Thursday, April 5, 2012

Moral Progress

After listening to religious leaders bemoan the “moral degradation” of society this weekend at the LDS General Conference, I thought I would write about the moral progression that humanity is undergoing. I’m going to cover some of the biggest steps forward in morality that we’ve seen in most modern developed societies over the last several centuries, although we still need more progress in many of these areas.
  1. Cessation of seeing disasters as a curse of God. Some religious people once opposed vaccinations [1] because they thought they violated the will of God. I’m glad those views are not held today. I think the eradication of smallpox is one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind. Smallpox killed 300-500 million people during the 20th century, more than three times as many killed in all wars combined. The fact that we can eradicate diseases shows that much suffering is not necessary in any way.
  2. Cessation of witch-hunts: Between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed during witch-hunts in Europe during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries [2]. People who are “different” in some way have long been treated poorly.
  3. Treatment of mental illness. In the middle ages, madness was often considered “a mixture of the divine, diabolical, magical and humoral” [3]. This problem still exists today: “A 2008 study by Baylor University researchers found that clergy in the US often deny or dismiss the existence of a mental illness. Of 293 Christian church members, more than 32 percent were told by their church pastor that they or their loved one did not really have a mental illness, and that the cause of their problem was solely spiritual in nature, such as a personal sin, lack of faith or demonic involvement.” [4] Seeing mental illness as a function of brain structure is a step forward. I hope those steps continue until we see that the mind is entirely a result of brain structure [5].
  4. Incorrect beliefs that masturbation causes insanity have been abandoned.
  5. Abolition of slavery. “In the 1860s, Southern preachers defending slavery also took the Bible literally. They asked who could question the Word of God when it said, ‘slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling’ (Ephesians 6:5), or ’tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect’ (Titus 2:9). Christians who wanted to preserve slavery had the words of the Bible to back them up.” [6]
  6. Abandonment of Biblical stoning. We don’t stone to death stubborn children. We don’t stone people who worship other Gods, or gather sticks on Sunday, or are not virgins when they get married [7].
  7. Cessation of physical disciplining of children. The Bible says “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Child psychologists assure us that children are better off if they are not physically disciplined. I’m glad we’re listening to the psychologists instead of the Bible.
  8. Acceptance of medical treatment over superstitious or religious treatments of illness.
  9. General decrease in wars and other violence [8].
  10. Rise of democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries. The outcome is uncertain, but the hope for positive change is strong.
  11. Significant increase in the educational level of the general public, over the last several decades.
  12. Giving women the right to vote. The feminist movement generally has opened doors to all kinds of opportunites for women.
  13. Making abortion a legal right [9]. This is probably the one step forward that will remain controversial for a long time.
  14. Availability and acceptance of contraceptives. Even the LDS church has reversed their original position, and now accepts and even promotes the use of birth control by married couples, although they still pressure married couples to have many kids. I wish the Catholic church would change to a reasonable position on contraception.
  15. The granting civil rights to everyone, regardless of race.
  16. Seeing racial discrimination as wrong. The LDS church abandoned official racial discrimination in 1978, which is wonderful.
  17. The realization that homosexuality is natural to many people, and is largely immutable. The societal acceptance of gays and lesbians will be a tremendous blessing to them [10]. The legalization of gay marriage will be a great achievement, and a significant moral step forward. Just as many of the steps above were once controversial but now enjoy widespread acceptance, I feel confident that gay marriage will someday enjoy that same widespread acceptance.

Are we coming out of pristine past, where morality was much better? No. Is society collapsing, out of “moral degradation?” No. In fact, I think people are happier and better off today than at almost any point in our past. We’ve seen significant moral progress and are likely to see more in the short-term future. Democracy is on the rise in many places in the world, tolerance and acceptance have become more widespread, medical and technological advances have improved lives and will continue to do so. It is my hope that the wonderful moral progress we’ve seen will continue unabated, creating a brighter future for us all.


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