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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