A Model of Progress
We want to make the world better.
I mean this in the broadest terms. For my purposes, it is mainly a political statement: government, institutions, policies, economy, etc. are flawed and need to be improved. But it can also be a personal statement: to become healthier, more self-actualized people, we must exert some effort towards that end. We strive to make our relationships, artistic ventures, jobs, bodies and minds better. Amelioration, progress, and improvement are fundamental means for meaning. It is difficult to make sense of life without concepts and values like these.
But how do we make things better? This is the question I wish to consider. Like many philosophical questions, it has a superficial simplicity that masks deeper complexity. Because we confront the question, knowingly or not, all the time, it is wise to spend some time reflecting on it.
Specifically, I want to consider two contrasting ways of thinking about improvement. I call them a philosophy of coping and a philosophy of revolution. What are these two philosophies? How do they relate? What lens for thinking about politics and life do they supply?
Let us begin with a provisional analysis of progress. What is meant by the term? When we express a desire to improve something, we make a comparison and moral judgment. We want a future state of affairs to be better relative to the current state of affairs.
For example, after understanding how the healthcare system in America works, we might come to believe that it has flaws. It is, to varying degrees, expensive, inefficient, and inequitable. We then conceive of a possible better system and ways to bring the better system into existence. The same is true of policing, taxation, gun violence, foreign affairs, and much else.
On this model of progress, there are three parts:
- An understanding of the status quo.
- The moral judgment of its shortcomings.
- An ameliorative project to bring about a superior alternative.
To illustrate with another example, when I think about a particular relationship in my life, I might judge that it is not as strong as it could or should be. Then I might strive to make the relationship better by addressing the flaws. The goal is to bring the current state of affairs into alignment with my conception of a possible state of affairs that improves the flaws.
This seems simple enough, but it is important that the superior alternative actually improves the failures of the status quo. In this regard, the ameliorative project could fail in two ways:
- Imaginative. The future alternative might not be superior or superior enough. If we bring about the alternative state of affairs and judge it to be crappy still, this can hardly be called progress. A healthcare system that leaves people just as broke, sick, and daunted as the status quo is no improvement. A gun control policy that leaves just as many people dead from gun violence does not help. Here the failure is one of imagination. We need an idea worth fighting for.
- Tactical. There must be sufficient and effective means for bringing about the future alternative. Single payer healthcare, universal basic income, or free public transit might all be superior states of public affairs, but if we fail to bring them into existence, it is obvious that there has not been progress relative to the status quo. An idea remains a mere idea if it is not successfully actualized. Here the failure is tactical. We need power.
These two potential failures are in constant interplay and tension. Because 1) the idea of a superior alternative and 2) tactical efficacy are both necessary conditions for an ameliorative project, I need an idea I can bring about. It would be nice to snap my fingers and instantly transform the world into a utopia (or perhaps convince myself that everything is already perfect), but that is not how it works. Improvement requires incremental work and adjusting my ideas and means along the way.
What we need is a philosophy that helps us approach these difficult decisions. How do I negotiate between what I ideally want and what I can accomplish? Let us consider two philosophies implicit in our politics and lives generally. Their contrast sheds light on the meaning of progress. After discussing them, I want to consider the relationship between them. It is, at bottom, a relationship I have been exploring throughout my recent pieces (here, here, here, and here).
Coping and Revolution
Some people think we should work within a system to make necessary improvements. Others believe the system is fundamentally broken and needs to be remade from the ground up. The disparity defines many political and personal disputes, at least on the surface. These styles can be distinguished as follows:
Philosophy of Coping: how to make improvements within a system whose foundations will or should remain intact. Understanding the status quo includes either an explicit acknowledgement or implicit acceptance of the relevant system’s foundations. The relevant flaws or shortcomings either cannot effectively be changed or are not inherent to the system. The ameliorative project imagines a superior alternative that is consistent with the foundations. If the project were successful, the system would be recognized as, in some sense, the same system.
Philosophy of Revolution: how to make improvements by rebuilding a whole system at the foundational level. The understanding of the status quo reveals that true progress, a future worth fighting for, is impossible without foundational and holistic systematic change. The ameliorative project imagines a superior alternative that is inconsistent with the foundations of the status quo. If the project were successful, a new system would come into existence.
Consider the unaffordability of prescription drugs in America. It is a shortcoming of the current healthcare system. How do we make things better? The philosophies provide contrasting approaches and answers.
First, one might say that straightforward and moderate policies can solve the problem. Medicare should have expanded power to negotiate drug prices. Or drug companies should be prohibited from setting prices beyond a certain threshold. Or to cover costs, health insurance plans should be required to be more generous. On these policies, the government, insurance, and drug company systems (all subsystems of the healthcare system as a whole) remain intact at the foundational level. Tactically, we can make these changes without rebuilding society or entire industries. For this reason, the ameliorative project can be expected to be easier.
Second, one might say that the problem of drug pricing is a consequence or instantiation of a more foundational problem. It is a flaw that prescription drugs have any out of pocket cost at all. Or the drug industry should be taken out of the market entirely. Or we should reconceive health and healthcare more comprehensively: our attitudes towards food, disease, nature, and life generally are flawed and must improve. On these views, the ameliorative project plainly requires foundational systematic changes. The problems are with the healthcare industry as a whole, capitalism itself, or perhaps something even bigger. True progress demands revolution.
I wish to emphasize again that the philosophy of coping/philosophy of revolution distinction applies more broadly than politics. For instance, you might recognize flaws in a personal relationship. No relationship is perfect. How do you make things better? On the one hand, you might judge that the foundations of the relationship are strong but that some of the specific details need attention. Perhaps you need to talk more, be more directly honest, or stop doing something that annoys the other person. But on the other hand, it is well known that, sometimes, what seems superficial is evidence of a more foundational problem. A small dispute can expand into something that ends or remakes the whole relationship. Sometimes people think that true progress, a superior future alternative worth fighting for, requires the end of a relationship. The question is whether a problem is an occasion for coping or revolution.
The tradeoff between the two philosophies is evident: what coping lacks in imagination it makes up for in tactical efficacy; what revolution lacks in tactical efficacy it makes up for in imagination. A revolution is a lower probability, higher risk prospect with big upside and big downside. Coping is a higher probability, lower risk prospect with a smaller upside or downside. In the absence of a workable plan to remake the healthcare industry or economic system as a whole, we pursue more specific fixes within the systems and subsystems. If ending a relationship entirely presents too risky and uncertain a future, we try to do the best we can within the relationship as it exists now.
A Relativity of Progress
My provisional model of progress has supplied the terms for distinguishing philosophy of coping and philosophy of revolution, but in reality, matters are more complicated.
It might seem that the true revolution remakes everything—the system that includes all other systems within it. But we tend not to speak this way. Revolutions can be comparatively modest. For example, Bernie Sanders would tout a political revolution, but he does not suggest stripping the nation, let alone the world, down to the foundations and rebuilding entirely. It is difficult to imagine such a revolution.
With this in mind, we should note that, short of rebuilding society, culture, humanity, and the environment as a whole, all ameliorative projects are instances of both philosophies. Each attempt at progress revolutionizes systems that fall within broader systems that remain intact. In other words, you are always both coping and revolutionizing. Progress exhibits a kind of relativity.
Consider drug pricing again. As it currently stands, Medicare is bound by a noninterference clause that prevents it from negotiating with drugmakers. To make things better, some propose an ameliorative project of repealing the clause, unleashing Medicare to leverage its buying power for lower drug prices. Does the project call for coping or for revolution?
Relative to the healthcare system and industry as a whole, the project is a form of coping. It leaves the foundations of the system in place and proposes an alternative consistent with the foundations. The same is true relative to the Medicare system. While this system is smaller, the ameliorative project seeks to operate within it. If the project were successful, we would still recognize Medicare as the same system. The proposal does not require breaking down the program completely and building something new.
Eventually, we arrive at the clause describing a particular systematic relationship between drug manufacturers, private plans, and Medicare. Medicare includes Part D, a subsystem that outlines the program for prescription drug coverage. The ameliorative project in question proposes a revolution relative to this subsystem. Currently, the subsystem prevents Medicare from negotiating prices with manufacturers. This subsystem, according to some, should be torn down and rebuilt at the foundational level. Genuine progress demands that a wholly new system come into existence.
One can run a similar analysis for any ameliorative project. One example that I find illuminating is the process of writing an article, story, poem, or song. After writing something, your understanding of it as it is might reveal that it has flaws. Like any creator, you want to make it better. In conceiving of your ameliorative project, you conceive of your piece as a systematic whole. It isn’t simply a pile of words or letters. The words have a structure that gives the piece a type of unity. Now you might find a specific phrase that does not seem to work. First, you think changing a word or the word order fixes the problem. But, feeling dissatisfied with the new status quo, you see that the problem is not exactly the phrase but the sentence as a whole. The phrase seems off because of how it interacts with its surrounding elements. The sentence needs to be rewritten entirely. But then, after struggling more, you find that the paragraph is deeply flawed. Sometimes, you realize that the whole piece is misconceived and needs to be rebuilt at the foundational level. (Imagine the same process applied to a painting, dance, or song.)
Unlike in the Medicare case, where the analysis moved from whole to parts, we begin with smaller subsystems and arrive at the relevant whole. The lesson is that whatever a given ameliorative project happens to focus on, it proposes a revolution relative to a subsystem and coping relative to the bigger systems in which the subsystem is contained.
What I am proposing is, in part, a framework for thinking about progress and a tool for conceiving ameliorative projects. While I think the broad point about the relation between coping and revolution is important, my illustrations and examples have used a simplified conception of systems. In reality, systems are not neat concentric circles, like Russian dolls, with subsystems fully enclosed in others. Instead, they overlap, interrelate, and intersect in complex ways. Identifying a system’s foundations is an omnipresent challenge.
These facts make an ameliorative project’s possible success challenging to predict. Remaking one part of Medicare will affect other parts of the broader healthcare system, both inside and outside the Medicare subsystem. The same is true in editing a piece of writing, fixing a relationship, or rethinking economies.
As a result, in the continual drive to make the world better, we update and reevaluate our understanding of the status quo, our moral judgments, and ameliorative projects.
- An attempt to cope might reveal that broader systems are unsalvageable, like deciding to rewrite an entire article. We find a failure of imagination.
- A revolution might force us to realize that the status quo ante was superior, like regretting the end of a relationship. We face the big downside.
- A small revolution might cascade into something bigger, revealing that what seemed like a local, independent change, along with other small changes, leads to a broader, perhaps unintended, revolution. The small revolution wobbled the foundations of a bigger system. We make progress in understanding the evolving nature of the systems we are changing.
- A big revolution might repurpose old subsystems within something new. We find that a foundation has its meaning or purpose within the context of something bigger.
Whether we make the whole world better requires us to understand ourselves both as systems and subsystems. It is often difficult, even with a detailed understanding of the systems in which and upon which we operate, exactly where we are coping and where we are revolutionizing. But we can be assured that we are always already doing both.