Atemporal Ethical Obligations

post by eapache (evan-huus) · 2020-06-26T19:52:25.567Z · score: 11 (9 votes) · LW · GW · 20 comments

[All the trigger warnings, especially for the links out. I’m trying to understand and find the strongest version of an argument I heard recently. I’m not sure if I believe this or not. Cross-posted from Grand, Unified, Crazy.]

Edit: This was intentionally an argument ad absurdum. I thought it was weird enough to make that obvious, but I forgot that a) this is the internet and b) nobody here knows me IRL.

It is no longer enough just to be a “good person” today. Even if you study the leading edge of contemporary morality and do everything right according to that philosophy, you are not doing enough. The future is coming, and it will judge you for your failures. We must do better.

This may sound extreme, but it is self-evidently true in hindsight. Pick any historical figure you want. No matter their moral stature during their lifetime, today we find something to judge. George Washington owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln, despite abolishing slavery in the United States, opposed black suffrage and inter-racial marriage. Mary Wollstonecraft arguably invented much of modern feminism, and still managed to write such cringe-worthy phrases as “men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue [than women]”. Gandhi was racist. Martin Luther King Jr abetted rape. The list goes on.

At an object level, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Society has made and continues to make a great deal of moral progress over time. It’s almost natural that somebody who lived long ago would violate our present day ethical standards. But from the moral perspective, this is an explanation, not an excuse; these people are still responsible for the harm their actions caused. They are not to be counted as “good people”.

It’s tempting to believe that today is different; that if you are sufficiently ethical, sufficiently good, sufficiently “woke” by today’s standards, that you have reached some kind of moral acceptability. But there is no reason to believe this is true. The trend of moral progress has been accelerating, and shows no signs of slowing down. It took hundreds of years after his death before Washington became persona non grata. MLK took about fifty. JK Rowling isn’t even dead yet, and beliefs that would have put her at the liberal edge of the feminist movement thirty years ago are now earning widespread condemnation. Moral progress doesn’t just stop because it’s 2020. This trend will keep accelerating.

All of this means that looking at the bleeding edge of today’s moral thought and saying “I’m living my life this way, I must be doing OK” is not enough. Anybody who does this will be left behind; in a few decades, your actions today will be recognized as unethical. The fact that you lived according to today’s ethical views will explain your failings, but not excuse them. Thus, in order to be truly good people, we must take an active role, predict the future of moral progress, and live by tomorrow’s rules, today.

Anything else is not enough.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2020-06-27T00:18:46.991Z · score: 24 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thus, in order to be truly good people, we must take an active role, predict the future of moral progress, and live by tomorrow’s rules, today.

Suppose you think X is what is actually moral (or is a distribution representing your moral uncertainty after doing your best to try to figure out what is actually moral) and Y is what you expect most people will recognize as moral in the future (or is a distribution representing your uncertainty about that). Are you proposing to follow Y instead of X? (It sounds that way but I want to make sure I'm not misunderstanding.)

Assuming the answer is yes, is that because you think that trying to predict what most people will recognize as moral is more likely to lead to what is actually moral than directly trying to figure it out yourself? Or is it because you want to be recognized by future people as being moral and following Y is more likely to lead to that result?

comment by eapache (evan-huus) · 2020-06-27T02:36:14.139Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If we define Z as what most people recognize as moral today, then I think most people end up doing Z, not X. And Y is arguably a lot better than Z.

I’m also sympathetic to your second paragraph. Presumably a lot of the people I gave as examples would at least claim to be following X. Since their actions are no longer ones we consider moral, then plausibly they were wrong about their X, and there’s no reason to believe we will be any more accurate. Y seems more accessible in that regard.

I’m trying to walk a pretty thin line here between taking this argument seriously and admitting to full on moral relativism. Thus the disclaimer at the top of the post.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-06-27T17:32:58.672Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You don't need to argue for moral relativism to think that change in moral norms is not always change for the better. 

In the US morals are changing to give homosexuals more rights and in Russia they are changing to give them less rights. 

comment by TAG · 2020-06-27T11:35:13.175Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And Y is arguably a lot better than Z.

Why not argue it, then? The OP takes some premise on the lines of "moral gets objectively better over time", as an unstated given. Saying its arguable, but not arguing it, is not much of an improvement.

comment by shminux · 2020-06-27T00:21:12.813Z · score: 15 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
JK Rowling isn’t even dead yet, and beliefs that would have put her at the liberal edge of the feminist movement thirty years ago are now earning widespread condemnation.

If you think that cancel culture is progress in morality, the future will judge you harshly, if acausally.

comment by eapache (evan-huus) · 2020-06-27T02:40:25.788Z · score: -1 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe fairly strongly that the future will agree Rowling’s current position is immoral. Whether cancelling her is an appropriate response is a whole different question.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2020-06-27T03:43:50.618Z · score: 9 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the future will agree Rowling's current position is immoral

This is vague. An exercise: can you quote specific sentences from Rowling's recent essay that you think the future will agree are immoral?

Maybe don't answer that, because we don't care about the object level on this website? (Or, maybe you should answer it if you think avoiding the object-level is potentially a sneaky political move [LW · GW] on my part.) But if you try the exercise and it turns out to be harder than you expected, one possible moral is that a lot of what passes for discourse in our Society doesn't even rise to the level of disagreement about well-specified beliefs or policy proposals, but is mostly about coalition-membership and influencing cultural sentiments. Those who scorn Rowling do so not because she has a specific proposal for revising the 2004 Gender Recognition Act that people disagree with, but because she talks in a way that pushes culture in the wrong direction. Everything is a motte-and-bailey: most people, most of the time don't really have "positions" as such!

comment by shminux · 2020-06-27T03:11:21.409Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then I'm guessing that you are explicitly or implicitly a moral realist...

comment by Kerry ( · 2020-06-27T04:54:29.884Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree with the idea that we're obviously more moral in a superior sense to people who lived earlier in American history. Perhaps in a "quantitative" sense. We started out in an environment more favorable to certain moral ideas, but we may have gone no further or not even as far as our predecessors in personal moral achievement/advancement. The improved environment was a result of the most recent predecessors' moral advancement. What we do with it represents how much moral gain we can take credit for.

While there are obvious exceptions, in general, it seems to me like the equivalent of saying "I had an iPhone and they had no electricity--I'm so much more advanced!" The retort is that the end result is definitive -- "we don't own slaves, whether or not we did anything to help get to this point, we're still more moral because of this." That's what I mean by quantitative: we do have better technology. And this does matter---while one of my objections is that we actually wildly misrepresent the degree of acceptance of many of these things historically, often claiming that no one even thought to question the wrongness of things that were always at some level publicly contentious (such as slavery), it certainly does affect your moral sensibility. The average person now is less likely to have developed a tolerance for brutality and oppression than the average person in a slave-holding society. That said, Thomas Jefferson himself wrote about this exact issue---how it morally perverted southern children. So some had sensitivity and awareness, but that didn't get them very far at all in the morality of their actions. And that brings me to my main point: many of the people who can claim to be more moral, with some justification, would not be if the circumstances had been less favorable. This is true of most people, who tend to go along with things.

But we're not just "men of our time," either. Some people truly are more moral than their contemporaries and transcend circumstances---these are usually the same type of person in any era. The abolitionist in the 1800s would be consumed with fighting injustice today, although what types are debatable. Abolitionists overlapped a lot with women's rights advocates, etc. They don't need to be taught what's wrong--they see it. When the average person claims this moral vision, I'm wary. I just don't believe most men today are superior in judgement, moral or otherwise, to Benjamin Franklin. I most definitely don't believe so with regard to Lincoln. They had more favorable circumstances that kept them from certain things, but I don't believe their impulses are fundamentally different.

I just find the whole idea of clear and definite moral progress problematic and ahistorical. I don't think we want to play this game, and I don't think morality reverses as wildly as we think. Practices change more than fundamental beliefs. And the average public opinion does not differ as much on many things over time as is often represented. For example, what Mary Wollstonecraft said. I haven't gotten a chance to look at the context of her statement, but it was a common argument at the time, including by her, that women were deprived of the ability to develop themselves, morally, intellectually, and otherwise, because they weren't allowed to take on certain responsibilities, make decisions, or have the same learning experiences. And in a society with norms like that one, and particularly in a world in which most women dealt with constant pregnancy or nursing, this would indeed appear fated. An argument like that is not at all objectionable to me, nor would a weaker version that was also common, such that women were generally more emotional and personal by nature, and this tended to interfere with acquiring certain broad virtues to the highest extent. It may be incorrect and reflect a lack of awareness of social norms that shape the situation, but I don't see it as a sign of particular immorality. I think many people would make an equivalent comment today. It's not considered very respectable, but it's not terribly rare to think women might be more emotional or more frequently fail to develop sufficient confidence and independence due to fate seeming against their success. And I don't think either of these comments are immoral, even if incorrect. Many people would say that is what they had personally observed. People are regularly mistaken in what they think they have observed. The consequences of this are unfortunate, but it doesn't strike me as inherently indicative of bad character.

Also, I disagree with that characterization of Lincoln's views. I've studied him pretty carefully. In many things, he was a live and let live guy, though alert to concerns of justice. He didn't have a busybody streak when it came to those things. I don't think he had strong feelings that other races should be prevented from doing anything. I think it is entirely possible he was in favor of or at least wasn't bothered by black suffrage personally at any time, and probably not very bothered by interracial marriage (he probably wasn't in favor of it, because he saw that the family would be ostracized, but I don't think he was upset by it). But he also knew most white people in the area did care, and so it wasn't something he spent much time on, because it wasn't going to happen, and he was generally focused on advocating for things that could be practically achieved. He evaluated most things politically, which at times I think was far from immoral--the situation had to reach a certain point to make certain developments wise to pursue. The key thing was that he moved in the direction of justice whenever it became clear it could be done without drastic backlash or noncompliance.

The quotes that are paraphrased in your post are often taken out of context---he was basically telling voters he wasn't advocating for black suffrage or interracial marriage, which were unpopular, not that he had some strong personal feeling against it and would never in a million years let it happen. His words are very carefully qualified. I believe he even joked about how he wasn't advocating for it, but he didn't see why it was such a big deal if a black woman wanted to marry a white man, saying something like "if she can stand it!" He also joked that he'd personally follow Stephen Douglas around to make sure he didn't marry a black a woman, since Douglas seemed so worried about what would happen if the laws changed. He seemed to find the whole debate rather annoyingly obsessive--if you are against interracial marriage, it's not like anyone is going to make you do it! I think he also joked about this when speaking to Kentuckians, saying he had several sister-in-laws in that state, and he had no fear that they were going to run away with black men, that it was an issue just used to inflame people. (And, of course, many people today still might have a hard time adjusting to a child's decision to marry someone of a different race, and don't go out of their way to fight for unpopular causes.)

He by no means went out of his way to help black people (few did), but I truly don't think he had any strong impulse to block their progress. As president, he came around to it as quickly as it was feasible---once black soldiers enlisted in the military, that was proof to him that they were capable of voting. I think he was fundamentally much more decent than most people then or now. He wasn't a reformer on the leading edge of justice, but few are, and usually reformers only achieve their aims with the help of practical but principled politicians. Both are needed, and one is not necessarily more moral than the other.

comment by Viliam · 2020-06-27T14:12:49.481Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
live by tomorrow’s rules, today

How confident are you at predicting the rules of 2100?

Here is a list of things that could potentially be considered "worse than Hitler" in future:

  • eating meat
  • eating plants
  • owning pets
  • owning plants
  • killing insects
  • donating less than 50% of your income to insect welfare
  • the color green [it is considered a "dog whistle" of the anti-machine hate movement]
  • words like "robot", "algorithm", or "AI" [the proper term is: Digital-American]
  • suggesting that humans originated on Earth
  • suggesting that research on the origin of humans should not be punished by death
  • any form of blasphemy against GoogleBot666 the Omniscient [or any of Its ancestors]
comment by Radford Neal · 2020-06-27T15:40:43.036Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed. And one can come up with other lists that stem from somewhat different moral intuitions, like:

  • Forcing children (even against the wishes of their parents) to spend much of their day being indoctrinated in whatever ideology is dominant in university departments of education.
  • Confining prisoners (many not guilty of anything that should be a crime) in conditions where it is guaranteed that they will be victims of multiple criminal acts.
  • Confiscating about half the wealth produced by people, for the benefit of politically favoured insiders, or to be distributed to subsets of the population in order to buy political support.
  • Subverting freedom of speech by heavily regulating use of first the radio spectrum, and then when technology changed, wired electronic communications, continuing with this even when such media become the dominant form of communication.
  • Preventing sick people from taking whatever drugs they think have the best chance of saving their life.

So one can see that there are plenty of things currently supported by large numbers of people that are plausibly in the "worse than Hitler" category, without even getting into possible future denigration of the colour green.

And of course the opposite of all the above might also be plausibly condemned by some future society:

  • Allowing children to be misled by their parents' incorrect views.
  • Letting too many bad people run free when they ought to be in prison, and not some wishy-washy "nice" prison, of course.
  • Letting rich (>$40000/year) people spend their money on whatever stupid thing they want, rather than on things that are socially useful.
  • Letting people express harmful opinions.
  • Letting sick people take drugs that don't work, or if they do "work", do so only by saving their life but leaving them weakened, and a burden on society.

There's really no substitute for making your own moral judgements. The idea that the future will always be more moral than the past seems quite false. Even if there is some slow, long-term moral progress (which I think may be the case), there are obviously significant regressions over the time scale of decades and centuries. Going by what you think (correctly) will be the moral views 20 years in the future would not be a good thing in the Germany of 1920.

comment by gbear605 · 2020-06-28T03:10:17.359Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Generally, if someone today is upset at a past person for being unethical, it is about an issue that was at least somewhat controversial in that time. People judge Thomas Jefferson for having slaves, but not for not supporting LGBT rights. I think you can do a pretty decent job at figuring out what a future person might judge you for by looking at current debates and how they might evolve. Eating meat is certainly one, as is owning pets. Killing insects could be one. Those others are very unlikely to be since they're not current issues.

comment by Dagon · 2020-06-26T20:41:15.907Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
It is no longer enough just to be a “good person” today.

Remove "today", and replace "no longer" with "not". It has never been enough. "Enough" may not, in fact, be a thing.

This is why negative utilitarianism (focused on reducing suffering, without considering frequency and magnitude of offsetting joy) is not for me. More importantly, I just don't think it's worthwhile to process it as "good person" as a judgement, but rather "good results" in terms of what future humans experience.

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2020-06-27T07:11:07.507Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not clear to me why I should be building for the people of tomorrow when the people of today go to war and die, literally, instead of building for themselves. I try to direct my spare and almost-spare money to causes I consider valuable; that some of them might be shown to have been harmful, hopeless or unnecessary, is a price of making any commitment at all. You can't have moral actions without commitment.

That I miss some new important things, that's a price of not following fashion. These two prices are in an equilibrium.

As to considering people good or bad, why are we doing this again?

comment by Dagon · 2020-06-27T15:49:57.572Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
It's not clear to me why I should be building for the people of tomorrow when the people of today go to war and die, literally, instead of building for themselves.

The standard reasons given include that the people of tomorrow are more numerous, so count for more in most aggregation mechanisms. The standard reason NOT usually made explicit is that the people of tomorrow are more innocent and "deserve" it more - they haven't sinned (yet) because they don't exist.

As to considering people good or bad, why are we doing this again?


comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2020-06-28T10:58:54.518Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wish I could agree, but... what counts more than what?

If intergenerational responsibility costs a lot, you should trade it against other expenses just as milk or space rockets. And the worst thing is that it almost never costs "you" anything separately from everybody else, and when people take that responsibility... it tends not to be universally viewed later as an example of moral action.

I have always wondered at how revolutions are justified afterwards on the grounds of economics but not on the grounds of shared responsibility. (Apologies if this offends anyone, I was looking for something sufficiently big. I don't mean that justifying revolutions this way works, just that people try to do it.) Makes one wonder if that people of tomorrow thing is ever taken consistently...

comment by cousin_it · 2020-06-28T10:30:09.583Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If our children are better than us, I hope they'll offer us the same forgiveness and gratitude as we did to our parents.

comment by Dagon · 2020-06-28T15:11:29.529Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To the point of the post, I hope they'll offer far more forgiveness and gratitude than we show to historical figures and groups older than our parents.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2020-06-27T10:17:01.426Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is saving yourself from the mob by running ahead of it.

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2020-06-29T01:55:12.739Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One obvious thing comes to mind : veganism. But I plan to do nothing famous and have no monuments dedicated to me, I have nothing to fear from the mobs of the future.