One of the most, if not the most, common arguments I seem to be having online in various places is about the notion that the world is morally bankrupt, that we are in the end days. And this is not just from theists – it is commonplace with theists and nontheists alike. It annoys me because it is so blatantly wrong and exemplifies the rose-tinted fallacy completely.
Let me explain what context I see this argument in before showing why it is incorrect. This claim, from a non-believer’s perspective, is often with regard to the ‘youth of today’ – morality, family and crime. From a believer’s perspective, it is invariably the same notions which inspire the claim, but this is not unusual. They at least have 2000 years of form for this approach. The epistles of the New Testament started this trend. The “we are in the Last Days” trend of apocalyptic language and proclamations. Of course, the End Days cannot be 2000 years long. Especially for the Creationists who think the world is only a small number of thousand years old anyway.
Environmentally speaking, some may be able to more solidly claim that we are in a period of great worry. But this isn’t as a result of us suddenly becoming morally bankrupt. Not at all. This is a period of massive population growth – an explosion of numbers. We have over 7 billion people on this earth vying for limited resources. Overcrowding is an issue in urban areas that has a side-effect of causing a lot of issues, some appearing to be moral and criminal. It is easy to fault the moral degradation of society, but in reality the situation is more nuanced and certainly more complex. But let us look more empirically at the claim that society, morality and criminality is worse now than at any other time in history.
What one must bear in mind when arguing about this is that claimants of hell in a handcart appear to conflate
things aren’t perfect
THINGS ARE THE WORST THAT THEY HAVE EVER BEEN!
This is fundamentally the issue with such arguments. One way to easily undercut people who argue like this is to ask two questions:
Would you prefer to live now, or at another time in history?
What period would you most like to have lived in?
If they answered now, then they have lost the argument. If they don’t, then you can supply them with the list of points and arguments below.
So how do we measure where we are in society? There are all sorts of problems when dealing with statistics – how were they gathered? What were the laws upon which the collection was predicated? Are we talking per capita results or total results?
Rather than give some massive spiel about how life is great, let me just list ways in which society has improved, with implications that they are better now than at previous times. Here goes.
Human rights are at a better state now than at any other time in history.
We have more equality now than at any other time in history (think women, race, disabled, sexuality etc).
There is legal aid available in most developed societies for all.
There are less human deaths per armed conflict now than at any other time. For this, see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined for an assessment of this.
Healthcare provision is better than…
Racially motivated crimes are decreasing. Figures from the latest British Crime Survey, which is considered to be the most reliable study in the UK, indicate that the number of racially motivated incidents in the UK has fallen from 390,000 incidents in 1995 to 184,000 in 2006/07; In 2010/11, 51,187 racist incidents were recorded by the police – a decrease of almost 18% in the number of racist incidents reported across England and Wales over the five-year period (2006/07 to 2010/11). Remember, minorities populations are growing, so this should be expected to increase.
Rape statistics show a decrease as well. Rape is a tough one because rape is now reported far more than it ever was. Things like rape in marriage used not to be illegal. Thus a sharp increase in rape stats at points over the last 50 years doesn’t necessarily reflect rising numbers of rapes, but rising numbers of reportings and types of rapes that became classifiable as rape. This wiki quote sums up some difficulties:
According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the adjusted per-capita victimization rate of rape has declined from about 2.4 per 1000 people (age 12 and above) in 1980 (that is, 2.4 persons from each 1000 people 12 and older were raped during that year) to about 0.4 per 1000 people, a decline of about 85%. There are several possible explanations for this, including stricter laws, education on security for women, and a correlation with the rise in Internet pornography. But other government surveys, such as the Sexual Victimization of College Women study, critique the NCVS on the basis it includes only those acts perceived as crimes by the victim, and report a much higher victimization rate.
Imagine rape in the Middle Ages. It was not even really illegal! As we become more and more progressive, so do our legal systems reflect our moral progression.
And so on and so forth. The point is, on what basis can people claim that the world is at its worse point in history NOW? That is an empirically-based claim so there must be some evidence for it.
I thought I would include this conversation that I had with a Christian woman on facebook:
The OP: If you were God, how ungodly would things have to become before you decided it was time to end this world, and begin the next?
Christian Woman (CW): … it is probable that things will get much worse. But, my hope is in that God does not lie. Please note, my dear friend, that Revelation 21:4 says, “And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” I believe that. Can you? Men lie, God does not.
Me: I think the situation is much more complex. Actually, we are living in the best generation since time began for human rights. Wars now cause less deaths than ever. There is less torture. More accountability. Less secrets. And so on. It is easy to say it’s all going to hell in a handcart, but when would be the ‘best’ time this world has seen. Because I can tell you now, I would prefer to live now than at any other time. Yes, there is much room for improvement. Yes, much of it sucks. But 20 years ago you could still legally rape your wife. We are no more selfish now than we ever were, perhaps. The difference is, there are 7 billion of us.
7 billlion doing the same sort of things with technology which demands more resources. I don;t think we have become morally worse. I think the context has changed such that our decisions have greater impact than ever before. In some ways we improve, in others we don’t. Our family values may have decreased, but our global awareness and care for others may have. It is simply much more complex, I think, than we often give it credit for. Stats seem to suggest the many crimes are going down, say, since they peaked 40 years ago. etc. I never believe in black and white, but various shades of grey!
CW: We have 6 month old babies being shot dead on the streets of Chicago. Things are not getting better.
Me: And you know that, say, the Middle Ages had people living in Edenic happiness? There wasn’t even a legal definition of rape. Let alone defence of women in this context. Human rights did not even exist.
CW: Johno, you live in England. My family lives in Manchester, England RIGHT NOW. Life is not good for them, and this is 2013. You are not black or mixed race in England, and I don’t think that you want to be. The world is not getting better. It is getting worse.
Me: So it was better to be a mixed race family living in England when? Because I can tell you for a fact, race relations are better now than at any time in the history of England. In my life, I am seeing racial diversity at football grounds now where there was non. I see racial diversity and acceptance in the schools I teach at, where there was none. This is the rose-tinted fallacy. Do not confuse “things could be better” (they clearly can) with “things are worse now”. These are two very different concepts. Tell me when human rights were better than they are now.
Hint, they were not ever better than they are now.
We have a racial equality foundations and commissions where there were none. Figures from the latest British Crime Survey, which is considered to be the most reliable study, indicate that the number of racially motivated incidents in the UK has fallen from 390,000 incidents in 1995 to 184,000 in 2006/07; In 2010/11, 51,187 racist incidents were recorded by the police – a decrease of almost 18% in the number of racist incidents reported across England and Wales over the five-year period (2006/07 to 2010/11). Remember, minorities populations are growing, so this should be expected to increase. Evidence, actual empirical evidence, supports the idea that in many ways, but not all, society is getting better. Our one and main problem, in my opinion, is world population. There are simply too many of us. And with this issue comes all of our other main issues. Do not confuse context changing with worse morality. Indeed, this appears to be the correlation fallacy. Don’t forget, your God countenanced slavery. For 2000 years, slavery was justified using the bible (Christians say incorrectly). God knew this would happen, and allowed it. Even gave incomplete revelation to allow this. Do we allow it now? Not even close. When would you rather have lived?
CW: My last comment to Johno: I have spent time in England. I am a person of mixed race. You are white in England. You clearly cannot know our true situation. Thanks for your comments, Johno.
Me: CW, that is a massive fallacy, and is not logically sound. I can know whether crime is better wrt to racial groups now than before. I have spoken to and seen much evidence to suggest living as a minority is better now than at any time previously in the UK. You must give me evidence, otherwise your assertions are invalid. I am not saying things are perfect – far, far from. I am saying they are better than before. I know this, as I live in this society, growing up with racial slurs and concepts which are simply not accepted now. In 2010/11, the police recorded 31,486 racially or religiously aggravated offences – explain how this represents things getting worse for minorities? Across England and Wales. This represents a 26% decrease in the number of such offences recorded by the police over the last five years. As the Independent says “Nearly two decades after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, has anything changed? And what is life really like for young black and ethnic minority people in Britain today?
In the high-visibility worlds of the establishment, entertainment and sport, there are signs of progress: there are more than four times as many black and ethnic minority MPs in Parliament as there were in 1993. A Muslim woman takes her seat at the cabinet table every Tuesday. An African-born man is in charge of a FTSE 100 company. Black and Asian actors regularly take leading roles in prime-time TV series.
The population has changed since 1993: then ethnic minorities accounted for 5.1 per cent in England and Wales; the latest figure is 8.7 per cent.
Some would argue that the major dividing line in Britain today is not race but class, and that Stephen’s killing captured the nation’s interest only because he was from a “nice” middle-class family and had aspirations to be an architect.” – things are still unequal and unfair. But that is not the point. Are they more unfair now than before? You have yet to provide any evidence that we are going downhill. Statistics show we are not. The Counselling Directory claims that wrt discrimination and minority groups, “negative attitudes have declined”. Again, where is your evidence?
CW. Since you are not old, you do not have the right to make any moral, political or social comment about old people. Or men. Or non-mixed race. Or disabled. etc etc. It is a really problematic approach.
I was stunned at the idea that because I am not mixed race or black, that I have no epistemic right to comment on the situation of racial minorities in Britain! I am not disabled, old etc. Surely I can cast an educated opinion on these factions of society! Only disabled people can make disability policy?!
Also interesting to see was the tactic when losing a debate of “this will be my last post” and then running away…
But hopefully, my points remain salient. Things are not the worse they have ever been. Yes certain things are bad, and some things really bad. But these issues are complex – multidimensional and multilevel. We desperately need to improve certain things. Perfection is miles away. But just to place a one comment-covers-all onto the whole of humanity is nothing short of naive. And wrong.