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A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology by Vincent F. Hendricks, Stig Andur Pedersen, Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen Friis

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Chapter 51

The Idea of Progress

DANIEL SAREWITZ

Among those who have given serious consideration to the idea of progress, virtually every conceivable position has been staked out: from the inevitability of progress to its impossibility; from its invention as a modern ideal to its persistence throughout history; from its embodiment in scientific truth-seeking, technological advance, moral improvement, or the amelioration of human suffering, to its social construction as nothing more than a contextual illusion that justifies particular ways of being and acting.1 This diversity of perspectives reflects two attributes of the idea of progress. The first is that all human action is in some sense guided by an expectation of progress toward the intended goal of that action. The second is that these goals or endpoints of progress are themselves the subject of disagreement.

Ideas of progress address three types of non-trivial goals or endpoints. The first is truth, as approached by religious insight, philosophical reasoning, or scientific inquiry. The second is the variety of normative ideals whose achievement, even if partial, may be said to constitute an improvement of the human condition. These ideals encompass notions of both individual virtue and accomplishment (generosity, tolerance, piety, self-actualization, etc.), and measures of collective good (social justice, freedom, equality, etc.). The third type of goal pertains to concrete, specifiable outcomes toward which progress can ...

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