Sunday, 6 September 2015

Our Greatest Moral Failing

The August GMH Meeting was a Discussion: In 2115, what will our descendants condemn as our greatest moral failings?

John Coss opened the meeting by summarising an article written by Stefan Klein and Stephen Cave entitled, What will morality look like a 100 years hence? The authors point out that norms and values change, e.g. in 1915 – sexism, racism, imperialism, anti-Semitism and homophobia were not just accepted, but expected, even required.  The authors self-identify as ‘progressive’ and are glad that these attitudes are increasingly unacceptable. But OUR values will also be supplanted – and not always in ways we will welcome.

What is the proper reaction to such change? A good start is to CONSIDER HOW OUR VALUES MIGHT CHANGE OVER THE NEXT 100 YEARS.

Secondly, there is an idea of moral progress that can help us see how values might change in ways that we today could accept as FOR THE BETTER even though it may not be easy for us. This alerts us to the contingency and particularity of our own moral views. It pricks our illusion that we are at the pinnacle of moral progress. It is different from asking ‘what are you or I doing wrong’ which implies we are not living up to CURRENT moral standards. Instead, it addresses our moral
IMAGINATION. Rather than speculation about future norms, we can look at underlying trends that are still unfolding, and ask where we are failing not individually but COLLECTIVELY as a moral community. In other words we can imagine a better world and in so doing may help to make it real.

As to what counts as moral progress, the authors argue that morality means giving common concerns or the wellbeing of  others as much weight as one’s own self-interest. The tricky question then is: WHO COUNTS AS THE ‘OTHER’? They conclude that moral progress means including ever more people (or beings) in the group of those WHOSE INTERESTS ARE TO BE RESPECTED. In these terms we have come a long way. But there is room for improvement, and so a key aspect of moral progress is imagining HOW THE CIRCLE MIGHT WIDEN STILL FURTHER.

The authors claim that recent research supports the view that the more people feel connected with others, the more moral they are. Hence they hope that an increasingly globalised interconnected and interdependent world will also be an  increasingly benevolent one, with ever more people (or beings) drawn into the circle of concern. But these changing values have a price. For many of us, they will mean sharing or giving up privileges that we have long enjoyed, admitting that our comfortable lifestyles are based on industries of exploitation, or otherwise recognising that we have in a hundred ways been wrong. This is not a message we rush to hear! But debating the question of what we will be condemned for in 100 years may be a way of easing the transition.

The authors then put forward four suggestions as to what they think we might be castigated for in 2115, which they regard as natural extensions of progress so far. 

1. Rights for future generations, i.e. extending the circle of moral concern IN TIME. This will involve massive  restrictions on our freedom of action, since current activities have impacts on people far into the future 
2. Rights for other conscious beings: non-human animals feel pain and many other emotions 
3. ‘Opening the floodgates’: in 100 years, our descendents may be impressed by current levels of welfare and prosperity in the developed world, but appalled that access to them depends on where you are born 
4. Healing criminals: in 100 years, no one will believe in absolute free will or that anyone chooses to become a criminal but we will not find it easy to decide who to treat, how radically and when, nor to extend sympathy to those who commit the worst crimes 

The authors acknowledge that there are many other changes they could imagine, and say they have barely touched on the  question of INEQUALITY. For many who live through them, these changes will be extremely uncomfortable – but they will not be troubling for those who grow up with them.

John suggested that the discussion should focus on societal norms in modern technological societies and how these are likely to develop, assuming that civilisation develops continuously from the present but the position of humanity in 2115 is significantly less favourable relative to how things would have been if current environmental challenges had been
adequately addressed in a timely manner.

A lively and healthy debate ensued. One of those present suggested at the conclusion of the discussion that we (GMH) should consider getting involved with H4BW - Humanists for a Better World, a BHA special interest group. See The meeting was well attended, especially given that it was August, with a lot of new people in attendance.

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