Are humans getting better?

Due to our up and coming Tippling Philosopher’s meeting entitled “Are humans getting better?” I thought I would put a piece together to get a few thoughts down. This is an interesting question because it promotes going down all sorts of rabbit-holes. I will try and keep my thoughts tight, however.

First of all, we are not talking about the world, but about humans which keeps things nice and specific. “Are humans getting better?” straight away implies the notion that humans are good or bad. This can be taken in two ways:

1) Are we morally good or bad and are we improving?
2) Are we good at being or doing something and are we getting better?

I will leave the first point since that is a moral discussion which demands establishing a moral system and asking whether we can judge ourselves to be improving in that context. As interesting as that is, that is a discussion for another day. I want to settle on the second question: “Are we good at being or doing something?”

There are two ways to look at this question, too.

1) Firstly, do humans have an intrinsic quality of being human against which we can judge ourselves as moving toward or away from?
2) Secondly, do we have a purpose against which we can judge our success?
These are both connected but ever so slightly nuanced.


So Aristotle thought of things having souls and this was the essence of the thing, such that the soul of a hammer was in the hammering, so to speak. Here we move toward a term “ergon” which defines the function of a thing. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:

Aristotle thinks everyone will agree that the terms “eudaimonia” (“happiness”) and “eu zên” (“living well”) designate such an end. The Greek term “eudaimon” is composed of two parts: “eu” means “well” and “daimon” means “divinity” or “spirit.” To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards “eudaimon” as a mere substitute for eu zên (“living well”). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions of someone's state of mind.

No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimon is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in. But unless we can determine which good or goods happiness consists in, it is of little use to acknowledge that it is the highest end. To resolve this issue, Aristotle asks what the ergon (“function,” “task,” “work”) of a human being is, and argues that it consists in activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue (1097b22–1098a20). One important component of this argument is expressed in terms of distinctions he makes in his psychological and biological works. The soul is analyzed into a connected series of capacities: the nutritive soul is responsible for growth and reproduction, the locomotive soul for motion, the perceptive soul for perception, and so on. The biological fact Aristotle makes use of is that human beings are the only species that has not only these lower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living well consists in activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Aristotle's conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own. No other writer or thinker had said precisely what he says about what it is to live well. But at the same time his view is not too distant from a common idea. As he himself points out, one traditional conception of happiness identifies it with virtue (1098b30–1). Aristotle's theory should be construed as a refinement of this position. He says, not that happiness is virtue, but that it is virtuous activity. Living well consists in doing something, not just being in a certain state or condition. It consists in those lifelong activities that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul.

So Aristotle saw that what makes us human, and separates us from other organisms, is the essence of humanity. This essence, this humanness, is what should be guiding us and the closer we get to achieving our essential “ergon”, the happier we will be in that we will be living well. In short, if we are improving the amount in which we measure up to our essential humanness, then we are improving (or as is often said, flourishing).

So, are we? Let us see if we can be a little more accurate on what Aristotle might have seen was our highest good:

Aristotle also says, for example in NE Book VI, that such a complete virtue requires intellectual virtue, not only practical virtue, but also theoretical wisdom. Such a virtuous person, if they can come into being, will choose the most pleasant and happy life of all, which is the philosophical life of contemplation and speculation.

Aristotle claims that a human's highest functioning must include reasoning, being good at what sets humans apart from everything else. Or, as Aristotle explains it, "The function of man is activity of soul in accordance with reason, or at least not without reason." He identifies two different ways in which the soul can engage: reasoning (both practical and theoretical) and following reasoning. A person that does this is the happiest because they are fulfilling their purpose or nature as found in the rational soul.

(The wise person will) be more than human. A man will not live like that by virtue of his humanness, but by virtue of some divine thing within him. His activity is as superior to the activity of the other virtues as this divine thing is to his composite character. Now if mind is divine in comparison with man, the life of the mind is divine in comparison with mere human life. We should not follow popular advice and, being human, have only mortal thoughts, but should become immortal and do everything toward living the best in us. (NE 10.7)

In other words, the thinker is not only the 'best' person, but is also most like God.

The problem I see with this is that it all seems a bit too general and open to subjective argument about what human virtues are and how to value the virtue of a human through analysing any given action. If I was to ask “Is humanity becoming more virtuous?”, which is what our question could be reformulated to, then I would have some trouble in accounting virtue unless I was able to judge actions by their consequences (consequentialism) – in other words, assigning comparable value to humanity.

Having said that, anecdotally and empirically, I would say humanity is becoming more virtuous. We have better human rights now than at any time in the history of the world. There is more accountability for actions than ever before. We understand human behaviour better and spend a lot of time thinking about how to make our societies better. Education is more accessible around the world than ever before, and so on. If we take into account Steven Pinker’s latest book (The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes) then we can also safely assume that humanity is becoming less violent. In short, there would be good evidence to claim that we are, indeed, getting better.


The second question “Do we have a purpose against which we can judge our success?” throws up a whole set of different questions. Rather than, as Aristotle would have it, having innate human qualities that we should strive towards, this option has us having a purpose which could entirely be to achieve our Aristotelian essences, or something completely external. The problem that I have with this, as I have set out in other essays, is that in order to have a purpose for humanity, one has to have a purposer. Which sounds a lot like God. The purpose of a shovel is to dig mud. As the designer and creator of the shovel, I would be God to the shovel. I can then judge the shovel as being good (ie fit for purpose – its functionality being rather similar to Aristotle’s “ergon”) if it does well at shovelling. The purpose of any object is given that purpose by the designer. However, the purposes for humanity (as a whole) would assume a God designing humanity. Thus, in the absence of God, I would argue that humans, like any other organism, have no ultimate purpose. As such, humans develop subjective purposes. We could align all our purposes if we all had equally rational minds and could agree, using logic, what it would be best for humans to do and be. That, though, is a tall order.

Purposes, then, are fairly subjective. The shovel, to a cat, has an entirely different purpose – a back-scratcher perhaps. If the shovel was sentient (like humans) it could simply tell its designer to bugger off since it prefers to give itself the purpose of chatting up the trowels, or smashing plates. So even with a designer, purposes still become subjective ideals.

In the absence of being able to agree what the purpose for humanity, as a whole, could be, I suggest that the question as formulated above simply has a “no” for an answer.

A further potential confusion

One point that needs to be addressed is the context of humanity. By this, I mean technology and population. On both ideas of whether humanity is getting better, and also with regards to the moral question, we can easily have our understanding and evaluation confused and muddied by the technological and population situation we are in presently. For example, we now have the ability to kill people en masse with frightening ease as well as also being in a situation where there are a great many people eon this earth vying for fewer and fewer resources. Thus when we ask ourselves “Are humans getting better?” we might find ourselves thinking “No, we are definitely getting worse”. However, there is easy confusion here with mistaking humans getting worse for the situation humans are in getting worse. It might be that we are morally identical or better than before, or that we are more closely aligned now to our virtuous inner essences. However, due to the context, things seem worse and reflect worse on humanity. Take the Spanish Conquisatdores in South America. They had limited technology at their fingertips – no mass transportation, no planes, no concentration camps, no bombs etc. Then look at the conquest of Hitler. WE always pick Hitler out as being the worse, but we judge him hugely on what he did, and this was influenced by the technology at the time. However, if it was judged on intention, were his genocidal tendencies any worse than any other megalomaniac in history? Others were probably worse, but simply had less ability to act so efficiently on it, less technology to do such horrendous damage.

Therefore, we must be careful when appraising whether humanity is getting better or worse by looking through these red herrings to the core nature or morality of humanity. Claiming it is getting worse because suicide bombers now do x, y and z is not accurate since there was probably always the intention there, just not the technological ability to kill so many people so easily and ruthlessly.


So, are we getting better. Well, I have looked, rather concisely, at eliminating the purpose question. However, if we could establish a Aristotelian inner purpose, if you will, then one could argue that we are getting better by light of fact we seem to be becoming more virtuous in some ways.

However, that is a whole can of worms, since there are many good arguments to suggest that perhaps we are not becoming more virtuous. We would also need to understand whether we are looking globally, at specific cultures, or even geographically within one country. Crime might be rising here, but going down there, pregnancies and sexual promiscuity might be going up there, but down there. And then there is the argument over whether sexual liberation is virtuous or more base and animalistic? Are manners getting worse?

I/n sum, there is probably an awful lot to talk about at TPs on Thursday.