COULD it be that we are slave holders, witch burners or nazis and yet don’t even know it? By that I mean could we, as individuals, or as societies, be unwittingly perpetrating acts that future generations will consider to be unspeakably evil? That idea may sound absurd, yet many slave holders, witch burners and nazis saw nothing wrong in what they did. Surely many of them would be shocked to know that their actions are used today as quintessential examples of moral corruption. So how can we be absolutely certain that we too are not committing acts that will be called evil? As the Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer wrote in his book Practical Ethics,
“It is easy for us to criticize the prejudices of our grandfathers, from which our fathers freed themselves. It is more difficult to distance ourselves from our own views, so that we can dispassionately search for prejudices among the beliefs and values we hold. What is needed now is a willingness to follow the arguments where they lead, without a prior assumption that the issue is not worth attending to.”
Consider the following practices that are commonplace today, but which could perhaps, given the right circumstances, one day be looked upon with astonishment and horror:
1. Our treatment of the environment.
If during our lifetimes global warming or global pollution is pushed past a point of no return that leaves future generations reaping the catastrophic consequences (such as water levels dramatically rising, amplified natural disasters, increased spread of diseases, extinction of many species, etc.), we could one day be thought of as the astoundingly self-serving wreckers of planet earth. The evidence is now abundant that man made global warming is real, and many technologies are available to fight this problem, though the world seems to lack the will to use them.
2. Our treatment of the poor.
If poverty on our planet is ever greatly reduced, future generations may look back upon the incredibly unequal distribution of wealth between and within countries that is commonplace today and be shocked that those with wealth and power did not do more in the name of equality. Recall that every time we buy ourselves a new pair of expensive shoes we may well have been able to use that money to help prevent someone from dying of malnutrition or becoming infected with a disease like AIDS or malaria. The “Millennium Campaign” cites some sobering statistics, such as that “800 million people go to bed hungry every day” and that “nearly half the world’s population is living on less than $2 a day”†. Almost everyone would agree that murdering a person by withholding food until they starve to death is an act of extreme evil. Yet there are few who acknowledge that allowing someone to starve to death when you could have easily prevented it (through only a small sacrifice on your part) is evil as well. In a country where most people make less that $2 a day, a hundred dollars can go a long way.
3. Our treatment of animals.
If one day humans fully accept that many animals experience pain and emotions that are similar in nature to what we feel, then perhaps society could begin to feel the same outrage over hurting any intelligent animal that many now experience when dogs, cats or endangered species are mistreated. Could keeping a dog in a small cage for its entire life before slaughtering it (which most people seem to consider cruel) really be much different in an ethical sense from doing the same to a pig or a lamb or even a chicken? If the world only concedes that killing an animal (whether its a chicken, turkey, cow, pig or sheep) is one thousandth as “bad” as killing a human, that would make the approximately 10 billion animals killed in the U.S. in 2008 (to satisfy our gastronomic preferences) equivalent to the death of 10 million humans.
4. Our inaction during genocides and atrocities committed throughout the world.
Future generations may come to feel that the powerful nations of the world did not do nearly enough when hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were slaughtered with machetes in Rwanda in 1994†, or when approximately 1.5 million Cambodians died from “execution, starvation, and forced labor”† under Pol Pot in the 1970s†, or when about ten million people were killed in Germany under Hitler† in the 1930s and 40s, or when millions of people died of starvation in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic under Stalin’s rule† during the 1930s. For that matter, perhaps the American people will be blamed for not doing more to stop over a hundred thousand civilian deaths during the Iraq† war, which was allegedly fought over what proved to be non-existent weapons of mass destruction. What’s more, maybe future generations will reject America’s wartime justifications for killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians with nuclear weapons in 1945†.
5. Our poor control over nuclear weapons.
If one day there is a nuclear war that claims tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of lives or seriously alters the earth’s climate due to nuclear winter, perhaps such a catastrophe will be in large part blamed upon the current generations, which failed to do enough to secure and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the world and stop nuclear war.
6. Our refusal to give marriage rights to homosexuals.
We look back with disbelief on the years before 1920 when women still could not vote in America† and on the time before the Voting Rights Act in 1965 when many black men and women were denied the right to vote by what are now often referred to as “discriminatory voting practices”†. Perhaps one day America’s (not yet fully repealed) sodomy laws† and ongoing refusal to give full marriage rights to homosexuals will be looked upon as similarly backward, ignorant and contemptible.
The list above is by no means perfect or complete. There are undoubtedly examples mentioned above that future generations will never blame us for or even consider unethical (though I do not know for certain which examples those are). Likewise, there are surely plenty of potential evils that I have failed to think of or mention (due to my own ignorance, fallibility, bias, and acceptance of cultural norms).
Please note that I do not, by any means, believe that the average person is evil or corrupt. On the contrary, I think that most people do what they feel is right most of the time. That being said, I hope that the examples listed above will help convince you that the accepted norms of today are not necessarily beyond reproach, and that it is worth taking a careful look at the potentially harmful ways of acting that we take for granted.
As Peter Singer alludes to in the quote above, it can be very difficult to criticize actions that are considered normal or are expected in your culture. For example, it is easy to condemn slavery when raised in a world that rejects it, but it far more difficult to condemn it (or even recognize it as unethical) when all of your relatives and friends own slaves and view it as normal. Let us work hard to identify and stamp out our own evils, and not wait idly for future generations to label us as slave holders, witch burners, or nazis.