You know the indictment of humanity: killing and raping each other and the planet. We’re not angels. Indeed, we are animals, and some pessimists actually compare us unfavorably against other, “innocent” creatures. But in the natural realm, from which we arose, morality does not even figure. That considered, we have not in fact done badly, building a world with some justice, kindness, and virtue.
Great Britain was once the world’s top slave trading nation. This was extremely profitable, but Britons came to realize it was morally vile. John Newton, a slave ship captain who repented, wrote Amazing Grace: “I was blind but now I see.” And, seeing, the nation outlawed slavery.
Such moral feeling is not just some superficial veneer painted over our animal nature. While evolution did give us all the nasty traits pessimists harp on, it also instilled social cooperation and even altruism, because that too was needed for our ancestors to survive. That was the foundation of civilization. And while we’re certainly capable of evil, that’s not what really matters. What counts most is what we actually do, in ordinary everyday life, and most of us behave, most of the time, with decency, honesty, and compassion.
Some religions tell us we’re sinners, promoting shame and guilt about natural human feelings; but we are growing beyond this, to arrive at a healthier, more rational, more life-affirming view of ourselves. We are entitled to happiness without a burden of unearned guilt. We do good deeds not from grim duty but from generous free choice. We find meaning through positive efforts, through love, and by using our creative gifts. We take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, making judgments and choices, between truth and falsity, good and bad. This is freedom: we are moral beings with the power to choose.
We’re perennially plagued by utopian idealism, dissatisfied with Man and his world, intent on remaking them. Always after much pain and blood this fails. Yet all the while, we individual human beings, from our own personal strivings, are continuously remaking ourselves. And thusly is the world too remade, in ways the utopian battalions never can imagine. No vast bludgeonings are required. Just let people be, and a new day comes.
Thus, while the past century was full of horrors, its far bigger story was of astonishing human gains. Worldwide average life spans more than doubled and incomes grew fivefold. People are living longer, healthier, and better. There is less poverty and hunger, more sanitation, less pain and disease, more education and literacy. Now, at long last, ordinary people in their billions are able to not merely survive but actually enjoy life. And this all occurred while population rose at unprecedented rates. The explanation is that adding people doesn’t add just mouths to feed, but also hands to work and minds to create, and most people produce more than they consume.
Knowledge, science, and technology are crucial. Population has not outrun the food supply because farming advances made the opposite occur. Our working hands and minds become ever more productive. That spreads wealth and raises living standards, widening our choices and ability to control our lives. It’s a virtuous circle. More prosperity impels people to insist on more democracy. More democracy means less war. As Francis Fukuyama wrote, democratic life and free markets allow people to finally satisfy the age-old human hunger for recognition and self-worth, reducing conflict. Less war means yet more affluence, which in turn slows population growth and enables more education. More education and knowledge means yet more technological advancement and spreading prosperity. Society grows not only richer, but more open, tolerant, humane, and fair.
The German philosopher Hegel said that history shows rationality and freedom on the ascent. It’s remarkable he could see this two centuries ago; even more remarkable that some deny it today, when it’s so much more evident. Progress is not some mystical force pushing us forward, it’s driven by our own efforts. It’s no coincidence that modernity has seen explosive growth in human understanding, and at the same time huge improvements in the human condition.
It is true that all our gains have a cost; there’s no free lunch, hence our environmental challenges. But increasing knowledge equips us to cope with them too. And never forget that this is the unavoidable price for the lives we enjoy. We could never have risen from the caves while leaving the planet unspoiled. Humanity’s central story is our battle with that environment, to overcome its limitations. Our achievement has been stupendous. Be proud of it.
We arrived here as naked animals, starting with nothing, daring to quest for the great prize of knowledge. By toil and tears, we are getting it. And we are using it to improve the world. Today’s is the best ever; tomorrow’s will be better still.