We’re all aware of the horrors of recent history. The 20th century doesn’t get a good press. And yet, most of us still think that humanity is, on average, much better off today than it was some centuries or millennia ago. The holocaust, Rwanda, Hiroshima, AIDS, terrorism etc. don’t seem to have discouraged the idea of human progress in popular imagination. Those have been disasters of biblical proportions, and yet they are seen as temporary lapses, regrettable but exceptional incidents that did not jeopardize the overall positive evolution of mankind. Some go even further and call these events instances of “progressive violence”: disasters so awful that they bring about progress. Hitler was necessary in order to finally make Germany democratic. The Holocaust was necessary to give the Jews their homeland and the world the Universal Declaration. Evil has to become so extreme that it finally convinces humanity that evil should be abolished.
While that is obviously ludicrous, it’s true that there has been progress:
- we did practically abolish slavery
- torture seems to be much less common and much more widely condemned, despite the recent uptick
- poverty is on the retreat
- equality has come within reach for non-whites, women and minorities of different kinds
- there’s a real reduction in violence over the centuries
- war is much less common and much less bloody
- more and more countries are democracies and freedom is much more widespread
- there’s more free speech because censorship is much more difficult now thanks to the internet
- health and labor conditions have improved for large segments of humanity, resulting in booming life expectancy
So, for a number of human rights, things seem to be progressing quite a lot. Of course, there are some areas of regress: the war on terror, gendercide, islamism etc. Still, those things don’t seem to be weighty enough to discourage the idea of progress, which is still quite popular. On the other hand, some human rights violations were caused by elements of human progress. The Holocaust, for example, would have been unimaginable outside of our modern industrial society. Hiroshima and Mutually Assured Destruction are other examples. Both nazism and communism are “progressive” philosophies in the sense that they believe that they are working for a better society.
Whatever the philosophical merits of the general idea of progress, progress in the field of respect for human rights boils down to a problem of measurement. How doe we measure the level of respect for the whole of the set of human rights? It’s difficult enough to measure respect for the present time, let alone for previous periods in human history for which data are incomplete or even totally absent. Hence, general talk about progress in the field of human rights is probably impossible. More specific measurements of parts of the system of human rights are more likely to succeed, but only for relatively recent time frames.