Progressivism is a political ideology based on the possibility of moral progress. In practice, this looks like an optimism about the future of humanity.

Progressives believe the course of human history is moving us closer to a state of peace, equality, and prosperity. They also tend to believe in human perfectibility. Politics, technology, and education can overcome human failings to create a utopia.

We can see this in the work of philosophers Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer. Pinker says since the Enlightenment, altruism has been on the rise and violence is declining around the world. Shermer suggests each generation has been smarter than the last, which he believes, has continually reduced impulsive violence.

Hegel’s synthesis

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed moral progress was inescapable. He thought the forces of history shape humanity for the better, pushing it toward perfection.

Hegel believed history unrolled according to a “dialectical” pattern. This was where opposing sides clashed and compromised with one another. These opposing forces, which he called the “thesis” and “antithesis”, would clash before reaching a “synthesis”.

This synthesis would then spark a new antithesis and the process would continue. Hegel thought each stage in the thesis-antithesis-synthesis series moved us closer to a state of perfection. His work is said to have inspired other progressive thinkers, most notably communist philosopher Karl Marx.

 

 

The darker side of progress

Today, new forms of genetic editing promise a cure to a range of illnesses. Maybe even death itself. Transhumanists believe we can overcome the limitations of our humanity and mortality. They suggest a range of options, from changing our biology to uploading our consciousness into a supercomputer.

But practical efforts to create this perfect world have not always been pleasant. At times it has been outright barbaric.

One example is the eugenics movement. It aimed to breed some people, like those with disabilities, out of society altogether, and cited social progress as their defence.

This is one reason why conservatives often urge caution around progress. They encourage us to be mindful of the potential side effects of new policy or technology.

But progressives are often concerned this will inhibit life changing new developments. They suggest we deal with issues as they arise, rather than trying to predict them in advance.

Heaven on earth

Progressives often see education as the silver bullet for social problems. Like Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, they tend to believe all vice is the result of ignorance, not malice. They suggest humans are fundamentally good and education will bring out the better angels of our nature.

But some are sceptical whether education alone will fix all humanity’s woes. They agree humans are mostly good but don’t blame ignorance for evil. Instead, they see war, conflict and violence as the product of oppression and inequality.

Karl Marx believed conflict between the wealthy and the working class was a central theme in human society. He believed the power imbalance between rich and poor was bad for everyone. He famously claimed people would be better throwing away hierarchies based on class and wealth. Only when we’re all equal, he thought, will we be able to perfect ourselves.

English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft suggested the path to human perfection might require both politics and education. She argued that political change requires us to educate marginalised groups. Otherwise, any change will continue to exclude the groups already on the fringes of society.

This explains why more women and culturally diverse have contributed to progressive thinking in recent decades. In the past, the leading progressive thinkers tended to be white men. Improved access to education has enabled a greater range of voices imagine what the perfect world might look like and how we could create it.

Join the conversation

Is progressivism fatally optimistic?