The values of progress



Over the years a lot has already been written by different people about values and the character ethic. The problem is that the various groups, traditions, and cultures focus on different values and characteristics. I am going to add to this by suggesting another set: the values of progress. But there is a difference. We can all share the dream of progress, and as we work to achieve it, we will converge on the same values because they are what we need to get there. Not all values are equal. Some build improvement while other inhibit or destroy.

The metaphor of a journey illustrates many of the core values of progress.  When you are traveling, you are moving. It is impossible to achieve anything without action and taking steps towards your destination. You need to search for the correct path and decide a route. Some will lead to dead ends and force you to backup and start again. Other paths may be in the right direction but too steep and costly. There will be difficult choices with no clearly correct answers. As circumstances change so, do the costs and benefits of each choice. In the summer one path may be steeper, but it is much quicker. In Winter the same route is dangerous and may become impassable. Throughout history, people have used the metaphor to highlight the importance of the action and dynamics of journeying rather than the destination. The Taoist proverb (18695) says “The journey is the reward.” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” (from an 1878 essay entitled “El Dorado”).

At the core of progress and the symbol above is truth. You simply cannot make effective and sustained progress using false ideas. Chance may mean that a wrong idea helps you once, but it is more likely to hinder. Progress is built on many ideas, decisions, and actions. To be effective, you need to apply ideas that have been tested in the physical world and demonstrated their worth. Searching for truth is difficult and demanding. It requires certain values and characteristics:
  1. All progress starts with ideas. Therefore, it is critical to be open to new ideas, views, and criticism.
  2. You need to value evidence from the natural world and to be prepared to evaluate it honestly. Just because a piece of evidence does not support your existing beliefs does not mean you should discount and discard it.
  3. Once you have new data, you need the flexibility of mind to adjust your belief. This flexibility was pointedly expressed as “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” (Attributed to John Maynard Keynes).
  4. Sometimes evidence-based belief conflicts with commonly held views in society. It takes courage to stand up and show that the majority are wrong. I live in a part of the world where up to the second half of the 17th-century people believed in magic and witchcraft. Women were charged and executed for doing magic. Slowly it was shown that a curse could not kill a cow or make a prized horse lame. But in the early 17th century you had to be brave to argue against these superstitions.
  5. One of the most difficult things to do is to recognize when you are wrong. Error recognition is vital. For example, if you are going to become a great piano player then, of course, you need the raw talent, but you also need to learn how to play the piano, and this requires you to recognize errors and address them. 
The evidence-based search for truth creates a paradox. Many ideas have now been tested and shown to be very effective. Our modern technological world is built on these ideas. Practical experience demonstrates that it is reasonable to believe these ideas are approach truth and are nearer to the truth than the ideas they replaced. The greater the overall success of evidence-based belief the more cautious professional evidence-based experts are.  It is easy to make a mistake, and you can be sure that other people will embarrass you by pointing them out. The natural world is so vast it is impossible to know everything. People focus on being an expert in just one area, and these areas are becoming smaller. It is very dangerous, just because you know a lot about one field, to make a truth claim in another. We want our expert to tell us confidently which ideas are right and which aren’t. But the experts who have tested the truth of ideas and know which ideas have failed the test, use language that is tentative and conditional. Whereas, people who don’t subject ideas to rigorous evidence-based testing make confident, absolute and universal claims that their beliefs are right.

The truth is the first leg of progress. However, application is the second. An idea only becomes useful when it is applied, and its impact depends on how many people work together to implement it. Human progress is a social enterprise with social values.
  1. If you are going to work together with other people, then you need to agree a shared goal. Everyone in the groups needs to understand their role and how to cooperate.
  2. Some goals are challenging. To achieve them everyone in the team needs persistence and loyalty. The group cannot afford individuals dropping out at the first difficulty.
  3. When a team produces something, it is important that members are rewarded fairly. Individuals need to be concerned that others are also rewarded not just themselves. Unfair division of rewards corrodes future cooperation. The fundamental advantage of working together is that the group can achieve more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, there is a larger cake to be divided among all the members of the group. This breakdown if the rewards are inequitable.
  4. Also, members of a team need to be prepared to punish free riders. If a member of the team is not prepared to pull their weight but takes the benefits of the other team members work then, the team will soon breakdown. Free riders try to bully other team members into working for them and thereby reducing the effectiveness of the team. Humans typically reaction strongly to bullies and object to others taking a free lunch at their expense. 

Overall I think that the values of progress are good values to live by, and they have the added advantage that they help you make progress and achieve your goals.