For the past, in some ways only, we are moral degenerates

Have hu­man val­ues im­proved over the last few cen­turies? Or is it just that cur­rent hu­man val­ues are nat­u­rally closer to our (cur­rent) hu­man val­ues and so we think that there’s been moral progress to­wards us?

If we pro­ject out in the fu­ture, the first sce­nario posits con­tin­u­ing in­creased moral im­prove­ments (as the “im­prove­ment trend” con­tinues) and the sec­ond posits moral de­gen­er­a­tion (as the val­ues drift away from our own). So what is it?

I’ll make the case that both trends are hap­pen­ing. We have a lot less slav­ery, racism, eth­nic con­flicts, and en­dorse­ments of slav­ery, racism, and eth­nic con­flicts. In an un­even way, poorer peo­ple have more effec­tive rights than they did be­fore, so it’s some­what less easy to abuse them.

No­tice some­thing in­ter­est­ing about the pre­vi­ous ex­am­ples? They can all be sum­marised as “some peo­ple who were treated badly are now treated bet­ter”. Many peo­ple through­out time would agree that these peo­ple are ac­tu­ally be­ing treated bet­ter. On the is­sue of slav­ery, con­sider the fol­low­ing ques­tion:

  • “If X would benefit from be­ing a non-slave more than be­ing a slave, and there were no costs to so­ciety, would it be bet­ter for X not to be a slave?”

Al­most ev­ery­one would agree to that through­out his­tory, bar­ring a few ex­am­ples of ex­tremely mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing. So most defences of slav­ery rest on the idea that some classes of peo­ple are bet­ter off as slaves (al­most always a fac­tual er­ror, and gen­er­ally mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing), or that some morally rele­vant group of peo­ple benefited from slav­ery enough to make it worth­while.

So most clear ex­am­ples of moral progress are giv­ing benefits to peo­ple, such that any­one who knew all the facts would agree it was benefi­cial for those peo­ple.

That trend we might ex­pect to con­tinue; as we gain greater knowl­edge how to benefit peo­ple, and as we gain greater re­sources, we can ex­pect more peo­ple to be benefited.

Values that we have de­gen­er­ated on

But I’ll ar­gue that there are a sec­ond class of val­ues that have less of a “di­rec­tion” to, and where we could plau­si­bly be ar­gued to have “de­gen­er­ated”. And, hence, where we might ex­pect our de­scen­dants to “de­gen­er­ate” more (ie move fur­ther away from us).

Com­mu­nity and ex­tended fam­ily val­ues, for ex­am­ple, are ar­eas where much of the past would be hor­rified by the pre­sent. Why are peo­ple not (gen­er­ally) meet­ing up with their sec­ond cous­ins ev­ery two weeks, and why do peo­ple waste time gos­siping about ir­rele­vant celebri­ties rather than friends and neigh­bours?

On is­sues of hon­our and rep­u­ta­tion, why have we so meekly ac­cepted to be­come cit­i­zens of ad­minis­tra­tive bu­reau­cra­cies and defer to laws and courts, rather than tak­ing pride in meet­ing out our own jus­tice and defend­ing our own hon­our? “Yes, yes”, the hy­po­thet­i­cal past per­son would say, “your cur­rent sys­tem is fairer and more effi­cient; but why did it have to turn you all so supine”? Are you not free men?

Play around with vaguely op­po­site virtues: spon­tane­ity ver­sus re­spon­si­bil­ity; ra­tio­nal­ity ver­sus ro­man­ti­cism; pride ver­sus hu­mil­ity; hon­esty ver­sus tact, and so on. Where is the ideal mean be­tween any of those two ex­tremes? Differ­ent peo­ple and differ­ent cul­tures put the ideal mean in differ­ent places, and there’s no rea­son to sus­pect that the means are “get­ting bet­ter” rather than just “mov­ing around ran­domly”.

I won’t be­labour the point; it just seems to me that there are ar­eas where the moral progress nar­ra­tive makes more sense (giv­ing clear benefits to peo­ple who didn’t have them) and ar­eas where the “val­ues drift around” nar­ra­tive makes more sense. And hence we might hope for con­tin­u­ing moral progress in some ar­eas, and de­gen­er­a­tion (or at least stag­na­tion) in oth­ers.