From time to time I have become notorious among my friends for subscribing to a belief in moral progress, the notion that humanity, as a species, has been slowly improving over time. When I make these claims I tend to face howls of protest and a long list of modern sins: The Holocaust, WWI, WW2, Rwanda. I've stuck to my guns (pun?) in these debates and have defended the notion of moral progress from time to time on this blog.
I think there are a couple of reasons why my friends object to the notion of moral progress. First, they are rightly outraged at modern holocausts and genocides. And to call these things "progress" seems obscene. Second, from a moral pedagogical perspective, preaching progress might take the heat off us, morally speaking. The fear is that if we embrace a notion of progress we will begin to rest on our laurels.
But, as I think everyone can see, these objections are really non sequiters. They don't really answer the question about if, in fact, we have made moral progress.
I got to thinking about moral progress again this week. First, I watched this TED Talk by Steven Pinker On The Myth of Violence. In the talk Pinker marshals (pun?) much of the evidence I've used in my own conversations with friends:
And I also came across this essay (H/T Daily Dish) by the philosopher Jonathan Rée. Rée begins his essay on moral progress this way:
One of the most intriguing questions about morality, it seems to me, is what happens when it changes. What happens, for example, when the subordination of women to men, or their exclusion from higher education or the professions, ceases to seem innocuous or natural, and starts to be regarded as a grotesque abuse? Or when corporal punishment goes out of style, and homosexuality comes to be tolerated or even respected, or when cruelty to animals arouses indignation rather than indifference, and recklessness with natural resources becomes a badge not of magnificence but of monstrous irresponsibility?
There is of course room for disagreement about such alterations of moral opinion. But no one could maintain that they are devoid of discussible intellectual content. No one would claim that – like, say, changing fashions in moustaches or skirt-lengths – they simply reflect the unaccountable gyrations of taste. Indeed it seems probable that moral change, over the long term, involves something like an expansion of horizons, a process of learning, or even – to use a dated word – something you might call progress.
It seems timely, therefore, to turn back to Immanuel Kant’s celebrated treatment of the question “whether the human race is continually improving”. Writing in the 1790s, Kant argued that the “moral tendency” of humanity was, like human knowledge as a whole, destined to carry on getting better till there was no room for further improvement: humanity was imbued, he thought, with a transcendental impulse to refine and clarify its moral opinions as time goes by, or to grow in moral intelligence.
Kant’s faith in moral progress was popular in the nineteenth century (think of Auguste Comte’s Positivism and various branches of Hegelianism), but it is not likely to be promoted with much conviction any more. If you were to show any signs of moral optimism today you would be mocked as the dupe of political boosterism or moral grade-inflation, and friends would try to re-educate you with a catalogue of ferocious wars, futile revolutions and murderous regimes, topped off with some sad sagacity about the destructiveness and deceitfulness of human nature. The old proverb about pride applies to moral optimism as well, or so you would be told: hope comes before a fall.
But pessimists too can be guilty of narcissistic bad faith. If you want to be admired for moral perspicacity, all you need do is cultivate a habit of indignation and dismay: if you can see vice where others find nothing but virtue, or degeneracy where they see improvement, or corruption where they see probity, you can become a Person of Principle at no cost to yourself, while everyone else will look like a tiresome Trimmer, an exasperating Polyanna or an impermeable Pangloss. “Men are fond of murmuring,” as Voltaire once put it; “there is a pleasure in complaining,” he said, and “we delight in viewing only evil and exaggerating it.”
As a matter of fact, moral optimism is not as dead as you might think: it often floats to the surface of contemporary common sense without occasioning much comment. When people want to protest at contemporary horrors – torture, say, or forced marriage, human trafficking, or racial violence – they are likely to condemn them as “Victorian”, “medieval”, “primitive” or “antiquated”, while expressing astonishment that they should still be countenanced in the twenty-first century. The notion that the epochs of past time can function as terms of moral opprobrium, or that the present date constitutes some kind of moral standard, testifies to a stubborn faith in something like Kant’s doctrine of progress.