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.