How depressing is the moral regression of Syria?

Syria is undergoing moral regression (one NYT update here), just as Lebanon did in the 1970s or the former Yugoslavia did in the 1990s or for that matter Germany in the 1930s.  The behavior of the government is far more evil and oppressive than before, while the moral quality of the opposition is worse than what we might have expected several decades ago.

That said, most of the world is not regressing morally and arguably can be seen as advancing morally, at least on the fronts of general tolerance, democracy, and the moral virtues which are encouraged by prosperity and market exchange.

Syria is only a small percentage of the broader world and there are only a few other places which count as (possibly) morally regressing.  In total they will not sum to a billion people.  Just for purposes of argument, if you toss in DRC and parts of Pakistan and Egypt, along with a few other areas, let us say it runs at five percent of the world’s population which is morally regressing (though DRC has made some very recent progress and is arguably the new undervalued nation).

One worry is that observed regression draws our attention to the contingency of moral progress.  It can be argued whether Syria is one data point or millions of data points.  I don’t understand very well what observed moral progress is contingent upon, and the histories of Germany and Yugoslavia make this especially tough.  Both locales seemed to have bright futures when they fell apart, morally speaking that is.  So I am not all cocky about moral progress continuing indefinitely.

Is it possible there is more moral regression in the world today than say five years ago?  Does moral regression have a unit root?  Serial autocorrelation?  Do we understand the causes of moral regression better as time passes?  I don’t see that.

Another worry is how well the rest of the world can cope with five (?) percent of its citizens undergoing moral regression.  “Quite fine” it seems so far, although this may be contingent on technology and furthermore Israel and Lebanon may not feel the same way.  In any case the moral regression of Syria may be a more serious problem when insect-sized drones can enable strategic assassinations, including outside of Syria.

The technologies and prices of fifty years from now may require much higher moral standards of us — “every man a Denmark” — than the world of today.  More generally, we dismiss the possibility of moral regression at our peril.

For a useful conversation on this topic I am indebted to SL.


The behavior of the government is far more evil and oppressive than before

"Far more evil and oppressive" than under Haffez? Than under the Ottomans, or under the Mohammedans before them?

"Far more evil and oppressive" now that it's putting down an open revolt? Compared to whom? I don't think Bashar is doing anything that the US government wouldn't hesitate to do if a State declared independence or a citizens' militia took control of a city. In fact, I think the missiles would be flying within the hour.

Have to concur here.

Does not seem fair to compare the moral actions of a government actively suppressing a revolt to those of a government at relative peace. Surely one must compare like with like, similar wars with similar wars, similar peace with similar peace.

Moral regression in Egypt for certain, as minority rights are being trampled upon now that Barak is gone. But in Syria? It could easily be argued that the moral content of the violence in the current revolt is wholly typical of mass revolts / revolutions in non Anglosphere nations. Whilst repugnant in many ways, the type and quantity and moral depravity of the violence is hardly remarkable - unfortunately.

Would also agree with some other commenters that the US prison population, prison conditions, prison sentences, etc, are strong signal or moral regression in US. Meanwhile minority protections for homosexuality, minority races, are much stronger... but then immigration is now so limited.

I do not see any clear moral improvement in the US even, nor any clear moral degradation in Syria.

Another great stagnation :)

Bu-but this doesn't fit the evil authoritarian government vs freedum fighters narrative that I am being fed daily by Western governments and media. How am I to make sense of your post?


Comment of the year?

It should be noted that when the government began killing its own citizens, they were not engaged in violence, but mere protests against a tyrannical regime. Such protests are not met with this level of violence which is why the protestors do not respond with violence in kind. There is already something deeply wrong in such a society. Syria is, in many ways, qualitatively different than other Arab regimes who are likewise authoritarian, and we can see this in ways they have responded to the Arab Spring. Morocco and Jordan are different than Egypt and Tunisa which are different than Saudi Arabia and Bahrain which are different from Syria. I'm not sure where I'd place Yemen in that list, but we do see fundamental differences in society.

Still, I'm not sure I'd use the term "moral regression". What is happening in Syria is that governmental authority has collapsed, and society has been reduced to the state of nature. Everyone is going back to their own group to provide for security and protection, and seeking to victimize other groups. It's just that Assad still has all the government assets, and other groups don't. If the term "moral regression" has value, it should be seen as a result, not the cause, of what is happening to Syria.

I believe the rebels are actually collecting taxes now.

And that's where the problems start...

I don't think the US would be importing Mexican drug gangs to help them murder civilians. I don't think they would be murdering civilians. I don't think their soldiers would be raping women. Or using, it seems, chemical weapons. Yes the US would put down an armed revolt, but then it is unlikely that Americans would rise because they have the vote. They don't need to. Moral equivalence is stupid.

Having said that, Asad Junior is obviously weak. His Father was not. His Father scared the crap out of all right thinking people. So after Hama, the Islamists didn't try anything for a generation. But they have taken the measure of the son and think they have a chance. They are probably right.

There has been no regression. This is the culture of the region. It has always been the culture of the region. Iraq was bound to be a mess because you only had to read about the Assyrians to see what standard of government Iraqis were used to. Syria has always been a mess too. It is just that because the Father is dead and the son is weak, instead of moderate numbers of people being tortured brutally in basements, large numbers of people are being tortured brutally in public and on Youtube.

And of course hence the rioting in Paris and Stockholm. People from these cultures see moderation as weakness and think that violence will get them more money and power. They are probably right. As it is weakness in this case.

It isn't moral regression. It is just that economists assume people are fungible - a Syrian worker responds in the same way to the same economic signals than German workers do. They are not. Culture matters. Unfortunately economists have been in charge of our immigration policies for some time so Syria's past will be our future.

> I don’t think the US would be importing Mexican drug gangs to help them murder civilians. I don’t think they would be murdering civilians. I don’t think their soldiers would be raping women

In the Congo the US is funding and arming soldiers that suppressed a rebellion by such measures as mass state sponsored rape and the insertion of very large objects in Tutsi women.

The difference being that in the Congo, the rebellion would, had it succeeded, have led to minority rule, whereas in Syria, the rebellion is for majority rule. So the measures used to suppress the rebellion can never be mentioned. Similarly the US is strangely comfortable with the measures used to ethnically cleanse whites from large parts of rural South Africa.

"I don’t think the US would be importing Mexican drug gangs to help them murder civilians."

You're right - the US just imports Mexican drug gangs (and other assorted Mexicans) to VOTE for the current anarcho-tyranny and they just happen to murder civilians as sort of a thing they do sometimes.

Totally different.

Ottawa hasn't fired any missiles towards Montreal lately. Nor has London ordered air strikes on Edinburgh. What makes you so sure that the US would be so different if Texas genuinely wanted independence?

I think you're ignoring the ability of people in Western nations to fire bad leaders or even discuss secession publicly, whereas in Syria apparently the only option for removing the leader was violence. In the US it would never get to the level of Texans occupying cities because there would be open discussion and a response before it got to that level of tension.

Who do I vote for to stop immigration?

To get rid of the TSA?

To not provide an infinite line of credit to Goldman Sachs?

To fire the entire federal bureaucracy and replace it with a sane government?

"...and the moral virtues which are encouraged by prosperity and market exchange."

Unadulterated mood affiliation.

Some might say "the West" is the true example of moral regression.

(I'm not one of these people, but I'm also not a fan of the throwaway one-liner that presents opinion as if it were a data-driven 'fact.')

And yet the evidence suggests those moral virtues are important.

We have been trying this experiment for over 100 years. Everyone has been trying to catch up with the Protestant Northern Europeans. They have all had problems. Japan managed it nicely, but their model seems to have come to an end. They could copy that development model, but once they got there, they had nowhere else to go and have stagnated ever since. The Southern Europeans have been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world due to massive northern aid and northern Europeans all but running their economies for them - as well as the odd military coup, some Fascist dictatorship and even the odd rigged election to keep the Communists out. They have the huge advantage of being right next door to Northern Europe and so getting a lot of tourism. But as the present crisis proves, they do not want the virtues of Northern Europe. They would rather be poor as long as they are all poor together. The Asians, the Africans, the people of Latin America, they have all tried and largely they have all failed. They make progress when the values of people of northern European descent is imposed on them through the IMF (or these days elites trained in North America). But it is not very strong in part because it conflicts with the culture of the region.

At some point you have to admit to the massive body of evidence - moral values matter and culture is very hard to change. Prosperity and markets are a product of a WASP culture that is hated and dying. The future is bleak but it is not moral regression. It is just that you cannot readily make an Egyptian, or an Indian or an African a WASP.

At the very least your post has the arrow of causality pointing in the opposite direction that Tyler presents. To quote you:

"Prosperity and markets are a product of a WASP culture..."

where he claims

"That said, most of the world is not regressing morally and arguably can be seen as advancing morally, at least on the fronts of general tolerance, democracy, and the moral virtues which are encouraged by prosperity and market exchange."

Well I expect Tyler would say, and I would hope, that it is not an arrow, but a circle. The market is created by values which market transactions then reinforce. No transaction takes place without a minimum of trust, but then being involved in market transactions makes a reputation for trust worthwhile. Which then encourages people to be honest and so gain and keep a reputation. But I shouldn't speak for Tyler.

Britain is certainly different from, say, China or South Korea. Where any businessman can expect to spend a significant proportion of his evenings utterly wasted, because no one will do business with you unless you get drunk with them on a regular basis - not so much establishing trust, as double checking on the level of trust every week. East Asian businessmen must have livers made of concrete.

Culture is relevant. But we've seen in South Korea, in Botswana, and in other places that institutions can reshape those cultures.

The problem isn't that everyone doesn't understand the superior nature of the cultures of successful economic systems, the problem is that the people who have the power in less successful systems usually care much more about clinging to power than economic growth.

I think more people should read Acemoglu's book.

I am not so convinced that those two examples prove that culture is reshaped by institutions. I agree the Soviet Union proves that culture can be reshaped by institutions. But South Korea? The South Korean military tried to create chaebol on the Japanese model. But that requires a Japanese style economy. Whereas, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out, South Korea is not like Japan and is a lot more like China. There is a lot of popular resentment in South Korea against those chaebol and I think culture will triumph over economic rationality in the long run. As for Botswana, we have a high value, mainly White-run section of the economy. And we have a moderately sized semi-literate, low-productivity-based Black section of the economy. And the two have very little intersection.

Nor am I convinced it is just about power. I think the South Koreans are morally outraged that the leaders of the chaebol can be so much richer than everyone else. They think there should be a more equal society - under the thumb of an all powerful state.

It is remarkable how difficult these problems are. Even the Italians know their politics are dreadful. They know they would be better off being more like the Germans. They joined the Euro so that the Germans would run their monetary policy. But when it comes down to it, they cannot make a majority for German-style economic policies. They do not have a single fiscally conservative political party. The choices are spending too much money on Mothers while missing Mussolini or spending too much money on the youth while praying for Stalin.

But Tyler set the mood. It's the underlying theme of half of his books.

The claim that market exchange leads to moral virtues is wildly bereft of facts, is my point. It's pure bullshit, in other words, pandering to the Rand set. I see plenty of evidence to the contrary (a statement also bereft of quantifiable fact but no less valid.)

The anti-free market right argued that once you put a price on something, you turn it into a commodity like any other good. It's hard to see where that argument fails, everything that becomes marketable loses it's moral component and is dominated by the economic component.

Right, except for the entire economic history of the world. Other than that, bereft of facts!

Unadulterated nonsense.

What Tyler did wasn't mood affiliation, it was just stating something he believes, something that to most people is nearly a truism because of the enormously strong correlations between market exchange and certain moral virtues. You might disagree with that assessment (which is frankly insane, but fine), but since he made no claim of evidence, he can't be accused of favoring any evidence due to mood affiliation.

Consensus understanding of climate change coupled with an inadequate policy stance represents moral regression (albeit not on the fronts TC listed).

Let us know when the IPCC can outforecast a random walk, let alone accurately forecast economic responses to temperatures. Till then, the moral regression is in the abuse of science.

50%+ illegitimacy rate.

Drug use up.

Incarceration up.

Yes, moral progress indeed.

Murder down

Assault down

Sexual assault down

Drunk driving down

Tolerance up

I agree completely

Murder is down because medical science is saving more victims of assault, not because violence is down. Look up the statistics.

Sexual assault down
Drunk driving down

Compared to? If we pick the height of the crack epidemic in the 1990s we are down on many bad metrics, but that's cherry picking. I think most of us have pre-counter culture rates of dysfunction. Take a look at those 1960 numbers and tell me about moral progression.

Tolerance up? People can be fired from their jobs for presenting data (Richwine). Political correctness (punishment for thoughtcrime) is the law of the land.

People can be fired from their jobs for presenting data (Richwine).

Lulz. Assuming you are not working under a contract which provides otherwise, you can be fired for almost any reason whatsoever, but let's get out the violins and put poor old Richwine up on that cross for conservative martyrs.

There used to be a social contract that said you didn't fire people for that sort of thing. Social contracts fill the holes that legal contracts can't.

He was working for a public partisan think-tank. Getting fired because one clashes with the party's image should be expected.


What statistics are you referencing when you say that assaults have not declined? BJS figures show national declines in non-fatal assaults over the last two decades.

Also, you'll note overall crime skyrocketed after the cultural revolution in the late 60s.

Murder rates would be up to five times higher than they are but for medical developments over the past 40 years.

According to new research, doctors are saving the lives of thousands of victims of attack who four decades ago would have died and become murder statistics.

Although the study is based on US data, the researchers say the principle applies to other countries too: “There is reason to expect a similar trend overall in Britain,” said Dr Anthony Harris, the lead author of the study.

In the research he and a team from Massachusetts University and Harvard Medical School found that technological developments had helped to significantly depress today's murder rates, converting homicides into aggravated assaults.

“Without this technology, we estimate there would be no less than 50 000 and as many as 115000 homicides annually instead of an actual 15 000 to 20000,” they say in a report of the study in the journal Homicide Studies (2002;6:128-66).

The team looked at data going back to 1960 on murder, manslaughter, assault, and other crimes. It merged these data with health statistics and information on county level medical resources and facilities, including trauma centres, population, and geographic size. The researchers then worked out a lethality score based on the ratio of murders to murders and aggravated assaults.

They found that while the murder rate had changed little from a 1931 baseline figure, assaults had increased. The aggravated assault rate was, by 1997, almost 750% higher than the baseline figure.

Thanks. Interesting study, but the headline overstates via omission of context. It's worth noting that non-fatal gun violence is approaching 1960s rates despite a massive increase in household gun inventory per capita.

Teen pregnancy at rates lower than any time in recorded history with dramatic reductions even in the last five years (more than 40% in many states for Latina teens). Abortion rates at post-Roe v. Wade lows. Divorce rates falling and marriage rates rising for college educated families (and far more families are college educated than in the "good old days"). Poor families having fewer children than affluent ones for the first time in centuries. Children of gay parents legitimatized.

Death penalty imposition slowed to a trickle and used in narrower classes cases. Incarceration rates finally falling. Harsh crack cocaine sentences dramatically reduced (even retroactively) and harsh California three strikes law sentences ended going forward. Juvenile life without parole ended going forward. The societal harm associated with marijuana use falling due to semi-legalization. Domestic violence and rape (even prison rape) and white collar crime are all taken more seriously by the criminal justice system and political authorities than at any other time in U.S. history.

Deaths from all forms of trauma combined including accidental, suicidal and criminal combined all at record lows. Child morality rates at historic lows. Drunk driving is way down. Life expectancies high. Our air and water are far cleaner than they have been at any time prior to the industrial revolution. Health care a year or two away from becoming nearly universal. Improvements to mental health care systems finally have bipartisan support.

Racial inequality in voting rates gone on average at the national level and the franchise has been expanded in multiple states across the nation via election law reforms. Acceptance of interracial marriage at nearly universal levels. Black-white racial inequality in high school drop out rates gone on average at the national level. Educational levels at record highs. School dropout rates at record lows. Gender discrimination in education virtually vanished in many fields (e.g. law) from being almost absolute forty years ago. Gay rights have never been more respected.

The one foreign war we are still a part of has an expiration date for our involvement that is only a year and a half away and that is a "small war". Illegal immigration has spent several years at a net zero level despite talks of amnesty legislation.

Default rates on economic promises are way down from financial crisis peaks and entire economic sectors riddled with fraud simply no longer exist.

Yes, there has been moral progress.

Marginal tax rates still close to record post-New Deal lows historically

All of the statistics you raise are all shitty compared to 1960. I'm not surprised there has been a downtick since 1990, both because that was the height of crack and our aging society has less and less young men (the traditional source of trouble, but also a problem because there is no one to meet the future needs of retirees). 1960, before you people fucked it all up, is the relevant comparison.

Also, drug use is still bad. If you know anyone that has used drugs it should be obvious. Not prosecuting them may be the right pragmatic move, but it doesn't change the tragedy of drug use for those affected by it. Not prosecuting it doesn't make the problem go away.

Blacks are doing way worse then 1960. Median earnings are way down. Illegitimacy is sky high (70%, 90% in the ghetto). Drug use and crime are high. A black man in my city, whatever his problems, had a stable job, a row home in a safe a drug free neighborhood, and he had a farther and his children would have a father. Now what does he have? Rap, drugs, crime, no job, and a single parent. Go into a black neighborhood around here and tell me these people are doing better.

Women have reported ever worsening happiness and satisfaction since they were "liberated". The use of mood changing psychiatric drugs has skyrocketed amongst them.

lol on your entire commentary about financial fraud no longer existing.

It is nice to have proof that teens respond to economic incentives when it comes to sex. Divorce rates are falling only because no one is getting married any more except the college educated. America has a large dysfunctional Black underclass. America is well on the way to producing a large dysfunctional Hispanic underclass. And all you show is that America will also have a sizeable White underclass too. Yippee!

The slowing of the death penalty is a bad thing as it means an increase in crime. It is true that crime is improving slowly but given so many young Black men are in prison it could hardly be otherwise. There is no societal harm from marijuana criminalization. Domestic violence is taken so seriously that in fact it is now a major source of injustice as anyone outside the college educated can expect to have a false allegation at one time or another. It is routine in divorce cases now. This has an impact on lives.

Having universal health care means the slow death of the American health care industry - more rationing, less innovation, fewer drugs.

Racial hatred among Whites may be a thing of the past but hatred of Whites has becoming more and more common and more and more mainstream. Educational levels are at record highs because educational content has collapsed. High Schools are just glorified day care centers and anyone who learns anything does so on their own time, elsewhere. Not at school. Gender discrimination against males has gone mainstream and education is so hostile to male, they are opting out in record numbers. Which is a problem.

Illegal immigration makes no difference when the character of the country has changed already.

More guns

Less global warming legislation

More drug freedom

More sexual freedom

Less government-enforced racism

I'm with you on incarceration, though.

"That said, most of the world is not regressing morally"

I'm not sure this is accurate. Taking the United States as an example, there has been a large degree of moral regression over the past ten years:

- Making voluntary submission to sexual assault a precondition to travel by aeroplane.
- Rendition.
- Indefinite incarceration without trial or conviction.
- Warrantless wiretapping.
- Torture by government.

My immediate sense is that on the whole we are seeing a great deal of moral regression by various governments around the world. However, this may be availability bias. So I ask: Which countries are there which have not participated in either the Syria or US style trends in moral regression?

On the question of it being depressing, though, I am with you all the way.

Paradoxically, China. The US is still unarguably more "moral" than China, but the trend in the US for the past 10 years has been going down, while China has been going up.

Another feature of globalization, the equalization of morality levels across the world.

America doing the drone double tap on the world stage. Just not on America's TV screens.

And the Bradley Manning trial is going swimmingly -

'Manning has already pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges, which could get him 20 years in military prison, but faces life without parole and a possible death sentence if found guilty on all counts. He will receive a 112-day discount on any sentence to make up for being "illegally punished" after being held for nearly 1,000 days in solitary confinement before his trial.

Judge Colonel Denise Lind said that the trial is expected to last for some time, and that over 100 prosecuting witnesses will be called – with Manning allowed one: William Leonard of the National Archives and Records Administration.'

And the comments provide a generally non-American perspective on moral regression, by the way. Such as asking who has been punished for Manning's illegal punishment?

There is nothing remotely illegal about Manning's punishment. UCMJ allows for punishments up to the death penalty. You can argue if what he did was morally right or wrong, but there is no gray area legally. He is in the military system, not civilian, so the rules are decidedly different.

Well, if the UCMJ is completely fucking stupid then it should be illegal. What the fuck is the law? Just some stupid shit that hasn't been exposed yet.

He volunteered to join the Army. The Army falls under the UCMJ. He knowingly committed treason knowing that the penalty could lead to his current situation.

He should be taken out and shot.

No he shouldn't. The military-government has committed treason and he exposed it. So, he should get their version of due process, and to the extent that there is discretion, they'd better use it because what he did was expose them for the traitors they have been to our country.

His solitary confinement was highly questionable legally.

Not in the military.

Are you the JAG judge presiding over this case?

Yeah, they should have totally put him in general population. In a military prison. Where he's widely known as a treasonous little shit. I'm sure nothing bad would have happened to him, and I'm equally sure that the liberal bumrush would have defended that humane decision, right?

He was a soldier. All this whinging doesn't change the fact that he violated the UCMJ, his security clearance, and his oath of enlistment. Give him a blindfold and a cigarette and quit whining.

You are right. He did all that. And he's a hero. So, the court should give him their version of due process with the foresight (and thus the appropriate level of kindness) that they might be beat down if we get a sane government in the future because Manning has exposed that the government-military has been an enemy of the USA in many instances.

Luckily, the guards don't realize he's a treasonous little shit and are treating him uniformly and professionally because we'd hate for him to be targeted as a treasonous little shit by...other guards?. But here's a novel idea: put him wherever you want AND don't sleep deprive him. What a concept.

I'd like to see evidence of any harm done to the US citizens that isn't a pass-through straight from an embarrassing government. That said, it's different from a people who don't have time to keep up with all these jackholes' shenanigans.

Manning released huge quantities of classified information on the internet. That's treason and States usually punish treason with death. Is that morally right? States need to kill people who might threaten it's existence in order to continue existing. States that don't act aggressively against those that threaten it don't tend to survive for long.

Manning released documents that did nothing but expose the government's embarrassment. Yes he will pay dearly. Shouldn't.

Solitary: God forbid he doesn't kill himself so we can't keep sleep depriving him. It would be a disaster if the enemy finds out they are so outclassed by our military and they are such a non-threat and this such a fake war that we just massacre their children at will. Not you, but those guys, please please please suck a bag of dicks. By their wrongful treatment of a whistleblower you know that both he is a whistleblower and the embarrassed regime is covering for fake wars. If they were real threats, we wouldn't be over there.

And then there's this: "A Washington Post editorial asked why an apparently unstable Army private had been able to access and transfer sensitive material in the first place."

Somebody probably should die for this. Not Manning. He's just a kid sitting at the intersection of military-government debacle and military-government security failures. Manning's big mistake was assuming people would give a shit or wouldn't sacrifice him to their own guilt.

The military should do their little pseudo-legal show trial, then the shirker in chief should use his single backbone card to stay the punishment, then we throw all these bums out and the new government commutes the sentence.

I don't really agree with giving Manning any sort of free pass. He was a professional soldier entrusted with safeguarding the information he had access too. He chose to misuse his position and to abuse his authority and privileged access. Now he's standing trial, as he should. He's not just "a kid."

Manning released the names of people who had worked with the US government and supplied them information. Not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but places like China. Wikileaks put all those names up on the internet.

So I notice you restrict harm to US citizens. I think that is deliberate avoidance of this issue and so gutless. But here's a harm - more Americans will die because fewer non-Americans will give them information. Those people who trusted America have been betrayed. That betrayal damages America's honor and credibility. There was an explicit promise that Manning broke on behalf of all Americans.

If just one of those people is harmed, he deserves to die.

First of all, that's probably bullshit. Who in the CIA (names of normal military don't matter) was put in harm's way directly?

Secondly, Wikileaks contacted the pentagon about redacting names and the pentagon went, meh. They didn't give a shit. They should be court martialed.

The military-government complex has been rotten for at least a decade. Check back with me in 5 years.

Who is getting a free pass?

What Manning did was expose that the military's security is a fraud in the process of exposing arguable war crimes and treasonous acts.

Manning sits at the convergence of a military-government run amok and the inevitability of information availability and a government completely unequipped to handle our national defense or defense of our classified information. And he exposed this.

He should be punished appropriately for what he actually did. What he is actually being punished for is to be a scapegoat to cover up for the military's embarrassment.

Did he sell secrets to China? No. Go find that guy and shoot him.

Did he lie us into multiple wars and expose our capabilities for zero benefit? No. Go find that guy and shoot him.

Did he target Americans for assassination, leave foreign diplomats to die, manipulate the national defense to do some military adventuring? No. Go find that guy and shoot him.

Did he expose war crimes and joke security and ultimately how far from national defense our military has gotten? Yes. Feel free to not give him a medal.

"If just one of those people is harmed, he deserves to die."

That is probably a dumb standard. 150,000+ Iraqis are dead because of the kind of things Manning exposed. If his actions harmed anyone, and that is probably speculative, it far more likely saved far more people.

"He's not just a kid"

That's funny. It's now basically a known fact that the frontal cortex isn't mature until age 25. That means Manning's still isn't mature. That also means your military made him the last bulwark against classified information release many years prior to that.

And not only that, they didn't rely on any actual security, only the individual's judgment.

Thank god he was only trying to do good and not divulge any actual military secrets that could do harm (other than embarrassing the government, which is not harm if you are a patriot).

Bradley Manning betrayed the military by exposing how the military betrayed the country. The military betrayed the country because they followed orders (I'll assume) of the politicians who betrayed the military and the country by dragging us from the top into wars that were not demanded by the people.

Let's say you don't agree with my assessment. It's still different from selling secrets to actual enemies.

Well I didn't expect to get the "his frontal cortex was insufficiently developed at that point in his adult life so we can't expect him to be responsible for his actions" argument, but I definitely give you points for pulling that one out of the "crazy" bin for us all to consider.

Andrew you are continuing to consider Americans only. Can we agree that publishing the names of people who give information is probably not good for their health? Not just in Afghanistan but in China too. Can we agree that once this generation of informants are killed, the next generation will be harder to recruit? Do you admit that this sort of asymmetric warfare depends entirely on good intel?

Then what other conclusion is there? Manning contributed to the death of Americans in the future.

Why should the US government help Wikileaks break the law? Do we insist that thieves have a right to your PIN if they manage to steal your wallet? If they damage your steering because you would not give them your keys, who is to blame but them?

It is not for you or for Manning to decide what is treasonable. It is not for Manning to break the law in doing so. And what his leaks actually prove is how boring and law abiding the US government really is. Nothing more. Manning exposed nothing and his actions have done nothing to save other lives. You are flailing around in a pathetic attempt to invent reasons to justify what this guy did. You can't. All he did was feed the anti-American hysteria from the Left and the Islamists.

If the frontal cortext is not mature until 25 I am sure you will join me in calling for sex and alcohol consumption, as well as car driving, to be illegal until that age.

It is irrelevant what he was trying to do. What he did was get people killed.

Is he being *allowed* one witness or is he *choosing to call* one witness? Big difference.

If a particular group has less violence with a dictatorship than a government that declares itself a democracy, is there moral progress with a transition to a democracy?

The western culture seems to have the greatest success with democracy. Are other cultures progressing morally specifically by becoming a democracy?

I don't have an answer.

I don't know if I believe that a democracy is the best option because of my world view, or if it actually is a net benefit for all people outside of Western culture.

Democracy among a people that don't accept universalism is just very high stakes tribalism. With all the violence and thuggery that we come to associate with the worst banana republics.

Most Westerners, who are braised in universalism from a young age, step into a voting booth and genuinely try to vote for the option they believe is best for everyone. Most Hutus who step into a voting booth are just there to try to pick the option that they believe is most likely to lead to Tutsis being hacked into pieces.

"Democracy among a people that don’t accept universalism is just very high stakes tribalism."

Define "universalism" please.

"Most Westerners, who are braised in universalism from a young age, step into a voting booth and genuinely try to vote for the option they believe is best for everyone. "

Wow, bold statement. You want to take a look at Chicago? ACORN? George Soros?

"Are other cultures progressing morally specifically by becoming a democracy?"

Google search: Japan, India, Taiwan, Mongolia...

Can you prove that it was democracy specifically that is the difference?

Yes, because coercion is immoral too. But see below for caveats.

Yes, in many places this is happening. But "democracy" just means holding elections, a tyranny of the 51% (which happens often in places like Africa) can be worse than a relatively enlightened despot. A constitutional democracy with well-functioning institutions is generally pretty moral, but it's very hard to build and requires a lot more than elections.

Another way of thinking about moral regression is to compare current actions to past actions when in similar situations.

Syria, for instance, may have morally regressed from where it was ten years ago. But has 'Syria in revolt' regressed from the previous occurrence of 'Syria in revolt'? Specifically, if we compare the current revolution to the "1982 Hama massacre," it is not clear that there has been any moral regression.

Perhaps merely a stagnation?

Depends what your time scale is. The US has certainly regressed in the last twelve years, with acquiescence to torture now mainstream (if euphemized) and a drone strike policy that is by circular logic incapable of collateral damage since any "male of military age" is deemed to be ipso facto an enemy combatant. Compare the 1901 conviction of Major Edwin Glenn to 10 years' hard labor for waterboarding a filipino insurgent to the total impunity today of those responsible for the Bush administration's torture policy. The civilian death toll in Iraq far exceeds that in Syria, despite all Assad's efforts, and there is no question that war was a crime against peace by the definitions of the Nuremberg trials. Bush was correct that the 2004 elections were his "accountability moment" and thus you can add 300+ million US citizens to the list.

Most of the Iraqis were killed by their fellow Muslims.

As for waterboarding, get your facts right

"During the Spanish-American War, a U.S. soldier, Major Edwin Glenn, was suspended from command for one month and fined $50 for using "the water cure." In his review, the Army judge advocate said the charges constituted "resort to torture with a view to extort a confession." He recommended disapproval because "the United States cannot afford to sanction the addition of torture."

Yet President Theodore Roosevelt defended the practice. "The enlisted men began to use the old Filipino method: the water cure," he wrote in a 1902 letter. "Nobody was seriously damaged."

1 month is not 10 year. I believe Glenn rose to Major General later..

The US has a president that just inaugurated an entire month dedicated to celebrating men who put their penii up other men's rectums, and yet it Syria that is morally regressing?

Well, it's better than the other 11 months, where he asks us all to put our heads up our rectums.

What are these penii of which you speak?

Noting that you've managed to completely ignore lesbians who are physically incapable of doing that, why is non-homophobia a sign of moral regression?

Because homosexuality, and the tolerance of it, are immoral.

Seems odd to have to say this, but the appearance of moral progress or regress depends on your what you consider moral. This is not something on which people agree.

Without even being self-aware of it, Tyler's post *bleeds* Whiggerism

That is exactly right. As I wrote below, the concept of moral regression is incoherent and makes no sense in our pluralistic world because there is no shared standard by which to measure such regression

Even if you agree on what is "moral", the baseline that you are comparing your time to makes a huge difference. Do you want to use 1954 or 1944 as your baseline?

Of course they don't, but many of them are pretty obviously wrong.

TC has posted recently on the economic similarities of our times and the early nineteenth century. This post somehow reminds me of the early 19th century as well.

Tyler Cowen forgets about the moral regression of the French jacobite terrorists as well as Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Polpot's state terrorism...

I agree that the many moral monsters spawned by the ideological demon of Communism are abhorrent. But what makes you think that Tyler Cowen has forgotten about them or is otherwise unaware of them?

Dont you mean Jacobin?

In support of moral progress there was the sudden turn-about (still progressing, maybe it will backslide though hopefully not) in Myanmar. Just googling the country now I was struck by this story:

"Coca-Cola began bottling its famous soft drink in Myanmar on Tuesday as part of a planned five-year, $200 million investment after having no local production for more than 60 years" (from ABC News).

"Does moral regression have a unit root? Serial autocorrelation?"

By appearances, one might think there is a critical mass of moral regression which, once surpassed, all hell breaks loose as values become inverted. But as in the stock market, "threshold theory" may be the result of an optical illusion created by changes in volatility not serial correlation.

I'd take the opposite side of any bet of anyone who claims to have a cohesive theory.

Tyler writes:

"The technologies and prices of fifty years from now may require much higher moral standards of us — “every man a Denmark” — than the world of today."

I suspect this will be true, especially Denmark's pioneering (since 2001) in intelligent immigration restrictionism.

In a pluralistic world, the whole idea of moral regression (or moral progress) is incoherent and makes no sense because there is no shared standard by which to measure such regression (or progress)


Taking this a little further, the perception of moral progress is the norm, regardless of the objective nature of the change. This is because moral progress is defined relative to one's own ideals, which are necessarily the result of whatever change in morality occurred in the near past. While there will always be some people who are "on the wrong side of history" and will perceive moral decline, it is very rare that most people would share that opinion -- if they did share that opinion then they would not be contributing to the moral decline, and it would not exist.

There are elements of broad agreement.

wrt insect-sized assassination drones, I wonder if anyone else has considered that there's a relationship between moral and technological progress built deeply somehow into the structure of the universe: that a certain level of social morality must be attained in order to unlock certain technologies. Social morality and tech progress are cointegrated, or whatever. A bunch of raping and pillaging viking barbarians obviously couldn't invent machine guns, right? Perhaps the great stagnation is related to american moral regression.

How does recovery from moral regression work? By what year -- 1955? were the Germans were just a bunch of nice Germans again and no longer Nazis? When will Lebanon finally be free of sectarian / gangster / warlord-ism?

Moral regression as described here is not in meant to cover bad policies.
It's instead focused on individuals, who used to be honorable peaceful men, but then succumb in great numbers to primal violence.

And yet I think Syria is comparable to Yugoslavia, but not to Germany in the late 30s. That would be more like the Soviet Union under Stalin or China under Mao.
Syria and Yugoslavia are true civil wars, fought along ethnic or religious divides, whereas The people under Hitler, Stalin and Mao had to be told, who there enemy was and were exposed to a lot of propaganda to accept the moral regression around them.

Both phenomena seem very different to me.

Also the examples given are big events on large areas. What shocked me more than say Yugoslavia was what happened after hurricane Katrina, like the rapings in the Louisiana Superdome, the looting, the violence against refugees.

Sometimes I feel that a lot of morality is just superficial and beasts are underneath waiting to break free.

This is very much a cultural thing or probably one of belonging to a tribe. Would you steal, if you were sure there were no bad consequences for you? Would you steal from your familiy? From your employer? From a one-percenter? From an American? From a Mexican?

Compare post-Katrina to post-Fukushima.

In the western world there will be a lot more opportunities to study moral regression in the coming years... Stockholm anyone?

"...whereas The people under Hitler... had to be told, who there enemy was and were exposed to a lot of propaganda to accept the moral regression around them"

No way. The 1% in Germany and Austria at the time were overwhelmingly Jewish. After the terrible losses in WW1, followed by the hyperinflation of the 1920's, the common citizens didn't need much urging to vent their resentment at the elite and were brutalized enough to act.

The rest of your comment I agree with though, especially the part about beasts underneath.

Yugoslavia in the 1980s was a high-end Second World country not wildly different from Spain: on the fringes of western Europe, with a fairly prosperous and globalized consumer economy, and a reasonably pluralistic political life and cultural sphere. Yet it came apart catastrophically.

Dysfunction in the aftermath of unavoidable (and unprepared) national disaster is unsurprising. What happened to Yugoslavia, though, was a product of specific and avoidable human choices. That is much scarier, IMHO.

"Moral regression"? This is a sloppy term. I would prefer we use terms with some meaning in economics. (I suppose "regression" has a meaning, but that's not what I mean.)

If we mean "curtailment of individual property rights", then that has some meaning which can be examined in objective terms, and the conditions for enhancing or diminishing such rights can be understood and analyzed. But "moral regression" is pure externalization of sentiment. It is cast as moral failing on the part of others. There is no action item, other than some negative emotional response.

I believe it was Posner who guesstimated that 5 - 15 per cent of the world's population over time and place is criminal. A game theorist's hint of [I do not wish to put words into anybody's mouth] suggests to me that Hitler's evil genius was to select these to form, run, and accept employment with the government! Saddam Hussein was no different, nor is the al-Hassad family. Milošević probably doesn't fit in well. Surely places in Africa, of which I know little, do.

I don't see a trend, but certain circumstances allow such people to come to the fore. Perhaps those circumstances are occurring more frequently, perhaps they are better publicized, perhaps not.

I'm surprised that the USA isn't even mentioned in the story of moral regression. While clearly not as bad as countries going though civil wars (might be interesting to compare current Syria with the US in the mid 1860s), it's clear that we're -- both the citizens and our political leaders and the bureaucracies seem non-pulsed by behavior that 20 or 30 years ago would have resulted in demonstrations and criminal investigations.

Accusing citizens unlucky enough to be born in countries ruled by "evil" regimes (I feel like putting my pinky to my mouth writing that) of moral regression seems a bit holier-than-thou. Is the lack of human capital in some of these countries morally worse than continual narcissistic regression in a more blessed land? It would not surprise me if the average American's moral radius is perhaps smaller than the average Syrian's. The impossibility of measuring that perhaps suggests simply "political" regression would've been a more thoughtful framing.

On the simple question of the behavior of the government and the opposition, is ours not now worse than it was as recently as the 90's, while not yet descending into "evil" necessarily? What about the UK? Because the US so frequently has divided government, it is difficult to asses the "opposition". Who was the opposition in the 90's? Who is the opposition now? As often as not it seems the President is forced into opposing the Republican's plans. But in comparing the "moral" quality of the opposition in the last several periods of one party control, I would hypothesize the R's of '08-09 were worse than the D's of 2000-06 who were worse than the R's of '76-80. And I'm not a geezer who thinks the world is just getting rotten.

"As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil."

- George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn (1941)

MORAL, adj. Conforming to a local and mutable standard of right. Having the quality of general expediency.

It is sayd there be a raunge of mountaynes in the Easte, on
one syde of the which certayn conducts are immorall, yet on the other
syde they are holden in good esteeme; wherebye the mountayneer is much
conveenyenced, for it is given to him to goe downe eyther way and act
as it shall suite his moode, withouten offence.

- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

The behavior of the government is far more evil and oppressive than before,

Is the Syrian government more evil and oppressive than it was before, or is it just a case that modern communications have made us more aware of how oppressive it is?

Well, the number of deaths wasn't covered up before, since it wasn't happening.

It doesn't take much instigation to get the leftists on this blog to speed dial the Hate America Hotline.

How about you just keep swinging your pom-poms and let the big boys talk.

Someone's panties got a little bunched there.

The common thread in all of the cases of moral regression, I think, is a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling regime. In Germany, the appearance of a democratic regime precisely coincided (for independent reasons related to the Treaty of Versailles) with utter economic collapse that discredited a regime that had not yet established its legitimacy. In Yugoslavia, the collapse and partition of the Soviet Union created a precedent delegitimatizing its own federal regime. In DRC there was a crisis of successor in a regime where coups were more common than elections. Pakistan has endured one constitutional crisis after another with middle class people demonstrating en masse in the street to support rule of law in judiciary-executive battles in a young state where again no strong legitimacy norms had developed. In Syria and Egypt, non-democratic regimes were delegitimatized by the rising expectations of democratic government created by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Libya, but the existing non-democratic regimes did not voluntarily acknowledge those rising expectations and create a clear legitimate path to democracy. Syria and Egypt were also complicated by the fact that the ruling factions in both cases are relatively secular and inclined towards market economies relative to the Islamist democratic majorities in those countries that have no long term ideological commitment to democracy once they gain power. This is particularly the case is Syria (as it was previously in Lebanon) where the ruling group was/is dominated by ethnic minorities at great risk of oppression if the Islamist Sunni majority takes power (a fear given credence by recent ethnic cleansing in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, which had a very similar regime prior to the Iraq War). In Syria, with dictatorship and democracy simultaneous delegitimatized by the respective factions the only mutually accepted form of authority is deadly force. (One could easily extend this analysis to the U.S. Civil War and Afganistan's history since the 1970s as well).

Moral regression flows pretty much automatically from circumstances in which there is no widespread consensus that the nominally ruling regime (or competing claimants to that status) is the legitimate ruling regime of the nation or territory. People will put up with very unjust policies of other kinds (e.g. Saudi Arabia or North Korea or cold war Albania), and endure great personal hardship (consider the U.S. and U.K. during WWII) with surprisingly little complaint, when there is absolute clarity regarding the legitimacy of the ruling regime. Similarly, in the case of post-WWII Japan, because a universally recognized as legitimate Emperor publicly conceded and agreed to the Allied regime after the war, the post-war regime was peaceful and there was no post-WWII civil war or insurgency of any consequence. Notably, no absolute monarchy fell in the Arab Spring, because those regimes had legitimacy that mere dictatorships or one party states in countries like Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya lacked.

But, when the legitimacy of the ruler is cast into doubt (which is a singular thing for an entire region that either exists or doesn't so it can break down on a top down basis very rapidly) the situation rapidly and inexorably degenerates into rule by force of warlords secured through violence. Law abiding social conduct is derivative of the existence of a state that is almost universally recognized as the legitimate regime of the country even when people disagree with its actions. Of course, once the legitimacy arising from repeated orderly constitutional (within the context of an already legitimate regime) successions of rulers breaks down, developing a process accepted by all factions to re-establish the legitimacy of some new regime can take decades of false starts. A critical factor in Afghanistan, for example, was the convening of a national assembly with historically precedent that was blessed by the former monarchs of the country.

The potential for large scale moral regression lurks in multiple places. In much of Africa and Southeast Asia, ethnic nationalism of states cobbled together without regard to ethnic boundaries could delegitimatize governments as could Sahel Islamists who recognize only Islamic law as legitimate and are being forced by an expanding Sahara to press into more Southerly territory - Islamist disrespect for the authority of secular rulers could be destabilizing in SE Asia as well.

In Europe, the main threat comes from subnational autonomous regions pushing for autonomy since the E.U. makes the national governments seem less necessary. This is no big problem is as in the case of Scotland, a national government permits a democratic process that is widely accepted to decide the issue and will honor the prevailing vote. But, if some regions gain independence within the E.U. but others aren't allowed to by their national government (Northern Italy or Basque Spain perhaps) the autonomy movements could grow into full fledged civil wars with the moral regression that comes with them in the face of rising expectations of regional independence that regions no longer need national governments to defend for them in a borderless E.U.

I don't know where to post "pointers", but this was an interesting read...





You missed some spots.

Chicago's number of murders has declined by about half since 1992 - that seems like a regression, just not the one being discussed here. However, you might want to pop over to the partisan lying thread.

Nice try but you missed the point entirely. The topic isn't about the criminals in jail, it is about the criminals inside the government.

If you want to shorten the time scale, lets shorten the time scale.

The murders in Chicago jumped by 80 murders per year between 2010 and 2012, and there were 50 more murders per year in 2012 than in 2004.

No one has mentioned the Sunni-Shia conflict between different Islam flavors. In a few words Sunnis think a person (ayatollah) is needed to translate the Coran to peasants. Shiites think Coran needs no translation, that the message is literal. Real world effects of that difference is that Sunnis are more o less tolerant to culture changes like Iran. Shiites are in the no booze, cover up women, kill women for no reason power trip, etc. That's enough about "culture" differences, politically both Sunnis and Shiites can be cold dictators, like Mr. Assad.

Anyway, I still wonder why people around the world cheer for the rebels just for being rebels. I know rebels are 85% of the country, the Shiites. Assad is part of the minority oppressing the country, bla bla, but at least Assad has not declared war on infidels. Why root for the rebel guys that are going to declare jihad on the rest of the world if they win?

In the moral grounds, the Syria conflict has no exit. A brutal dictator in power killing people, in the other side rebels that love killing women and war on infidels (all of us). Maybe the answer is in pragmatism......oh yeah, Assad has no war on infidels ideas, that's the good guy. If only Mr. Assad was more friendly with Israel, there would no problem here, he could kill all the opposition and no one cared for it.

The Shia tend to have Ayatollahs and it is more complex than that - do not read Christian theology into the Islamic world. The Shia believe that the leaders of the Muslim community have both religious and secular functions. An Imam has a direct line to God and can determine what is or is not properly Islamic. All Shia think that ideally their communities would be lead by such an Imam but most of them agree that the present world lacks one for various reasons. They differ in precisely where the line of Imams stopped. The Sunnis have believed for a long time that the religious function and political function of the Imam has split. Quite where and when they tend not to say. Instead the political role has devolved to whatever strongman can hold power, while the religious role is held by the Ulama collectively.

All Muslims agree you cannot translate the Quran. The problem is that no one can understand what it says as it was written a long time ago in a strange dialect of Arabic (or perhaps not even in Arabic), in violation of a lot of grammar rules. The rule of thumb is that one in five words is not understandable and one in three sentences. Which has produced a vast literature arguing about what it says.

Neither Shia or Sunni disagree about the no boozing, the covering up, the killing women for minor reasons (although the Iranians have realised that most Iranians are so appalled by Hudud punishments they do not carry them out any more).

The Syrian rebels are Sunni by and large. Asad is part of a Shia minority. Which to be honest isn't even Muslim. But Syria is an ally of Hezbollah and so they have got a Lebanese cleric to declare that the Alawis are in fact Muslims.

I really can't comment on the overall point of this, which I can't discern, but the post gets the Sunni-Shia split hilariously wrong.

Horrible frame for this discussion, as if morality happens at the level of states or groups, or that morality has improved due to adopting cheap, gauzy "hooray for everything" ethics.

The idea that ethics involves some sacrifice has disappeared. Morality is about people - their character - to me, it's deluded to think that on an individual level people are more moral than they were 50 or 100 years ago.

Acemoglu wins again.

The incentives are almost always wrong. The iron law of oligarchy tend to win.

What about Greece with the rise of party that against all non-Greeks living in Greece?

Moral progress: a nation being run for the benefit of its rank and file rather than for the benefit of its ruling class and their foreign servitors.

I notice that you, and our government, is entirely unworried that a government in the Congo that they armed and funded, and continue to arm and fund, put down a revolt of Tutsis with mass state sponsored rape and vaginally impaling Tutsi women with very large objects.

Seems that some animals are more equal than others. If it was Tutsis doing it to Hutus, let alone whites doing it to blacks, the outrage would be wholly apocalyptic.

Observe that when these crimes in the Congo are reported, they are reported in the same way that car burnings are reported, wherein unidentified people set fire to the cars of other unidentified people.

The state of the Congo, the state of South Africa, the increasingly totalitarian character of the US government, all look like moral regress to me.

And I would say that moral regress set in with the Victorians, who at the same time as they were busy bowdlerizing literature and congratulating each other on how the culture supported chastity, removed the punitive consequences for female sexual immorality, and the restrictions that denied women the opportunity to engage in sexual immorality, and it has been ever escalating hypocrisy since then.

Analogously, observe that the ever increasing outrage about slavery by white southerners is precisely matched by ever decreasing outrage about slavery by communists.

That's some bubble you got there Mr Cowen.

Speaking of which I'll take every nation it's own Denmark - NO IMMIGRATION - and a Pro-Dane Govt in a second. Unlike the Anti-Murican government we have here in Morally Progressing America.

Denmark's government succeeds Mr. Cowen because they don't hate Danes. It's what also allows them to have such moral social programs, and such high marks across the board. They're 100% Dane and love Danes.

Supposing that exchange leads to moral values, which seems plausible (business needs trust, trusted businessmen should in the long run out compete untrusted businessmen) we are now, and have for a very long time, been in an economy of crony capitalism, where businessmen with connections out compete businessmen of good character, so, we should expect moral values to be deteriorating.

As indeed they are.

I'm so pleased to hear that the world is advancing "morally" on the front of "democracy"—because, whenever I visit the DMV, I think, "Yes, these people should rule!"

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