History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 1)

Do you think that you live at the apex of moral history? That, after thousands of years bumbling and mistakes, your particular place (America, for instance) and time (June 2015) is when your society has finally gotten things right and achieved perfect virtue?

Obviously you don't. I hope none of us are so foolish, provincial, and self-absorbed as to think that. I think that a common and sensible reply to the question would be, "OF COURSE we don't have everything right. There are still many things wrong with our society, but we're slowly getting things right, even though we take many wrong turns along the way". Or, as someone else put it: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Since I've just quoted Martin Luther King Jr., his cause will serve well to illustrate my point. In MLK's time, a good segment of the population apparently thought that racial discrimination was morally good. We, as a society, know better now. We've made moral progress, and we will continue to do so.

There are, of course, numerous other examples. The role of women in society has changed dramatically over the past century, and attitudes about gender roles from even just fifty years ago seem hopelessly outdated and sexist. In political ideology, the past century had powerful nation-states experiment with communism or fascism, and the world saw how incredibly wrong all that turned out. Tied up with some of these ideas was the practice of eugenics, which is now widely understood to be unethical.

Through all this, we, as a society, have come to understand something about morality: sometimes by changing and progressing to something better, other times by changing and realizing that it lead to horrible consequences. But ever so slowly, through many missteps, we've traced out a small section of the moral arc of the universe - and we can testify both to the fact that it's long and slow-changing, and that it bends towards moral improvement.

Now, consider that you almost certainly do not live in a special time in this moral arc of the universe. In particular, you do not live at that unique time when we've finally achieved moral perfection. The world will go on turning in the future, as it has throughout human history. The moral arc will continue to bend - towards perfection, and away from you.

What will the people in the future think of you?

In another human lifetime - say, eighty years - how will the people appraise your attitudes? They will have eighty years of moral progress on you. We can't know for sure, but we can get a glimpse of what may happen by looking back eighty years - to the 1930's - and evaluating the moral attitudes of the people from that time period.

Imagine meeting someone today, who believes that blacks ought to be kept separated and suppressed, that women are inferior to men and are only good for housework, that Stalin had the right idea about how to run a country, and that we should actively employ eugenics to achieve these goals. You would rightly judge such a man to be a moral monster. Now, let's turn this around and look forward. What reason do you have for believing that in just one more human lifetime, the people from a more progressive future won't rightly condemn you in the same way?

You may object that this moral monster I've cited from eighty years ago is an artificial construction, made solely to embody the worst aspects of the age. Surely, if you had lived in that time, you would not be like that man. You're special! Being the morally progressive-minded person you are, surely you would have rejected racism and sexism, and seen that communism and eugenics were wrong! Because you're a good person, who's oh-so forward thinking! Right?

Perhaps. Never mind that claiming "special" status like this is no better than claiming special status for 2015 being the pinnacle of humanity's moral progress. But even if we were to grant that you're "special" to this extent, all we have to do to see the futility of such maneuvering is to simply go back another human lifetime: 80 more years, to the 1850's.

Consider the following racist quote, from a political debate in 1858 -
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
- spoken by none other than Abraham Lincoln. You see, EVERYONE was racist back then - including even the Great Emancipator. There was essentially nobody who was foresighted enough to have our current attitudes about race relations. And if you think you're so special that you could have resisted the society-wide evil that even Lincoln could not, then you're certainly a whole another kind of "special" altogether.

So, we are moral monsters. I mean, sure, we're better than the people from the previous times, but that's only because we're living now, at the latest slice of time. And maybe you're progressive and forward thinking enough to be, say, a couple decades ahead of your time. But when we are judged by the morally superior people of the far future, we will surely to fall far short of their standards.

So what are we to do?

We will address that question in the next post.


You may next want to read:
History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 2) (Next post of this series)
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
I am a sinner.
Another post, from the table of contents

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