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Unknown Atrocities

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What will future generations condemn us for?  That’s the question that Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah asks and it’s a good one.  It’s a question that I ask my students in order to provoke their thoughts about the objective character of ethical arguments.  Many of my students think they believe that morality is relative; that it’s all just a matter of opinion, or there is no genuine right or wrong (not synonymous theses but not distinguished for most of them).  Of course when I ask them what they think of slavery or the Holocaust they contend that these are genuine wrongs.  Yes, it’s their opinion that these things are wrong, but it’s also something more.  They have good reasons for thinking that these particular past practices are wrong and they think these reasons should trump the view that “Hey, you think slavery is wrong, but I think it’s right, so we should just agree to disagree.”  Since they may have spent a couple hours arguing about vegetarianism or abortion and did not convince their roommate they tend to think that perhaps the majority of objective moral questions have been settled.  I don’t mean to pick on my students because I am also guilty of accepting much of what is conventional and traditional as correct.   However, it really is surprising how shifting the framework of the question 100 or 500 years in the future can stir their imaginations to judge current practices differently.   I’ve asked the question about what practices will future generations condemn  of elementary, high school and college students. The responses I get are incredible and varied.  I hope you’ll consider weighing in (either by adding your prediction or defending an action you think has been wrongly singled out for moral obsolescence).

Appiah identifies four practices that he thinks are headed for moral obsolescence;

1)      Our prison system.  The U.S. imprisons a shocking ¼ of the world’s prisoners and only 4% of the world’s population.  Moreover the majority are non-violent offenders.

2)      Factory Farming.  Even pre-schoolers know that animals suffer.   I wonder are we still living with Descartes’ worldview (see earlier post)?

3)       Our treatment of the elderly.  Nursing homes are a horrible place to spend the so called golden years.

4)      Our treatment of the environment.   I can hear my grandchildren 40 years from now “you knew that fossil fuels caused climate change, you taught a class on environmental philosophy, and yet you often drove 100 + miles to ski for the day?”

Appiah’s list is very plausible but by no means the most obvious, imaginative, nor exhaustive (he doesn’t claim it is any of these).    One more obvious choice would be the prohibition against gay marriage.  That practice follows Appiah’sthree criteria for practices destined for moral obsolescence to the letter.   First, the arguments are not new.  The case against gay marriage seems lifted verbatim from the case against inter-racial marriage.  Second, the most common appeal against gay marriage is that it would change the definition of marriage.   As the opponents say “marriage just is between one man and one woman.”  This is simply another way of saying “tradition.”  Third there is plenty of strategic ignorance going on, where defenders of traditional marriage are apt to ignore the vast array of benefits and rights that they enjoy (adoption, hospital visitation, inheritance) .

As for the more imaginative, I emailed a friend in prison for a non-violent offense (growing marijuana) and asked him how he felt about Appiah’s first item.  He not surprisingly agreed and commented how absurd it seemed to him that in a country that claims to pride itself on personal freedom and choice would imprison people for growing a plant.    I was definitely intrigued by his addition to the list.  He wrote:

I’ve often thought about the age we all live in and how we are still very much a part of what I would consider the ‘Dark ages’ of human development.  I’m surprised he [Appiah] didn’t mention our atrocities commited in the name of ‘civilized’ warfare [my bold].  We are still a war-like people throughout the planet, killing each other over anything and everything.

The condemnation of civilized warfare is certainly a more speculative proposal for condemnation than Appiah’s other condemned practices.   However, it is more on the scale of condemnation of slavery than the treatment of the elderly.  Most people desire better treatment for the eldery and would not want to place their parents in a nursing home.  Like slavery, most people don’t like war, but see it as a necessary evil (by comparison “how else are we supposed to grow cotton”).   Of course, one important difference is that we fought a war to end slavery.  Yet a war on war would is self-refuting.

Even the rather mundane choices that Appiah offered were ridiculed by many of the commenters so it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t step too far out on the fringe.   As a blog that maintains that most of its ideas will probably be wrong, I don’t feel constrained by appearing reasonable.  I’m more interested in bold and imaginative ideas.

So what are your proposals for practices destined for moral condemnation?


Written by sturgis

September 30, 2010 at 1:05 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Dan,
    I’m unsure if we’d ever be condemned on moral grounds, but I can imagine future generations questioning the practice of the 40 hour work week. Sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours a week! “Were they nuts, or did they just enjoy alienation?”

    Or perhaps we’ll be condemned for the pathetic leave of absence employers grant for maternity/paternity leave.

    More on topic though, I found Appiah’s idea about our treatment of the elderly as the most likely to be put into question by future generations.

    Perhaps future generations will also question malnutrition and homelessness in our America. It does seem particularly difficult to accept these social problems in a society such as ours.

    Peter Witte

    September 30, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    • I agree with the immorality of the cubicle. When I took my first “real job” after college and was asked to sit in a cubicle all day, it took me about two weeks to realize how totally insane that was (and then about two years to save enough to quit and travel)


      September 30, 2010 at 4:20 pm

  2. Dan,

    They might condemn us for killing each other with such ambition and cold efficiency. This condemnation might be muted, though, because no previous generation fixed that either, and because the future generations themselves will (presumably) still be killing each other.

    I think they will also condemn liberalism, in both its narcissistic individual-supremacy form, and (apropos of Appiah) its pluralistic-cosmopolitan form. Why? Because it so powerfully fueled (fuels) conflict (thus “killing each other”, above). 20th century “wars for peace” and 21st century wars against “insecurity” are bound to look odious at some point.

    Does your question imply some kind of moral progress? Because part of me wonders whether future generations will condemn us for anything at all. Recall that the supposedly-universal social and legal norms prohibiting torture (and genocide) seem somewhere between weak and useless. So you might also ask what *past* generations might condemn us for, if only they could. Things they had overcome that we revived.

    Steven T

    September 30, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    • Maybe it’s my rosy optimist side but I do believe in moral progress. I don’t think it is linear. We do have our “saw teeth” of ups and downs. While waterboarding is horrendous, it’s better than lynchings at picnics (Appiah’s example).


      September 30, 2010 at 4:23 pm

  3. I definitely agree with the list from Appiah, as it relates to Americans. In other societies in the world, the elderly are exalted while in our society they are pushed out of the way, ignored, even laughed at. Likewise with the concerns for animals and the environment, in other countries it’s built into people’s moral fiber to protect these from egregious harm, whereas we feel free to use them in the manner most convenient to us.

    Worldwide, I definitely think there will be critiques of our modern system of war. Once everyone has a nuclear weapon, countries will have to find other ways to settle disputes that should have been used instead of warfare long ago.

    I also think human trafficking will be exposed. Every time I hear about it, I’m shocked and horrified, and then I forget about it completely. My understanding is that it’s a thriving business around the world, but rarely do we hear discussions about it. At some point this will rise to the surface.

    Also extreme poverty. The fact that there are a few people hording Billions(!) while others literally die on a daily basis from lack of access to basic food, clean water and health care is outrageous. Just look at the Walton family – each of Sam Walton’s kids are worth $20 Billion. EACH. Are they better human beings than 99% of the rest of the world that they deserve such an inordinate share of the world’s wealth? I think that as the divide between rich and poor increases over time, and more people find themselves in the poor category, more people will become outraged over the inequities.


    October 6, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    • Hey Kiffer,

      Great list. I like the addition of extreme poverty. I mean when 2 billion live on less then $2 (and that’s adjusted for local purchasing power) I start feeling a little more like Sam Walton myself.


      October 9, 2010 at 9:44 am

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