In every age, there have been moral visionaries – great thinkers such as Robert Ingersoll or Tom Paine, who had the courage to stand against the majority and oppose widely accepted moral wrongs. Their courageous and steadfast opposition to then-prevalent practices such as monarchy, slavery, racism and sexism earned them great hatred and enmity during their lifetimes, and put them decades ahead of most of their contemporaries.
Today, we have made progress enough to recognize many of the evils of the past for what they are. Although these wrongs are not yet eliminated, we have made great strides toward eradicating them both in law and in public opinion, and their public advocacy is no longer acceptable as it once was. However, we have hardly made so much moral progress that we can safely say future generations will have nothing to condemn us for. What widely defended beliefs and practices of our society, I wonder, will our successors look back on with the same disgust with which we look back on slavery, divine-right rule and racial segregation laws?
No one can know in advance how the future will turn out. Nevertheless, assuming human civilization continues to follow the same course of gradual moral progress which it has been following for several centuries now, I think there will be an awakening to the immorality of other beliefs and practices that are currently widespread. And I can propose a few specific examples that I believe will rightfully earn this designation:
• The wealth gap. The vast disparity in wealth and resources that currently exists between the industrialized and developing countries, not to mention between the rich and the poor within many individual countries, exceeds all justification. While anyone is suffering in poverty, lacking access to the basic necessities of life, there can be no excuse for anyone living in idle luxury. In the future, I believe, the drive toward philanthropy and service will become a societal universal, and the immorality of hoarding wealth while others are in need will be widely recognized.
• The drug war. The draconian punishments which are currently levied against responsible adults in many countries, for freely choosing to take into their bodies chemical substances which make them happy, exceed all possibility of rational justification. This senseless and misnamed “war on drugs” has ruined thousands of lives with absurdly disproportionate sentences for non-violent, non-harmful offenders, has promoted the flourishing of violent criminal gangs that inevitably arise to sell products for which there is legitimate demand but no legitimate market, has encouraged police departments to adopt shockingly tyrannical and heavy-handed tactics that are frequently and tragically used against totally innocent people, has plunged countries around the world into chaos and civil war, and ironically, has produced no decrease whatsoever in the actual availability of illegal drugs.
The hypocrisy and irrationality of this program are made manifest by the fact that two of the most indisputably dangerous and harmful drugs in existence – alcohol and tobacco – are fully permitted and legal, whereas drugs that are far less harmful, and in many cases even have legitimate medical benefits to ease the suffering of the sick, are treated with a degree of harshness we would normally expect only for smuggled weapons of mass destruction. There is and can be no justification for this. A rational society would allow responsible, consenting adults to take into their bodies whatever euphoriants they desire, and would treat addiction as the medical problem it is and not a matter of criminal justice.
• Opposition to gay marriage, as well as anti-gay discrimination more generally. This one is a no-brainer, considering the pervasive similarity both in tone and content between the rhetoric of the religious conservatives who oppose gay marriage today and the rhetoric of the religious conservatives who opposed interracial marriage yesterday. Our society has no business telling two rational, consenting adults that their love for each other is not legitimate, and accordingly there can be no justification for denying gay couples the same civil benefits we currently extend to heterosexual couples. Even the hatemongers of the religious right implicitly recognize this: though they have no shortage of hysterical proclamations about how it would be the end of civilization, they have yet to explain in any coherent way exactly how legalizing gay marriage would bring about such grave harm.
Bigotry in every generation wears a mask of respectability. After all, it is very often the admired and respected men, the ones in positions of power and influence, who carry down the prejudices of the past and act as their most fervent defenders. But once the social tide turns, its ugly heart is always recognized for what it is. The tireless efforts of gay people in the cause of equality are, in a sense, the strongest argument for society’s recognizing their love as true and sincere, because only true love would refuse to back down in the face of such evil prejudice and ignorance.
• Environmental destruction. I have no doubt that future generations will be appalled by the recklessness with which we wiped out species and ecosystems, polluted the water and air, and stripped the planet to provide for our own selfish wants with no thought for the future. Most of all, I have no doubt that they will be appalled by the selfish, lazy complacency and outright denial with which society in general responded to the prospect of global warming – one of the first truly global environmental crises, and one of the most serious.
There are already thriving movements promoting sustainability and conservation in our time, but we need to do more. We have been living as if we were separate from the natural world, as if our activities had no impact upon it, and it is this attitude which most needs to change. I am certain that in the future, the very ideas of consumption and waste – as if it were natural or normal to acquire as many possessions as we possibly can, use up as many resources as we can, and then pollute the world by throwing them away – will be dirty words; and rather than being a garbage generator, our society will be more like a mature ecosystem, where sustainability is paramount, everything is recycled and nothing is wasted.
• Religion. Although I do not expect religion to disappear any time in the foreseeable future, I do think it will lose influence as the ranks of nonbelievers grow, and I think it will become increasingly unacceptable to justify one’s actions solely by claiming that they are the will of God. Already, in our time, there is a noticeable divide between the fundamentalists who run their lives (and others’) based on religious beliefs, and the secular human beings who conduct their lives by reason. I think this gap will widen, but rather than being a nearly equal battle as it now is, I think the forces of reason will begin to gain the upper hand. In the future, I am confident that the hateful and willfully ignorant fundamentalists will increasingly be viewed with the disdain they so richly deserve, and our descendants will be horrified that they ever exerted as much influence as they currently do. More, I think that being an atheist will not be nearly as unusual as it now is.
Are there any other likely candidates for future condemnation?