The Myth of Modern Progress

There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us…

—Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ § 113

Technological progress is not the same as moral progress.

Because many do not know the difference between the two, they think that the modern world must be fundamentally better than everything that came before. Defenders of liberalism and capitalism will say that these things are what led to “the unprecedented growth of science, industry, and markets.” Whenever anyone objects to the politics of liberalism or the economics of capitalism, they say: “Well do you want to go back to the Middle Ages? Back then half your family would die as children, you would all starve whenever there was bad weather, and if you survived all that you would probably die of plague.”

This mystification tricks many people into thinking that liberal and/or capitalist social arrangements are what have led to the lowest infant mortality rates and the highest life expectancy in human history. In fact, all of these changes are the result of technological and scientific progress. The use of new farming techniques, fertilizers, and machines have produced unprecedented amounts of food. New discoveries in biology, physics, and chemistry have produced medicines and knowledge needed to improve human health.

The use of empirical study to understand the natural world goes back to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Roger Bacon, a medieval monk, and St. Albert the Great, a Doctor of the Church, both employed the exact principles of the scientific method to better understand God’s Creation. The basis of most human science was developed in medieval Christendom and many other premodern societies.

On the backs of these thinkers and their experiments, modernity has witnessed great technological progress. But due to capitalism and many other evils, the modern world has seen centuries of radical moral decline. Historically, the beginning of capitalism around 1500 involved massive increases in working time, but did not improve the amount of food people had to eat for centuries (Broadberry et al., 2010, Table 23). The First Industrial Revolution, from roughly 1760-1850, actually lowered the standard of living for workers (Szreter and Mooney, 1998, pg 110). Today, the incredible inefficiencies of capitalism have created a world where our surpluses of food and medicines are denied to those who need them. A 2012 paper from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states:

In principle, there is sufficient global aggregate food consumption for nearly everyone to be well-fed. Yet this has not happened: some 2.3 billion people live in countries with under 2,500 kcal, and some 0.5 billion in countries with less than 2,000 kcal, while at the other extreme some 1.9 billion are in countries consuming more than 3,000 kcal.”

Additionally, instead of serving the common good many capitalist technologies, in consumption and warfare alike, have been used to create a world of atomization, atrocity, and climate catastrophe.

Our technological progress is the reason for the improved health and prosperity of the modern world; our moral decline is the reason why these blessings are bestowed on far too few.