May 18, 2008

Is human moral progress inevitable?

I found this article quite interesting, especially considering I argued "yes" to this post's title in this post of mine from over a month ago. Check it:

Technological development doesn't make us better. It gives us more choices. And sometimes we choose to make things better with the increased capability we have been given. It's not inevitable that we will make things better, but it does seem built-in for us to try. [I Don't Believe in Atheists author Chris] Hedges is right that we shouldn't view ourselves as the culmination of a process of advancement. We aren't the culmination; we're just the latest step. Nor should we view human nature or the human condition as perfectible. Rather, we should see them for what we have demonstrated them to be time and time again throughout our history -- vastly improvable.

While the author seems to argue that better technology doesn't make us better, he lays out arguments that belie just this. It must be that matter of more choices, I guess:

What if we go back just a couple thousand years. What percentage of the world's population lived in slavery at that time, or a condition we would find indistinguishable from slavery? Yes, it is horrifying to think that pockets of slavery and slave-like conditions still exist in our world today -- but how many billion would have to be slaves today to match the percentages of the era of Julius Caesar?

How many women voted (anywhere, for anything) 300 years ago? All around the world, how many vote now?

How many environmental groups existed 150 years ago? How many exist now?

How many animals benefited from prosthetic technology 25 years ago? How many benefit now?

What he says is that advanced technology -- and all its concurrent benefits -- makes the human condition (including morality) vastly improvable. This is entirely logical; the most technologically advanced societies on Earth (the West, Japan, Australia) have made life so ... "easy" for its citizens that they now have the time to be concerned about things like animal rights, global warming, and even into the absurd like vegetable rights. If you're an average citizen in, say, Chad, these concepts aren't likely to ever enter into your thinking processes.

Which takes me back to the society of "Battlestar Galactica." Considering how much more advanced their technology is than our own (early 21st century Earth, that is), and considering that they are humans exactly like ourselves, it then is quite logical to posit that BSG humanity's "moral improvement" should be quite a bit greater than our own. But this then goes to the heart of my argument from that post: It demonstrably is not.

Of course, the author of the above Speculist article alludes to the fact that human morality is easily disposed of in times of disaster and conflict. This is where BSG's concept of humanity became non-recognizable. After the Cylon-inflicted genocide, BSG humanity retained much of the morality we'd expect such an advanced society to possess: They demanded that democratic institutions be reinstated among surviving humanity, they demanded freedom of the press, they kept jury trials, they even refused to take advantage of an opportunity to wipe out their mortal enemy when the chance came about. However, we saw instances that made little sense for such an advanced civilization (pre-genocide, that is): An inherent planetary caste system, exploitation of workers, religious persecution. This is what drove me nuts about how the writers envisioned BSG humanity.

Back to our own society, just imagine how much more comfortable our own lives are compared to what our grandparents experienced. Just imagine what will happen when we finally develop cheap unlimited energy -- such as fusion power. Imagine how much more free humans will be then (after all, how pricey can power be when the ingredient needed to run it is water?). What about nanotechnology? What if we develop a "nanoforge" like author Joe Haldeman envisioned, which can create just about anything we need? Nanobots, that operate in the human bloodstream that can prevent aging and disease? Just think about how increased human longevity -- coupled with cheap power and easily mass-produced products -- will subsequently increase our "free time," that free time that'll likely be used to expand human morality and rationality.

Posted by Hube at May 18, 2008 08:39 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

I think you're making a few false assumptions. I'll deal with this at greater length on my blog at some point, hopefully, but here's a few:

1) You seem to assume that economic progress is inevitable. The fall of the Roman Empire and the period after is just one example showing that it's not.
2) I haven't taken the time to RTFA, but it seems that you're focusing on "societal morality" for lack of a better term with personal morality. While you're correct that our greater economic stability allows to care more for the environment than people in Chad, I'm not sure I'd trust my wallet more with the typical American than the typical Chad-ian(?). Wealth and lack of greed definitely do not go hand-in-hand.

Again, take these with a grain of salt since I haven't read the linked article. But I would argue that neither moral nor economic progress is inevitable. Both can advance and both can backslide, and not necessarily in unison.

Posted by: Paul Smith at May 19, 2008 12:03 PM

Paul: I didn't anywhere mention economic progress. I (and the article) stated technological progress. Your assumption, thus, is erroneous.

Technological progress may go hand in hand with economic progress ("may" since the USSR seems to belie that), and sure, advanced tech doesn't ensure societal collapse. There are myriad variables to measure for that beyond just tech. However, the advances of technology are not irrevocably lost after a society's collapse, or, less drastic, its decline.

Posted by: Hube at May 19, 2008 06:30 PM

Somehow, Hube, I don't think it's going to work out like that.

I began work in the early sixties at the dawn of the computer revolution. I remember pundits predicting that, with computers easing our workloads, the four-day work week was just around the corner. They worried about what we would do with all that spare time!

In the early sixties most families were single-income, supported reasonably comfortably by the efforts of just one family member -- usually the dad. Now, some 45 years later with all of the intervening technological advances, most families have two-incomes or more and the typical work week is at least 10 hours longer. What happened to all that leisure time we were supposed to be getting?

If we extrapolate that trend for another 45 years, taking into account fusion, nanotechnoloby, biomechanics along with other as yet unknowable advances, we can expect mostly four-income families, who have put their kids to work at 90-hour per week jobs. The only up side will be that then no one will have enough time to get into trouble.

Posted by: highlander at May 21, 2008 12:36 AM

But from what we have seen -- and that's all we have, so it's our only criterion -- BSG isn't that much more technologically advanced than we are. In fact, they are only more advanced in two areas: space travel, and AI. There are no ray guns, replicators, holodecks, transporters, or any other such para-scientific nonsense. Unlike the godawful Roddenberry franchise, the BSG writers do not continually use technology as a deus ex machina, nor are we assaulted in every third line of dialogue with ridiculous pseudo-scientific babble. Nobody "reconfigures the dilithium crystals" to "create a temporal displacement field" in BSG.

And this is exactly why BSG is great Sci-Fi, and Roddenberry was trash (it's also why Blade Runner is great Sci-Fi). BSG is about the characters and the story, not the technology. The more technology you have in Sci-Fi, the more it becomes a distraction from the story, and the more tempted writers are to produce ridiculous drivel, like "photonic lifeforms" in a protostar.

Posted by: rightwingprof at May 22, 2008 11:43 AM

RWP: "BSG" was good, indeed for the reasons you cite. However, IMO the writers have lost their way by severely misinterpreting human motives and logical behaviors based on the survivors' situation.

Posted by: Hube at May 22, 2008 06:43 PM

"coupled with cheap power and easily mass-produced products -- will subsequently increase our "free time," that free time that'll likely be used to expand human morality and rationality"

A) sounds like technology = economy...

B) expanded by whom? We are using our free time to write, read and post on blogs.

Logan's Run is a more likely future.


Posted by: anoni at May 26, 2008 10:42 AM