Thursday, September 30, 2010

What will future generations condemn us for?

A very interesting piece in the Washington Post by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who notes first the fairly obvious point that perceptions of what is appropriate and good have shifted over the years, and are likely to continue to do so. Where the article becomes interesting is when he asks if there is any way of predicting which contemporary practices might be destined for future condemnation. He suggests three criteria:
"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 then goes on to suggest four possible sets of contemporary practices that our children or grandchildren may well find abhorrent: the prison system (he has his eyes especially on the US situation); industrial meat production; the institutionalisation of the elderly; and our ecologically destructive lifestyles.

I briefly considered this question myself towards the end of this post on morality as distraction, specifically focussing on the issue of whether the church is offering hostages to fortune through our current practices and attitudes.

Are there more examples you can think of that meet his three criteria? In your estimation, which one(s) is (are) most likely to see future shifts in judgement?
H/T Bryan.


Al said...

I suspect that our descendants will focus primarily upon the shape of capitalism in the contemporary world and the way in which our consumer lifestyle places unsustainable demands upon our fellow human beings and our planet.

Natalie Swann said...

In Australia, I think future generations will be horrified by the way we use water.