What will future generations condemn us for?

October 5, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

That’s the intriguing question tackled by Ghanaian philosopher, novelist and Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah in a recent Kwame_Anthony_Appiahopinion piece in the Washington Post.

“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 stripped, 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?”

Appiah 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 counterarguments 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”

what's next?

what's next?

Curious that his list doesn’t include unnecessary infliction of suffering, but he’s probably taking that for granted as a criterion. Anyway, on this basis, his top four candidates for future shame are the prison system, the institutionalisation of the elderly, industrial meat production and environmental abuse, including climate change.

Good list. I would add a few more

Limits to growth, both environmental and conceptual (GDP is looking increasingly flawed as a measure of progress, as Joe Stiglitz among others argues)

The world’s simultaneous toleration of mass hunger and mass obesity, when there’s enough food for everyone and we know what a good diet requires

The absence of effective global governance delivering at least a minimal basic level of income and welfare for everyone, funded by global taxation

And there’s probably something there on our treatment of mental illness, but I can’t quite pin it down. Feel free to add your candidates ……….

h/t Climate Progress, c/o John Magrath

October 5, 2010
Duncan Green