On which issues will we become less moral?

Ross Douthat considers the hoary question of which current practices we will someday condemn, linking also to Appiah, who raised it, and Will Wilkinson.  Prisons, factory farming, immigration barriers, and abortion are among the nominations.  I would suggest an alternate query, namely which practices currently considered to be outrageous will make a moral comeback in the court of public opinion.  Torture and loss of privacy — in some of its forms at least — already seem to be on the rise, at least in terms of their acceptability in the United States.

What kind of moral status will "probabilistically causing natural disasters" have in the future?  What status does it have now? 

With rising health care costs and tight budgets in many countries, can we not expect euthanasia to rise in moral popularity?  Will the principles for cutting off care force us to transparently embrace some ugly moral principle, or will the ugliness be our lack of transparency and arbitrariness on these matters?

Preemptive warfare feels unpopular, because Iraq and Afghanistan have gone poorly, and because there have no more major successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.  I predict the idea will make a comeback.  Robot and drone warfare may become even more commonplace, as will targeting at a distance and selective cyberwarfare.  Those practices don't have to be wrong, but they could lead us to be morally cavalier about fighting a destructive war, even more than we are today.  By the way, the French seem pretty happy about the recent U.S. intensification of drone warfare in Pakistan, which is directed at stopping an planned attack in Europe.  

Tolerance of gay individuals and alternative lifestyles is at a historic high.  I would not endorse a crude "regression toward the mean" hypothesis, but we should at least try it on for size.  That tolerance is as likely to fall back as to progress.

Won't targeted genetic tests make abortion more popular and less sanctioned?  Rural India is already full of ultrasound clinics.  Won't the possibility of discrimination on the basis of genes (not many will refuse to do it, or make use of the information, if only implicitly) make discrimination more acceptable altogether?

On the bright side, totalitarianism and mass murder of one's civilian population have been out of style since the Nazis, the Soviets, and Mao.  In that sense we still can expect the future to be morally superior to the past.  But those gains were achieved some time ago.  If we capitalize them, and take them for granted, at the other margins I am not convinced that we are going to see lots of moral improvement over the next fifty to one hundred years.


The economic rise of China is going to cause a lot of rethinking about individual freedom. The West has been pretty smug about the "inevitable" economic and social benefits of a free society, generally casting this in Darwinian terms. But what happens if China starts to eclipse the West in terms of material wealth of its citizens? Will we eventually begin to question the wisdom of an open society?

Many of the items you raise--torture, loss of privacy, pre-emptive warefare--fall within the governmental relm, and citizens are likely to have different views, but only have one government, leading to inevitable conflict within the polity as to what the government should do.

But, items in your list which fall within the private sphere--tolerance towards gay, alternative lifestyles, genetic testing, even euthansia (in the sense of private decisions that involve end of life care, abortion--do not necessarily fall within the governmental sphere, unless you are of the religious conservative type that wants to put them in the governmental sphere.

The items outside the governmental sphere, listed above, are more likely to develop with large populations holding different views, coexisting precisely because there is no government involvement in trying to make one decision for all.
Consequently, if they remain in the private sphere, I don't think, given the plurality of views, these items will fall within the condemned category in the future.

Actually, I think a better question would have been to ask: what activities in the 1820s or 1860s or 1880s, that were considered moral--such as slavery, discrimination, anti-gay, Indian reservations, women's inequality--became to be viewed as immoral today, and why, and what role did government play in moving the previously moral to the immoral category.

"But, really, this endless march of progress nonsense is getting a bit thick."

The endless, unwarranted predictions of decline are what is thick -- as Macaulay said, 'On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?'

Of course 'nothing but improvement' is not quite right -- the overall trends have been very strongly positive, but certainly not uniform. Still, in support of Macauley's viewpoint, this is one of my favorites:


How do you argue against dramatic, near universal improvements in poverty rates, life expectancy, and infant mortality?

And even Detroit -- are you more concerned about people or buildings? Because in the 50 years that the city of Detroit shrank from 2M to < 1M, the metro area grew from 3M to 4M. 1950 half of the people in the metro area lived in the city, now only about 20% do -- leaving a lot of empty, deteriorating old buildings. The city looks worse--but haven't most people in the region made themselves better off voting with their feet and choosing to live where there is more opportunity, more open green space and cleaner government -- where they are less likely to be exploited by corrupt, rent-seeking officials and public-sector unions?

So much to correct in this post.

1. We have no immigration barriers.
2. Man cannot cause natural disasters, unless you are talking about moving soil around in bad ways, and careless drilling. These are obviously not accepted practices and never will be.
3. How can you wonder about the future of the morality of euthanasia when it is openly practiced in Europe and is clearly planned in Obamacare?
4. You think the lack of terror attacks in the USA since 2001 makes American feel LESS good about the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? Really?
5. Please email that last paragraph to the Congo.

TC: "Torture and loss of privacy -- in some of its forms at least -- already seem to be on the rise"

Nixon, like Johnson, taped the White House. Pre-1960, the police had much greater right to seize property, ask questions, frisk your body, and did so.

Torture is hardly 'on the rise', unless you are measuring it in terms of lines attributed to Abu Ghraib in the mainstream media. Most of those allegations are accusations are unproven in any court, and were quickly denounced by the government and populace once exposed. If you look at what the US did in wars prior to 1980, you would not see the recent Iraq-Afganistan as exhibiting the least amount of 'torture' in the history of man (really--look at WW2, US Civil War, War of the Roses, Cannae, etc.)

We may finally acknowledge the savage immorality of drug prohibition in all its forms.


Did it ever occur to you that the improvement in human welfare was in spite of, not because of democracy? The industrial revolution, not to mention the roots of the industrial revolution certainly predate all of the important "advancements" in government. The "advancements" haven't demonstrated much ability to increase the rate of change of technological progress, so forgive me if I'm a bit hesitant to attribute the invention of the microchip to the fact that women could vote.

As for those blessedly happy people of Detroit. Thank goodness they now have the option of guarding a Wendy's restaurant from crackheads at all hours with a baseball bat. If he's doing it, it must make him happy! Progress!


One little nitpick - the articles are not against factory farming, but factory meat farming. "Factory farming" includes plants, which were not mentioned.


What is your opinion on this?


I assume you think it is bad, but what should be done about it? Obviously the vast majority of Muslim are not murderers. Duh. Nevertheless, we live in a world where public insulting Islam may actually get you killed. So what is your solution?

As the default state becomes birth control always on [Even the Queen] and pre natal care improvements make earlier births more viable -

On Demand Abortion will become more abhorent.

Sure you will probably still have loop holes for birth defects etc, but On Demand Abortion, which most Americans already think is wrong, will disappear.

I think Andrew Edwards' concerns are massively overblown as they relate to the USA. Let's not forget that those in positions of power and influence today were all born before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I think most people like myself, aged 35 and under, are far more colorblind and tolerant because it's simply all we've known. And let's not forget that in this country the actual President and the mayor of NYC fully support the Park 51 project whilst the government in France overwhelmingly enacted a burqua ban.

As someone who has been a vegan for 10 years as a result of accepting the arguments about the immorality of factory farming, I must admit to being regularly befuddled that this issue is almost always put on the list of practices that will be widely seen as immoral 50 or 100 years into the future. This is frequently suggested, but almost always by people who are not vegan (or mostly vegan, consistently eating only humanely raised meat, or whatever) themselves.

Surely if one is pretty confident that a practice will be considered horifically immoral in the future, one has a responsibility to avoid that practice in the present, no? We don't hold much sympathy for slaveowners in the early 1800s who acknowledged and recognized that slavery was wrong but practiced it any way. While slavery was obviously a FAR greater moral wrong than factory farming, shouldn't the same logic apply? If you think its going to be condemned in 50 years because of arguments you take to be basically valid, shouldn't you condemn it now? I find it odd and disturbing that people don't do so. Particularly interested in Tyler's answer to this question, given that he has published on animal welfare issues and has clearly thought about it a fair amount.

Many people do not agree that this is a practice that will be condemned in 50 years and so I am not at all surprised that they do not feel compelled to be vegans. But I really can't understand the reasoning of the others.

"Surely if one is pretty confident that a practice will be considered horifically immoral in the future, one has a responsibility to avoid that practice in the present, no? "

No. I may believe, descriptively, that in the future, most people will believe factory meat farming to be immoral, without myself believing, normatively, that it is immoral, or that, descriptively, I will, in the future, believe it to be immoral.

On the bright side, totalitarianism and mass murder of one's civilian population have been out of style since the Nazis, the Soviets, and Mao.

uh, Pol Pot

"But I don't see how it ever gets considered "evil" by most of the population."

Hasn't that been the default position?

"Hasn't that been the default position?"

For small values of evil, in some cultures. Does anybody put it in the same class as, say, murder?

"Surely if one is pretty confident that a practice will be considered horifically immoral in the future, one has a responsibility to avoid that practice in the present, no?"

Nope. It just means society isn't good at understanding morality.


You're either lying or badly misinformed. If you go to the ACLU website, you can find extensive US government documentation, released under FOIA, for our torture policies. Among other things, you will find documentation of over a hundred captives who died under interrogation (aka, were tortured to death) at the hands of US personnel. Presumably much more was done that we'll never see, since the Obama administration decided to suppress further evidence of torture (this was front page news, Google for Obama and torture photos.) Making this out to be just a few allegations in some liberal media sources is nonsensical.

This shows another way that moral standards change. One of the two big parties became associated with torture, originally because of leaks they tried very hard to suppress. But then, some politicians within that party found it useful to make being willing to torture captives a partisan issue. And now, it's a live issue in US politics, and we may well see it become widely accepted. I seriously doubt you or I will enjoy living in that world, if it comes into being.

These threads are always fascinating in that they reveal some wild and crazy stuff behind the otherwise rational appearance of some regular contributors.

Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, asked why we have condemned the passing of political power from father to son, but don't see a moral fault in the passing of estates.

And really, it's difficult to see an obvious moral distinction between the two.

The idea of a repulsive, spoiled "rich kid" has persisted, though I see future generations condemning us for not DOING anything about it.

What is popular morality? Who are these "we" to which Douthat refers?

I don't mean to be cute, but this is just a bunch of navel-gazing nonsense.

If we can generate meat, or a near-enough equivalent, without killing creatures, I could see killing animals to eat them being seen as barbaric.

Which currently accepted practices will someday be condemned, and which currently rejected practices will someday be accepted? A large element in the attempt to answer these questions is *predicting future material conditions*. People adapt their practices to their conditions; as the latter change, so do the former. Historical predecessors are often wrongly condemned by those who fail to appreciate that past people lived under different conditions.

As for actions the consequences of which can be foreseen only probabilistically: these never have been well handled in everyday moral thinking. Perhaps that will change in the future; probably not--the issue is too complex.

To borrow Margaret Mead's phraseology: Never doubt that incremental technological advancement can change the world by turning "necessary evils" into just-plain evils; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. Every moral advance has a prior technological advance as a prerequisite, and is only as permanent as the technology that made it possible.

Automation and mechanization eventually made slavery unnecessary (the cotton gin notwithstanding). Modern appliances and prepared convenience foods made it unnecessary for women to do full-time stay-at-home housework. Supercomputer simulation in software made nuclear testing superfluous, and someday in the far future might do the same for in vivo experimentation on animals.

Technological progress even makes the world more peaceful, in that it turns prosperity into a non-zero-sum game. We have a different way to enrich ourselves, rather than the traditional method of invading the territories of neighbors in order to appropriate their natural resources. Advocates of "zero growth" would do well to consider the possible unintended consequences. Zero growth means a zero-sum world.

If you posit a lack of moral improvement in the next 50 to 100 years, you are (perhaps unwittingly) making a prediction that technological innovation will stall, or perhaps even devolve in some post-apocalyptic fashion. Alternatively, there could be a "cotton gin" scenario: although technological progress is positive on the whole, any one individual invention can temporarily have an opposite effect.

Rich, look into a classical understanding of property. You will find it enlightening.

The economic rise of China is going to cause a lot of rethinking about individual freedom. The West has been pretty smug about the "inevitable" economic and social benefits of a free society, generally casting this in Darwinian terms. But what happens if China starts to eclipse the West in terms of material wealth of its citizens? Will we eventually begin to question the wisdom of an open society?

I don't think so. China already has lots of both personal and economic freedom. In terms of taxes and paperwork, it is likely as easy (if not easier) to start a new business in China as it is in the U.S. In terms of economic freedom, noone cares if you go to the bar to pick up girls to get laid. You can drink a beer while walking down the street or in a park in China (try doing that in the U.S.).

The only freedom that Chinese do not have that we do is representative government. If China does eclipse the West in economic growth and development without political liberalization, it will call into question only political freedom, not any other kind.

Prison incarceration and immigration barriers could indeed be rendered superfluous by technology.

Imagine a world where the identity and movements of every person are tracked in real time: by AI facial recognition, gait recognition (we each have our own characteristic way of walking), iris scanning, pheromone detectors or other olfactory sensors, DNA sniffers that sample the dead skin cells that float off behind you, or various combinations. We would wear augmented-reality goggles that would display cartoon status bubbles above the heads of passersby (with an evolved version of the same technology that paints yellow first-down lines on a TV screen in an American football game). Convicts under a judicial order restricting their actions would be mostly free to circulate; their monitoring and supervision would be crowdsourced. Maybe extreme cases would be required to wear an ankle bracelet with built-in taser that could be activated by a quorum consensus of bystanders.

Such a society might also be more open to immigration. Currently, the market for potential immigrants is a "market for lemons". A world with less privacy will also (tautologically) be a world where we know more about everyone, and can more confidently judge people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their passport. A probationary immigrant might circulate freely in the same way as convicts on parole. The detailed track record of what a person has been up to and where they have been and who they have met with would presumably serve as a proxy for evaluating a person's character.

Such a society might also be less discriminatory (in practice, rather than merely in legislation) towards groups who sometimes find themselves under a cloud of suspicion. People who irrationally fear that all gays are pedophiles or all Muslims are terrorists might relax and drop their guard if they can feel confident that they are dealing with individuals who demonstrably are not. All forms of racism and ethnic discrimination might fall by the wayside as the fallacy of outgroup homogeneity is refuted not by pious wishes but by cold hard detailed and readily-available information about each individual. Prejudice (pre-judging based on crude proxies such as skin color) would be replaced by actual judging.

Alternatively, a truly reliable lie detection technology based on brain scanning would also be a game changer, especially if it became unobtrusive and ubiquituous. There are tantalizing signs that such technology is indeed developing rapidly, although it might soon fall under the cloak of national security because of its obvious usefulness in suppressing insurgencies that melt into and circulate among a civilian population. It would also have obvious uses in evaluating recidivism potential among convicts, or figuring out the real purpose of the journey of a visitor at customs.

The common theme is the same: if technological progress allows us to more accurately monitor and evaluate and detect "bad apples" circulating among a population of innocent people, then crude all-or-nothing restrictions on freedom of movement (of prisoners or of potential immigrants or visitors) would be abolished, along with the security theater (at airports and elsewhere) that innocent people resent being subjected to.

The pitfalls of such a society are also evident, but we seem to be heading there regardless. The next 9/11 will sweep aside any objections about the number of the beast or about yellow stars floating (virtually) over some heads rather than being pinned to clothing. I suppose we can look on the bright side and at least welcome some of the positive side effects.

"On the bright side, totalitarianism and mass murder of one's civilian population have been out of style since the Nazis, the Soviets, and Mao."

They only fell "out of style" with Western liberals because the practitioners (Hitler, Stalin and Mao) are no longer in power. But the liberals will welcome the next such regime that arises just as warmly as their predecessors, so long as the new tyrants are sufficiently anti-American and/or anti-conservative.

The only freedom that Chinese do not have that we do is representative government.

Really? Can I call the Chairman of the party a cow-fucker on the Internet? Can I start a business without bribing my local party head?

Torture and loss of privacy -- in some of its forms at least -- already seem to be on the rise, at least in terms of their acceptability in the United States.

Although it depends on how bad the fall-out from climate change is, I suspect the opposite might happen from what Will Wilkinson proposed: stronger and tighter border controls.

I disagree with Douthat on abortion. He doesn't really offer any proof that abortion has become significantly less popular over time, or is in any danger of being overturned.

I think abortion might become much rarer with the development of a wide variety of contraception means (like the equivalent of the pill for men) and weakening moral sanction on their usage, but I doubt it will be banned. There will still be a need for at least some of them, even in a world where the default position for birth control is "on" for both men and women.

I think he has a point, though, on the meat. If we develop a wide variety of cheap, artificially grown meat substitutes (with the texture and taste of the meat), actually raising animals for slaughter will eventually become socially unacceptable.

If you add up the numbers(*), to say nothing of the vulnerable and sympathetic nature of the target, abortion is going to look like the worst crime of the 20th century, at least to the people of the 22nd century.

I very much doubt that. They'll probably see it as a necessary thing in an era where access to birth control was weak, and the risks of over-population were enormous.

I suspect that our ancestors will look very poorly on anyone who had more children than the replacement rate.

As the traditional order finally collapses, I think the result is going to be a small percentage of men monopolising a large percentage of women, and some of them will want to solemnize this, and they will be allowed to (at least informally).

I find that doubtful. A legal polygamous relationship would make the women in the partnership legally inferior to the man, and it would also lead to a drastic rise in the birth rate. Both would be highly unacceptable to the future generations.

Drug prohibition. There is no close second.

Tyler may be skeptical that any moral progress will take place in society within the next 50 years, but it seems entirely likely to me that the United States will peacefully transition from a mostly white society into a mostly brown society, and that this peaceful transition will be an objective indicator of moral progress.

Also, most foreign aid going to poor gov'ts will be condemned as (winking) support for corruption.

As a fan of Turner Classic Movies - it is on in my office pretty much all day - I have noted that we have evolved significantly from a smoking and drinking culture [something that I think is not as positive as some would argue]. I am amazed by the offer of a drink or a smoke [or both] being the "normal" conversation starter in film of the 30s- 40s and even into the 50s...

Nick Charles [Thin Man] went through a significant portion of his performances with a martini in hand and less than sober...

Of course in these movies the men wore suits and ties pretty much throughout and gowns/great dresses were the norm for the women...

Today we live in a much different world - but I challenge my friends [and my foes] to give me some compelling proof that life for the average citizen is sufficiently "better" to warrant the loss of "pleasure".

"Are even the bottom 20% of people in the Detroit metro area (let alone people at the median) worse off in 2010 than they were in 1950 when the population of the city of Detroit was at its peak? Are per capita incomes and life expectancies lower? I think we both know the answer is no."

Whoa whoa whoa, let's see some evidence here buddy.

Per capita income in Detroit is a mere 14,717. Do you have proof that it was higher in Detroit in 1950? Or that longevity has increased?

"On the bright side, totalitarianism and mass murder of one's civilian population have been out of style since the Nazis, the Soviets, and Mao."

Nazis never mass murdered "one's civilian population" - they mass murdered "other's civilian populations", which never really fell out of style. Soviets and Chinese were very rough with people living in same country, but in both cases this happened after very long and very bloody civil wars, making it much less clear how much they considered them "own people". Brits definitely didn't consider Irish, Indians, and everyone else in their Empire "own people" either, and were happy to starve a few millions to death here and there for no particular reason.

All these conflicts look unusually immoral because participants had different notions of "us vs them". It is universally accepted that it's ok to harm or even mass murder "them" if it helps "us" - the only difference is where people draw the "us vs them" line.

>>the second involves passing assets that have been earned in voluntary exchange to someone of your choice.<< Curious idea - though not without appeal. Requiring that all assets to be passed on must have been "earned in voluntary exchange" would be an interesting (and, one might almost say, radically progressive) amendment to our current treatment of estates.

"With rising health care costs and tight budgets in many countries, can we not expect euthanasia to rise in moral popularity?"

And Ty Thorn's moral future could well become ours. "It's people. Soylent Green is made out of people."

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