moral progress

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on June 23, 2013

Is there such a thing as moral progress? Yes but it is not as you think it is.

What is it which undergoes progress? Is morality a collection of imperatives and so moral progress consists in more and more people or more of their behavior satisfying such imperatives? Or is it utilitarian, where people on average live better and better lives?

We should be really careful about this since it is not in our interests at all to give the past a fair comparison, we only want to make ourselves look better than them, or at the very least we judge them by our own modern standards.

One glaring observation though, is that we have simply become more wealthy. This obviously leads to better lives, hence by the utilitarian criterion there certainly has been moral progress. But most of us would balk at this. Morality is something higher than this, something transcendent, not something materialistic like the ease and cheapness with which we can attain cars or cheeseburgers. Most of us want to say that, for example, in the past we had slavery, we had racism, we had the death penalty and now we no longer have such vile things, and that this thus constitutes moral progress.

But human values are complex, slavery or racism or the death penalty cannot hope to even capture a sliver of the concrete considerations a person from the benighted past faced. I do not doubt that they too, like us, regarded such things with distaste, only they have other factors to take into account. I couldn’t tell you what they were because I wasn’t alive then, and even if I did, you would not give it a fair hearing unless you too lived thick in the midst of their dilemma. Which is to say you cannot help but be operating in far mode, taking things out of context, and trying to signal the integrity of your conscience for a present-day audience, as opposed to truly trying to empathize with the day to day moral decisions of someone from the past.

But perhaps we can try. Look at your current situation. Perhaps your government is vile and corrupt and needs to be overthrown. Why aren’t you revolting? What lies do you tell yourself to justify this inaction? How can you manage sleep at night? What is wrong with you? Actually, you’re probably fine, there is nothing wrong with you. Nothing wrong either with someone who did not stand up to slavery in the past. The government is corrupt but things are still in working order, if revolt would contrary to fact improve the concrete day to day lives of your countrymen, as opposed to merely satisfying some disembodied ideal, you would all already be at it.

We like to think our values are universal. In a sense they are, since they should apply naturally to everyone alive who share our culture and our way of living. But they are also concrete and local. They are a response to the concrete needs of our culture and were never designed to lecture the past on their bad behavior. We like to think that the death penalty is wrong, and we would like to think that we can provide the correct reasons as justification for why we think it is wrong, but our rejection of it is mostly a heuristic response to our local circumstance, arrived at with ugly tradeoffs amongst considerations both mundane and transcendent.

So yes, we do also think of our modern day values in the abstract, but the difference with applying it to the present and applying it to the past, is that we cannot apply it to the past! The past is gone. All its glorious complexities and contradictions irretrievable. We have no interest at all in subtlety or nuance, we want to positively rape them with censure, since they cannot talk back, and since that makes our consciences look good in the eyes of our modern moral spectators. Which is all fine for us. It keeps our society running. Only it does not fairly judge the past.

So there really probably is no moral progress in the exalted sense of more and more ideals being brought into the realm mundane practice. It’s a good thing.


2 Responses

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  1. richfinck said, on October 19, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Damn. You are doing some heavy duty thinking. Too bad there aren’t more of you. Thanks.

  2. Brian Jaress said, on November 1, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    What if we say that morality comes from instincts that stay the same, but we can progress by changing our situation to force fewer ugly tradeoffs and moral compromises on us?

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