The fallacy of attribution
I think, on some level, when we marvel at how the world has become more egalitarian, we think about King and Lincoln. But do we think about that changes relationship to, say, Louis Pasteur or Henry Ford? How much of our march toward humanism is really technological, a shift from a slavery of human, to a mastery of nature? What were the effects of, say, Koch’s work on tuberculosis on how we came to see ourselves in relation to each other? Was the retreat of death a boon for humanism? Was it a bane for religion? Laundry used to be a heavy-duty chore, mostly performed by women. When washing became automated, how did that effect women’s notions of self? How did it influence feminism? Is humanism a luxury, afforded by individual longevity? —TNC
As any good STS aficionado, my first instinct was to point out that humanism itself was partially responsible for the retreat of death. Human progress is far too often cleanly and directly attributed to the advance of science. Because of science and technology, human beings conquered abject deprivation. Because of science humans now live longer, fuller lives. But of course the story is not so simple. At least for the retreat of death, social reformers played a non-trivial role. There’s even some supporting research on this.
Also typical for STS aficionados (myself included) is the tendency to take this analysis too far. To downplay the the very real benefits science has wrought. To marginalize the importance of rationality and (as problematic as the term may be) scientific thinking. In a sharp follow-up comment abk1985 suggests I did so, and notes that “humanistic agendas [were not] pursued in a void.” The drive to improve sanitation in poor immigrant communities hinged on intelligent medical guessing and enlightened self-interest as well as an honest desire to help the less fortunate.
For better and for worse, facts about the world do affect our moral intuition. Though at times humanism did stand on its own terms, it’s often not possible to isolate it as the driving motivation. It makes no sense to say that early 20th century reformers were motivated 33% by altruism, 33% by self-interest, and 33% by science. For some, a latent desire to address poverty was surely buttressed by data that indicated epidemics in certain communities often spilled over to everyone. All of our actions are imbued with such motivational complexity.
And so while it may be interesting to argue over a beer, and while I’m sure many academics will study it, TNC’s “how much” questions are ultimately not helpful. Even attempting to determine how much of human progress can be attributed to science, or to humanism, or to the rule of law, obscures more than it illuminates. The arc of human history cannot, even in principle, be decomposed and deconstructed like this. Science and technology have always been there and have always played a role. At times they were very important and at others not so much. And that’s pretty much all we can say about that.