The Trajectory of Moral Progress

The thought for the day is from my recent interview with Duke Professor Ruth Grant:

(W)e have ambivalence about whether we are on a trajectory of moral progress or a trajectory of moral corruption. We have some sense that things are always going downhill and that the last generation was better than this generation. We also have a sense that development in economics and science and technology brings moral progress. I don’t think people are as confident about that at this moment. I think there’s a lot of anxiety about our moral condition right now.

Grant’s book, In Search of Goodness, will be published in April.

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1 Response to The Trajectory of Moral Progress

  1. I look forward to both Grant’s book and your take on it. I suspect that our beliefs about the generations have more to do with age — as we get older and (sometimes) wiser, we recognize the follies of youth, so of course we think the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket. But as someone who can remember when we didn’t trust anybody over 30, I recall thinking my generation was morally superior to that of my parents. And Grant is certainly on to something when she says we’re now questioning whether economic and technological progress is really providing moral progress.

    What has given me hope for our moral condition has been the progress we have made over my lifetime in our legal recognition of the rights of all. I went to legally segregated schools as a child, and now we have an African American as President of the U.S. The kind of sexual harassment that was just something women had to put up with in the 1950s can get someone fired these days. And the recent end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and, perhaps more important, the changing attitudes toward gays and lesbians reflected in polls about marriage issues, shows that U.S. society has shifted on that score as well.

    We’re even paying attention to human rights on a worldwide scale. We may not be very effective at it yet — genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, and killing people to make a political point are far from disappearing — but we have at least reached the point where most people condemn these things and many seek to do something about them.

    The more progress we make in recognizing that all human beings are human beings, the better we get. We can’t let the fact that it’s a struggle — often a violent struggle — blind us to that fact.

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