In previous posts I've set out some of my cranky ideas about the myth of progress. In the comments one poster challenged me to examine what appears to be ethical progress; abolition of the slave trade, rights for women and minorities and so forth. Is this modern world really "kinder and gentler" than the one known by our forefathers?
If we compare the beginning of the third millennium with, to pick a somewhat arbitrary time-scale, the middle of the nineteenth century, we do see what seems to be gains in the moral consciousness (mostly this applies to Western countries, but since the West has dominated the world through most of this period, they are also largely global gains;)
- enfranchisement of women
- end of the slave trade and the slave economies of the Americas
- more enlightened treatment of the insane
It's a short list, and I'm hard put to come up with much more. Even these few items must be qualified. Women have certainly made net gains in their freedom and civil functions, but with the prevalence of pornography, they have probably lost something in terms of dignity and respect. The slave ships are no longer pulling into Charleston Bay, but slavery continues to be a problem in other parts of the world. And much of modern capitalist production outsourced to poor countries like Haiti is little better than slavery. Arguably, in pure material terms, it's worse because a slave-owner had an investment to protect and look after. And as for the treatment of the insane; well we don't lock them up and sell tickets to folks to have a good laugh anymore. But lobotomies and electro-shock are horrors of the recent past (and not completely finished either.) Nowadays we either push them into the street to fend for themselves, or suppress their symptoms with chemicals.
Look at the record for the other side of the moral ledger;
Treatment of animals - Modern factory farming is more horrible than anything humans have ever done to other species. There was probably a high point in animal protection around the turn of the twentieth century with the formation of Humane Societies and Anti-Vivisection Leagues and some good legislation was passed. It's mostly all a dead letter now. And we don't call it vivisection anymore.
War - Without question, the most terrible period in human history was the first half of the twentieth century. Fifty millions perished in the second world war alone. What's more, most of these were civilians. The murderous air-raids of Europe made mass slaughter acceptable, so long as the enemies could be sufficiently demonized. Since then we haven't seen anything on that scale, but the dismal ethics of Coventry, Dresden and Tokyo have been re-played in Belgrade, Baghdad and Beirut. It's astonishing to me that anyone could defend aerial bombardment of cities; but we saw that as recently as this summer after the air slaughter in Lebanon.
Racism - No doubt the Victorians were insufferably sure that the the British deserved to rule the world. They no longer do so. But feelings of ethnic dominance still exist in many places. And once again, the twentieth century was the worst in history for genocides; beginning with the Armenians, then the Gypsies and Jews and finishing up with nasty little pockets like Rwanda. Can anyone say it's over yet?
Freedom - Again, the twentieth century saw the most inhuman totalitarianism over much of the planet. Now we have restored some idea of liberty, but it's a pale thing compared to what men like the American founding fathers knew. Personal freedom is nibbled away from both the right and the left. The left in this new age have traded the Rights of Man for the social engineering of the nanny-state, while the right clamps down with national security concerns. (Tony Blair's gov't in the UK has managed to work both angles at once)
Respect for Life - This is where the current period fails most miserably. Abortion and euthanasia are relentlessly pushed as expressions of personal freedom. Life is held cheaply, to be ended or prevented for convenience sake. I'm not really thinking of the legal environment here, so much as the moral. An ethically healthy society would regard abortion as a moral abomination, not as a matter of lifestyle enhancement. This lack of respect for life also connects to the horrific nature of modern war.
In summary, my conclusion is that humankind reached some kind of moral nadir between 1914 and 1945 and has not really learned the lessons it should have from that experience. Actually I don't think the modern age really gets the idea of morality. More people in America were outraged when an actress momentarily exposed a breast during the Super Bowl than by all the slaughter in Iraq.