March 1, 2012 columns

The Reality of Moral Progress

People from Charles Murray to Rick Santorum worry about moral decline in modern America. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, sees a different reality. He writes in the New York Times:

It’s easy to focus on the idiocies of the present and forget those of the past. But a century ago our greatest writers extolled the beauty and holiness of war. [See more on this in the forthcoming March-April issue of Cato Policy Report.] Heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson avowed racist beliefs that today would make people’s flesh crawl. Women were barred from juries in rape trials because supposedly they would be embarrassed by the testimony. Homosexuality was a felony. At various times, contraception, anesthesia, vaccination, life insurance and blood transfusion were considered immoral.

People such as the reformed slave trader who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” Martin Luther King Jr., and Episcopal bishop Mariann Edgar Budde might attribute such moral progress to a better understanding of Christian faith. Pinker attributes it to a different factor:

in one important sense, people have been getting smarter, not dumber, over time. The increase is not in raw brainpower, nor in crystallized skills like arithmetic or vocabulary, but in abstract reasoning: the ability to ignore appearances and reckon in formal categories. …

Ideals that today’s educated people take for granted — equal rights, free speech, and the primacy of human life over tradition, tribal loyalty and intuitions about purity — are radical breaks with the sensibilities of the past. These too are gifts of a widening application of reason.

Whatever the source, it’s a reality that should be considered when we try to assess the state of morality in the modern world. Some people do see it. A commenter named  Evan at econlog offered a similar perspective in a vigorous debate about Bryan Caplan’s claim that average people today have more material comforts than George Vanderbilt, the builder of Biltmore, had:

One thing I haven’t heard anyone address yet is moral progress. The values of earlier time periods were sickeningly depraved. One reason I’d never want to have been born in the past, rather than today, even if my past status would have been higher, is that I enjoy being the kind of person who doesn’t burn witches, own slaves, participate in pogroms, or bash gays. I think if you asked most poor people if they’d rather be a wealthy slaveowner in the past, they’d all look at you with horror.

Perhaps Martin Luther King was right when he said, echoing the abolitionist Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”