Michael Shermer, in his recent “reply” (it wasn’t much of a substantive reply) to Ophelia Benson, made reference once or twice to moral progress. Since I’ve written about this more than once in the past, I thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit the concept.
Thinking about moral progress takes you down a tricky, potholed path. The idea lends itself all too easily to apologies for imperialism and colonialism, to the smug notion that “we” Civilized White People have brought the rest of the planet’s population out of its primitive, backward ways, along an ever-advancing path toward Civilization. It also tends to confuse theory with social reality, discounting the very real forms of oppression that characterize contemporary "civilization."
Even more nuanced views which recognize many of the sources of contemporary bigotry to be of modern, elite origin tend to place white, straight, male “Westerners” in the moral vanguard. This ignores the obvious point that the most privileged, the prime beneficiaries of any system of oppression and exploitation, are the least likely to be progressive in challenging the situation (not that it doesn’t happen – of course it does, and these people tend to receive far more historical interest than the members of oppressed groups).
But let’s accept the idea that, over the past few centuries, barriers to the consideration of rights and participation – whatever their origin - have been falling. The movements against racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism, ableism, imperialism, and religious privilege (specific and generic) have gained strength, marking progress at the level of moral theory and practice. This is true more broadly of the decline of authoritarian and hierarchical systems. (Again, this doesn’t mean the end of domination and exploitation in practice, but simply a decline in the explicit attempts to justify naked oppression. It’s an ongoing battle, always.)
What does this mean for us in the freethought movement? A lot! It means that we need to study the past, recognizing ourselves within the great sweep of the history of freethought and scientific progress, and to think about future generations. How will they regard our views?
Miranda Fricker writes about judging people in the past. We should think of ourselves as the past, because inevitably we will be. If we consider the arc of moral progress, and consider it a good thing, what do we think the most admirable of future generations will think of our views? How do our views fit historically?
I’ve had to revise my ideas about animal rights and psych rights considerably over the past couple of years, and have no doubt that not only my earlier views but some of my present ones will, to future generations, look quaint at best. The point, though, is the effort – to try to look back from the future and from the perspective of oppressed beings and to cultivate the habits of objectivity.
Now, Richard Dawkins likes to write about moral progress, but he’s not big on practicing what he preaches. Same with Michael Shermer. In my view, if we’re going to take moral progress seriously, here’s a relevant test:
Can your ideas be summarized or prefaced with “They want to take us back to a time when…” or “They want to continue a status quo in which…”?
“I want to continue a status quo in which women’s interests and talents are thought to be essentially different from men’s.”
“I want to continue a status quo in which women’s voices aren’t attended to with the same seriousness as men’s.”
“I want to move us back to a time when conference organizers didn’t think about the sex of invited speakers and so chose overwhelmingly men.”
“I want to move us back to a time when there were no harassment policies or cultural condemnation of sexism and each woman individually had to confront this on her own”.
“I want us to continue a status quo in which women who oppose sexism and misogyny are harassed, threatened, and subjected to a campaign of personal smears, sexist slurs, and denigration on the internet.”
If your ideas fit in this mold, you might be a reactionary.