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How the Future Will Judge Our Moral Failings

by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father’s duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved -- in fact, invented -- by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.

Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?

Yet the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today. Is there a way to guess which ones? A look at the past suggests three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation.

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 counter-arguments 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.

With these signs in mind, here are four contenders for future moral condemnation.

Our Prison System

We already know that the massive waste of life in our prisons is morally troubling; those who defend the conditions of incarceration usually do so in non-moral terms (citing costs or the administrative difficulty of reforms); and we’re inclined to avert our eyes from the details. Check, check and check.

Roughly 3 percent of adults in this country are incarcerated. We have 4 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. What’s more, the majority of our prisoners are nonviolent offenders, many of them detained on drug charges. (Whether a country that was truly free would criminalize recreational drug use is a related question worth pondering.)

Industrial Meat Production

The arguments against the cruelty of factory farming have certainly been around a long time; Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century observed that the key question is not whether animals can reason but whether they can suffer. People who eat factory-farmed bacon or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they’re doing. Instead, they try not to think about it too much, shying away from stomach-turning stories about what goes on in our industrial abattoirs.

The Institutionalized and Isolated Elderly

Nearly 2 million of America’s elderly are warehoused in nursing homes. Some 10,000 for-profit facilities have arisen across the country in recent decades to hold them. Other elderly Americans may live independently, but often they are isolated and cut off from their families. (The United States is not alone among advanced democracies in this. Consider the heat wave that hit France in 2003: While many families were enjoying their summer vacations, some 14,000 elderly parents and grandparents were left to perish in the stifling temperatures.) Is this what Western modernity amounts to -- societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?

Sometimes we can learn from societies much poorer than ours. My English mother spent the last 50 years of her life in Ghana, where I grew up. In her final years, it was her good fortune not only to have the resources to stay at home, but also to live in a country where doing so was customary. She had family next door who visited her every day, and she was cared for by doctors and nurses who were willing to come to her when she was too ill to come to them. In short, she had the advantages of a society in which older people are treated with respect and concern.

The Environment

Of course, most transgenerational obligations run the other way -- from parents to children -- and of these the most obvious candidate for opprobrium is our wasteful attitude toward the planet’s natural resources and ecology. Look at a satellite picture of Russia, and you’ll see a vast expanse of parched wasteland where decades earlier was a lush and verdant landscape. That’s the Republic of Kalmykia, home to what was recognized in the 1990s as Europe’s first man-made desert. Desertification, which is primarily the result of destructive land-management practices, threatens a third of the Earth’s surface; tens of thousands of Chinese villages have been overrun by sand drifts in the past few decades.

It’s not as though we’re unaware of what we’re doing to the planet: We know the harm done by deforestation, wetland destruction, pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions -- the whole litany. Our descendants, who will inherit this devastated Earth, are unlikely to have the luxury of such recklessness. Chances are, they won’t be able to avert their eyes, even if they want to.

Let’s not stop with my list. We will all have our own suspicions about which practices will someday prompt people to ask, in dismay: What were they thinking?

Even when we don’t have a good answer, we’ll be better off for anticipating the question.

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