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

by Stuart Armstrong 3mo7th Jun 20198 comments

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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.

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