A little while ago I was listening as someone articulated the common notion that no one will know what our present society’s major moral blind spots are until many generations in the future, when we’ve all died off and can be judged safely, from a distance. It’s the conventional wisdom, but I don’t quite buy it. Not that there isn’t some truth in it: I agree that oftentimes we humans are blinded by self-interest or simply act in ignorance.
But my own opinion is that pretty much any way of structuring a society and deciding on public policy involves moral compromise. Because upholding one moral principle will so often mean violating another. And when we look back on previous societies and declare how “evil” they were (for approving of slavery, misogyny, xenophobia, etc.), we’re really being extremely arrogant, because we pretend it didn’t matter that there were, in fact, real advantages to the whole society in having things set up that way. Is it really better for everyone to be equal in the eyes of the law? Well, it depends on your circumstances. And I’m not saying it depends on whether you’re one of the people who gets treated better than everyone else—I’m saying that inequality can enhance the chances of your civilization’s survival. Every society gives special treatment to certain classes of individuals.
Actually, I guess this is an example of why it’s sad that anthropology hasn’t really influenced mainstream thinking about ethics very much. Even though postmoderns supposedly adhere to some kind of “moral relativism,” in my experience it typically doesn’t go any further than a vague belief that “You shouldn’t judge people who are different from you”—which is accompanied by a tendency no less powerful than in any previous generation to judge and condemn all sorts of people.
My opinion is that true wisdom is not throwing up our hands in despair over our limited abilities to discern the great moral issues of our time (just as previous generations have failed before us, etc.) but true wisdom is to learn from the past (and different cultures), not as mistakes, but as alternate evolutionary paths whose benefits we should consider with as much care as we consider their disadvantages—because it’s not unlikely our current system neglects the values served by the cultural norms we find objectionable.
I think it would be best if people stopped feeling superior to the racist white Americans of the 18th century who approved of slavery—not because we probably would have gone along with it, too, if we had lived back then—but because it was not as easy a moral decision as we make it out to be. The economic and political implications of ending slavery were complex and unknown. In fact, we can see even better today that abolition would not/did not fix the problem of black poverty and oppression.
And the thing is, it is not difficult to name many similar situations in our society today where we know that something we’re doing is evil, but we’re afraid of what the unintended consequences of changing things might be. We Americans approve tacitly or by our economic choices things like sweatshops overseas and a federal minimum wage that is far below a living wage (present-day slavery)—not to mention the degradation of the environment, pornographic advertising, a conspiracy of conceited mediocrity, the tyrannical rule of corporate entities, irresponsible sexual decisions, etc.
So, anyway, I think that just as we can make progress as individuals by examining ourselves with grace and love instead of hatred and fear, such a thing can be done at the societal level, as well. And you may note: I used the word “progress” very intentionally. Because while I do not think we are any more “moral” than previous generations, I do think we have gained greater knowledge and self-awareness, which can help us to make better moral choices. We have no moral superiority over past generations, but we do have a potential moral advantage. So let’s not excuse ourselves from the only-sort-of-difficult task of figuring out what our society’s major blind spots are and do what we can to increase our knowledge, decrease misinformation, let go of prejudices, open our minds to new possibilities, actually learn from people different from ourselves and use our moral advantages wisely!