Friday, June 29, 2018

Will Future Generations Find Us Especially Morally Loathsome?

Ethical norms change. Although reading Confucius doesn't feel like encountering some wholly bizarre, alien moral system, some ethical ideas do differ dramatically over time and between cultures. Genocide and civilian-slaughtering aggressive warfare are now widely considered to be among the evilest things people can do, yet they appear to be celebrated in the Bible (especially Deuteronomy and Joshua) and we still name children after Alexander "the Great". Many seemingly careful thinkers, including notoriously Aristotle and Locke, wrote justifications of slavery. Much of the world has only recently opened its eyes to the historically common oppression of women, homosexuals, low-status workers, people with disabilities, and ethnic minorities.

We probably haven't reached the end of moral change. In a few centuries, people might look back on our current norms with the same mix of appreciation and condemnation that we now look back on ethical norms common in Warring States China and Early Modern Europe.

Indeed, future generations might find our generation to be especially vividly loathsome, since we are the first generation creating an extensive video record of our day-to-day activities.

It’s one thing to know, in the abstract, that Rousseau fathered five children with a lover he regarded as too dull-witted to be worth attempting to formally educate, and that he demanded against her protests that their children be sent to (possibly very high mortality) orphanages [see esp. Confessions, Book VII]. It would be quite another if we had baby pictures and video of Rousseau's interactions with Thérèse. It's one thing to know, in the abstract, that Aristotle had a wife and a life of privilege. It would be quite another to watch video of him proudly enacting sexist and classist values we now find vile. Future generations that detest our sexual practices, or our consumerism, or our casual destruction of the environment, or our neglect of the sick and elderly, might be especially horrified to view these practices in vivid detail.

By "we" and "our" practices and values, I mean the typical practices and values of highly educated readers from early 21st-century democracies -- the notional readership of this blog. Maybe climate change proves to be catastrophic: Crops fail, low-lying cities are flooded, a billion desperate people are displaced or malnourished and tossed into war. Looking back on video of a philosopher of our era proudly stepping out of his shiny, privately-owned minivan, across his beautiful irrigated lawn in the summer heat, into his large chilly air-conditioned house, maybe wearing a leather hat, maybe sharing McDonald's ice-cream cones with his kids -- looking back, that is, on what I (of course this is me) think of as a lovely family moment -- might this seem to some future Bangladeshi philosopher as vividly disgusting as I suspect I would find Aristotle's treatment of Greek slaves?


If we are currently at the moral pinnacle, any change in future values will be a change for the worse. Future generations might condemn our mixing of the races, for example. They might be disgusted to see pictures of interracial couples walking together in public and raising their mixed-race children. Or they might condemn us for clothing customs that they come to view as obscene. However, I feel comfortable saying that they'd be wrong to condemn us, if those were the reasons why.

But it seems unlikely that we are at the pinnacle; and thus it seems likely that future generations might have some excellent moral reason to condemn us. More likely than our being at the moral pinnacle, it seems to me, is that either (a.) there has been a slow trajectory toward better values over the centuries (as argued by Steven Pinker) and that the trajectory will continue, or alternatively that (b.) shifts in value are more or less a random walk up, down, and sideways, in which case it would be unlikely chance if we happened to be at the peak right now. I am assuming here the same kind of non-relativism that most people assume in condemning Nazism and in thinking that it constitutes genuine moral progress to recognize the equal moral status of women and men.

(To someone who endorses most of the widely-shared values of their group it is almost just analytically the case that they will see their group's values as the peak. Suppose you endorse the mainstream values in your group -- values A, B, C, D, E, and F. Elsewhere, the mainstream values might instead be A, not-B, D, E, F and G, or A, C, not-D, not-E, H and I. Of course it will seem to you that you're the group that got it right -- exactly A, B, C, D, E, and F! It will seem to you that changes from past values have been good, and the likely future rejection of your values will be mistaken. This is basically the old man's "kids these days!" complaint, writ large.)

I worry then, that we might be in a situation similar to Aristotle's: horribly wrong (most of us) on some really important moral issues, though it doesn't feel like we're wrong, and although we think we are applying our excellent minds excellently to the matter, with wisdom and good sense. I worry that we, or I, might be using philosophy to justify the 21st-century college-educated North American's moral equivalent of keeping slaves, oppressing women, and launching genocidal war.

Is there some way of gaining insight into this possibility? Some way to get a temperature reading, so to speak, on our unrecognized evil?

Here's one thing I don't think will work: Rely on the ethical reasoning of the highest status philosophers in our society. If you've read any of my work on Kant's applied ethics, German philosophers' failure to reject Nazism, and the morality of ethics professors, you'll know why I say this.


I'd suggest, or at least I'd hope, that if future generations rightly condemn us, it won't be for something we'd find incomprehensible. It won't be because we sometimes chose blue shirts over red ones or because we like to smile at children. It will be for things that we already have an inkling might be wrong, and which some people do already condemn as wrong. As Michele Moody-Adams emphasizes in her discussion of slavery and cultural relativism (Moody-Adams 1997, ch. 2), in every slave culture there were always some voices condemning the injustice of slavery -- among them, typically, the slaves themselves -- and it required a kind of affected ignorance to disregard those voices. As a clue to our own evil, we might look to minority moral opinions in our own culture.

I tend to disagree with those minority opinions. I tend to think that the behavior of my social group is more or less fine, or at least forgivably mediocre. If someone advances a minority ethical view I disagree with, I'm philosopher enough to concoct some superficially plausible defenses. What I worry is that a properly situated observer might recognize those defenses to be no better than Hans Heyse's defense of Nazism or Kant's critique of masturbation.

Moody-Adams suggests that we can begin to transcend our cultural and historical moral boundaries though moral reflection and moral imagination. In the epilogue of her 1997 book, she finds hope in the kind of moral reflection that involves self-scrutiny, vivid imagination, a wide-ranging contact with other disciplines and traditions, a recognition of minority voices, and serious engagement with the concrete details of everyday moral inquiry.

Hey, that sounds pretty good! I'll put, or try to put, my hopes there too.


Daniel Estrada said...

The link to the Nazi philosopher post is broken, here's the corrected link:

Howard Berman said...

To pin down your point: you appear to say that society engages in widespread practices that are good or bad.
First, will they alter their abstract values in the future? Racism ends not with any change in values but when for whom the values hold is extended
Second, values differ from judgments on individual cases. Will the future have different values than us or will they have a different cluster of a moral way of life, in the sense of some Anthropologist like Boas?
Third, though contemporaries might give a sneak preview of the consensus tomorrow we might have no freaking idea because of the sheer twists and turns of evolution and history
Fourth, art, science and everything might change so much that there might not be any morality at all or morality will barely bear a family resemblance to morality today

Hannah said...

Unless you're a vegan or a non-dairy-and-only-backyard-hens-vegetarian or aware of the importance of animal rights, then you are part of the 21st-century college-educated North American's moral equivalent of keeping slaves, oppressing women, and launching genocidal war. Haven't you already included it in your post: "leather hat", "McDonald's"? But it's great to ask questions: I also wonder whether I am part of another thing like that.

Callan S. said...

To me any future generation that fails to keep the situational context of past generations in context and judges as if their values could always have been done, they are morally lothesome. It's like judging a man for stealing bread and ignoring that his family was starving. History is a long hard road out of hell. You're going to have people owning slaves and giving them a night off once or twice a year (when others don't) and thinking themselves generous. The thing is though that person might think 'maybe them slaves need a bit more time off'. This is part of the road. It's those who are happy with where they (by chance) got to be and don't want the status quo to change/don't want to move up that road, those should be of scrutiny to latter generations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks -- and sorry about my slow reply!

Daniel: Thanks for catching that.

Howard: I think abstract values can change too; I'd hope there would still be something like morality, but I admit there is doubt about that! I also agree that the turns are unpredictable.

Hannah: That of course is my concern, and I half agree. That's why I chose the example I did.

Callan: I agree that is part of the road and we need to be careful about judging past generations; but to entirely withhold judgment seems extreme in the case of, for example, Nazis.