Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, has a written a book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which documents how humans, over the centuries and millennia, have become steadily less violent, and the famous skeptic Michael Shermer has written another book, “The Moral Arc”, with largely the same theme.
And generally, if we look back in time, we observe that peoples’ values became steadily more like our own. Some of us call this “progress”.
But many people go on to the next step, and assume they can predict the future. They describe those with whom they disagree as “on the wrong side of history”, as though the speaker had inside knowledge as to which way things were going to go.
Let’s see how people in the past would see the present:
- In the US, church attendance currently varies from about 25% to about 45%, depending upon the state, and in most of Europe, it’s lower still. Many people are openly atheist. If you told people 200 years ago that that was how things would turn out, they would have been absolutely horrified.
- 60 years ago, over 90% of Americans believed that it was morally wrong for people who were engaged but not yet married to sleep together. Now, few people wait for marriage before having sex. And the consequences of this are pretty ugly — 25% of American adults have genital herpes, and 40% of babies in this country are born out of wedlock (which is probably related to the fact that a fifth of American children are raised in poverty). Are you sure that people from the past would see this as “progress”, rather than moral decay?
- If you went back 300 years, and told a European that in the year 2000, there wouldn’t be a monarch in the continent who wielded any real power, and that in most countries, the head of state was usually spoken of with outright contempt by at least 30% of the population at any given time, they would find the prospect extremely disturbing.
- If you told people 200 years ago that homosexuals would be legally allowed to marry, that New York City law would impose a fine of a several years’ wages on anyone who wilfully and maliciously referred to a transvestite by a gender pronoun other than that which the person preferred, and that, in some states, bakeries that refused to bake cakes for gay weddings would be heavily fined, they would not see it as “progress”, but rather as wanton depravity and confusion.
- 100 years ago, only the poorest wives had jobs. If you told people then that in the 21st century most wives, not just the poorest ones, worked, even if they had very young children, and that as a result many if not most mothers had tremendous difficulty finding enough time to spend with their kids, would they see this development as an anything but a deterioration of the quality of life?
- Around 1970, there was a tremendous consensus on college campuses that capitalism was on the way out. Many felt the economic model of the Warsaw Pact was preferable to that of the West. Most people didn’t have the slightest grasp of micro-economic theory. In 1979, when there was a revolution in Iran, causing a shortage of oil, gasoline prices were tightly regulated by the government, resulting in very long lines and sometimes fuel being unavailable at any price. Any suggestion that the government allow gasoline prices to rise to reflect scarcity and encourage conservation was considered unacceptable because of the impact on the poor. Anyone who declared themselves “pro free market” was definitely considered “on the wrong side of history”. If you went back forty years and told those liberals that the Warsaw Pact had abandoned socialism and that most of the American Democratic Party had, for several decades at least, embraced free market economics, they would have disbelieved it as a thought too horrible to contemplate.
So if we look at the present through the eyes of the past, we find that the future has been profoundly unacceptable. How can we be so sure that the future ahead of us will not be equally unacceptable when viewed in terms of our current values and biases? My feeling is that it probably will be.