Three Criteria

One way to make a guess about the direction of moral change is to figure, "My own moral and political opinions are right, so the future will be a process of more and more people learning to agree with me."

There may well be a more objective method.

Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah has advanced three criteria for identifying a practice that is on the verge of being widely condemned as immoral. (For the newspaper-column-version of his thesis, see here.) I was fascinated with Appiah’s ideas about how we might identify practices that are on their way out -- even if they don’t show empirical signs of decline, our attitudes about them are probably about to shift.
Kwame Anthony Appiah

First, the arguments against the practice are out there. People have heard them, and the arguments are simmering in the back of our collective consciousness. For instance, the case against slavery didn't suddenly pop up in an instantaneous transformative insight -- a blinding moment of moral clarity. The moral argument against slavery had been around for centuries. It just took a while for it to really sink in. Arguments for women’s suffrage were around a long time even before the 1848 Seneca Falls convention more-or-less officially kicked off the US suffrage movement – and it took 72 years after that before women’s suffrage was won.

That’s interesting. When I taught public speaking classes, I’d tell my students about persuasion research. If you’re going to give one speech to a roomful of people and shift their opinion, then you need to present arguments they haven’t already heard. Repeating the arguments they already know won’t move them because they have either already agreed with that argument, or already worked out their rebuttal. But when it comes to a whole society shifting moral attitutudes, we’re not talking about one speech to one audience. We’re talking about years of the give and take of public discourse. People need time to know the argument, try it out, see if it stands up, see if a really good refutation shows up -- give themselves several generations –- to, you know, think it over.

Second criteria for a practice beginning to become ripe for moral condemnation: Even those who defend it don’t offer a moral defense. They don’t say, “this is right,” – or, at least, they don’t say it with much conviction. Rather, they argue from tradition, or human nature, or necessity.

Defenders of slavery said, “We have to have slaves to get the cotton crop in.” Or “this is how we’ve always done it.” Or “it’s human nature for some people to give the orders and others to obey them.” The witch-persecutors appeared to be making moral arguments, about evil in our midst, but without any evidence of a causal connection between the accused’s actions and any actual harm done, it was a claim without an argument. Opponents of same-sex marriage appear to be making moral arguments, but on closer examination, they collapse to appeals to tradition or human nature.

The third criterion is that we see a lot of pushing the issue out of our minds. At some important level, we know it’s wrong, we just put it out of mind. We don’t want to think about it. The supporters engage in strategic ignorance. They avoid 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. It was the abolitionists’ job to make clear and vivid the slave conditions so that it couldn’t be ignored.

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This is part 3 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
Next: Part 4: "The Prison System: How Will Our Great-Grandkids Forgive Us?"
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Beginning: Part 1: "What Were They Thinking?"