What should we say now about moral progress?

In her wonderful recent talk at Rice University, Kate Norlock expressed pessimism at the idea we have – or can – achieved genuine moral progress of any general kind. Her words were vividly in my mind when I had read Eve Ensler’s piece in a recent Nation.

This part below seemed less distressing to me than ISIS’s pricelist for female infants/girls/women.  Or the manual for how to treat sex slaves

I am thinking about the inertia, silence, paralysis that has stalled and prevented investigation and prosecution into sexual crimes against Muslim, Croat, and Serb women raped in camps in the former Yugoslavia; African-American women and girls raped on plantations in the South; Jewish women and girls raped in German concentration camps; Native American women and girls raped on reservations in the United States. I am hearing the cries of the permanently unsettled ghosts of violated women and girls in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Guatemala, the Philippines, Sudan, Chechnya, Nigeria, Colombia, Nepal, the list goes on. I am thinking of the last eight years I spent in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a similar conflagration of predatory capitalism, centuries of colonialism, endless war and violence in the name of mineral theft has left thousands of women and girls without organs, sanity, families or a future. And how terms like re-raped have now become re-re-re-re-raped.I am thinking that I have been writing this same piece for 20 years. I have tried it with data and detachment, passion and pleading, and existential despair. Even now as I write, I wonder if we have evolved a language to meet this century that would trump a piercing wail.

I am thinking about the failure of every patriarchal institution to intervene in any meaningful way and how structures like the UN amplify the problem as peacekeepers, meant to protect the women and girls, are rapists themselves.

30 thoughts on “What should we say now about moral progress?

  1. Concerning the moral progress of humanity, my mind goes back to this most chilling passage in the Bible. It expresses more truth than any philosopher I know.

    5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” Genesis 6

  2. It’s hard to believe that there has been no moral progress in light of the evidence compiled by Steven Pinker and others. It seems that violent crime, war, slavery, and other wrongful acts and practices are in decline in the long-term, although obviously there are local deviations from the trend lines. It would be one thing if this was just coming from one piece of data, but there are multiple sources of evidence that support the view that, at least some crucial dimensions, humans are now nicer to each other than they were in the past.

  3. JH, Pinker’s conclusions are contested, those contested are themselves contested, etc. for a start, see here. One worry of mine is that violence against women hasn’t been fully included. Still, I haven’t looked at all closely to the relevat literature.

  4. It’s true that there is some controversy about the details of Pinker’s story, particularly the areas where it is difficult to gather representative evidence (for instance, rates of death among hunter gatherers before civilization). But I don’t really think many social scientists disagree that rates of violent crime are falling in at least high-income countries in recent decades and there are many other social scientists who make the same claims about the decline of war that Pinker makes (for example, John Mueller).

    At any rate, I would recommend reading Pinker’s rebuttal to John Gray. It seems pretty convincing to me.

  5. JH: I suspect the more telling complaints are directed at the theoretical underpinning he has adopted. E.g., for him violence is inflicted in effect by people, and so institutional violence is not counted. The journal Sociology, dec 2013, has a number of sociologists pushing this kind of criticism. I haven,t read Pinker’s reply.

  6. “Things are really awful now” is perfectly compatible with “things are much better now than they used to be”.

  7. I haven’t followed the debate about Singer’s book closely, but why would holding that “violence is inflicted in effect by people” mean that institutional violence isn’t counted?

    It seems fairly trivial that violence is inflicted by people (leaving aside some issues about whether natural disasters and attacks by animals count); I would think that what distinguishes institutional violence is that it’s violence inflicted by people for which the primary explanations involve reference to social institutions, rather than matters of individual psychology.

    I take it that when we say “fascism killed X” we don’t mean it literally, since fascism is an ideology and ideologies are abstract objects and abstract objects don’t literally kill things; we mean “for some Y, Y killed X because Y believed in fascism” (or some similar explanatory clause).

  8. AGS, nice question. A number of reviews have said Pinker’s model is that of one person stabbing, shooting, another. That contrasts with intitutional actions and even decisions about institutions. So my state’s legislature’s decision not to accept federal money to extend medicare will cost lives, but won’t count on Pinker’s model. One might say there are a lot of victims of inequitable distribution of goods, whose lives are too often nasty and short. But that doesn’t count against increased moral caring.

  9. AJJ: Sure, I agree. But I didn’t take Pinker to claim to be offering a theory of all the kinds of wrongs that human beings perpetrate that cause harm to other humans, just a theory of a specific class of them. If, as he suggests, the prevalence of wrongs of that kind has decreased, then that’s some evidence of moral improvement, but it might be outweighed if we learn that the prevalence of wrongs of other types has increased.

    Having looked around a bit at discussions of *Better Angels*, I think that point – the possibility of countervailing nonviolent wrongs that call into question the moral improvement thesis – is what Pinker’s critics really want to get at, but they’re framing it in a rather bad way, by attacking Pinker’s narrow notion of violence, and claiming that he should instead be using a notion of violence that covers every kind of wrongdoing that causes serious harm.

    That way of using the word “violence” seems to me to conflict with ordinary practice, but I don’t really care about the terminology; if people so desire, we can call what Pinker is talking about “schmiolence” or “stabandshootification” or something and use “violence” for the broader notion. The important thing is being clear about when we’re using the narrow notion and when we’re using the broad one, since both clearly have roles to play in our description of the world and our moral theorizing.

  10. But Pinker will say that the nastiness and brevity of lives can be measured, whether their causes are individual or institutional, and that the level of nastiness and brevity has been decreasing over time. In other words, the issue isn’t whether bad things are caused by institutions or individuals, but whether the bad things are measured by the metrics Pinker is using.

  11. “So my state’s legislature’s decision not to accept federal money to extend medicare will cost lives, but won’t count on Pinker’s model. One might say there are a lot of victims of inequitable distribution of goods, whose lives are too often nasty and short. But that doesn’t count against increased moral caring.”

    Isn’t this an example of your state’s *improving less rapidly* than others are?

  12. For some quick references of potential relevance and interest here, readers may find worth studying or rereading Iris Marion Young’s account of shared responsibility for structural injustice along with her social connection model of responsibility – especially in her 2006 article “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model” where she develops her social connection model of responsibility while providing argumentative grounds for our part/role/-if-not-complicity in massive wrongs and harms around the country and the world. Similarly, see Nicole Hassoun, for instance, on the coercive and harmful nature of international/global financial institutions. Also, there is Eric Beerbohm’s 2012 monograph “In Our Name: The Ethics of Democracy” and Meena Krishnamurthy on the basic structure of society… and much, much more…

    According to the rather good arguments linked above, it is not so easy to put heavy moral/ethical relevance on the distinction between individuals and institutions – or at least to use that distinction for purposes of attributing claims of ethics/justice to institutions rather than individuals – as regards egregious wrongs and injustices all over the place every day, from the garment industry and electronics metals to targeted killings, drone wars, and the assassination complex. [Combine Jeremy Scahill’s work with Eric Beerbohm’s book, for instance, and you arguably have motivation for social activism and corporate/political resistance activities.] I have not read Pinker’s work on these matters (or anyone discussing it), so perhaps these references do not fit here. Is that right?

  13. I have been having internet woes today!

    Let me note that the post is not explicitly about Pinker. I haven’t read through it largely because I think it probably neglects the really difficult problems DS’s comment raises. There is a general objection to Pinker that he gets the decrease in violence by focusing on way too narrow a model, which would not include use of the atom bomb, for example. Another complaint about his narrowness says that he is not including the violence caused by institutions, policies and lots of practices.

    I think it can be hard to see what differenc all this makes. We’re tempted to suppose he can just add these things in. In this, the debate reminds me of the debate about embodied theories of mind. Proponents of one side say the body is merely causally necessary while those keen on embodiment say that the body is constitutively required. What difference is really at stake?

    I personally think the differences are probably quite profound, and DS’s message gives us an indication of what one such difference may be. It’s the difference between thinking of ourselves as nice people living in an increasingly non-violent world where we have little or no engagement with the nastiness that remains. OR do we see ourselves as living in a world with much preventable misery held in place by all sorts of things that make our own lives pretty nice, and in which misery we are quite complicit?

  14. A very minor point, but Pinker does definitely count civilian deaths in WWII, so the atom bomb isn’t left out. (There is a big problem in the ballpark here, though, which is that all our nuclear close calls aren’t priced in. But figuring out the moral role of running risks that ultimately didn’t eventuate is hard on any account.)

  15. I do not have the book with me, but IIRC deaths were amalgamated from standard sources, such as the Conflict Catalog at the Centre for Global Economic History.


    The Conflict Catalog has entries for “Military Fatalities” and “Total Fatalities”. It does not break World War II up into individual events, so there isn’t a line called “Nagasaki”. But clearly the victims of Nagasaki must be presumed to be counted in the latter: they were fatalities, (overwhelmingly) not military, that happened during the Second World War. What reason would there be for them not to be counted?

  16. I don’t have any reason to think Pinker excluded Nagasaki, but honestly it wouldn’t matter. The figure he uses for all World War II deaths is 55 million, which I assume is rounded to the nearest million. Typical figures for the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are in the 100,000-200,000 range. That’s not high enough to even show up in the overall figure.

  17. I don’t really know the Pinker well enough for this discussion, I fear. There are some suggestions that his paradigm for violence did not extend to Hiroshema and Nagasaki. I’m glad to be wrong and am now going to stop with the Pinker stuff.

  18. I wonder (and worry) whether we and Pinker might be defending (directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally) a questionable status quo. Could the Pinker book and discussions of it (especially including sincere dissenters) serve the social function of helping maintain the status quo (and of – or by – reinforcing the requisite psychological beliefs, attitudes, sentiments, attention, etc.) directly or indirectly supportive of the status quo? These matters regarding the atom bomb and WWII, for instance, possibly help divert attention away from the topic(s) of the original post and the lines of argument I tried to begin and outline in my comment #13 above…

  19. DS: I’m unclear about the sense of “defending” the status quo you’re talking about. Surely, to echo David Wallace’s comment, the thesis that humanity has made great moral progress over the centuries is compatible with the claim that the present world is still full of iniquity, cruelty, and suffering.

    Perhaps pondering the former thesis may have some tendency to lead us not to pay enough attention to the latter, giving succour to instincts of quietism.

    But when a certain subject matter is under discussion, as is the case here with moral progress, I don’t think we should refrain from asserting relevant truths just because bringing them up might have bad downstream social effects.

  20. AGS, I understand DS as concerned at least in part with the exclusion of so much of what can be called “violence. It isn’t that we can’t say there is significant improvement if huge problems remain; it is rather than in declaring ourselves better we are in danger of erecting, among other things, more ways to close our eyes to the real world of other people.

    I’m reminded here of Sen’s 1990 observation that there are more than 100 million women missing. What we know of sex ratios from Westerns countries would lead us to expect more than 100 million more women in various Asian and African countries. Part of the problem is due to the killing of female infants who are less desirable to many in India and China. In China forced (added term) abortions may be performed at 7 or 8 months, though presumably that will all change somewhat with the abandonment of the one child policy. As it is, it is a lot of violence.

    What have we done about this problem clearly described 25 years ago?
    From Sen:

    A great many more than a hundred million women are simply not there because women are neglected compared with men. If this situation is to be corrected by political action and public policy, the reasons why there are so many “missing” women must first be better understood. We confront here what is clearly one of the more momentous, and neglected, problems facing the world today. (My stress)

    I would hate for us to lose site of the fact that there are momentous problems unresolved.
    There has been a similar extremely serious problem about the social effects of AIDS in Africa, with children now being born to infected women and then left as utterly discarded orphans. This is one aspect of the terrible misery, a glimpse of which we perhaps saw in recent scenes of discarded people in ebola-infected countries. A friend of mine, as director of the UNDP for AIDs in developing countries battled the UN on this topic for about 15-20 years. She lost, but eventually the UN announced it has realized there is a huge social problem. Alleviation of misery was lost in the pursuit of attractive careers.

    So I am less clear about what statistics look like when we see problems like these as mitigating our improved moral status.

  21. Two thoughts about this:

    (1) I’m fairly uncomfortable classifying abortion as violence. (Perhaps you only mean very-late-stage abortion? I’m not even comfortable classifying that as violence but I can see there’s a better case to.)
    (2) Do we have any particular reason to think that the sex imbalance began recently? If not – if it’s been the case for a long time that widespread female infanticide was skewing the sex ratios – then widespread female infanticide, while a moral horror, doesn’t affect the case for moral improvement over time.

  22. David, I should have put ‘forced’ in the comment about abortions. I have no good reason to think the statistics about women have gotten worse. I’m inclined still to stress the fact that although we have fewer men die in wars, and a lessenng of ‘civlian collateral’ damage, it isn’t as signifcant a reason for thnking in terms of moal progress.

  23. Does anyone have audio, video, or transcript of Prof. Kate Norlock’s guest lecture at Rice, titled Don’t Wait for Progress: Pessimism as a Feminist Social Philosophy? I emailed her directly then noticed she is on sabbatical, so I am not sure I’ll get a response. Thanks.

  24. Thanks, AJ! We are all works in progress…If it helps her to know, I will only be using the lecture to water the soil of a personal conversation between me and friend who are exploring the intersections of sex trade, sex work, legalized sex work, national politics, inequality, and the religious and secular moral concerns that shape our interactions in these intersections. The conversation between me and my friend is also a work in progress. The abstract to Prof. Norlock’s lecture seemed to suggest some wisdom regarding our expectations and practices when we try to deal with these kinds of moral concerns. Thanks so much for helping out. And, really, I’d be interested in any feminist social philosophy materials that unpack pessimism and praxis in confronting recurrent moral problems. Any pointers will be appreciated.

  25. An additional comment some readers may possibly find useful or appropriate here involves one or two references/links I intended but forgot to include in comment #13. For excellent and important work on globalized versions of care ethics, keep in mind and/or remember to check out Joan Tronto, and also Fiona Robinson (for instance, on migrant labor and how practices in more developed countries create care deficits along with their harmful effects – and worse – in developing countries and in many, many lives).

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