SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT

Reducing social development to utilitarian purposes (e.g. maximising the chances of self-preservation or the transmission of genes) cannot account for the ubiquity of practices such as art, spirituality, philosophy and theoretical science (in its pre-application form). They play an important part in human life and yet largely do not contribute to, or at least are not primarily motivated by these ends. Human beings have an intrinsic urge to develop, and that urge is reflected in the development of human societies too.

The very term social development though, is abandoned nowadays in favour of social change because the former is associated with progress and there is a widespread opinion (in line with the dominant views at present, such as Neo-Darwinism) that there is no such thing as progress. The reasons for this, however, are not only ideological. There is a real difficulty to determine the criteria of progress (e.g. science taking over religion is progress for some, but not for others). What indicates progress from this perspective is a greater opportunity to increase overall awareness and freedom. Yet, even if this is accepted, there are other grounds to doubt progress: the destruction of fellow human beings and of the environment happened on an unprecedented scale during the 20th century. Fascism, Stalinism and the Khmer Rouge, the butcheries in Vietnam, the Balkans, or Rwanda, the damage to the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect are only some prominent examples. These distortions though, should not undermine a general positive trend. It was new freedom (accompanied with recklessness, arrogance and, to use Fromm's term, the fear of freedom) that arguably led to them. To make an analogy, although many engage in destructive and self-destructive activities in the period of adolescence, it is still recognised as a step of individual development. Indeed, the signs of maturation seem to be present in every aspect of life. Technology and science are self-evident. Developments in other areas of life may be less so, but they are still present; granted, not in every part of the world, but further than ever in some. Their indicators (relative to previous periods) are a greater egalitarianism, equality of genders and the protection of children; more widespread education and a decrease in superstition; greater freedom of speech and artistic expression; increased sophistication in spiritual awareness and philosophy (it is unlikely that Plato would pass a PhD exam these days with his writings). These achievements should not be undermined. They have been possible because knowledge, experience and constructive actions tend to accumulate. Of course, there are still many problems and serious mistakes are made, but they do not invalidate the whole idea of development. When society becomes more complex, it is expected to have more problems. Integral thinker Ken Wilber points out that, ‘as society adds levels of depth, there are more things that can go wrong at every stage' (in Horgan, 2003, p.63). It is undeniable that regressive and destructive actions are far from being eradicated. However, in the past, some of them, including ownership of other human beings, killing for entertainment, torture of ‘heretics', pillage and rape in wars, or subjugation of women were institutionalised throughout the world. Legitimised slavery, gladiator games, or the Inquisition are unthinkable nowadays more or less anywhere[1].

  • [1]. Some telling examples related to this point can be found in the chapter ‘The moral Zeitgeist' (Dawkins, 2006, p.262-272).