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Personally Speaking/Is This As Good As It Gets?

As a student in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, I was lucky to live next to one of the city’s hidden treasures: A Video Store Named Desire. Run by a former Comp. Lit. major, it boasted a far larger selection of DVDs than Netflix – more than 30,000 titles – crammed into one 600-square-foot storefront! With hardly any space left for customers, every conversation was a conversation for the entire store: Where are we going to get dinner? Action-adventure or rom-com tonight? Subtitles or no? Sometimes the questions would verge on the philosophical: What explains the appeal of siege movies (my personal favorite genre)? I owe the topic of this column to Mike, the store’s owner. Mike was convinced that people today are worse than they were 50 years ago. As a moral philosopher, I am of the opposite opinion: I think history shows that we have made significant moral progress.

One’s opinions on the matter will obviously depend on what one thinks is the essence of morality. My own optimism is rooted in the three approaches to moral theory – welfare, rights and virtue – that ground the most prominent ethical traditions in Western philosophy.

According to the welfare approach, determining whether we have made moral progress involves asking, are we better off now than we used to be? The simplest way to approach this question is to take material wealth as the measure of whether or not we’re better off. Of course, it’s debatable whether increases in material wealth are an adequate proxy for welfare. There is more to life than money. But I think we can agree that the reduction of “extreme poverty” (by which I mean, living on less than $1.25 a day, as defined by the United Nations) counts as a significant improvement to human welfare. By this count, there is good news to report: The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day is less than half what it was 25 years ago. Fewer people – a lot fewer people – live in extreme poverty than in 1990 – or 1890, for that matter.

By contrast, the rights approach would have us ask, are rights respected more now than they used to be? Here, too, it would not take long to get into a sticky philosophical debate about just what our rights are. But again, I think we can find relatively uncontroversial ground in Article 3 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” So, are our lives more secure than they used to be? The news here isn’t quite as sunny as the news about extreme poverty, but in “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven Pinker lays out a powerful case that the answer to this question is yes. Though it’s not the impression one gets from watching cable news, the chance of your dying at the hands of another human being is far lower today than it would have been if you’d been born in the year 1300, 1500 or 1900. So, at this very basic level, we have seen progress in respect for human rights.

Finally, virtue ethics instructs us to ask, are we living more fully human lives than we used to? A fraught question! Sadly, A Video Store Named Desire is no longer in business, a casualty to the convenience of streaming entertainment. Does my ability to watch 100 different clips from around the world in one night on Netflix and YouTube offer a more fully human life than the face-to-face encounters at my video store? I am not sure. But, here too, there are some basics of human flourishing that we can probably all agree on, like literacy and access to education. More good news: Global literacy rates have increased from approximately 10 percent 500 years ago to around 90 percent today; in the United States, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree has quintupled since the year 1900.

So why is pessimism about progress widespread? Perhaps it is because people are worried that the era of progress is close to an end. There are seeming existential threats on the horizon that I have completely ignored: climate change, destabilization of the post-World War II global order, and the strains of increasing inequalities in wealth. However, I am partial to the theory floated by Emily St. Mandel, author of the post-apocalyptic novel “Station Eleven,” who posits that our attraction to apocalyptic thinking is “some sort of combination of pessimism or narcissism ... it’s almost as though we want to believe we’re living at the climax of the story.” For me, that’s the most pessimistic view of them all: that this is as good as it is going to get.

July 1, 2017