Issue #6: progress

Are we the barbarians?

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by Patrick Stokes on January 12, 2015

The ancient Greeks invented a whole bunch of important stuff: democracy, tragedy, philosophy (if you ignore India and China, which you shouldn’t), and more besides. Perhaps that’s why they were so contemptuous of non-Greek peoples. To Greek ears, the languages of Egyptians, Celts, and Phoenicians sounded like meaningless babbling: ba-ba-ba. In time they came to call the speakers of these languages – that is, all non-Greeks – barbaros.

It wasn’t meant as a compliment. The Hellenes saw ‘barbarian’ people as inherently inferior, and had no scruples about enslaving them in vast numbers. Aristotle goes so far as to say that all foreigners are “natural slaves”, an attitude that strikes us as, well… barbaric.

It’s a neat illustration of one of the problems with progress: eventually it leaves everyone, even the most progressive, behind. The Greeks saw themselves and their culture as morally advanced relative to their neighbours, but to later societies the Greeks’ cultural chauvinism itself, and the practices it licensed, appears horrifying. Fortunately we’ve come a long way; we might have our faults, but we’re not so bad as that.

The thing is, the Greeks weren’t hypocrites. Assuming the judgments we pass on their culture are right, then they – the culture that gave us Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics, that gave us the word ‘ethics’ – simply never noticed that their attitudes to non-Greeks were so repugnant. Enslaving foreigners seemed like the natural order of things, something that simply didn’t need to be questioned.

In a sense, that’s true of all those parts of history we look back on with disdain and disgust: how could they not see what they were doing? Even the transformative figures – the moral revolutionaries – can seem hopelessly limited in retrospect. Lincoln freed the slaves, for instance, but he couldn’t quite conceive of African Americans as full citizens.

Moral progress is painfully slow and fitful, and often theory outruns practice. Australia’s first Prime Minister told the first parliament in one of its first debates, “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.” Barton could at least see that equality was an ideal to be upheld, but it was unthinkable to him that Asians might be equal with Europeans.

It all raises the question: might there be things we can’t see, just as the Greeks, the slave states, and the fathers of the White Australia Policy were all morally blind in their ways? “The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends towards justice.” But just how far along that arc are we? Viewed a hundred years from now, or two hundred, or a thousand, will we be seen as cruel, as vicious – as barbaric – for reasons we’re blissfully unaware of now?

To begin with, we can note that there’s no way to rule out this possibility ahead of time. We have no reason to think our society has achieved moral perfection, and we’d have no obvious way of knowing if it had. It’s even possible that we’re not making progress at all. Maybe Foucault was right: what we think of as truth, including moral truth, is nothing more than a product of the current power regimes of our society. It’d be no wonder, then, that the past seems backwards to us, because we’re judging it from standards that are designed to justify and perpetuate the system we have right now.

Other philosophers, such as Charles Taylor, rejected that view, and even Foucault seems to have backed away from it. We can make sense of moral progress in terms of advancement towards a goal, albeit an imperfectly defined one: an external, non-historical view of the Good against which we can evaluate different eras, different societies. We know, however vaguely, what sort of things are good, at least well enough to enable us to judge different configurations of society in ethical terms. The end of the Atlantic Slave Trade was an advance, not just a change.

Moral progress can be very slow – we shouldn’t forget that globally, abolishing slavery is unfinished business, not to mention ending the repression of women. But it can also be rapid, and take as its objects things that no one had considered before. Much of the West, for instance, has shifted from treating homosexuality as a crime and an illness to legalising same-sex marriage in less than half a century. The unthinkable can become the norm with breathless speed.

Of course, in retrospect, you can see the seeds of progress. Jeremy Bentham was writing in favour of decriminalising homosexual acts as early as the 18th century (even if he couldn’t publish it) while feminism’s roots go back at least as far.

If we can’t rule out the possibility that we’ll be viewed as barbarians someday, perhaps we can at least predict what we’ll be condemned for. Future generations might look back on our treatment of nonhuman animals with horror, or shake their heads at the disparities of wealth and power that still bedevil us. Those critiques are already well underway, and perhaps we can discern where they might lead us one day.

Or, our sins in the eyes of our great-grandchildren could be something we genuinely haven’t thought of yet. And, even worse, according to at least some philosophers, moral ignorance doesn’t excuse us the way regular ignorance does. It’s not Barton’s fault that he didn’t know smoking causes cancer, but it is his fault that he couldn’t see non-white people as his equals. “It was a different time,” only gets you so far off the hook.

There’s a partial analogy here with scientific knowledge. By modern standards, 19th century doctors had a hopelessly limited knowledge of how to treat illness. But if gravely ill, you’d take a Civil War doctor over a medieval one any day. Today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s quaint and next week’s hilarious, and it seems highly likely that our current knowledge will look primitive and partly wrong to future scientists. But we don’t stop using the deliverances of science just because science isn’t finished yet.

Scientific knowledge advances through a distinct method – something we lack in moral philosophy – involving experiment. The philosopher Robert Kane has argued that in morality, too, we make progress through “experiments in living”, judging after the fact which ways of living produce more value. Experiments, he points out, always involve risk of failure. But it’s not clear that our moral lives are really experimental in that way; marriages and careers can fail, but that doesn’t make them experiments in living, entered into just to see if they’ll work. There’s a whole-heartedness to moral commitments that seems incompatible with the experimental attitude.

And yet, we still go to the doctor, even though medical science clearly hasn’t reached a perfected state – because as vulnerable beings, living in time, we have no real choice but to throw ourselves into the best currently available to us. Our finitude and epistemic limits mean we have to commit to courses of action with a certainty that exceeds our confidence.

Relative to our distant descendants, are we barbarians? Are our lives reprehensible in ways we can’t even begin to imagine? Maybe. It seems quite likely that moral progress will leave us looking pretty shabby in hindsight. Perhaps the only way to know you’re living a blameless life would be to wait until all the moral facts are in, and live according to what you know then. Until such a time, if it ever comes, the sensible course would be to reserve your choice.

But, as 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked, we can’t hold off on choosing how to live: “It is not optional. You are embarked. Which course will you choose then? Let us see.”

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