Tag Archives: morality

The concept of Moral Progress

So I saw a very interesting TED talk (thanks for that Freddie Collins), and considering ethics is the only module at university I actually enjoyed and tried to take part in, I thought I might have something to contribute to the discussion.

First off, watch the talk by Sam Morris, who is a neuroscientist and author of a New York Times best-seller:

Early in the talk Sam introduces this concept of “Moral Landscapes”. This is a frequently used term, one also used by a Peter Singer, a prominent ethicists and one of The Times 100 most influential people in the world. Here’s a video below outlining some of his views:

So now I take it you’ve watched these video’s, its time for us to begin the discussion  What do we mean by the concept of moral progress?

We live in a world of good and bad, light and dark, the enlightened and the barbaric. Or so it seems at least, we can broadly categorise moral agents and their actions within these two different groups.

Yet the world we live in also has varying definitions of what is considered good and bad. Social behaviour is something that is evolved, and hence we find across the ages and different cultures, there tends to be very differing moral premises, thereby altering the conclusions we draw from our social interactions.

Let me put it like this – morality is fickle. Like the great statues of Ozymandias, the sands of time will inevitably destroy all old ways of thinking.  Morality is ever changing in the collaborative eyes of society. Throughout history there have been both seismic “shocks” to our perceived view of what is good, and what is morally bad, influenced by exogenous as well as endogenous factors. Almost always however, progression of morality, or what we consider to be progression, has been shaped by the profound need of humanity to survive and adapt to its environment. Increasingly, reciprocity has become more prevalent in our globalised world, along with empathy and non-violence for these very reasons. It makes sense to promote nuclear disarmament for instance, when you could potentially be eradicated yourself in the event of international thermo-nuclear war.

On the topic of religion and morality – I find it no coincidence that with the birth of organized religion came an explosion in human population. While I concede that there are a great many socioeconomic factors that contributed to the relative success of the human species (including are industrialization, education, marriage, social status, family structure, health care and nutritional status), it is religion that has been integral to the progress in morality that we have today. I think for us to live in a cohesive and functioning society we required religion.  Sam states that “most moral talk is viewed through religion…[and] this is why we spend our time talking about gay marriage…and not genocide, or nuclear proliferation, or poverty or any other huge consequentialist issue.

Sam, along with Peter and other prominent ethicists of the 20th century, have shied away from religion. It seems we now live in a secular society, particularly more so in the west, which separates the laws of the state from the religious duties of church. However, as Sam notes, many still view moral questions through the perspective of religion. Is this a hindrance to moral progress? Does this cause backwardness?

So these are two images that stuck with me after Sam’s TED talk. The second in particular, is quite a poignant image in itself. The disparity in our ways of thinking are quite shocking when juxtaposed like this. On the one hand, in the west where we are free, where we have the utmost liberties and freedom, unburdened by the shackles of religious obligation to bronze age texts – we still have the “wrong” answers to questions of morality. Is this the kind of world we want our children growing up in? Not only that, but if you watch TV, read the news, media, film – anything these days that is produced for mass consumption, you get a sense that humanity has really taken a turn for the worse even in the supposed civilised world. Greed, self interest, lust – these qualities that were once considered morally “bad”, are now virtuous, are now necessary for a person to succeed in life. Yet Singer believes we ought to think differently, we ought to

In a society like America… bring up our children, both for their own good and for those of others, to know that others are in much greater need, and to be aware of the possibility of helping them, if unnecessary spending is reduced. They should also learn to think critically about the forces that lead to high levels of consumption, and to be aware of the environmental costs of this way of living.

However, despite this we can still rest easy knowing life in the west is comparatively easy when compared to that in Islamic or more conservative nation. Here the welfare of the individual is also dramatically compromised by adhering to a strict ideology, maintaining past beliefs and customs that we can consider to be outdated. We do not need to worry about eating pork any more because of religious duty or infectious disease. But we should still refrain from eating pork (and meat in general), because the resources that are used to produce it are unjustifiable with such rampant world poverty. The individual does not have the liberty to conceive and reason their own consequentialist conclusions like this however. They are not given the freedoms in which to figure out what is good, and what is bad given their moral premises. Does this mean that morality is subjective? Sam believes there can be moral truth. He gives the example of how in Chess, sometimes sacrificing the Queen is good a move, but generally speaking, it is always best to keep the Queen alive. Hence, it is always wrong to lie, but sometimes there can be exceptions to this rule. 

But as stated before, without religion of course, we would not have the moral progress that we have now. Reciprocal relations are integral to any civilised society, and religion provided stepping stones upon which our current moral topography is based. Through a slow process of miniscule changes, almost like the movement of tectonic plates, coupled with these tremendous “seismic” shocks in our concepts of basic human rights and individual liberties, we now have a very different moral landscape to lets say, 2000 years ago, and the birth of christianity. One that has a great deal many less peaks and troughs – we are more equal than ever it seems.

We can also use another Singer example to illustrate how our thinking has evolved, with the following moral premises;

If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.
Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

It was religion that originally taught us the virtues of altruism, and promised us intangible rewards upon death, or even during life for exhibiting such qualities. However, with Singers reasoning, any individual can conclude that we are obliged to help those suffering,   for we can do so without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant. Yet religion also teaches us things that are just no longer applicable. The “moral exception” becomes the new rule of law, with enough time and frequency. We know that this is the nature of good and bad. What is good today, is bad tomorrow, and vice versa. Several hundred years ago to defame the king would be blasphemy, and your head would be chopped off as punishment. Nowadays we consider it good to question those in power. This change accrued out of necessity. Time and pressure have a way of changing even the most seemingly unwavering beliefs and customs. (Hence why I find this topography analogy to be very befitting when talking about changes in moral thinking.)

Similarly religion also changes, it adapts with morality as well. Sam’s example of demi-gods – new popes have saw fit to progress the Catholic religion as its code of ethics became less popular and applicable to people. 

And while we frequently see on the news, the hate filled and backward few spewing their (subjectively at least) ignorant views – there is still progression. Even in religion – the moderate majorities views coincide with the secularist progressive. It seems while some of us may be inherently good at “moral thinking”, on the whole, moral progress is a collective movement of societies views, of our movement along these moral topographies. 

What are my views then? A quote from Einstein below sums it up quite nicely I think –

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe,” limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons close to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

I think, put very simply, what the world needs is love, love sweet love – and a damn lot of it.