Ethics: Moral Arcs

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
- Martin Luther King Jr

This entire treatise has been premised on the idea that obvious assumptions that people naturally believe mathematically imply summatarianism. However, I want to take a brief break by considering a completely different approach which is based on slightly more hand-wavy arguments.

There's a common idea that our society becomes more moral over time.

There is an cynical response to this which is that our morals will be more similar to people in the recent past than the distance past regardless of whether our morals are actually better, so it will look like we're getting better whether or not we actually are.

That being said, I think there are some reasons to believe that our morals are getting better in a more objective sense:

  1. The typical person has gotten unbelievably richer over the past couple centuries. The more money people have, the less people have to worry about their own livelihoods, which allows them to spend more time/energy/money pursuing other things such as following rules, pursuing character virtues, and pursuing the well-being of others.
  2. The equilibrium society that results from democracy basically has to be more moral than the society that results from it's predecessors (monarchy, feudalism, etc.)
  3. As a society, we deal with conflicts between moral intuitions and presumably resolve these conflicts with more than 50% accuracy.
  4. We understand the universe better each year, which probably doesn't ever solve philosophical questions, but it definitely sheds some useful light on them.

Suppose you buy these arguments, then we can evaluate ethical systems based on whether they expouse moral ideas ahead of their time. I think utilitarianism (and hence summatarianism) are well-supported by this paradigm. Consider, for instance, the founder: Jeremy Bentham. Despite living in the late 1700s and early 1800s, he supported a number of moral theories far ahead of his time "title": "Jeremy Bentham". For instance, Bentham opposed

  1. slavery - banned by Britain in 1833
  2. the death penalty - still exists in the US; banned in Europe (except Belarus)
  3. physical punishment (for criminals and children) - last used on criminals in 1952 in the US "title": "Judicial corporal punishment"
and advocated
  1. for animal rights - some state laws after 1828; US national law in 1966 "author": "Benjamin Adams"
  2. codifying all common law - still not done in England "title": "Codification (law)"
  3. legalizing homosexual sex acts - sodomy was legalized in 2003 "title": "Sodomy laws in the United States"
  4. for legal equality of the sexes - women got the right to vote in 1920

The founder of utilitarianism was pretty forward-looking guy - no? Compare this to Kant, who opposed the immorality of homosexuality "author": "Thomas Pogge", supported the death penalty "title": "Kant and capital punishment today" and only opposed slavery later in his life "title": "Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives".


This suggests that, unlike other moral systems, utilitarian-esque systems are likely to better match our society's values in the future - rather than be viewed with disgust 200 years hence.

Works Cited [show]