Atemporal Ethical Obligations

[All the trig­ger warn­ings, es­pe­cially for the links out. I’m try­ing to un­der­stand and find the strongest ver­sion of an ar­gu­ment I heard re­cently. I’m not sure if I be­lieve this or not. Cross-posted from Grand, Unified, Crazy.]

Edit: This was in­ten­tion­ally an ar­gu­ment ad ab­sur­dum. I thought it was weird enough to make that ob­vi­ous, but I for­got that a) this is the in­ter­net and b) no­body here knows me IRL.

It is no longer enough just to be a “good per­son” to­day. Even if you study the lead­ing edge of con­tem­po­rary moral­ity and do ev­ery­thing right ac­cord­ing to that philos­o­phy, you are not do­ing enough. The fu­ture is com­ing, and it will judge you for your failures. We must do bet­ter.

This may sound ex­treme, but it is self-ev­i­dently true in hind­sight. Pick any his­tor­i­cal figure you want. No mat­ter their moral stature dur­ing their life­time, to­day we find some­thing to judge. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton owned slaves. Abra­ham Lin­coln, de­spite abol­ish­ing slav­ery in the United States, op­posed black suffrage and in­ter-racial mar­riage. Mary Wol­l­s­tonecraft ar­guably in­vented much of mod­ern fem­i­nism, and still man­aged to write such cringe-wor­thy phrases as “men seem to be de­signed by Prov­i­dence to at­tain a greater de­gree of virtue [than women]”. Gandhi was racist. Martin Luther King Jr abet­ted rape. The list goes on.

At an ob­ject level, this shouldn’t be too sur­pris­ing. So­ciety has made and con­tinues to make a great deal of moral progress over time. It’s al­most nat­u­ral that some­body who lived long ago would vi­o­late our pre­sent day eth­i­cal stan­dards. But from the moral per­spec­tive, this is an ex­pla­na­tion, not an ex­cuse; these peo­ple are still re­spon­si­ble for the harm their ac­tions caused. They are not to be counted as “good peo­ple”.

It’s tempt­ing to be­lieve that to­day is differ­ent; that if you are suffi­ciently eth­i­cal, suffi­ciently good, suffi­ciently “woke” by to­day’s stan­dards, that you have reached some kind of moral ac­cept­abil­ity. But there is no rea­son to be­lieve this is true. The trend of moral progress has been ac­cel­er­at­ing, and shows no signs of slow­ing down. It took hun­dreds of years af­ter his death be­fore Wash­ing­ton be­came per­sona non grata. MLK took about fifty. JK Rowl­ing isn’t even dead yet, and be­liefs that would have put her at the liberal edge of the fem­i­nist move­ment thirty years ago are now earn­ing wide­spread con­dem­na­tion. Mo­ral progress doesn’t just stop be­cause it’s 2020. This trend will keep ac­cel­er­at­ing.

All of this means that look­ing at the bleed­ing edge of to­day’s moral thought and say­ing “I’m liv­ing my life this way, I must be do­ing OK” is not enough. Any­body who does this will be left be­hind; in a few decades, your ac­tions to­day will be rec­og­nized as un­eth­i­cal. The fact that you lived ac­cord­ing to to­day’s eth­i­cal views will ex­plain your failings, but not ex­cuse them. Thus, in or­der to be truly good peo­ple, we must take an ac­tive role, pre­dict the fu­ture of moral progress, and live by to­mor­row’s rules, to­day.

Any­thing else is not enough.