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Commentary: Are We Better Off Today? It Depends On Who You Ask

Sep 12, 2014

Andre Fiala

For years, many people subscribed to the idea that progress in society was inevitable. But in today’s world, the question of whether we are better off than our parents were has become increasingly difficult to answer. And as Fresno State Philosophy Professor Andrew Fiala suggests in this edition of FM89’s commentary series The Moral Is, it all depends on your point of view. 

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Most Americans appear to think that the U.S is in decline.  A recent Wall Street Journal poll concluded that 76% of adults think that their kids will be worse off than they are.  A leading pundit—the political scientist Francis Fukuyama—recently published an article with the simple title, “America in Decay.”

There are a lot of bad things going on: riots, wars, plagues, and droughts.  And it often seems that our politicians are busy fiddling while Rome burns or the icecaps melt.  This can appear to be downright Biblical.  Indeed, some blame our ills on the demise of organized religion.  Others will claim the reverse: that religious fanaticism is still a problem to be overcome. 

And therein lies the problem.  One person’s portent of decline can be another person’s harbinger of progress.  That’s why we should be careful in making such global historical pronouncements.  Indeed, Fukuyama—who says that America is in decay—should know better.  He once famously pronounced that with the end of the Cold War, history had ended.  But a lot has happened since 1989.  If history teaches us anything, it’s that we ought to avoid prophetic declarations about history.

There is no fixed point of reference from which we could make grand historical judgments.  Indeed, grand historical narratives that celebrate the triumph of one group or idea will appear callous and ridiculous from another point of view.  Nomadic hunter-gatherers must have viewed the agricultural revolution as insane.  The triumph of Roman civilization was a disaster for the Celts.  The Luddites opposed the Industrial Revolution.  The hearty American Pioneers were viewed as conquering barbarians by Native Americans.  The winners write the history and the losers grouse.

The supposed decay of American values appears so only from a limited vantage point.  The world is much better now for women, non-Whites, and homosexuals than it was in the 19th Century.  Our climate is heating up but we can travel easily to the far reaches of the globe.  Crimes rates have fallen but our prisons are full.  Are we better off?

The question of whether we expect our children to be better is even harder to answer.  One thing is certain, when our children arrive in the future their lives will be different.  They will look at us and our old-fashioned values the same way that we look at the strange values of the Romans, Celts, Luddites, and Pioneers. 

“Better or worse?”  Well… that all depends on your point of view.  We may not like the way things turn out for our children or their weird new values.  But the future belongs to them—not to us.