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Is moral progress a myth?

Some say we’re moving backwards. But the evidence—including the international abolition of slavery, global declines in violence, and a rise in rights for the disenfranchised—says otherwise.

Michael Shermer

Demonstrators walk along a street holding signs demanding the right to vote and equal civil rights at the March on Washington in 1963. Unseen Histories | Unsplash

According to the journalist Ian Betteridge’s law of headlines, “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” That’s one answer to this essay’s title question.

A second answer is in the form of a counterfactual thought experiment readers can answer themselves: When would you prefer to live, if not today? Would it be the Paleolithic Stone Age, when people lived in tiny bands and tribes in constant conflict with other bands and tribes, with a good chance you would die violently? How about the Neolithic beginnings of farming, when calories were narrowed to a few crop-based diets that led to arthritis, cavities, and early death from communicable diseases? Maybe you would opt for ancient Babylonia, Egypt, or Greece and the creation of our modern hierarchical social institutions, in which a handful of people lived in relative splendor while the masses toiled in squalor?

Perhaps you have romantic fantasies about medieval times with their chivalrous knights and courtly manners, as long as you don’t mind toiling, fighting, and dying so that your duke can rule over a little more territory than some other duke? How about Elizabethan England in which cruel and unusual punishment was meted out to commoners and there were some 220 crimes for which you could be tortured and executed, including heresy, thievery, begging, “being in the company of Gypsies for one month,” “strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age,” and “blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime”? How about the Industrial Revolution and its dark satanic mills and London “fog”? Or the first half of the 20th century with its two world wars, numerous genocides, and deadly pandemics? Maybe the 1950s and 1960s with the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over all humanity?

This thought experiment alone makes it evident that there is no period in history when it would have been better to be alive than today. People who fantasize about a romantic past imagine themselves living in Pharaoh’s court, Caesar’s palace, Plato’s athenaeum, a medieval knight’s manor, a king’s castle, a queen’s chateau, an emperor’s citadel, or a cardinal’s cathedral. But the cold hard reality is that the vast majority of everyone who ever lived existed in what we would today consider squalid poverty. Even history’s “one percenters” enjoyed few to none of the luxuries that even an average middle-class Westerner today takes for granted: medical and dental care, and public health measures and medicine that enable most people to live into their 70s and 80s; homes with heating and air conditioning, refrigeration, gas or electric stoves, dishwashers, washer/dryer units, swimming pools, gardens and assorted other creature comforts; a seemingly infinite number of products from which to choose at supermarkets, warehouse outlets, and online stores with cheap home delivery; smart cars with safety and navigation systems, surround-sound audio systems, heated seats and steering wheels, and one day maybe even fully autonomous driving; national and international jet travel allowing almost anyone to go anywhere in the world in a matter of hours; wireless communications with anyone anywhere anytime; and Internet access to all the world’s knowledge for free, with trillions of gigabytes of information produced every year.

This is clearly material progress, but is it moral progress? By progress I accept the Oxford English Dictionary’s historical usage as “advancement to a further or higher stage; growth; development, usually to a better state or condition; improvement.” By moral I mean “manner, character, proper behavior” (as from the Latin moralitas), in terms of intentions and actions that are right or wrong with regard to another moral agent. Morality involves how we think and act toward other moral agents in terms of whether our thoughts and behaviors are right or wrong with regard to their survival and flourishing. By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding, and social relations for physical and mental health.

If the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings is the foundation of values and morals, then we can say objectively that, for example, reducing the suffering experienced by billions of people from disease, hunger, and want is real moral progress. On what basis can we make such a claim? Ask the people who are no longer living in wretchedness. They will tell you. Why is it better? Because it is in our nature to prefer flourishing to suffering, satiety to starvation, health to illness, housing to homelessness, autonomy to totalitarianism, justice to injustice, and freedom to bondage.

Looking deep into human history, we can see that we have been steadily—albeit at times haltingly—expanding the moral sphere to include more members of our species as legitimate participants in the moral community.

What about the morality of how people treat one another? That aspect of the title question also shows unmistakable progress. Looking deep into human history, we can see that we have been steadily—albeit at times haltingly—expanding the moral sphere to include more members of our species as legitimate participants in the moral community. The burgeoning conscience of humanity has grown to the point where we no longer consider the wellbeing only of our family, extended family, and local tribe. Rather, our consideration now extends to people quite unlike ourselves, with whom we gladly trade goods and ideas and exchange sentiments and genes, rather than beating, enslaving, raping, or killing them (as our sorry species was wont to do with reckless abandon not so long ago). To name some prominent areas of moral progress:

  • Governance: The rise of liberal democracies and the decline of theocracies and autocracies—beginning in the 1920s, declining during the world wars, but accelerating since the 1970s—has been both stunning and welcome to the billions of people enjoying the ensuing freedom and autonomy.
  • Economics: Broader property rights and the freedom to trade goods and services with others without oppressive restrictions took off in the 19th century, suffered some setbacks during the world wars, but has produced unimaginable wealth the past half century.
  • Rights: To life, liberty, property, marriage, reproduction, voting, speech, worship, assembly, protest, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • War: A smaller percentage of people die as a result of violent conflict today than at any time since our species began.
  • Slavery: Is outlawed everywhere in the world and practiced in only a few places in the form of sexual slavery and slave labor that are now being targeted for total abolition.
  • Homicide: Rates of which have plummeted over the millennia, from almost 1,000 per 100,000 people per year in prehistoric times and in modern non-state societies, to around 100 per 100,000 people per annum in Western societies through the Middle Ages, to about 10 per 100,000 each year by the time of the Enlightenment, to less than 1 per 100,000 today in Europe, an improvement of four orders of magnitude.
  • Rape and sexual assault: Trending downward, and while still too prevalent, it is outlawed by all Western states and increasingly prosecuted, particularly since the #MeToo movement.
  • Judicial restraint: Torture and the death penalty have been almost universally outlawed by states, and where it is still legal it is less frequently practiced; even in the outlier United States, most states have abolished capital punishment, and those who still have it on the books rarely enforce it.
  • Judicial equality: Citizens of nations are treated more equally under the law than any time in the past, as civil rights led to women’s rights, gay rights, worker’s rights, children’s rights, and now LGBTQ rights.
  • Civility: People are kinder, more civilized, and less violent to one another than ever before.

Progress in civility? Yes. Norbert Elias, whose 1939 book The Civilizing Process documents its title thesis over the course of many centuries, conducted an analysis of medieval books of etiquette and discovered numerous prohibitions related to manners and customs that reveal our medieval ancestors to be uncouth, coarse, ill-mannered, and, well, uncivilized, including:

  • Don’t foul the staircases, corridors, closets or wall hangings with urine or other filth.
  • Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies.
  • Don’t touch your private parts under your clothes with your bare hands.
  • Don’t greet someone while they are urinating or defecating.
  • Don’t make noise when you pass gas.
  • When you share a bed with someone in an inn, don’t lie so close to him that you touch him.
  • Don’t blow your nose onto the tablecloth.
  • Don’t spit into the bowl when washing.
  • Don’t pick your nose while eating.

The moral progress we have witnessed over the centuries—the abolition of slavery, torture, and the death penalty; the decline of violence of all forms; and the expansion of rights to racial and ethnic minorities, women, children, workers, and LGBTQ individuals—has as its origin the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment belief that the world is governed by laws and principles that we can understand and apply, whether it is to solar systems, ecosystems, political systems, economic systems, or social and moral systems. The experimental methods and analytical reasoning of science created the modern world of liberal democracies, civil rights and civil liberties, equal justice under the law, open political and economic borders, free minds and free markets, and prosperity the likes of which no human society in history has ever enjoyed. We are literally discovering how to be more moral.

Marchers holding signs demanding the right to vote at the March on Washington in 1963. Unseen Histories | Unsplash

For example, remember when interracial marriage was controversial? Me neither. I was only four years old in 1958, when 96 percent of Americans disapproved of black and white people marrying. A 2021 Gallup poll on interracial marriage found that 94 percent of Americans now approve. It’s a similar trend with gay rights and same-sex marriage. In 1996 Gallup found that only 27 percent of Americans approved. By 2004 that number had climbed to 42 percent. It finally reached a majority in 2012, and in 2015 the US Supreme Court made it the law of the land. Today, we look back at the gay marriage debate like we have long looked back at the interracial marriage debate of half a century ago—as an anachronistic absurdity—and ask ourselves, “what were we thinking?”

There has been so much moral progress, in fact, that it would not be too much to say that today’s conservatives are more liberal than liberals were in the 1950s. If this is not quantifiable moral progress—even more of which I document in my 2015 book The Moral Arc (see also Steven Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now)—then I don’t know what is. So why all the doom and gloom from numerous prominent social commentators?

Christopher Ryan, for example, in his 2019 book Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress, counters the aforementioned advances with civilization’s downside. While admitting that prehistoric life had its serious disadvantages and deadly dangers (“Many babies died in infancy. A broken bone, infected wound, snakebite, or difficult pregnancy could be life-threatening.”), Ryan asks rhetorically if these pre-civilized dangers were worse than modern scourges like cardiovascular disease, cancer, car accidents, and “a technologically prolonged dying process.” As he told me in our podcast conversation, “civilization is ultimately a tragic mistake.” Why? “It’s heartbreaking to think about all the suffering that’s been caused over the millennia, and just how misguided a pursuit this has been.” The decline began with agriculture, Ryan avers, because it brought with it hierarchy, oppression, violence, pollution, overpopulation, communicable diseases and pandemics, and ultimately depression, suicide, and deaths of despair.

Maybe so, but all technological changes bring with them problems to be solved, which our species excels at doing, almost always rendering such advances a net gain. Many people gripe about modernity, but almost no one wants to give up the perks of civilization and become hunter-gatherers, save reality show contestants vying for prize money in series like Naked and Afraid. Agriculture, for example, while bringing with it the ills documented by Ryan, also enabled populations large enough to build civilizations like Rome, which brought its citizens (in Monty Python’s answer to the question “what have the Romans ever done for us,” in The Life of Brian) aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, public baths, public order, wine, and of course, peace. Oh, peace!

Today, we look back at the gay marriage debate like we have long looked back at the interracial marriage debate of half a century ago—as an anachronistic absurdity.

Political philosopher John Gray is another perpetual pessimist about progress, which he calls a myth. Specifically, Gray is skeptical that “the progress achieved in science and technology can occur in ethics, politics, or, more simply, civilization.” While acknowledging advances in society like “the emancipation of women and homosexuals and the abolition of torture,” Gray worries “all that can be easily swept away again.”

Torture, for example, was outlawed centuries ago, including and notably in the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights amendment against cruel and unusual punishment, but Gray rightfully notes that the “enhanced interrogation” by American military at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib is just an Orwellian euphemism for the illegal practice. Fair enough, but Gray’s assertion that “Something like torture, which is completely beyond the boundaries of civilization, can become renormalized at any time” is gainsaid by the real-time outrage by nations around the globe and especially by the US media and public in response to the revelations of prisoner abuse. And does anyone seriously think slavery could be reintroduced as a legal institution in the US or in any of the United Nations or European Union member countries? Or that the franchise for women would ever be reversed in any of the nearly 200 countries in which it is legally guaranteed (except, possibly, for a few misogynistic patriarchal Arab states)? 

Such examples do nothing to lighten Gray’s dark view of history. “The proponents of the Enlightenment and the idea of progress like to think that they are an important chapter in this vast historical narrative,” Gray continues, calling it all “a rather silly fiction.” Oh, yeah? Ask the billions of people emancipated from the yoke of autocratic governments centuries past who now find themselves free and prosperous just how fictional the progress narrative is.

Such “progressophobes” (as Steven Pinker calls them) aside, I suggest that there are at least four proximate causes and one ultimate cause to explain why people think moral progress is a myth.

  1. Relative inequality: Economically speaking, even though the poor are getting rich, the rich are getting richer faster, so objective progress feels like relative regress. The pie is increasing in size so almost everyone gets a bigger slice, but when the rich’s already bigger slice increases in size the relative amount of wealth accumulates more on the upper end, making the incomes of those in the middle and bottom feel smaller.
  2. Zero-sum thinking: Our evolved intuitions about economics—our folk economics or what I call evonomics—leads us to see most exchanges as zero-sum, or win-lose, in which the gain of one means the loss of another.
  3. Media bias toward bad news and clickbait punditry: Mainstream news media outlets and social media platforms are far more likely to report bad news than good, both because that is what they’ve been tasked to do and because it generates more ears and eyes and ad revenue.
  4. Negativity bias: Psychologists Paul Rozin, Edward Royzman, Roy Baumeister and their colleagues have cataloged numerous examples of why bad is stronger than good, for example that memory recall is better for bad behaviors, events and information than it is for good, losing money and friends has a greater impact on people than gaining money and friends, bad information is processed more thoroughly than is good information, and negative stimuli command more attention than positive stimuli.

The final point hints at a deeper reason why we seem to prefer regressive views of history over progressive ones, and that has to do with the evolutionary logic of pessimism—there are many more ways for things to turn bad than to get good. In the world in which our ancestors evolved, it paid to focus more on the negative than the positive, and that is why emotionally bad is stronger than good and pessimism trumps optimism. Our minds evolved in that world, not the far safer modern world, so our pessimism can seem misplaced when confronted with the deluge of data showing that optimism—or at least gratitude—would be the more appropriate response.

Finally, to track the march of progress, in the minds of many, equates to progress being inevitable, or the next step in a metaphysical stage-theory of history, or that it has happened for everyone everywhere, or that there are no more problems to solve. That belief is a myth. The progress I document here is the result of hard-won victories over the endless assaults on the human condition—including and especially the entropy of the world itself that doesn’t care about our wellbeing—not some teleological force pulling us ever upward.

That moral progress is real does not mean that there are no more problems to solve. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, has called attention to police killings of black people, with tragic cases like George Floyd’s leading people to believe that there is an epidemic of violence against black Americans by the police. There isn’t, as Heather Mac Donald has carefully documented in her book The War on Cops. And as my own Skeptic Research Center study reported, using data compiled by The Washington Post, in 2019 somewhere between 13-27 unarmed black men were shot and killed by police (those numbers do not include non-shooting deaths, and due to underreporting may be higher), whereas over half of people who identify as “liberal” or “very liberal” thought that the number was over 1,000—around the total number of people police kill per year in the US. The illegal killing of anyone by the police is a tragedy, but the point here is that it can be both a myth that there is an epidemic of such murders and an issue where improvement is needed.

Progressophobes are often correct when they identify the many problems that civilization brings, but we would do well to remember that there are no utopias, only compromises and problem solving as civilization develops and continues evolving, generating new problems for us to solve. Forget utopia, which literally (and accurately) means nowhere. Think protopia, in which progress is incremental and halting, the result of us having found more solutions than not, one day at a time.

This progress is real, not a myth, and for that we should be grateful.

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Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, host of The Michael Shermer Show podcast, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist. For 18 years he was a monthly columnist at Scientific American, and he continues writing his Skeptic column on Substack. He is the author of numerous New York Times bestselling books, including Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and Heavens on Earth. His latest book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.