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walterallenhaxton's avatar

Is social progress a myth?

Asked by walterallenhaxton (888points) June 21st, 2009

Since there is no such thing as a social I suspect it might not have any goals to progress to. What do you think.

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15 Answers

mammal's avatar

maybe not, but there is such a thing as anti social and it is a pretty apparent phenomena

juwhite1's avatar

No, I don’t think so. Advances in medicine, increased understanding of other cultures, increased women’s rights, increased rights for minorities, the move away from slavery, and the move away from torture as a punishment for minor crimes all stand out as progress in our societies! We certainly aren’t perfect, but I’m glad I don’t live in a time or place where I could be tied up to four horses all being driven in opposite directions until my limbs are ripped off of me as a form of social entertainment to punish me for voicing a view that opposes the view of my dictator!

Fyrius's avatar

@walterallenhaxton: “Since there is no such thing as a social”
I think you accidentally omitted a noun there. Either that or this sentence just eludes me.

“Progress” is a very subjective term. Its objective counterpart would be “unidirectional change”, I suppose.
I wonder if all social change in recorded history could be argued to be going in one specific direction. And I wonder if that direction could be defined in a way that makes it not tautological and useless. For example you could argue all social change has been towards more modernity, but that would be a rather meaningless thing to say.

How can we define sociological progress?
Scientific progress can be defined by what people have learned about the world, technological progress can be defined by what people have learned to build, artistic progress can be defined by what new ways to express themselves people have discovered, economical progress can be defined by what sorts of goods people have at their disposal. What criterion could we measure sociological progress by?

Any suggestions?

Lacking such a definition for now, I’d be more inclined to say society simply changes, in a disparate variety of ways. And whether they’re changes for the better or for the worse is up to human judgement.

I’ll conclude this post with a quote.

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” – Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt (2002)

Harp's avatar

No, I don’t think social progress is a myth. Societies and social structures form in order to realize certain benefits that are more efficiently attained by cooperation than by independent action. Security and material sufficiency are the most basic of these benefits, but there are several higher-order benefits that are often sought as well: education, health, culture, etc.

Social progress is the measure of how well a particular social organization delivers these benefits. Some of the benefits are more easily measured than others, but most can be measured in some way.

Fyrius's avatar

@Harp
I see. So social progress is actually a collective term for a number of things in which progress can be made.

That definition gives rise to one complication, though; if one aspect improves while another deteriorates, do we have social progress or social regress? Since each aspect has its own measures, I suppose it would be difficult to just subtract the deterioration from the improvement.

aprilsimnel's avatar

“Progress” meaning what, then? So many people have so many different ideas of what constitutes progress.

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

Here are a few things just popped into my head but they aren’t necessarily all good:

Americans progressed socially over the past few decades to accept more “realistic” body images and now you commonly see obese children as well as obese adults.

Americans progressed socially over the past few decades to the point where most kids think they’re automatically going to college to get a degree of some sort which will equate in a “better” life, they expect this education to paid for by anyone else but themselves and they assume even mediocre effort towards grades will still get them there.

marinelife's avatar

It is definitely not a myth. It is, however, usually much slower than we like.

There are many measurements of social progress: how the society treats minority or less powerful subgroups, whether the society kills, is the society effective in keeping up with technological progress, how does it interact with other societies?

Saturated_Brain's avatar

It’s only progress if it’s “good”. And that’s such a loaded term…

If we move towards banning abortion is that social progress or regression? The conservatives would think that it’s progress while the liberals would disagree.

Then again, I suppose another way in which we could look at it would be from the psychological viewpoint. We have social scientists/psychologists now (which is something which is quite recent in the development of humankind) and they come up with stuff (don’t ask me for details). So then I guess it’s up to us whether we want to apply what these social scientists/psychologists find to allow society to progress (if society can even agree on what progress is).

Harp's avatar

For the most part, people seem to agree on the minimum we want from society: we want to be safe and we want to have what’s necessary for a comfortable life. But these goals exist in tension with our desire for individual autonomy. It’s a given that social organization requires the individual to relinquish a degree of autonomy, but how much, and in which domains? Those are the questions at the heart of most modern political conflict.

So what everyone actually wants is a social organization that maximizes security and material sufficiency, but at a minimum sacrifice of individual autonomy. What we argue about is what that ideal compromise would look like. Is there some small sacrifice in individual autonomy that could yield big gains in societal benefits, for instance? Or is there some small sacrifice of societal benefits that would have a big payoff in individual autonomy? Most political debate can be reduced to these terms.

The idea of social progress is based on the premise that a gain in either social benefit or individual autonomy isn’t necessarily offset by a proportional loss in the other. It’s the conviction that a way can be found to maximize both.

Fyrius's avatar

@Harp
That makes sense. Thanks.
As far as I’m concerned that’s one question down (mine), and one left to go (the OP’s).

walterallenhaxton's avatar

@Fyrius Since for something to change it must first be a thing I am using SOCIAL as a noun. I pretty much agree with you. I think that individuals and groups progress toward their goals. I just do not think that the sum of them all which we call society does. I think it works the other way around. As individuals and groups grow and change they add their contributions to the menu and people buy what they want out of it and the rest is discarded perhaps forever or is brought up later.

So I am certain that there is no unit called a social or society that is progressing. It is just changing because it’s parts have changed and therefore it is just different.

Society,The Environment and the Market are environments of dynamic complexity and not systems with goals at all.

Just thinking.

walterallenhaxton's avatar

@harp. The problem is that we have no right to ask others to make us confortable. If there were then we could demand from them everything they had because we could always say that less made us unconfortable.

Fyrius's avatar

I think the noun you wanted to use might have been “society”. :) “Social” in this sense would be defined as “of or related to society”, anyway.
In other news, it turns out “social” actually is a noun. I’m pretty sure what you meant isn’t one of its definitions, but still, the moar you know.

I would say that there is a unit called society – if we define this as the sum of all the sub-elements we’ve been talking about. Definitions are arbitrary like that.
Whether it’s progressing or not again depends on what we decide to call progress, which can be similarly arbitrary. The real question is then whether this society has been progressing in any sense that is concrete and meaningful enough to be worth talking about.

I think @Harp is on to something in this regard. If the progress of society can be measured by the ways people have found to balance autonomy and social benefits with minimal cost of either, then the question whether society progresses becomes a satisfactorily concrete and meaningful one that I would intuitively tend to answer affirmatively.

Harp's avatar

I’d say that rights only exist because of society, and it’s society that decides what rights are in force at any given time. But I’m not claiming that comfort is a right we can demand of society; I’m simply saying that comfort is one of the boons of society, and one of the basic motives for forming societies in the first place.

Society makes division of labor possible, so that I don’t have to build my own house from scavenged materials, grow or gather my own food, defend my own property, weave my own cloth, etc. Because of society, I just go do my one job, and then I can live in a much better house than I could build, buy a car that I could never build, wear better clothes than I could sew. In short, society makes it possible for me to be far more comfortable.

Some societies do take this much further and make some minimum guarantee of comfort for their members. To achieve this, people have to pay higher taxes. Paying taxes to a government is a way of ceding individual autonomy in exchange for societal benefits. The citizens are giving up whatever options this money would have afforded them personally because they think that the social gains will outweigh their loss of autonomy.

Every society has to decide for itself how to make these compromises.

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