Defending the indefensible: Everything is bad and likely to be getting worse

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous post in the series: against development, against government action on climate change, for campus censorship

Anyway, here’s the best case that everything is bad an getting worse that I can write:

This is actually two claims, and we’re going to treat them separately. In terms of everything getting worse, let’s try a thought experiment: suppose you were to ask 100 people, how many do you think would agree with “right now is the best time in world history” or even “right now is the best time in world history you’ve ever experienced”? My guess is about zero. This suggests to me that at least on some timescale, at least in the developed world, things are getting worse. There’s very little, statistically, that you can bring up that can change this assessment. You can’t tell people who are suffering “actually, you’re not suffering!” and expect them to thank or forgive you. Part of it is that nothing’s good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Like, say, hunger in the US. Very few people in the US die of hunger. But a lot and a lot of people have fear of hunger – they don’t know where their next meals are coming from, and they struggle to put food on the table. People are living very precarious lives, and looking at just those who have fallen off the edge can miss that. Precariousness is probably a difficult thing to measure, but I think this is something that is increasing with time (in part due to globalisation), and it’s making everyone scared.

The counterargument is that maybe no one wants to acknowledge this precise moment as all that great, but over a longer term, things are getting better. The amount of dire poverty in the world is declining, as are the amount of hunger, war, hatred, and disease. This whiggish interpretation of history (“The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice”, etc.) ought to be resisted, for one because it leads to complacency. This would not be a big problem if it were actually axiomatically true, but it’s not. This is like the promised future of Communism which was used to quiet complaints in the USSR. Everything may not be that great now, but just trust us, and over the long term, we’ll lead you to the glorious promised land of everything being good. What evidence do we have that would inspire this trust?

The problem with the claim is not just that in the long run we are all dead. It’s that it’s not at all clear that things actually are getting better. To be able to tell sweeping longterm trends, we need to be looking back over a long sweep of history. Imagine visiting someone in 1938 Europe and trying to convince them “aren’t things getting better? Everyone was just getting butchered in a world war a couple of decades ago, and now they’re not! Why are you complaining?” We may be in the same situation here. We don’t know that any gains are sustainable, even over the short term. And, in fact, everything is leading us to suspect they are not. See the point about precariousness above. Not just job insecurity due to globalisation. Geopolitical instability. Rapid use of resources and the potential for environmental disaster in a system that relies on eternal growth to maintain and improve standards of living. It looks precarious because it is precarious, and people are right to be extremely worried about the future.

So if things aren’t necessarily getting better in the short or long term. The next question is how bad are things right now? For this, take a look at Scott Alexander’s evaluation. The point is: things are a lot worse for people in the US than you (educated upper-middle-class blog reader) may think they are. And that’s in a relatively affluent community in a rich country. The conditions that people live in right now are not good enough for people to have a chance at a good life.

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One Response to Defending the indefensible: Everything is bad and likely to be getting worse

  1. Boris says:

    Reading this after was like receiving two punches to the gut in quick succession. I’m glad this doesn’t reflect your actual view! In terms of things getting potentially worse, more concerned about bad black swan events (eg. X-risk) which seem completely impossible to reason about.

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