At the excellent Overcoming Bias blog, Hal Finney makes an insightful point about our perceptions of past and future moral progress:
I am fascinated by the question of how our morality will change in the future. It's relevant to the issue . . . of whether we are truly making moral progress or not. So long as we view the question from a perspective where we assume that we are at the apex of the moral pyramid, it is easy to judge past societies from our lofty position and perceive their inadequacies. But if we imagine ourselves as being judged harshly by the society of the future, there is less self-satisfaction and ego boosting involved in making a case for true moral progress, hence less chance for bias. (In fact, when people make claims about how future society will judge the world of today, they almost always assume that their own personal moral views will become universal, so this hypothetical judgment merely mirrors their own criticism of contemporary society.).....
If you can make a case for progress even acknowledging that in the future your own practices may be seen as savage and appalling, you are much less likely to be manifesting self-satisfaction bias. On the other hand, if you find yourself resisting ideas about future morality being different from the present, you need to look closely to see if you aren't just protecting your own ego.
To protect against this kind of bias in favor of our own moral ideas, it helps to consider whether there is reason to believe that some of the moral views we hold dear will be widely repudiated in the future. Note that this is different from simply predicting that public policy won't match our preferences, an outcome that might occur for any number of reasons. It is a prediction that one or more of our strongly held moral beliefs will be rejected by a broad societal consensus.
In my own case, I see at least three areas where there is a good chance of this happening:
1. Animal Rights.
I am generally opposed to most if not all arguments for animal rights. But I have to acknowledge a real possibility that future morality will move strongly in the direction of assigning higher status to animals. That has been the trend of the last fifty years or more, and it shows little sign of stopping. I doubt it will go as far as, say Peter Singer would want, but there is a good chance it will go a lot further than I now believe to be justified. I suspect that the chance of major movement in this direction is at least 50%.
2. The Death Penalty.
I support the death penalty, at least in the case of criminals guilty of committing multiple murders, acts of terrorism, and major war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the trend of opinion is definitely against me on this one, and is likely to continue to move in that direction unless there is another major upsurge in crime, such as that which led to a resurgence of support for the death penalty in the late 1960s and 1970s. Over the next 20-30 years, I would set the odds of continued substantial increase in moral stigmatization of the death penalty at 60%, and 70-80% if there is no major crime wave.
3. Forced Labor.
As a libertarian, there is nothing short of murder that I abhor more than forced labor. Modern morality strongly condemns slavery, but many people are amenable to arguments for forced labor under other names, such as mandatory "national service," "giving back to the community," and so on. Even today, many liberal democratic nations (including France, Germany, and Switzerland) continue to use the draft, even though there is no military reason for them to do so (their armies would be more effective if manned by volunteer professional soldiers). Both left and right-wing politicians (including top congressional Democrats and Republican presidential contender John McCain) often float mandatory "national service" proposals, and there is a strong reservoir of support for these ideas, though not yet by a political majority. I fear that, sooner or later, McCain or some other political entrepreneur will find a way to package this idea in such a way that a majority of the public will come to accept it, thereby greatly eroding what in my view is our already flabby moral resistance to forced labor. I think that there is only about a 20-30% chance that public morality will move strongly in this direction over the next two or three decades. But I find it a far more frightening possibility than either of the other two.
If I am right about these predictions, should I revise any of my current moral views? Hard to say, but here are some tentative thoughts:
I am unmoved in my opposition to forced labor. If this practice is legitimated in the future through the process I predict, its increasing acceptance will say little about its rightness. I am less certain about the death penalty. On balance, I am still for it, but the fact that so many others are turning against it despite the lack of a clear self-interested or other biased reason for doing so does give me some pause. Finally, if I had to pick one of these issues where I am least confident in the validity of my present view, I would have to say animal rights. Even more so than with the death penalty, it is hard to provide an explanation for the increase in support for this moral view that is unrelated to its potential validity. Moreover, unlike in the other two cases, I have to acknowledge that my position is at least in part the result of a strong self-interested bias of my own: I like to eat meat, and I can't think of a logically consistent defense of animal rights that doesn't entail the conclusion that meat-eating is immoral. There is an uncomfortable analogy to slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson, who recognized the strong moral case against slavery, but was reluctant to endorse emancipation because of the way in which he benefited from the institution. I'm not ready to endorse animal rights (at least not yet), but I have to acknowledge the possibility that my love of cheeseburgers is undermining my love of truth on this issue.
Whether or not I'm right in my speculations on these three issues, Hal Finney is surely right to suggest that we should give more thought to the possibility that some of our beliefs will be rejected in the future just as resoundingly as we reject many of the moral views of the past.