Michael Huemer has just published an ambitious and interesting article defending the idea that global moral progress toward "liberal" values is best explained as a result of the gradual discovery of the truth of those values. By "liberal", Huemer means views that recognize the equal dignity and worth of diverse people and oppose gratuitous coercion and violence. (Published version here; free preprint here.)
I'm inclined to accept Huemer's big-picture view (with some hesitations and modifications). But I want to highlight one passage for discussion. It concerns "reformers" -- the people who see past the prevailing norms of their day and push toward moral progress (e.g., early anti-slavery activists, early advocates of women's right to vote).
... reformers tend to be disproportionately influential members of society. They are more likely, for example, to be authors, professors, other intellectuals, or business or political leaders, as opposed to members of less influential professions. This is because the ability to see through errors in prevailing social norms will be strongly correlated with one’s degree of intelligence and reflectiveness, which itself is correlated with belonging to relatively socially influential professions.
In the manuscript preprint, but not in the final published version, the passage continues:
For example, a talented writer who wants to promote greater tolerance for homosexuality will have more influence on society than a steel worker who wants attitudes toward homosexuality to stay the same. That is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that people who desire social reform tend to have much more influential social positions than the average member of society.
So: Is it true that intellectuals and business leaders are more likely to see beyond the moral errors of their culture and more likely to desire social reform?
This is partly an empirical question. It would be interesting to see some empirical data on this. My hunch, though, is that the situation is more complicated than Huemer suggests.
Here's what strikes me as likely to be right about Huemer's claim in the quoted passages:
The social and intellectual elite will, on average, have traveled and read more widely than others. As a result, (1.) they will, on average, have been exposed to a greater variety of social norms, including some that conflict with the local cultural norms of their childhood, and this is a plausible source of social and moral insight; and (2.) they will, on average, tend to have more cosmopolitan worldviews in general, seeing less of a divide between themselves and the social elite in other societies to which they have been exposed.
The social and intellectual elite might also, on average, have more social opportunity to advance reforms that they care about, especially if pushing for reform can advance their career goals (e.g., giving them opportunities to write attention-grabbing articles).
However, I hesitate to draw the conclusion that members of socially elite professions have more accurate moral views in general or are more likely to desire social reform.
Here are some of my reasons for hesitation:
* The view comes across as a little bit elitist and self-congratulatory, at least on the surface. I say this not as a personal critique of Huemer, but just as a thought about how these statements read at first glance. These are reasons not to accept the view quickly or casually, without careful examination of alternative possibilities.
* Members of socially elite professions tend to be people who are benefiting from the status quo, so it would be surprising if they were disproportionately dissatisfied with the system that has put them in their positions of power.
* Huemer is emphasizing certain sorts of moral norms on which, I agree, there has been a lot of progress in the past couple of centuries, and for which there is at least some superficially plausible reason to think intellectuals might tend to be opinion leaders -- what he calls the "liberal" norms of non-violence and equal rights. But of course there are many other arguably ethical norms on which it's not clear we have made progress, and on which it's harder to build a case that intellectuals and businesspeople exhibit leadership, such as norms of kindness and thoughtfulness to those around us (not being a jerk) and norms of modesty, restraint, and humility. It seems to me at least possible that whatever cosmopolitan liberal insights the social elite may tend to have are approximately counterbalanced by a tendency toward lack of insight on some of these other issues.
* Suppose we grant that intellectuals are more likely to develop radical new moral insights at variance with their culture. One possible explanation is greater moral intelligence. But another possibility might be something like a random walk view: Intellectuals might tend to to reject culturally prevailing norms in all directions, good, bad, and sideways, just because part of being an intellectual means questioning existing norms. We might then disproportionately remember the ones who endorsed views that we now favor and disproportionately forget the ones who advocated breaking cultural norms in ways that we don't favor -- e.g., calling for eugenics, increased colonization, nudist communes, forcible religious conversion, unrealistic utopian social planning, etc. This disproportionate forgetting might lead to the impression in retrospect that intellectuals tend to be insightfully ahead of their time.
HT: Helen De Cruz, "Who Needs Moral Experts, Anyway?"
On Whether the Rich are Jerks (Mar 31, 2012)