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Moving the Goalposts or: The Worst Arguments AGAINST the World is Getting Safer

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Probably the most frustrating rhetorical technique you can encounter when you’re debating a topic is “moving the goal posts”, usually used by an opponent losing an argument.

For example, say you’re arguing for marijuana legalization, debating all the pros and cons, and then your opponent says, “Well, if you want to legalize marijuana, shouldn’t we legalize heroin? But heroin is so dangerous!” No, we’re not arguing about heroin or drug legalization more broadly--marijuana is much less dangerous than heroin--we’re debating legalizing marijuana.

Critics of the “world is getting safer” theory (“anti-pollyannas” as I call them) move the goal posts a lot. Though the argument is about whether society is less violent--using real, physical violence--critics move the goal posts asking, what about other metaphorical forms of violence? What about “slower” forms of violence? What about income inequality? Or America’s prison population? (You can find examples of this phenomenon here and here.)

First off, most “slower” forms of violence have also probably gone down. (For example, more countries are democracies today than at about anytime in world history.)

More importantly, the problem with critics citing these “slower” forms of violence is they are moving the goal posts. Pinker, Horgan, and others aren’t arguing all violence has disappeared or will disappear, just that wars and violence are becoming less frequent.

To see one example of moving the goal posts, as will happen a lot in this series, we’ll turn to John Gray,:

Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world. According to many estimates the US also has the highest rate of incarceration, some way ahead of China and Russia, for example.

In short, an anecdote that willfully ignores the global prison population or whether that global prison population is trending up or down. Though America has a massive over-incarceration problem, it’s an exception to the larger trend. Europe doesn’t have a massive over-incarceration problem, which, again, proves that the world is getting safer. Some people debunking Pinker actually point this out, without realizing...they’re proving his point. (And this argument is about more than America.)

Professor Christian Davenport makes a similar “moving the goal posts” argument:

“In my view, states engage in not less but different levels of severity—for example “torture-lite” (e.g., immobilizing individuals to make them more physically manipulable [sic] instead of old-school torture such as removing skin from individuals, stun grenades instead of real ones…”

Me personally? I prefer stun grenades to real grenades. Or not having my skin ripped off. Later, he equates killing someone for theft versus imprisoning them; it takes a real leap of logic to argue that the latter isn’t an improvement over the former. As bad as the American Justice system/prison system can be, our modern legal system is infinitely better than either mob rule (lynchings) or the divine right of kings and aristocrats capriciously doling out capital punishment.

More importantly, arguing that the world is getting better doesn’t mean you’re arguing that everything is perfect. To correct the issues of the “legal system” of the ancient world, we adopted the modern legal and penal system. But that system has problems. What happens next? We fix it.

The reason violence has gone down is that humanity has gotten better, and also gotten better at getting better. I could see, in relatively short time, America reforming its prison system. We’ll be writing about this more in our ‘Most Thought-Provoking Event of the Half Year”. Prosecutors across America are already taking steps to address racial disparities in the justice system and it should be an issue in the 2016 election.

But here’s the rub: say in the next ten years America cuts its prison population in half and abolished crueler practices like indefinite solitary confinement. Would the person arguing against the “world is getting safer” theory change their mind? Will they say, “Huh, I guess the world is getting safer?”

I’d predict no. There will always be other problems in the world, and the pessimists will perpetually find new things to complain about and say, “This new problem exists, thus the world isn’t getting safer”, despite the evidence.

And that’s really why moving the goal posts is a fallacious argument.

four comments

To move the goalposts the other way, alcohol, according virtually all medical science, is much more dangerous—biologically and culturally—than marijuana. Again, though many feel otherwise, this feels off debate for me.

Not to mention, and this didn’t fit in the flow of the post, one could argue that even softer forms of violence, on the whole, have gone down. Poverty, famine and disease in the third world have actually gone down in the last fifty years. Outside of environmental degradation, I can’t think of single issue where humanity hasn’t shown improvement.

Also, I reread Kolbert’s New Yorker to respond to Fin’s jeremiad yesterday, and she also moves the goalposts, citing Western arms sales to third world countries. Funny enough, she didn’t mention that global deaths from war are still down.

“Outside of environmental degradation, I can’t think of single issue where humanity hasn’t shown improvement.”

Increasing mass surveillance in the Western world, emulating the ambitions of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

Fracturing along ethnic and religious lines inside states, increasing the potential (risk) of civil wars in addition to what potential was there beforehand.

Increased income inequality in the Western world, China, Turkey and IIRC also India.

Much worse dance music than in the 90’s. ;-)

But you’re spot on on dance music!

- Not sure modern day surveillance is worse than at the height of the Cold War, but I don’t have the statistics. I assume East Germans/Eastern Europeans are spied on less, but this assumption could be wrong. Anyway, I think Western countries/humanity will be pushing back on this issue…they already are. Again, could be a non-issue very quickly.

- Based on a lot of reading, civil wars have gone down in the last fifty years. So maybe the “risk” is greater—I don’t think that’s true—but actual result is less civil wars.

- Income inequality is a problem, but also one I believe will be/is being addressed.