Sunday, September 26, 2010

"What will future generations condemn us for?"

That's the excellent question asked and answered by a piece in today's Washington Post by Kwame Anthony Appiah.

In my post on the death of Senator Robert Byrd, I quoted this Metafilter comment that tried to draw a lesson from Byrd's membership in, and subsequent renunciation of, the Ku Klux Klan:

I imagine that you (and the rest of us), should we have the opportunity to examine our actions today in 70 years, would be taken aback at some of the things we did and believed, things that appeared to us at the time to be obviously, manifestly right. And here's the kicker: we don't know what those things will be.

We may not want to admit it, but on some issue we are all Robert Byrd. Let's just hope we have the grace, as did Byrd, to realize what that issue is when the time comes.
That comment is phrased as if it's a foregone conclusion that it's going to be a long, long time before we can even perceive what these issues are.

Well, Appiah's article gives some basis to be a little more optimistic. Specifically, he gives "three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation":
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. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. That's why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.
Appiah gives 4 current practices that he imagines that we'll look at in the future and ask: "What were people thinking?"

Can you guess what Appiah thinks these practices are? Remember, the Metafilter commenter didn't just say it'll be a long time before we succeed in putting an end to the practices, but that it would be a long time before we were even capable of reasoning our way to a conclusion about what the practices are. If you can come up with even one of the same answers as Appiah before clicking the link in the next paragraph, that would suggest that the Metafilter commenter was too pessimistic; we actually can answer these questions today.

After you've thought about it, read Appiah's answers.

ADDED: Feel free to put your own answer in the comments, either before or after reading the article.

6 comments:

LemmusLemmus said...

1. Valuing the well-being of fellow citizens substantially higher than that of noncitizens. (This change would continue a process that has arguably gone on for a long time; this would hence be more of a gradual change.)

2. Current treatment of animals.

Off to the article. . .

Jason (the commenter) said...

Guessing the answers will deal with:

1. Our decadence, we spend money uncontrollably and behave insanely when told we have to cut back.

2. Our need to criminalize things and lock fellow citizens up.

3. Teachers having sex with their students.

4. Our charity and aid money that does more harm than good.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

The 2000s were the time when they still had war. It was still the age of the zero-sum mentality: In order for me to win, you have to lose; and the vindictive mentality: if you do something I don’t like, I have to do something you won’t like. It was the age of short-term thinking, the delusion that what will happen to oneself tomorrow is more important than what will happen to one’s descendants in a thousand years; of the justification of greed: My inconvenience trumps your suffering; and of mean-spiritedness as a philosophy: My callousness is good for you, but if it’s bad for you, that’s not my concern. It was a time when lies were unashamedly paraded as facts, closed-mindedness was worshiped as knowledge, and people felt no qualm if their lives contradicted their ethical values. It was still the age of barbarism, and we almost became extinct.

Meade said...

For believing liberals are compassionate and conservatives are mean.

Meade said...

For believing that the richer, more well-educated states such as California, New York, and Illinois would finally lead the rest of the country - through increasing state ownership and state regulations - to the Great Society.

Meade said...

That "organic" foods were healthier for us even as the soils they grew in became more and more concentrated with heavy metals that mainly were in "organic" fertilizers.