ARTYFACTS: Is Human History characterised by Moral Progress

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Is Human History characterised by Moral Progress

At one point a man stomped out making a hell of a racket – that’s how good this debate was, at times. Set up as a sort of tennis doubles match, John Gray and Sigrid Rausing V Mary Warnock and Mark Malloch-Brown, the debate was really between Gray and Warnock. They had the intellects and philosophical skills that the others lacked.

Warnock: For the motion

David Hume was her guiding light in claiming that morals must be felt as well as thought. The world is shrinking through technology and communications making compassion and sympathy more of a felt, global preoccupation. Despite the decline in religion, she saw no decline in moral progress, as true morals are not down tom obedience but must spring from the human heart. Personal morality lies at the heart of all this and she felt that people were, for example more sensitive to the horrors of war than they were in the past. She, like many, felt that we had been tricked into the Iraq war.

Warnock must be in her late 80s but she was as smart and sharp as any of the other three. She was good because she defined moral progress and its necessary condition for success. She avoided the obvious ploy of just trading examples.

Rausing: Agin the motion

In 1963 the COIA came out against torture, but this was reversed in 2002. We’ve had World War i & II. The holocaust and the chaos of history shows that chance may be a significant factor in history. Terrorists learn from history and the politics of the Congo and Zimbabwe show that we’re in no position to claim moral progress.

Apart from ‘complexity theory’ Rausing simply trotted out some 20th century examples. She seemed to have little in the way of conceptual and philosophical skills.

Malloch: For the motion

Malloch wanted to insert the word ‘mostly’ before characterised. He arued that technology and scientific progress had led to better education, literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality and so on. Global communications had led to the exposure of moral wrongs and an increase in sympathy and action.

His, like Rausing, was an empirical tack. He relied on examples, mostly recent. Again, there was no real analysis of the terms or question.

Gray: For the motion

Is progress in morality possible? Asked Gray. Human nature, he thinks, remains the same, therefore difficult to change the basics. He denies the proposition that increased knowledge leads to increased morality. Although not a relativist, he is Humean in looking at human nature for answers. The economic downturn was a surprise. Slavery returned in the 20th century through the Nazis and Soviet Gulags.

Gray has written in some depth on this subject, and clearly had the upper hand, His arguments were more compelling and deeper than all but Warnock.


 Good questions from the floor I thought. My own query was that the panel had not mentioned Nuclear Arsenals, and that technology may, almost accidentally, have given us power beyond our ability to control such power, so that the moral debate may be neither here nor there. The Taliban are within 100 Km of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal south of Islamabad. Its forces like these we have to contend with and harnessing technology is the great task, not moral education.

Q Speakers were too ‘recent’ in their analysis – older cultures regularly and human sacrifice, slavery, murder and violence.

Q Missed point that absolute versus proportional progress was an issue – good point, both are objective measures.

Q Optimism and pessimism get in the way of proper debate – another good point, as these are attitudes

Q Worst question came from the usual posh person decrying the moral decline of today’s youth. Polly Toynbee quickly stated that this was the view of every generation. There’s always one!

Q Morality may not be a simple calculus of plus and minus ‘suffering’.

All in all a fine debate.


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