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.

Criticism B. Maybe things are overall better now, but they might get much worse. 

It is impossible to refute claims about what might happen in the future. A nuclear holocaust could end us all – and if that happens, there’s not much to say. Deaths and disruption due to climate change seem of higher probability. According to this paper, in the “very high-emissions RCP 8.5 scenario” climate change might cause a rise in global mortality of four to five percent by 2090. That might set us back 30 to 40 years in this dimension – a reason to work hard to avoid it, but not a reason to claim that our progress so far was all for nothing.

Criticism C. Despite my intentions to the contrary, optimism will in fact lead to complacency and inaction.

This assumes a particular ‘theory of change’, as some people call it, and I don’t know of any evidence either way. What I can say is that I think despair and hopelessness are also causes of inaction, and my aim was to show that despair and hopelessness are unwarranted. For me personally the only reason I’ve been able to get up in the morning over the past 20 years of studying global inequality, poverty, and well-being, is that despite the great suffering I am confronted with every time I open one of my datasets, I can also see that the suffering is getting less bad. I find this an important motivator to keep working on these issues. I hope it has the same effect on others.



engels 10.27.22 at 5:26 pm

“Maybe things are overall better now, but they might get much worse.” It is impossible to refute claims about what might happen in the future. A nuclear holocaust could end us all – and if that happens, there’s not much to say.

Something that might be said at that point is that we would have all been better off in a world with a lower probability of nuclear war even at the cost of much lower antecedent aggregate utility. I believe this is what the objections to the “two and a half cheers for capitalist modernity” take from the possibility of existential catastrophe essentially amount to. It would wrong to say that those possibilities can’t be rationally debated or shouldn’t enter into judgments of human progress, even if they can not be known with certainty.


Ray Vinmad 10.27.22 at 5:38 pm

I apologize for not going through the whole list of replies on the other thread. Also, it is possible this comment may be regarded as off topic.

That post seems to stick in my head. I have been thinking about it for days.

Perhaps you are correct that what people find alarming is that everything everywhere is getting worse for humanity. One thing I find difficult about this period isn’t quite that but is instead the sorts of preferences I see people expressing, often stemming from hatred, the difficulty addressing the firehose of lies, the indifference toward human suffering.

I compare that to what I remember about past periods

What rattles me isn’t overall material outcomes but the ugliness I see in public life. This, combined with an absence of effective coordinated public movements toward alleviating problems people face now and in the future. We had these everywhere. People saw large-scale and small-scale possibilities and were very driven to initiate them. Perhaps some were not to the liking of many people, e.g., Marxists revolutions in the developing world but there were at least part of a spectrum of hopeful visions for the world.

There was more time to think about general problems, which the firehose of constant crisis mode seems to sweep away. When events occurred (e.g., Haitian earthquake or the big tsunami in SE Asia) the world cared and responded. It led the news. Maybe the responses were inadequate but people felt empowered to respond, and saw a responsibility.

We have bits of this now but I think the mindset of people has changed in some way to hunker down, cluster into groups, become suspicious and cynical.

It is this that rattles me, not so much big picture ‘is everyone worse off now than they were in X period.’ What is causing hopelessness might be caused by the perception of angry, hateful, callous or cruel attitudes of people around them. It’s hard to be optimistic about our future if it depends on cooperation and one sees hostility instead.


engels 10.27.22 at 6:12 pm

(It’s basically Russian Roulette now, in case anyone was wondering.)


nastywoman 10.27.22 at 7:56 pm

AND about:
‘Criticism B. Maybe things are overall better now, but they might get much worse’.

It’s impossible that plumbing gets worse again!


Alex SL 10.27.22 at 10:01 pm

If all you want to say is that overall prosperity has increased in recent decades, I sincerely doubt that any sane person denies that, and the claim that they do could only come from misinterpreting their observations of specific injustices. But if that is the only point, then it is like writing a CT post saying that there has been progress in computing speeds or, say, that the sky is blue. One generally assumes that such an observation of a widely known fact is being made to insinuate a conclusion, and in this case the implications that suggest themselves are “therefore everything is great and we don’t need to worry about climate” or “therefore you should stop complaining about gaping wealth inequalities”. That much to clarify the thinking behind A.

Regarding B, there may be a misunderstanding here. The question is not if a meteor hits Earth in 2040, wiping out all life, because yes, that wouldn’t be our own fault and irrelevant to the prosperity issue. The question is if the increased prosperity we have seen since the industrial revolution is sustainable, because if it isn’t, it is nothing to be celebrated but was a historical mistake of tragic proportions. If we are driving towards a concrete wall I will not be impressed when told how amazingly fast we are going, quite the opposite.

I very much hope I am wrong about this, but thinking the problem with our economic system is merely whether or not there will be a five percent increase in mortality is to vastly underestimate the risk factors. If warming continues at the current trajectory (if, in other words, the increasingly steep declines of CO2 emission that would be required to achieve net neutral by 2050ish are as implausible as they look when drawn in the form of a graph in 2022), the probability distribution I suggesting thinking in ranges from modern equivalent of the Migration Period and collapse of the Western Roman Empire at the nicer end of the spectrum to complete civilisational collapse at a global scale with >90% loss of population.


JPL 10.27.22 at 10:59 pm

Of course despair and hopelessness are unwarranted, and we should always be open to learning from our past successes and mistakes, but if the ultimate goal of the human scientific endeavour in the broad sense (including practice guided by the best understanding of ethical principles) is to alleviate human suffering (and not just to make money), then it is natural and rational to focus on concrete cases of present human suffering as problems to be understood and explained causally, and then remedied in practice. So the two concerns presented above are not logically mutually exclusive. (And some (non-European) cultures have solved certain social problems (e.g., violence, inequality of wealth and power) in their historical development, but these successes have remained unnoticed.)

In your previous post you identify one relevant problem: “… probably the only globally-significant opposition to this progress comes from the Republican Party of the USA”. E.g., WRT the climate change problem: everybody seems to be on board with applying the best of our knowledge to solving the problem and remedying it in practice without delay except the Republican party and its electorate, who are a constant obstruction and who seem to be OK with allowing the end of all life in the universe. At present we don’t seem even to have a good understanding of why they are the way they are right now, and rational and responsible discourse with them (e.g., appeals for preserving God’s creation) seems impossible. I would like to think that this problem is solvable, but it is a central problem, especially as they (especially the electorate) have an implicit alliance with Putin. So what’s going on with Republicans? (The electorate seems to be even more of a problem than the plutocrats who exploit them.)


NickS 10.27.22 at 11:26 pm

A nice essay on the same topic:

The would agree with your perspective that awareness of progress can be motivating:

The problem however is that being concerned about big problems is only one precondition for someone to work towards progress. The other key requirement is that a person knows that progress is possible.


dilbert dogbert 10.28.22 at 3:00 am


Bob 10.28.22 at 3:02 am

I think that the problem here is that for some people on the left it is an article of faith that things must always be getting worse for humanity. I suppose this goes back to Marx’s idea of ever increasing immiseration. There is the fear that to admit that things are getting better is to admit that the whole neoliberal agenda is valid. But it is not necessary to draw that conclusion. People should read Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism. Changed my life.


Tm 10.28.22 at 9:53 am

I’ll just second Alex at 5.


MisterMr 10.28.22 at 10:04 am

@Bob 9

This is quite OT, but I would note that Marx actually believed in “progress”, though punctuated by crises.

This is the bascic idea behind the “stage progression” concept of history, and the reason marxism is sometimes described as a religion-like.

So if anything is post-marxism, or post-modernism (in the sense of a conception of history that rejects the “modern” idea of progress) that lead to the idea of potential continuous worsening, or stasis/random walk.


engels 10.28.22 at 10:16 am

the problem here is that for some people on the left it is an article of faith that things must always be getting worse for humanity. I suppose this goes back to Marx’s idea of ever increasing immiseration

Just out of interest, have you ever read Marx (eg the Communist Manifesto)?


Billweb 10.28.22 at 11:27 am

Many clouds have silver linings, and the silver linings afford some needed solace. The clouds are still clouds.

As for “all humans are of equal value,” that sounds anodyne, but it led to the baffling claim that “if something bad . . . happens to a million people, yes, it’s a thousand times more terrible.” The equal value claim may have emerged from premises like, “Carol is not more valuable than Morgan,” combined with, “Carol is not less valuable than Morgan.” Equality is not the only option left: Carol’s value and Morgan’s may be incommensurable. My quant friends don’t like this idea.


weichi 10.28.22 at 2:18 pm

a couple things.

I don’t understand at all the idea that the Republicans are the crucial barrier to dealing with climate change. The US accounts for 13 – 14 % of global carbon emissions, and those emissions are falling. China’s emissions are double those of the US, and they are rising. Maybe US emissions would be falling even more rapidly if the republicans were better on this issue, but the republican party has zero impact on Chinese policy.
The fact that the Marxist revolutions of the 20th C killed 10’s of millions of people is telling us that they were not “hopeful visions” at all, but rather visions that were full of hatred and indifference to human suffering, whatever their rhetoric may have been.
The fact that the Chinese communist party – very much an organization that was responsible for the deaths of millions in the wake of one of those Marxist revolutions – then morphed into an organization that successfully lifted so many people out of abject poverty (while still being very bad in very many ways) … I don’t know what to say about this, but surely it should lead people of all political stripes to have a great deal of humility about their ideological ideas and commitments?


Sashas 10.28.22 at 5:29 pm

Hi Paul, and welcome!

In terms of the first round of this post, I’ve seen various compelling (to me) arguments that align with yours. i.e. We can identify some Really Bad Stuff happening, but on aggregate things are Getting Better. As you state, I think this position is entirely compatible with acceptance of Criticism A. There’s a sort of utilitarian ethos that you aren’t being fair to in your response to Criticism A though. I don’t have to argue that you can’t compare types of suffering in order to argue that your comparison is done wrong. I can cite a specific example here, as you insist that all humans are of equal value and I disagree with you.

I think you have even more trouble when it comes to Criticism B. If I may make a roller coaster analogy, if we start at elevation zero, drag the car up to 60ft high, and I can see the 100ft drop right in front of us, it would be very fair for me to say both that we’re higher up now and that we’re about to be lower than where we started. If I take off my glasses, the validity of the prediction does not change–the only difference is you might now be justified in distrusting my prediction. After all I can’t see 100ft so what do I know? People making Criticism B are, I believe, generally coming from a perspective of reasoned prediction. Claiming otherwise with any variation of “the future is unknowable” seems like a cheap shot that doesn’t begin to address the criticism itself.


William S. Berry 10.28.22 at 9:10 pm

“If we are driving towards a concrete wall I will not be impressed when told how amazingly fast we are going, quite the opposite.”

I’ll second Tm @10 by seconding Alex SL @5! (Or, should it be: I’ll second Alex SL@5 by seconding TM @10?!).


JimV 10.28.22 at 11:47 pm

From my biased and limited historical prospective, we in the USA came out of the Great Depression and WWII with a sense of all having worked together to accomplish a great goal, so workers deserved fairly-compensated jobs with union representation, minorities deserved fair treatment, etc.–after all, they all fought with us. Since then that spirit has eroded back to partisanship. Great wealth has accumulated over that time, but it is mostly in a few hands. Science and technology continue to improve, but the minimum wage hasn’t, the cost of higher education hasn’t. Perhaps by some measure things are better overall in comparison with 70 years ago, but in comparison with how much better they could be, for the most people, the ratio seems to have decreased markedly.


Peter T 10.29.22 at 4:59 am

These two statements can both be true:

Humanity, as a whole, is better off than ever before; and
The world, Earth, considered as an ecosystem, is in a very bad way, and getting worse.

What one thinks of this depends on how much you think humanity’s future is connected to the health of the planet.


Bob 10.29.22 at 11:08 pm

Peter T @18.

I don’t think it is meaningful to speak of the
planet being healthy or unhealthy. The planet just is. It is not there “for us” in any way. It has evolved and will continue to do so. Health and unhealth only make sense with respect to the ability for the planet to support humans. Global warming challenges the ability of the planet to support humans. But there was never any way that the planet was supposed to be.


Peter T 10.30.22 at 8:41 am

Bob @19

Fair point. I was being imprecise. Substitute ‘the biosphere’ for ‘the planet’. Earth just is – it could be devoid of life, or support only microbes or whatever. A biosphere is a web, more resilient, more likely to maintain itself and persist if denser, more connected more able to capture and retain a higher proportion of the energy flows on which it depends. I think every creature on it (including but not limited to ourselves) would prefer a richer biosphere to a poorer one.


Alex SL 10.30.22 at 11:32 am


Of course the planet itself doesn’t make value statements, but if I came to a thriving forest and left it twenty years later a desolate, poisoned hole in the ground, I think other humans would be able to say objectively that I left the area less healthy, even if they did not personally right at that moment want to use it for themselves.


TM 10.31.22 at 12:14 pm

The most troubling aspect of the OP is its attempt at trivializing the ecological crisis.

“According to this paper, in the “very high-emissions RCP 8.5 scenario” climate change might cause a rise in global mortality of four to five percent by 2090. That might set us back 30 to 40 years in this dimension – a reason to work hard to avoid it, but not a reason to claim that our progress so far was all for nothing.”

We are talking about the prospect that highly populated parts of the globe become uninhabitable, due to rising sea levels, desertification, and intolerable heat, that agricultural production significantly declines, that increasing numbers of people every year will be affected by catastrophic hurricanes, flooding, drought, heat waves, tornadoes etc. Even geographically and economically highly privileged regions have already observed significantly increased mortality due to heat waves. And crucially, many of these trends are irreversible at the scale of generations so even if human “progress” finally starts working its magic (it must be a kind of magic since the author hasn’t identified any mechanism of operation), the damage will certainly not be undone in “30 to 40 years”.

I won’t go into more detail. There is a vast literature out there, if that isn’t enough to scare the complacency out of us, nothing will.

“Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks. People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit, said scientists in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released today.”

“In a speech about climate change from April 4th of this year, UN General Secretary António Guterres lambasted “the empty pledges that put us on track to an unlivable world” and warned that “we are on a fast track to climate disaster” (1). Although stark, Guterres’ statements were not novel. Guterres has made similar remarks on previous occasions, as have other public figures, including Sir David Attenborough, who warned in 2018 that inaction on climate change could lead to “the collapse of our civilizations” (2). In their article, “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021”—which now has more than 14,700 signatories from 158 countries—William J. Ripple and colleagues state that climate change could “cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable” (3).

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