Scholars Report on Progress of Society: Many Reasons to Worry and to Rejoice

By Donald Gilpin

Discussing democracy, inequality, social progress, and a wide range of other global issues, five social science professors, members of the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP), presented reasons for hope and ideas for a better society, along with some warnings, in a forum at  Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on Monday, November 26.

Part of a group of more than 300 researchers brought together in 2014 from around the world, who recently published their first report titled Rethinking Society for the 21st Century, presenters on Monday included Washington University Sociocultural Anthropology Professor John Bowen, Princeton University Economics and Humanistic Studies Professor Marc Fleurbaey, University of Arizona Law Professor Leslye Obiora, Princeton Professor of Politics and Human Values Philip Pettit, and Princeton Professor of Behavioral Science and Public Policy Eldar Shafir. Princeton Journalism Professor and NPR International Correspondent Deborah Amos moderated the proceedings.

In a forum sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values before an audience of about 70 in Robertson Hall, the speakers shared their ideas and presented conclusions derived from their first report.

Each speaker readily acknowledged a context described in an introductory flier as “a time when the American society is deeply divided socially, politically, and culturally, and in a rapidly-changing world facing serious environmental and developmental challenges,” but all were committed to a belief that the work of social scientists can help to create a better world.

Shafir, co-author of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, focused on the issue of inequality and the paradox of universal hatred of inequality, along with widespread tolerance for extreme inequality between the haves and the have-nots.

“We severely underestimate the inequality around us, in wealth, in pay,” he said. He also cited widespread acceptance and support of the inequality that we see.  “We have profound attention limitations. Even things that move us enormously we turn away from. Out of sight, out of mind. We see only what’s close to us.” 

Shafir also noted that Americans, unlike Europeans, hold a deep belief in upward mobility, the notion that trying harder or having greater talents will bring positive results and that poor people must be lazy or lacking in will power. He added, “We underestimate the penalties of being poor and the effects of everyday life on those living in poverty.”

Pettit, a philosopher and political theorist, focused his remarks on democracy and the need for a more accurate, expansive notion of what that entails.  “We need to rethink exactly what democracy comprises,” he said, denouncing the “serous misconception about democracy” that it’s all about elections and electoral politics. 

“Elections are one dimension, a very important dimension, of democracy,” he said, “but there are at least two other dimensions.” Those dimensions, he pointed out, include a constitution, suggesting that those elected aren’t the only power; and the people, contesting what’s happening through the courts, the media, and their rights to assemble and protest in the streets.

He described the reliance on elections as the sole manifestation of democracy as “democracy running on only one wing” and claimed that that is “one of the most important lessons to take away from our experience in populism over the past 10 years.” 

In response to a question later in the session, Pettit commented on recent events, including the controversy over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. “The politicization of this process has served to undermine the belief in the independence of the judiciary,” he said. “These are all such egregious examples of the violation of traditional norms and patterns.”

Obiora, a native of Nigeria and expert on governance, human rights, and gender issues, noted progress on the international human rights agenda, “but we still have a long way to go.” She cited the progress of the NGO BRAC, based in Bangladesh with outposts in Africa and elsewhere, as the number one nonprofit in the world. “We have to figure out what works and what counts to improve development,” she said. 

Noting the need ”to see the potentials that abound in Africa,” she stated that BRAC succeeds through empowering people in poverty, applying the lessons of what actually works, innovation, impact, and sustainability.

Citing many examples of success, along with deep threats around the world, Fleurbaey urged, “It’s time to think in a more pragmatic way. Let’s think about solutions. We don’t need more democracy. We don’t need less democracy. We need different democracy.”

Fleurbaey called for a “democratization of the economy” to counter corporations that “have taken a form that is quite undemocratic.” The mission of the corporation, he argued, must become broader than just making money for the shareholders. It must move towards emphasizing “stakeholders’” value rather than just shareholders’ value. 

“We need to think about corporations more attuned to making a better society,” he added.

Bowen, who has written extensively on different Muslim societies in Indonesia and across the globe, noted evidence of the increasing establishment of Western norms, Western judicial standards, and rights for women in the Islamic world. He emphasized the importance of getting to know people across cultures. He expressed confidence that “We can adapt to broadly accepted notions of equality and justice.”

The “common finding” of the more than 300 IPSP scholars, as expressed in a shorter companion book to the full three-volume report, is that, according to Cambridge University Press, “A better society is indeed possible, its contours can be broadly described, and all we need is to gather forces toward realizing this vision.”