Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 9: "Nonzero: Moral Progress: Final Comment"

Just one more post on moral progress before pushing ahead in this series.

If I had to debate the issue of moral progress, here is how I would do it.

Imagine two kinds of accounts, all the bad stuff humans do versus all the good we do (thinking big picture). Generally speaking, the "bad account" might not have diminished over time all that much. That is, humans still commit crimes and atrocities like they did in the past. And in a debate the anti-progress argument would generally make that point: There is about as much bad stuff today as there was in the past. Which is the argument I generally get from my friends: Wars have always been with us and are still with us and will always be with us. QED: Humans have not changed.

But in this debate I would not focus on the "bad account." That account is hard to evaluate. I would focus on the "good account." Although the bad stuff might not have diminished all that much, I think the good account has grown over time. The bad still might outweigh the good (giving the overall impression that the world is still a bad place, thus no progress has been made), but I think that the good has made some ground.

Could I be more specific? Sure.

I would argue that these four things represent true moral progress, additions over human history to the "good account" (starting from human pre-history to today):

1. Freedom from War.
In his book WAR BEFORE CIVILIZATION (published by Oxford University Press) the famous anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley pretty persuasively documents that warfare in the modern world is significantly less common than in our past. This analysis even includes the last two World Wars in the modern statistics. Although in absolute terms more people have died in modern wars (because of the population explosion in the last millennium) your relative chances of being killed in warfare have declined significantly. If you find this a dubious claim I refer you to Keeley's scholarly analysis.

2. Freedom from Slavery.
Although slavery still exists in the world, it is no longer a global force. No modern nation can have an active slave trade in the world today. In short, your chance of being a slave has been dramatically reduced over the course of human history.

3. Education.
Literacy rates, worldwide, have been steadily climbing across the centuries. Although there are regions of the world where literacy rates still lag behind global averages, the fact remains that if you are a child born into today's world your chances of being literate are much greater than if you were born in past millennia.

4. Women's Rights.
The situation of women in the world has been steadily improving. Again, although there are places in this world where women are still treated as property and young girls used as prostitutes, the plight of women is better today than in times past (think of the general status of woment from 5,000 BCE to 1500 CE).

Overall, I think, for each of these issues one could make a case for moral progress over time. That is interesting to me. Perhaps Wright is correct, that the nonzero game theoretic dynamic is slowly, slowly, slowly moving us toward a more moral future.

At the end of his book Nonzero Wright actually does go on to talk about religious issues, wondering if the direction of human destiny is pointing either toward God or will culminate in God. I'm not sure about that. Personally, I think all this progress could go away very quickly. I think progress has been made, but I don't see any kind of mechanism that protects us from falling back and regressing. All that good could vanish very quickly.

But, overall, as a religious person, I'm glad some progress has been made. It makes me feel that when I pray "Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven" that the prayer means something and has meant something. It makes me cautiously optimistic and energizes me to do my small part in making the world a better place.

Well, enough about moral progress. I'll move on to other issues tomorrow.

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