Social conventions change. Think of examples where we look back on Western society past and shake our heads at how morally wrong they were. Slavery. Chopping off hands for stealing. Debtor’s prison. Workhouses. Slow public executions. Voting rights given to landowners only.
But does it end there?
A group of freethinking friends saw the James Randi biopic “Honest Liar,” and we were chatting afterwards. One person raised this question about how morality has changed and continues to do so. Let’s not imagine that we’ve got it all figured out. Though we’d like to think otherwise, our descendants will look back on our society and find their own examples of moral error.
So here’s the question (feel free to participate in the comments): What social attitude changes will happen this century such that future Americans will look back on us with bemusement or horror?
Prediction 1: sex!
Let me get you started with examples from our conversation. Paul had raised the question, and he predicted the widespread acceptance of both polyamory (having multiple romantic or sexual partners at a time) and polygamy (marriage with more than two partners) and that today’s views will seem prudish and backwards.
Yes, he’s saying that the conservatives’ prediction is right: from mixed-race marriage comes same-sex marriage, and that opens the floodgates to even more redefinition. (What they forget is that this isn’t new, since marriage has always been in flux.)
It’s interesting to imagine this evolution. In the past, we had one man and one woman, same race, the bride is treated like property and comes with a dowry, and with few restrictions on the bride. We’ve gotten past the racial restriction and are moving past the gender restriction, and Paul imagined loosening up the number restriction.
But note that this isn’t a Sexual Revolution free-for-all. There are new rules, and now the bride must be old enough, must consent, and must not be a close relative. Divorce is now allowed, marital rape is forbidden, both parties are legally equal, and so on.
Prediction 2: climate change
Scot anticipated that both policy makers and ordinary voters will universally accept human-caused climate change. People will be shocked and outraged that we had the evidence for climate change but fiddled while Rome burned. He illustrated it by imagining members of our future society shocked that someone would drive a 3000-pound car for fifteen minutes, spewing out carbon dioxide all the way, just to deliver a pizza.
Prediction 3: animal rightsMy proposal was that synthetic meat will be widely available, and future society will look back on us with horror that we raised animals solely to be killed, butchered, and eaten. Today, we are outraged at the idea of clubbing baby seals for fur and at bays red with blood from Japanese dolphin kills, and our future selves will have the same revulsion at our killing cows for cheeseburgers.
Given the enormous environmental impact of livestock, they will also wonder why the financial argument wasn’t enough of a driver even if the moral one wasn’t.
Which practice or attitude, customary today, will our descendants look back on with surprise or shock? Maybe they will be outraged that we had capital punishment or that euthanasia was illegal. Maybe they will shake their heads thinking back on when abortion was legal. Maybe they will laugh at our prudishness about sex on television but be disgusted at our appetite for violence. Maybe they will marvel that we let every bonehead vote for no better reason than that they were a citizen, with complete disregard to understanding of the issues and mental capability.
It doesn’t have to be a positive prediction—you might hate it but see it as inevitable anyway.
What do you think?
morally defensible philosophies.
If the purpose of life is pleasure,
it becomes hard to justify suffering.
— commenter smrnda
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 3/26/15.)
Image from Marlon Cureg, CC license