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Volokh Conspiracy

Why Moral Progress Is Not Inevitable

Political theorist Jacob Levy reminds us that the arc of history doesn't always bend towards justice. Moral retrogression has happened before, and could well occur again.


Vox recently asked 15 experts on moral philosophy and public policy to answer the following question: "What do we do know that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?" The resulting essays are interesting and well-worth reading. But, with one exception, all of the experts assumed that the tide of history will move in favor of the views they themselves advocate. They all seem to expect moral progress, and do not consider the possibility of retrogression. The idea that history inevitably moves towards moral progress—or at least is highly likely to do so—is a highly influential one. Many like to cite Martin Luther King's famous statement that "[t]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Sadly, however, moral progress is far from inevitable. Retrogression has happened before, and could easily do so again. Political theorist Jacob Levy—the one contributor to the Vox symposium who did not predict progress towards his or her own preferred views—has a valuable reminder of that fact in his piece. In the process, he also reminds us of a less famous, but more insightful Martin Luther King quote on progress and morality:

"What will be on the wrong side of history in 50 years time?" The very question is one of superstition and myth. In fact, the very idea that there is a wrong or right side of history has been the moral justification for a variety of historical horrors that were steeped in ideas of modernity and technological mastery.

Martin Luther King Jr., who famously encouraged hope by saying that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," later offered a different approach. In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," he wrote: "Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively…"

The superstition that the passage of time reveals moral truth has a lot of sources and a lot of variations….

The problem isn't the belief in moral right and wrong but the belief that history manifests and reveals them in some natural way. Understanding, and doing, the right thing is hard, an ongoing struggle that every person and every generation faces. Ideologies of history as moral progress try to make it easy…

Humanity's compounding scientific and economic knowledge simply doesn't translate to similar growth in moral knowledge. Indeed, sometimes the development of new technological prowess and new organizational capacity opens the door to new evils, evils we misunderstand if we think of them as some leftover from the past. The Holocaust was new, not just a bigger pogrom. The atrocities of communism under Stalin and Mao were new; so was the trans-Atlantic chattel slave trade; so was the genocidal conquest of the Americas. Murder, war, and slavery are old, but our new capabilities combine with new ideologies to create awful new phenomena out of those old impulses.

Before we attribute magical moral powers to the passage of the next 50 years, we should look backward in 50-year increments and ask: How many old moral errors keep coming back? How many new ones get introduced?

It isn't hard to find examples of horrific moral retrogression in history. Levy mentions several cases. I would add that the 19th century abolition of slavery and serfdom throughout most of the world—one of the greatest examples of moral progress in human history—was followed in the 20th century by communist and fascist regimes' massive use of slave labor on a hitherto unimaginable scale. Communists and Nazis developed new ideological justifications for an old evil, and technological advances enabled them to implement their horrific visions far more extensively than was possible in previous eras. During the same time period, even comparatively enlightened liberal democratic states also resorted to forced labor on a larger scale than before, through extensive use of mass conscription for both civilian and military "national service," an idea that has most of the same moral flaws as old-style slavery and serfdom.

It is worth considering why people so often fail to learn the right moral lessons from history. Understanding the injustices of the past should, at least in theory, give us the knowledge necessary to avoid repetition of similar evils in the future.

One reason why that often fails to happen is that all too many people are ignorant of history. We cannot learn moral lessons from events we know little or nothing about. If there is one event we like to think we have learned a moral lesson from, it is the Holocaust. Yet survey data in both the US and Europe reveal extensive public ignorance about it. That ignorance could easily get worse as the generation that remembers the Nazis passes from the scene.

Too few people understand the connection between the evils of Nazism and the ideology of nationalism, of which Nazism was a particularly extreme manifestation. We should not be surprised, therefore, that nationalistic and ethnic prejudices persist and threaten to grow in a world where many don't realize their dangers.

Communist mass murders took even more lives than those of the Nazis. Yet both intellectuals and popular culture often neglect communist crimes, and all too many people are barely aware they even happened, much less derive useful lessons from them. For example, very few westerners realize that the biggest mass murder in the entire history of the world was committed by the Chinese communist regime of Mao Zedong, as part of the collectivization of agriculture through the "Great Leap Forward." Thus, we should not be surprised that the idea of massive government control of the economy—a key factor in communist atrocities—is enjoying something of a resurgence, as well.

Historical ignorance is just one facet of the broader problem of widespread public ignorance about political issues. Most such ignorance is actually rational behavior for individual voters, given the infinitesimally small likelihood that any one vote will decisively influence the outcome of an election.

Even when people do know relevant information about historical events, it doesn't necessarily follow that they will draw the right lessons from them. History is often complicated, and figuring out its "true" implications for the future is difficult. In addition, the same factor that incentivize many people to be ignorant about politics and history also create incentives to be highly biased in the evaluation of what we do know. Instead of considering historical evidence objectively, many people act as highly biased "political fans," overvaluing anything that seems to support their preexisting views, and downplaying or ignoring information that cuts the other way. For that reason, among others, people are often susceptible to supporting new moral evils if the case for them seems intuitive because it builds on preexisting biases.

None of this proves that moral progress never happens. It obviously has occurred. The decline of racism and sexism over the last half century or more is a notable example. The fall of communism was another. The idea that we are doomed to inevitable decline from some supposed golden age in the past is at least as much a fallacy as the idea of inevitable moral progress. Ditto for claims that moral development is necessarily cyclical, with periods of improvement inevitably followed by periods of decline, and vice versa. But the assumption of inevitable moral progress is currently more influential than these more pessimistic determinist views of historical moral development. Sadly, it just isn't true.