no doubt continue to evolve our social norms and their methods of enforcement to deal with changing social contexts. Even so, social norm innovation seems a small part of total institutional innovation over the eons.

With walking, we seem well aware that walking innovation has only been a small part of total transport innovation. But we humans were built to at least pretend to care a lot about social norms. We consider opinions on and adherence to norms, and the shared values they support, to be central to saying who are “good” or “bad” people, and who we see as in “our people”. So we make norms central to our political fights. And we put great weight on norms when evaluating which societies are good, and whether the world has gotten better over time.

Thus each society tends to see its own origin, and the changes which led to its current norms, as enormously important and positive historical events. But if we stand outside any one society and consider the overall sweep of history, we can’t automatically count these as big contributions to long term innovation. After all, the next society is likely to change norms yet again. Most innovation is in accumulating improvements in all those other social institutions.

Now it is true that we have seen some consistent trends in attitudes and norms over the last few centuries. But wealth has also been rising, and having humans attitudes be naturally conditional on wealth levels seems a much better explanation of this fact than the theory that after a million years of human evolution we suddenly learned how to learn about norms. Yes it is good to adapt norms to changing conditions, but as conditions will likely change yet again, we can’t count that as long term innovation.

In sum: most innovation comes in additions to basic human capacities, not in tweaks to those original capacities. Most transport innovation is not in improved ways to walk, and most social institution innovation is not in better social norms. Even if each society would like to tell itself otherwise. To help the future the most, search more for better institutions, less for better norms.

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