Moral progress

At Cheap Chalupas, one can read the following:

That said, most of the world is not regressing morally and arguably can be seen as advancing morally, at least on the fronts of general tolerance, democracy, and the moral virtues which are encouraged by prosperity and market exchange.

And then (hopefully) to parody modern economic thought, the author adds:

Is it possible there is more moral regression in the world today than say five years ago? Does moral regression have a unit root? Serial autocorrelation? Do we understand the causes of moral regression better as time passes? I don’t see that.

Ignoring the latter quote which I add only because it’s ridiculous, I’d like to discuss the idea of “moral progress.”

The idea that our ancestors were immoral is pervasive, wrong, and destructive to any reasonable understanding of history.

The entire notion is plagued by bias. Of course we more moral today when we judge morality by today’s prevailing standards. I would wager that 100% of people who have ever believed that “tolerance” and “democracy” are cornerstones of morality are currently alive.

The best recent book on the subject of moral advancement and decay is, of course, Charles Murray’s. Instead of hand-waving, Murray actually states what he considers to be moral values: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. It’s much harder to find anyone that disagrees with that list at any time (if I had to toss in another one, I’d throw in scientific advancement, but that’s no better).

(The worst recent book on this subject was Pinker’s).

Imagine reincarnating someone who was alive a hundred years ago and telling him that most children are born out of wedlock, they increasingly don’t go to church, and huge numbers of them are on some form of state assistance. Would our reincarnated friend be less shocked because the children get a say in who governs the country? (Would he not be more appalled?)

Far from progress, Murray finds moral decay to be pervasive in our society – the exception being among the elite who do seem to be experiencing some moral progress.

The sad fact is that people work less (if at all), commit petty crimes at increasingly high rates, don’t form families and aren’t religious. This is hardly a recipe for a society at the apex of morality. Surely this should be obvious, even for someone as far removed from the decline as he can get.

37 Responses to Moral progress

  1. Konkvistador says:

    “The entire notion is plagued by bias. Of course we more moral today when we judge morality by today’s prevailing standards.”

    I focused on this criticism heavily in my “Against Moral Progress” piece on More Right.

    Progressives are particularly terrible at this mostly because they lack meta awareness of how horrified progressives from say 100 years ago would be about the state of the world. They seem to imagine that the morality will evolve in nonthreatening ways. Faltering themselves to be at the edge of the curve, very near to “true morality” that Progressivism has been “discovering” in the past 200 years, never considering how wrong people in the past holding the same opinion where.

    It is trivially obvious if you look at even some material put out as late as in the 1960s that their safe Progressive utopias turn out to be utterly unacceptable to modern Progs. To provide an example, consider the original Star Trek, pop prog utopianism of the era, where women couldn’t be captains of starships, etc. It seems safe to say that the utopias imagined by 2013 Progs are going to be utterly unacceptable to the Progs of 2063 if they are still around.

  2. Jehu says:

    Comparing a high surplus society like ours (indeed ours is probably the highest surplus society in recorded history) to a low (or even zero or negative) surplus society, such as that common throughout recorded history on a moral basis is insanely difficult. Do we say Bill Gates is particularly moral because he doesn’t shoplift at the Whole Foods? Do we say we’re a more intrinsically moral society because our murder rate is down largely because our trauma medicine converts a lot of ‘would have killed you in the 60s, but is now generally survivable’ aggravated assaults? Or how a lot of lesser interracial crime is reduced because we allow the NAM to ethnically cleanse the neighborhood?
    We like to judge our ancestors harshly for things that were we in the same material position we would have done worse. Convenience is the modern god. Absent petroleum slaves and modern conveniences thus enabled, do you REALLY think SWPLs would balk at slavery if that’s what it took to give them a cushy lifestyle? Hell no, they’d be sipping mint juleps and smoking cigars quicker than you can say Yessah Massa!

  3. I would wager that 100% of people who have ever believed that “tolerance” and “democracy” are cornerstones of morality are currently alive.

    Well, you never know… there’s always traffic collisions, suicide, and freak gardening accidents. Say 99.9% just to be safe.

  4. SOBL1 says:

    I think this can go here, but one trend I have noticed is with the rise of secularism and irreligious behavior I often hear people say or read someone’s writing/typing that they did a charitable act becauseit made them feel good. A traditional measure of ‘good’ was charitable acts, but in our age of $10 red cross donation texts and ‘i do it to feel good’ being openly stated, even the traditional expressions of good moral behavior are clouded by our narcissistic times.

    Your post is spot on, and the only bit I would add is that cheap chalupas must truly live in a bubble and never look outside North America and the LGBT crusade.

  5. Kgaard says:

    Murray’s book was excellent — but the notion that marriage is a timeless moral good is just flat-out wrong. It’s an invention of the past 10,000 years or so. Sex at Dawn was masterful in laying out the evidence that 99% of humanity’s past was characterized by polyamorous sexuality within a tribal setting. Obviously we are returning to something like that now. The immoral part is really that some dudes get left out in the cold while the rest of the tribe is boinking. The compensating factor ends up being online porn.

    • josh says:

      Because sex is no more meaningful than cumming in a sock.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      “Sex at Dawn” was really not particularly convincing , in any case. One would have thought that it was written in 1975…Even PUA Roissy over at Chateau Heartiste was pretty underwhelmed by it.

      • aretae says:

        There is a lot of weak evidence in SaD…but the evidence it cites from Red Queen/ Sperm Wars stuff suggests pretty hard that monogamy as a principle wasn’t there pre-historically. Monogamy is pretty solidly an agricultural invention.

        Roissy is of course unimpressed, because it suggests something strongly at odds with his line as well…he’s required to be unimpressed, or to re-evaluate, which he sure as heck ain’t going to do.

        In agricultural world, marriage and religion are really important. Some folks want to stay there/go back. Others find those to be dead or dying remnants of an old way of life that don’t have much place in a nomadic world.

      • Foseti says:

        I’m strongly unimpressed as well. Is pre-historic morality really the aim?

      • kgaard says:

        I agree with Aretae: The crux of Sex at Dawn involved in the issue of sex itself. The book argues that the male penis is shaped with a scoop-like head in order to scoop out the product of the dude who had been there 2 minutes before. Women are louder during sex in order to call in other men. Men are quicker because there are other guys waiting. Women last longer because they are built to have sex with more than one man at a time. I have yet to read anything that counters any of these arguments. (If somebody can direct me to a good take-down I’d be happy to read it.)

        There was also something in the book about how sperm competition occurred INSIDE the woman’s body, and that her body is set up for that, but I can’t remember the details.

      • asdf says:


        Exactly what about modern life is like hunter gatherer times? We are in a wildly different time, I don’t expect hunter gatherer norms to work in the modern world. What other hunter gatherer norms do you expect us to adopt soon. Small egalitarian tribes? Men being able to rape women pretty much when they feel like it?

        The only similarity is that we have economic surplus in certain countries. Everything else has changed.

      • Handle says:

        Right on cue, sexual anarchist / anti-judgmentalist Jillian Keenan attempts a defense / normalization of polyamory.

      • kgaard says:

        I started reading that NYT article on polyamory and it was just revolting. So I stopped. Kind of works against the Sex at Dawn case, but only a little. I think it’s partly that they were all in their 50s and 60s. I mean … damn … if you’re gonna have polyamory it seems there oughtta be an upper age limit.

    • Harold says:

      ‘I saw two gallants and their footmen taking a pretty wench, which I have much eyed, lately set up shop upon the hill, a seller of riband and gloves. They seek to drag her by some force, but the wench went, and I believe had her turn served, but, God forgive me! what thoughts and wishes I had of being in their place.’ — Samuel Pepys

      ‘Amor’ has nothing to do with it, and it can coexist with pair bonding.

    • Harold says:

      I am also reminded of this study (which I haven’t looked into carefully):

      “The most sexually active species of primates may have evolved elevated immune systems as a defense mechanism against disease,” said Charles Nunn, a University of Virginia biology researcher who led the study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science.

      Nunn and colleagues studied 20 years of data on 41 primate species from zoos around the world. They found that the most promiscuous have high levels of basal white blood cells, the body’s first defense against infection. Monogamous species, like the white-handed gibbon or Titi monkey, have lower levels.

      Other risk factors for disease – such as crowded living conditions or contact with other germs – had little effect on immune response, said co-author John Gittleman, a biology professor.

      Humans have white blood cell counts similar to those in primarily monogamous species, the researchers said.

    • [T]he notion that marriage is a timeless moral good is just flat-out wrong. It’s an invention of the past 10,000 years or so.

      Well, it has been a pretty significant 10,000 years.

  6. Jehu says:

    Want a high trust society that can sustain all the conveniences you take for granted? Only a monogamous society that is relatively homogenous can give that to you. Such societies also pretty much always win in warfare against societies that aren’t, if the odds are even remotely equal, and often when they aren’t.

    • Kgaard says:

      Hey … I’m with you! I’m not saying I favor polyamory. But if the women are moving in a polyamorous direction — which they clearly are — how am I supposed to respond? I would have gladly married if a quality woman had wanted to … but it never happened and I’m getting on towards 50. I see the decay occurring on all fronts. But that doesn’t really have an impact on biology. It’s a male bias to want everything trim and proper in society. (Minimal divorce, no interracial dating, etc.). Women just don’t care about that stuff.

      The logic laid out in Sex at Dawn is just playing itself out daily in the real world. That was a huge book. I disagree with those who say it wasn’t very persuasive.

  7. […] Fosetti cut them a new anal orifice. […]

  8. VXXC says:

    “every man a Denmark”

    I’ll take it. Denmark is famous for no immigrants. And a government that’s pro-majority- Danes. I can stand the higher taxes and all the socialist crap. Done. In. When is Cowen going to sign this pact?

    • Francis St. Pol says:

      Funny, I read that as a Hamlet reference. Something is rotten…

    • ADS says:

      “Denmark is famous for no immigrants. ”

      That’s pretty odd, since it’s wrong. Denmark has a large, and growing, underclass of net cost immigrants and children of immigrants and that’s certainly not going to change in the forseeable future.

      The only reason people think Denmark is anti-immigration is because it’s in contrast to Sweden, which is sort of like appearing short standing next to Manute Bol.

  9. Handle says:

    I’ve been very interested in moral philosophy for a long time and I’ve tried to familiarize myself with all the philosophical schools and arguments. There are, perhaps, ways to have civil and productive conversations about it, but those are practically nonexistence these days; the brazen assertion taken for granted as being the agreed-upon consensus of all right-thinking people having become the normal mode of “discourse” on the subject. I call this, “The Self-Evident Creed Mentality”.

    Someone should do a brief survey of the changes in “Prominent Libertarian Conceptions of Morality” over time. Maybe start with the Classical Liberals, say Hume, or Adam Smith and his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, moving on to the Mises-Hayek-Rothbard line, maybe throw in some Ayn Rand attempts at re-foundation and then … at some point there was just a total collapse. But, strangely to me, not a collapse of morality itself into amoral Nihilism, but a collapse of attempting to support one’s moral views – of thinking that one ought even go to the effort. Cowen and Caplan are exemplary of the result.

    It happened on the left too. Political / ‘Intellectual’ types used to care deeply about the moral foundations of their positions and arguments. You can see that concern in their works and their appeals both to each other and to the public. There was a brief Nietzschean period, followed by some desperate attempts at reformulation, and now … everybody’s just apparently given up, but without giving up the idea that their moral view is still treatable as being ‘obviously objectively correct’ so that one can be completely casual about making bold and obnoxious claims on a daily basis.

    Caplan’s “Common Sense Morality” is probably the best example of this. I can call you evil and senseless and claim my righteousness without even conceding that I ought to go to some effort to support my positions. Duh, they’re common sense. You’re clueless or evil for even asking me to defend what’s self-evidently moral – and especially if you persist in disagreeing with me.

    What you get is a comfortable, smug, and hyper-confident self-righteousness, but one without deity, ‘revelation’, or even any pretense of having something that could persuade a skeptic. This matters because having something like a logic or ‘jurisprudence’ to one’s morality allows someone with a different position or point of view to argue that they have the better of the debate. Even religious people can have such discussions in good faith and without slandering the motives of their opponents. That’s what theologians love to do. But not these guys – straight-up dogma and unexamined orthodoxy.

    • Bill says:

      Even religious people? Religious people invented such discussions. Pythagorous, for example, was a monk, pretty much. Boethius was all Catholic and stuff. The Devil’s Advocate was a standard role in the medieval university. The Catholic Church was and is routinely criticised for its “legalism” And it’s not just the Church. Islam and Judaism have similar philosophical traditions.

      The “Self-Evident Creed” thing comes from a very particular place. It comes from simultaneously adhering to sola scriptura and to particular and indefensible interpretations of scripture. You cut off arguments when you know you are going to lose them. The claim that a 2000 year old, multiply copied and translated text has a clear to us meaning is both insane on its face and absolutely necessary if you are going to deny the existence of an authoritative interpreter. It’s a Dissenting Protestant thang. It’s a bible-thumper thang.

      • Bart says:

        “The Cathedral” name and the extended analogy to medieval Catholics obscures that almost all of the really pernicious stuff is obviously descended straight from Anabaptist Protestantism. Catholicism was chaining up the devil of pre-Constantine Christian insanity that now roams free in the world, fattened and vigorous with the ease of industrial and information technology that prevents it from starving to death like the old days.

  10. obligenobility says:

    I’ll have to take a look at Murray’s book. Thanks. I’d be curious to find out anyone’s thoughts on something I’ve been working on related to the clash of moralities. I’ve been trying to hammer out a framework for understanding how cultures try to conquer each other through demoralization and normalization, here:

  11. Lenior Rel says:

    One of the problems that we have now is that we are living such different lives now than our ancestors because of affluence and technology and nobody back then put a philosophical/moral defense of how they were living and how they ordered their societies. For example, being ethnocentric, it just was taken for granted by the ancient peoples that this was the normal way to be. To write down the reason back then would have struck them as bizarre, like writing down why we eat. Another thing would be the first welfare schemes run by the Church in the Middle Ages. Nobody back then though that ALL the worlds peoples should be invited to live in the country and be given access to the welfare system. Today, if you disagree with this, you are considered “evil”. Hayek touches on some of this in “The Fatal Conceit”.

    • jamzw says:

      “Fatal Conceit” teaches that all advances in civilization are anti-instinctual. He uses the term morality a good deal, but it means only those traditions which we have accumulated in advancing civilization. They stick not because they are natural to us but only because they work, and then are passed on as “moral” tradition. “Socialism” (Hayek devotes a chapter to “weasel words and the corruption of language first described by Aristotle”) is atavistic, and so instinctual. That is why something which is so great a failure will always return no matter it’s history. It is natural to us, while the invisible hand is, well, invisible.

      According to Hayek, one catch is that the world will have to lose nine-tenths of its population when capitalism breaks down. The Left has certainly never indicated that eventuality to be unwelcome.

  12. Lex Corvus says:

    I’m so pleased to hear that the world is advancing “morally” on the front of “democracy”—because, whenever I visit the DMV, I think, “Yes, these people should rule!”

  13. The Continental Op says:

    “Moral Progress” is a gloss on the Whig interpretation of history, or “we are each surrounded by an invisible shield of super awesomeness, more and more every day!”

    God will punish them for their sins.

  14. […] Foseti and then Jim on moral progress, or rather its antonym: “moral progress”. […]

  15. Handle says:

    I don’t disagree with any of the points your make in this post, or in these comments, or it seems in many of the negative comments over at the MR post which attach it from the left and right. But I reread it in light of today’s news of warning folks we’re about to rapidly escalate the provision of support to the Syrian Radical Sunni Insurgency, and now I see it differently.

    The elite press (and Cowen’s worked hard over the years to get and stay dialed in to the community) has been on “get ’em on board for intervention in Syria” mode for a while, and now I see Cowen’s uncharacteristically silly and unsupportable house-of-cards post as a Straussian extension of that justification effort – and probably nothing more.

    Now, I do mean “news of warning”. The real news is when somebody actually makes a decision to get the military ready to do something which, for various reasons, is hard to spring on the public without gradually psychologically ‘preparing the environment’ and shaping opinions and perceptions.

    And the real news was, alas {sigh; facepalm} two months ago.

    So, if you’ve been tracking the stories over that period you may have noticed the distinctive pattern of the drumbeat to war, by now familiar to us. We’ve even got bogus news of the “Regime using WMD” which, I know I shouldn’t have to point out to anyone here, makes absolutely no sense at all tactically or strategically for Assad.

    But, whatever, he can try to defend himself at his war crimes trial but whoops he’ll be dead by then and everyone will forget about it. We’re even going to use the same SF training installations and no-fly-zone airbases in Jordan as we did for Iraq. It’s well beyond Deja Vu. Next year maybe some of us will sign in from Damascus.

    Anyway, that’s my revised read of the post. Like I said, I’m with you the “moral progress” nonsense. I just wonder whether that’s what he was really doing there.

  16. Tarl says:

    That said, most of the world is not regressing morally and arguably can be seen as advancing morally, at least on the fronts of general tolerance, democracy, and the moral virtues which are encouraged by prosperity and market exchange.

    How amusing that this person does not recognize that tolerance, democracy, and “free market” prosperity are not examples of moral advance, but are in fact antithetical to morality.

  17. Saddam Hussein's Whirling Aluminium Tubes says:

    Maybe hunter gatherers were polyamorous. They also had an incredibly high violent death rate and existed in a state of “almost constant war”,

    We might have been happiest when we lived as killer bonobos, but that ship has sailed and going back to it would involve mass die off.

    Assuming that we’re planning to continue on with the (regrettable) project of technological society, we may need to fight some of our baser urges, rather than give in to every single one.

    Monogamy may not be natural in the grand scheme of things, it may not be particularly pleasant but it has an established track record of success and it re-arranges the incentive structure in a way that is probably beneficial.

  18. Mike O' the Lake says:

    Um, a couple of questions here.
    1. what percentage of the world population died as a result of genocide in the 20th century?

    2. !9th century?

    3. 18th?

    4. as far back as you care to count?

    5. Of the hundred million or so in the 20th century who were killed by officially sanctioned mass murder, how many died at the hands of people who claimed explicitly to be working to usher in a new golden age of tolerance and progress?

  19. Alrenous says:

    We’re not designed for monogamy.

    As a result, monogamy is not good.

    Monogamy is better for us that what we’re designed for.

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