This is a fun intellectual parlour game. It's normally played by liberals, but I want to play too.
This post is prompted by a piece on the BBC website, which asks this question in a stereotypically BBC-ish way. What did we get wrong in the past? Well, we might have been "sexist, or racist, or homophobic". Mention is also made of Alan Turing, slavery and the Australian treatment of indigenous people. Yawn. Equally predictable are the suggestions of what people in the future might be shocked by: "Our treatment of the environment? Our tolerance of poverty? ... the way that we, in the early part of the 21st Century, still treat animals." This is not the Whig view of history so much as the Liberal Democrat view of history. It's trite, predictable and embarrassingly parochial.
Back in 2010, Kwame Anthony Appiah asked the same question in the Washington Post. His article was better than the BBC's in two ways. First, although his predictions were pretty BBC-ish, they included one item that was a bit more interesting (spot the odd one out): the American penal system, industrial meat production, neglect of the elderly and the environment. That's right - old people's homes. Appiah praised the respect for the elderly shown in Ghana and decried the institutionalisation and isolation of old people in the West. It's worth a thought.
Appiah's second advantage over the BBC was to spot that it's a little bit more complicated than just extrapolating from the views of modern liberals of today. He contrasts the abolition of slavery (a moral advance) with prohibition ("quaint or misguided") and asks how we can tell which arguments of today will ultimately look more like abolitionism than prohibitionism.
(There's an even better example than prohibition: paedophilia. From this week's Economist: "The Greens first entered the Bundestag 30 years ago with a pacifist, anti-nuclear agenda. Awkwardly, they are now being reminded of other goals, such as decriminalising non-violent sex with children." German Greens were not the only left-wingers to have been rather too tolerant of that sort of thing.)
Let's just pause for a moment. I described the question as an intellectual parlour game - but what sort of game is it? Is it an ethics game for philosophers or a predict the future game for, um, psychohistorians?
Appiah is a philosopher and so, no surprise, he thinks its a game for philosophers. He suggests that there three signs that show when moral progress is about to occur:
"First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn't emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.
Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, "We've always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?")
And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they're complicit."
Not bad, Appiah, but you could do better. These three signs fail to deal with the example of prohibition. First, the arguments against alcohol are very old - and now that we have cars, heavy machinery and knowledge of what happens to foetuses, we have even more and better arguments against it. Second, defenders of the custom of alcohol are big on tradition, human nature and necessity - and light on anything else. The failure of the American experience of prohibition is probably the strongest argument against trying it anywhere else - and one of the strongest arguments in favour of the legalisation of drugs - and it is a grubby, practical argument. Third, we enablers of alcohol do turn away from the statistics that show how alcohol blights so many people's lives and, often literally, from the faces of homeless people who suffer. (I'm not sure whether I'm 'complicit' in the evils of my countrymen's alcoholism simply because I drink too, but you know what Appiah means by using the word.)
Prompted by Appiah's article, The Economist commented on this game back in 2010 and made some incisive points.
"I fear that when predicting the future of contrition we will tend to mount our personal hobby-horses and congratulate ourselves for getting on the right side of history before the right side of history was cool. In this spirit, I would like to congratulate myself for recognising that the global system of nation-states, borders, visas, and their attendant limits on the human rights to free movement and association amounts to a worldwide system of apartheid and is responsible for tremendous avoidable suffering. Though I feel quite sure that this is indeed an unconscionable injustice and a source of immense harm, I am far from certain that history will come to see things my way. My suspicion is that most of us would be quite surprised by the things our grandchildren will condemn us for, and that the more our predictions amount to praise for our current, farseeing moral enlightenment, the more sceptical we ought to be."
The correspondent went on: "If we don't assume that history is a story of progressive evolution, we could ask a different but parallel question. Which of today's practices would our ancestors condemn? This is a much easier question, because we know what they did condemn. The harder related question is why it is that we are so sure that we know better than they did, and that our grandchildren will know better than we do."
Not assuming that history is a story of progressive evolution is the conservative view of history. I prefer it to the LibDem view. You have to make some implausibly heroic assumptions about human progress to think that philosophers will be the best people to predict the future of people's moral beliefs.
The Economist's point about past beliefs is a good one. Let's take usury. Lending money at interest was widely considered to be just plain wrong. Now, in secular Western society, it is not, although there seems to be a growing idea that certain very high rates of interest are wrong. There has been a genuine change of heart here. But why are we certain that mediaeval people were wrong to draw the line at 0.1% interest rather than at, well, whatever line it is we draw it at nowadays?
Before I turn to my own predictions, I want to lay down another rule for this parlour game: you have to predict a real moral change of heart - someone that we think now to be right must turn out to be wrong (or vice versa). Animal and environmental welfare are bad examples: no one has ever liked hurting animals, so to predict that factory farming will be reduced in the future (Appiah's prediction was that the US would move to EU animal welfare standards, for example) is just saying that we will get richer and prefer to pay the cost of more expensive food. Something similar is true of the environment: no one likes to pollute rivers and so on, it is just a question of costs against benefits or and (in the case of things like global warming) a question of fact as to what can be done to improve things. The only genuine predictions in these areas would be that people in the future would consider hurting animals or the environment to be entirely acceptable in all circumstances - or to be so bad that people should be directly harmed to prevent it. By contrast, the Economist's example about borders and nation-states is a good one: abolishing them in favour of complete freedom of movement would be a genuine change of moral views, not just a change in a cost-benefit analysis.
So, against that background, on to my predictions.
But I'm not playing the game that way. The better way to play this game is to treat this as a question about who is going to be around in the future, i.e. a demographic question. Answer: the people who have children. So my prediction is that future generations will be much more religious, particularly Islamic, than current ones. (I suspect you would reach the same conclusion by predicting reversion to the mean of moral views.) As religious feeling grows, the current BBC-ish orthodoxy will try to accommodate itself to that growth. So:
(1) Blasphemy will become regarded as a great moral evil. There will be essentially no constituency for protecting freedom of speech in order to allow blasphemous publications. For liberals, this will be regarded as the great moral virtue of avoiding offence, while for religious people the motivation is clear.
(2) Abortion will be restricted. If they want, liberals will have the chance to believe that they are part of an on-going liberation movement in which the 'foetal-rights' movement takes up the struggle that black people and homosexuals have been pursuing. Again the motivation for religious people is clear.
(3) The word 'decadence' will gain a meaning other than its current one of 'highly calorific' (in the context of puddings).