“Isn’t this the best time in the world to be alive?”
“Isn’t this the best time in the world to be alive?”, Mike asked on Twitter. It’s a very good question, resonant, full of feeling, one that matters. Let’s answer it, because it will tell us something maybe a little deep and true about ourselves, and this strange and troubled age we live in.
The way that we come to assume “yes” in the answer to this question is through a simple economic calculus of the human good. The most famous summary is Steven Pinker’s argument: global violence has declined, as counted by numbers of wars, and so on (more sophisticated thinkers would add: while poverty has shrunk) therefore, it’s the best time to be alive, ever, period. Indisputable, right? Wrong.
There’s a huge hole in this way of thinking, a kind of unreason. Can you spot it yet? It doesn’t weigh the dead. The total number of people killed in World War I and II was north of 80 million. More people died in the 20th century at one another’s hands than in all of human history, combined. Let’s sharpen that, and bring out what it really means.
The 20th century was the greatest loss of human potential, ever. Each of those 80 million dead had some kind of possibility: to live this long, for so much happiness, to enjoy and create and give and work and love so much. We could even try and operationalize that formally — we could say that X million life-years, happiness-years, years of relationships, and so on, were lost. That’s somehow beginning to weigh, really reckon with, the loss of unrealized human potential — not that there is any one right way, only that we can and should try.
So the first mistake of the old paradigm is to ignore unrealized potential — and just say because some existent quantity is declining or increasing, the world is “better”. But that’s only revealing our blindness: not counting what we have destroyed to begin with, we demonstrate that our calculus of the human good is one-sided, incomplete, invalid, inaccurate. Of course such a deficient calculus leads us straight back to where we began — and now the threat of world war looms again. I’ll come back to that.
So how are we to really “add up” unrealized potential? Can we merely say that because one person lives, and another dies, the scales are balanced, and we are at net zero? No. We cannot do that at all, not if we are analytically honest or genuinely thoughtful about life.
Life isn’t transitive. What I mean by that is: if I were to suddenly take away your wife, husband, partner, and replace them with another person, you would be devastated. Your well-being would be forever shrunked and damaged. People are not interchangeable, fungible, replaceable. So we cannot merely “subtract” one person’s well being from another — we can’t simply say that because more happiness-years were created over the 20th century than were lost, all is well. This kind of calculus can easily lead us astray too: I can say that killing some scapegoated group is just fine, as long as it makes a majority happy.
So we must employ a different kind of calculus entirely than merely subtracting existing costs from benefits. The calculus of realized potential against unrealized potential: whether or not those eighty million lives flourished at all, versus what they might have been. We can say that any life that doesn’t reach it’s full potential is in some sense an irreversible, irreplaceable loss. And that loss of what never came to be at all is precisely the measure of the bad, the harmful, the damaging. That is the weight of the dead.
The answer is always in the question. So the right question isn’t: is this the best time to be alive? It’s a question that only takes us circles, just like it has taken Pinker. A better question is: is this, that, our, their life reaching it’s fullest potential? In the 20th century, the deaths of 80 million people, no matter how we calculate happiness, life expectancy, and so on, can only ever ask us to say: that unrealized potential was forever lost. And we cannot “make up for it”, simply adding lived lives to unlived lives saying that 80 million others didn’t die: we must measure realized against unrealized potential, in all its forms, whether happiness, love, knowledge, creativity, truth, life itself, and so on.
Now the mistake of the old way is not counting the weight of the dead. And again, today, here we are — still not counting it. We aren’t counting the costs of the destruction of the well-being of our planet, our grandkids, ourselves, our cities, towns, democracies — in terms of loss of potential. We simply assume that because economies are “growing” — adding and subtracting existent things, like cars and iPhones — everything must be fine. And yet the old world is breaking apart, isn’t it? That is because the old paradigm simply doesn’t count the unrealized potential of the lives that feel trapped in it, whether those lives are Catalunyan or American or Indian. Stuck, frustrated, angry, those lives are lashing out — and yet it’s just an expression of the same mistake in the old paradigm: not weighing unrealized potential, a broken calculus of the human good, mismeasuring — and thus mismanaging — eudaimonia itself.
It’s undeniable that human progress has grown by leaps and bounds. But so has human destructiveness. We must hold this apparent paradox in us if we are to make any sense of this age. And we must resolve it. How? By understanding that we cannot merely subtract existent gains from losses when it comes to life, anymore than I can take away your child, give you another one in exchange, and call it even. We can only ever look at potential, what is being realized, versus what is left unrealized, what is really lived, experienced, held, felt, and known — versus what can be.
The weight of the dead balances the scales of life. To see that is, I think, to begin to reach a more sophisticated, resonant, and accurate calculus of the human good. Then maybe our grandchildren can say, one day, “we have built a better world.” Or if they are wise, perhaps they will gently just say to one another: “we are all walking the same road home. So come, and take my hand.”