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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Necessity is the mother of progress, but can be the father of immorality

Does Moral History Have A Direction?

Jonah Goldberg has a very interesting post at The Corner discussing the theory that necessity is the “father of immorality.” The general idea, as I understand it, is that as technology and wealth advance, we come to regard more and more previously-acceptable practices as barbaric. He supports this by speculating that current advances in biology that may eliminate the need to create embryos in order to destroy them, as per the current stem cell debate, will lead more people to consider this practice immoral. He also gives the historical example of dangerous child labor being outlawed only after technology and education had already made it uneconomic.

I think that an extension of this idea (probably implicit in Jonah’s post) is that increasing mastery of our physical environment changes widely-held moral principles in more than one direction: not only do some practices once held to be moral come to be regarded as immoral, but others once held to be immoral come to be regarded as moral. As a general rule, “aggressive” practices tend to be seen as less justifiable, while restrictions on non-coercive personal behavior tend to be relaxed. Technology plus wealth changes trade-offs in both directions.

On one hand, fewer people are willing to harden their hearts against intuitively troubling practices that provide some material advantage, like dangerous child labor, when either (i) we invent a new way of accomplishing the same end that eliminates much of the relative material advantage of the problematic behavior, or (ii) we simply become sufficiently wealthy that the material good we get in return for this practice holds less utility for us. What was seen as moral becomes seen as immoral.

On the other hand, many restrictions on behavior that once served to avoid obvious negative personal outcomes suddenly lose their moral force for many people once technology changes the balance of (apparent) costs and benefits. The introduction of The Pill, to take an obvious example, almost certainly had a much larger effect on female sexual mores than all the sweet talk and chocolates on earth. What was seen as immoral becomes seen as moral.

As advances in technology and wealth proceed at a faster pace, the rate at which these kinds of moral changes occur increases. Because those societies that have high rates of technical and economic advance tend to be open societies in which greater latitude in personal behavior is legally and socially acceptable, this effect is even more exaggerated in places like contemporary America. This leads many people to ask the obvious question: is anything really moral or immoral?

Since almost all humans appear to have some kind of innate need to associate themselves with transcendent values, this is not pure intellectual speculation, but is often an acute psychological conflict between the need for transcendence and the world of moral flux all around us.

This anxiety is radically enhanced by the massive success of the evolutionary paradigm. If we can explain all of human behavior as the product of a physical process that has no purpose or design, and all of human society is an emergent phenomenon ultimately produced by this same underlying process, then it’s hard to view any moral rules as other than an illusion. To go back to Jonah’s post, it’s hard to believe we are in the midst of a Whiggish progression of moral improvement, if we think morality is a fantasy. We can’t have moral improvement if there is no absolute yardstick that enables us to call one set of mores more or less moral than any other; we just have random drift of mores.

I don’t think that either conservatives or liberals have successfully assimilated evolution, and figuring out how to do this is a long-term challenge (in very different ways) for both of them. I recently wrote an article for National Review that tried to take on a very small part of this problem from a conservative perspective: arguing that accepting evolution does not require accepting either atheism or purposelessness. Several years ago Robert Wright wrote an amazing book called Nonzero which takes on a far broader agenda: creating a modern (that is evolution-centric) version of Whig history from a contemporary liberal perspective.

By Jim Manzi
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