Crooked, but crooked upwards: A reply to sceptics

by Paul Segal on October 27, 2022

What a pleasure to join Crooked Timber! It’s been great to receive the comments on my first post. Here I’ll address what I see as the three main points of criticism.

Criticism A. Some things are worse for some people.

I agree with this, of course, and it’s not inconsistent with my claim that most things are better for most people. But perhaps what underlies this kind of response is a distaste for my implicit claim that we can judge various bads against each other. One comment implied that war in Ukraine (and I would add Ethiopia, Yemen, etc.) just isn’t comparable with improved civil rights in much of the world. I agree that there’s no objective way to weigh-up civil rights with risks to health or physical safety. But I do insist on one kind of comparability: for a given kind of suffering, the only kind of judgement that makes sense has to be based on cosmopolitanism – that our starting point must be that all humans are of equal value. If something bad happens to a thousand people, that’s terrible. If it happens to a million people, yes, it’s a thousand times more terrible. That means we have to look at global numbers, and those numbers, in almost any dimension we look at, are vastly better than in the past.

This also points to what’s problematic with some uses of claims like “poverty reduction is slow outside China”. If that statement is used to argue that we should all learn from China, then yes, absolutely we should. But if it’s intended as a normative statement about human well-being, to diminish the claim that human well-being has improved enormously, then it’s hard not to interpret it as racism.

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