Is Pessimism Immoral?

John Horgan says pessimism is immoral:

During adolescence, I was sometimes so gloomy that my mom called me Eeyore. … I mocked … Peter Medawar for declaring, “To deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.” Now, perhaps because I’m a father and teacher (and hence, dare I say it, a role model), I’ve come to agree with Sir Peter, at least about social (as opposed to scientific) progress. …

Pundits … warn that humanity may descend into a nightmarish world of savage Malthusian wars over dwindling resources. I nonetheless now believe that pessimism about humanity’s future is wrong, both morally and empirically. Morally because pessimism can undermine our efforts to solve our social problems. Empirically because our history shows that these problems are far from insurmountable. …

John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, in which he asked his fellow Americans to join him in the quest to end poverty, disease, tyranny, and war. I polled my students on whether they thought those four goals were reasonable, or merely utopian fantasies that politicians invoke in speeches but no one really does or should believe in. Everyone chose the utopian-fantasy option. So young, and so pessimistic! I spent the rest of the class trying to change their minds by presenting the following facts about our surging wealth, health, freedom, and peace. …

Over the last two centuries, however, average standards of living have surged. … Jeffrey Sachs … argues that we can eradicate extreme poverty and the threat of starvation within a generation, if we have the will to do so. … since the early 20th century, life spans have more than doubled, … Just as longevity and prosperity have surged in the past century, so has freedom. … Finally … our era is quite peaceful by historical standards. … continued progress is by no means guaranteed. We may never eradicate poverty, disease, tyranny, and war, as JFK hoped. But given how far we’ve come toward creating a healthier, wealthier, freer, and more peaceful world, surely we can go much further. (more)

Yes many trends have been positive for a century or so, and yes this suggests they will continue to rise for a century or so. But no this does not mean that students are empirically or morally wrong for thinking it “utopian fantasy” that one could “end poverty, disease, tyranny, and war” by joining a modern-day Kennedy’s political quest. Why? Because positive recent trends in these areas were not much caused by such political movements! They were mostly caused by our getting rich from the industrial revolution, an event that political movements tended, if anything, to try to hold back on average.

Furthermore, while a century more of these nice trends is enough to greatly reduce these bad things, it is not enough to end them. And there are good reasons to think that our non-Malthusian era is a temporary exception to a robust historical regularity.

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    • lemmy caution

      All of the high development countries still have a fertility rate below replacement.

      • …yes, which is why I did not say it *had* reversed or ended, past tense. (Geez.)

    • KPres

      Problem is that study uses HDI to draw it’s conclusions, which is a nonsense metric because it inexplicably values educational level independently and on par with wealth and life expectancy, when there’s little reason to think that “knowing things” independently increases standard of living. That’s not to say that the consequences of education (for example, greater wealth) don’t increase the standard of living, but those things are for the most part already accounted for in the other two variables. The one benefit to knowledge that is largely independent is that it protects one’s worldview from external intellectual assaults, which can provide continuity to the psyche. But that’s a zero sum game that only works on an individual level. If the entire society is equally educated, there isn’t any aggregate benefit.

      Of course it stands to reason that academics would tend to prefer a metric that overvalues education, which explains it’s proliferation.

      • Someone from the other side

        There may well be benefits from higher average education, e.g., faster technological progress which would yield even greater prosperity in the future…

    • John Maxwell

      The authors don’t seem to discuss the possibility that increased human development means only a certain kind of person (e.g. one inclined to religious belief) chooses to reproduce, and that the increased fertility is just due to that kind of person becoming overrepresented in the population as a result of choosing to reproduce.

      • Michael Wengler

        If religious people both reproduce and participate in the technical advances that have advanced prosperity, then the whole thing still works. That’s the great thing about natural selection, it is not aiming at what you want or think is good, but rather at what works. (And no, I am not religious. But my logical side doesn’t let me conclude from my own state that I am the current direction of evolution.)

    • The paper suggests that richest nations may have slower population declines, but not population increases:

      As long as the most developed countries focus on increasing the well-being of their citizens, and adequate institutions are in place, increases in development are likely to reverse fertility declines—even if we cannot expect fertility to raise again above the replacement threshold

    • I bet that recent world recession has reversed that trend, at least temporarily.

    • Another problem with this claim is that the countries with HDI’s above .9 that are increasing their fertility have a total population considerably less than 1 billion. What about the other 6 billion people?

  • Preferred Anonymous

    “And there are good reasons to think that our non-Malthusian era is a temporary exception to a robust historical regularity.”

    Well its written into the code of the universe, so to speak. We cannot change the fact that there is only so much free energy.

    That’s not to say we couldn’t engineer a system that doesn’t involve Malthusian competition.

    I think, John Horgan is right…in as far as that we must avoid BIAS towards pessimism. I.e., its certainly immoral to put your own thoughts and feelings above practical realities. e.g. not building a bridge that could engender trade because of your personal pessimism about the bridge being able to last, or the increased ease for other people to invade your village that having a bridge might bring. Its further immoral to take these “values” and attempt to impress them upon others, thereby stifling what could otherwise be a very conducive situation.

    On the other hand, its certainly immoral not to include a level of pessimism into your bridge building. If you’re optimistic that no one will ever put an elephant on the bridge, so you cut costs in building this bridge, then when that very heavy caravan crosses the bridge, you may well have endangered or harmed many lives/livlihoods.

  • Preferred Anonymous

    Just a sort of followup…

    The idea of historical regularity as being “robust” is a poorly thought-out farce.

    Periodicity is certainly a factor….

    We get a single chance to figure things out. There is a limited amount of resources on this planet, and if we squander those…well they’re gone. If, and I say if, we change the way in which we function with those resources, then the “historical” regularity is potentially no more (assuming physical resources allow). Otherwise, we simply “lose”. If society were to revert to the dark ages now, there is a good chance we would never make it back, barring discovery of new natural resources to sustain another boom.

    • Ken

      There is a limited amount of resources on this planet, and if we squander those…well they’re gone.

      Where do they go? Isn’t there a conservation law somewhere that says this statement is wrong?

      • Dremora

        Look up entropy. There’s a difference between resources and waste.

  • Brian Moore

    There is no daylight in modern discourse between the goals of a political idea and the speaker’s chosen method for achieving those goals.

    • MattC

      What do you mean by that? Honest question, I’m just confused by your wording.

      • KPres

        I think he’s claiming that everything said these days is said only in service to the speaker’s (usually concealed) political agenda.

      • Brian Moore

        I meant that Horgan was assuming that the rejection by his students of a governmental plan for increasing well-being was the same as a rejection of the goals of increasing well-being, based on pessimism.

        Prof. Hanson outlines the difference by pointing out that the increases in well-being that occurred over the past decades had little to do with over-arching societal plans to do so.

        You see the same thing in say, debates over civil liberties. Someone will say “we should use torture to defeat terrorists.” Someone responds “I disagree” and the former speaker says something like “why do you want the terrorists to win?” (an obviously contrived example!)

  • Richard Silliker

    .” Why? Because positive recent trends in these areas were not much caused by such political movements! They were mostly caused by our getting rich from the industrial revolution, an event that political movements tended, if anything, to try to hold back on average.”

    You are absolutely correct in saying this. Governments tend to try and fix things from the top down and in the process things become complicated. Getting rich is a bottom up process.

    • Becoming rich is a bottom-up process, but staying rich is a top-down process (which the rich can do because they are at the top). The easiest way to stay rich is to prevent other people from becoming rich.

      • The easiest way to stay rich is to prevent other people from becoming rich.

        Wow, do you really believe that?
        I think that the easiest way to stay rich is to buy buy a word wide diversified portfolio of the safest divided paying stocks.

        I guess that you could be talking on the country level, but as far as I can see increased wealth in poor countries is good of wealth in rich counties.

      • Yes, I agree with you, and the “stock” that pays the richest and surest dividend is “government”. Reduce income tax rates from 91% to 35% is like getting an investment to earn 7.2 times more. That is an increase in yield of 722%.

        With increased yields like that, mere investments can’t compete. No surprise that corporations and wealthy individuals pay a lot less in taxes than do the middle class. Why? Because for the wealthy, “investing” in government pays the highest dividends.

        Of course lowering taxes on the rich doesn’t reduce government spending, it simply compels the poor to pay for it in increased taxes or reduced services, both of which make becoming rich more difficult.

      • “Reduce income tax rates from 91% to 35% is like getting an investment to earn 7.2 times more. That is an increase in yield of 722%.”

        You seriously don’t understand the difference between income and wealth?

      • Yes I do understand the difference between income and wealth.

        Income is how much you take in.

        Wealth is what you have left over after you have paid for everything that you need to pay for, like taxes, food, housing, medical care, FICA, etc.

      • Okay so you understand that income tax rates aren’t going to affect the position of the wealthy significantly – but very high marginal rates are going to make it real hard for others to become wealthy.

      • Actually it is opposite. Low marginal tax rates in the highest bracket make it more difficult to acquire wealth because the tax burden is then shifted from the extremely wealthy to the less wealthy.

        Look at the figure on productivity growth and median income growth.

        Until 1982, productivity growth and median income tracked each other. Since 1982 productivity growth has been much higher than median income growth. What happened in 1982? The top income tax rate went from ~70% to 50%.

        What happened in 1988 to 1992 when median incomes dropped? The top rate went from ~39% to ~30%.

        What happened in 1993 to 1999 when median incomes went up? The top rate went from ~30% to ~40%.

        Income tax rates don’t even consider FICA + Medicare which is only on waged income and only on the lowest paid workers and amounts to an additional 15.3%.

        The point is that the necessities of life, food, housing, utilities, medical care take up a much larger fraction of the income of the non-wealthy than they do of the wealthy. Any kind of a flat tax or non-progressive tax or a regressive tax (like FICA) is going to have a much larger burden on those who have to spend a larger fraction of their income on necessities.

  • John Maxwell

    As a consequentialist, I could say that anything was immoral just because it resulted in undesirable consequences.

    In any case, pessimism regarding the chance that our race persists/overcomes existential threats seems to me a much bigger problem than pessimism on any of that other stuff. How crazy is it that so many people are willing to say that humans are inevitably going to go extinct, and that we deserve it too?

    If humanity goes extinct, your mother will die! You aren’t going to cynically tell her that she deserves it, are you?

    I think there’s a good case that all this pessimism comes from widespread reporting of unpleasant events in the media, which also results in stuff like this:

  • “Optimism provides humanity with its most fearful weapon: an easy conscience. Along with this goes a diminished sense of the tragedy of human life.” –Robert Senior, “The Irresponsibility of Optimism

  • Salem

    Shorter Horgan: When I was young, I had low status in my tribe, so I would try to undermine the status heirarchy. But now I am a mighty silverback, I think you should all cheer for whatever the silverbacks do.

  • Michael Vassar

    This is the same Horgan who proclaims “The End of Science”?

  • Dremora

    And there are good reasons to think that our non-Malthusian era is a temporary exception to a robust historical regularity.

    Unless we coordinate to control reproduction. Coordination is hard, but we have the information tech to do so if we choose. Our descendants certainly will.

  • Our “our non-Malthusian era”? We are all resource-limited, no?

    I don’t think Malthus ever claimed that growth was impossible, just that it was unsustainable.

    • Malthus claimed that population growth was unsustainable, since it would always outstrip resource utilization potential. His timing was bad – at the same time he seemed to have proven that, the Industrial Revolution started, and suddenly this was no longer true – human population has exploded, yet living standards are better pretty much everywhere. The Industrial Revolution changed the game.

      But is the party over – are we re-entering a Malthusian world? Personally, I’m a pessimist – I can’t imagine we could support 14 million people in 90 years. Hopefully birth control becomes a worldwide fad real soon.

  • John Horgan is a science journalist. Translation: if your name’s not Tierney or Wade, you’re an idiot.

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  • Thomas Foster

    Of course where and when you have reasonable cause to be pessimistic, that is when you need a measure of optimism to lift you, and where and when you have reasonable cause to be optimistic, that is when you need a measure of pessimism to bring you down to earth. It is more a question of intellectual clarity than morality. Say you are pessimistic about the continuing ability of humanity to feed an exploding population: it’s a worry, no doubt about it, and a strong case might worthily be made in the negative. Nonetheless you obviously need to find some optimism if you are going to do it. On the other hand a lackadaisical optimism could allow the monstrous immensity of the challenge to sneak up and catch off-guard, and that is when some timely doom-saying will not go amiss. In life generally it is when a cause seems hopeless that we need to summon the greatest hopes, and in days of triumph when preparations for disaster ought to be made.

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