The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
As someone who isn’t able to find an objective basis for morality, I’ve often wondered what that means for the above statement from Martin Luther King. It certainly feels like we’re making moral progress, that the status of previously oppressed or marginalized people in society are better right now in developed societies than at any other time in history.
But without an objective basis for this, can it be a true sentiment? Or is it an illusion, similar to the illusion of progress in evolution, the idea that humans are the goal, the pinnacle of success of a billions year long process, when in reality it’s all just naturally selected random mutations and that humans were far from inevitable. Maybe the appearance of moral progress is just the shifting tides of social mores, and what looks like progress to us is the gradual approach in history toward the relative mores we hold today, the ones we’ve all been indoctrinated in.
I think we have to be cognizant of that possibility, but we can maybe get a little more objective footing by, instead of looking at morals per se, looking at happiness. Of course, happiness can itself be a treacherous measure, since how happy people say they are is often heavily influenced by their culture, about whether people should be happy. I know intellectuals who never claim to be happy although they often act like they’re happy, and conservative evangelical Christians who always insist that they’re happy, even when they’re clearly not.
Still, there have been international surveys of happiness, and to a certain extent, there are factors that seem to affect it cross culturally. People who are starving, suffering persecution, discrimination, economic hardship, or are in other precarious situations where their safety and well being are challenged, are not as happy as people who don’t have those challenges.
Of course, happiness, like morality, is built on a foundation of evolved instincts. Those foundations seem to leave a lot of leeway for what might make any one individual person happy. A woman in a heavily traditionalist society, whose options are tightly constricted, might still consider herself to be happy. But the percentage of women in that society who chafe under the restrictions will likely be higher than the percentage of women in a more liberal society where women are treated more equally.
It could be argued that societies are evolving toward a state that more closely matches our instinctual needs. But what are those instinctual needs?
Evolutionary psychology often looks to our ancestral environment, usually labeled as the African savanna, although in reality it’s probably more accurate to consider it to encompass many if not all of the sub-Saharan African environments. But more importantly, we’re talking about a time where we lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands.
Homo sapiens first appear in Africa about 200,000 years ago. From that time until about 10,000 years ago, we lived in these small roving bands. And if we include pre-Homo sapiens in the mix, then we lived that lifestyle for millions of years. Of course, evolution hasn’t stopped and we have to remember that, but there are limits to how much a human nature shaped by millions of years of evolution could have changed in only 10,000 years. Populations of humanity were separated from each other for most of those 10,000 years, yet humans from any part of the world are more alike than not, indicating that recent evolution, while it definitely has happened, has been more subtle than profound.
What was the ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle like? It’s difficult to know since we’re talking about prehistory, with the only records left being the very rare cave painting. Archaeologists can glean some clues from the artifacts left behind, but the amount of that evidence is pretty tiny.
This leaves us to derive what we can by studying modern hunter gatherers. We always have to keep in mind that these modern societies may or may not resemble the ancient ones. However, those ancient cultures are unlikely to have been monolithic anyway, so examining the logistics of living such a life, the physical constraints it puts on the parameters of such a culture, probably does give us some insights.
Hunter gatherer bands tend to be small, less than 150 people. They rarely have permanent leaders. Everyone knows each other, and is more or less equal, although there can be inequalities between men and women, and old and young. There generally aren’t any codified moral standards, even oral ones. They’re not needed since everyone knows each other and reputations, ostracizing, or the occasional threat of revenge act as deterrent mechanisms. From what I’ve read, the lifestyle often only requires about 10-15 hours of work a week, at least when food is readily available and game not too difficult to catch.
Before getting too taken with the attraction of such a lifestyle, it’s worth noting the drawbacks. While the band is nomadic, it usually is restricted to a fairly narrow territory, so you’re not going to see the world. Straying from the territory into another band’s area can cause conflict. It’s also worth noting that anyone who can’t keep up with the band, such as aged parents, generally have to be left behind or euthanized. And women usually have to marry into other surrounding bands to avoid coupling with their relatives. (It’s rarely the men who go to the other bands.)
Life can be precarious. Food generally can’t be stored. It has to be consumed when it is picked or killed. If the population of the band gets too high, it can cause problems. Indeed, increasing populations, coupled with a drying climate, is probably what led to the earliest farming.
The egalitarian nature of ancestral humans is somewhat unusual among primates. Chimps, gorillas, and other primates generally form hierarchies, with an alpha male on top and he and his lieutenants having privileged access to females and food. (Bonobos are egalitarian, and have lots of sex, but they’re also oddballs.) That this doesn’t happen in humans might have something to do with language. If an alpha male tries to dominate, the other males will likely form coalitions and take him out.
So, our evolutionary background seems to include latent instincts for forming and obeying hierarchies, but also instincts for resisting bullies. For the vast majority of anatomically modern human history, the urge for freedom, or at least egalitarianism, triumphed. But then we started settling down and farming, and societies started to become more complex.
A flat leaderless society couldn’t work anymore. We went back to hierarchies, with a vengeance. Across hundreds of generations these hierarchies became deeper, more pronounced, and more rigid. The right of chiefs and kings to absolute power often became linked to the will of the gods. All of this culminated in perhaps the ultimate act of inequality, human sacrifice.
This appears to have been the situation at the beginning of recorded history. Writing seemed to have had an effect on the most extreme practices of inequality. Human sacrifice generally doesn’t seem to survive its introduction for very long. But pre-Axial Age archaic societies (think ancient Sumer or Egypt) were still rigidly and relentlessly hierarchical.
Starting in the Axial Age and the greater proliferation of literacy, thinkers began to push back against this arrangement. Confucius, while largely accepting the necessity of hierarchies, sternly warned that those higher up had responsibilities to those lower down.
Other figures questioned the need for absolute hierarchies. This was a period where some philosophers and religious figures started to push back against the idea that hierarchies were a natural and immutable aspect of existence, or at least that those currently on top deserved to be there. The earliest democracies and republics formed during this period. Systems of morality started to apply to all of humanity, not just those in the local culture, questioning a type of inequality that had existed even back in the hunter gatherer days.
There have been many setbacks over the centuries, but societies seem to be progressively becoming more egalitarian, less hierarchical, gradually bringing us closer to the state of nature we lived in 10,000 years ago.
No one has figured out how to keep civilization while eliminating the hierarchies completely, although many political movements in the last few centuries tried (such as the French and Communist revolutions). But western civilization seems to do be doing what it can to mitigate their evils. Most developed societies are democracies with everyone having a say, at least nominally, in who sits in the upper echelons of the hierarchy. And there is generally an expectation that people have to earn their spot in the hierarchy.
Of course it’s not all sweetness and light. Aspects of inheritable position seem difficult to stamp out. In many western societies, it takes the form of wealth and the power that comes with it, power which, as many of us are aware, allow those who wield it to influence the composition and actions of the hierarchies.
So, is there a moral arc? I think we can tentatively say “yes”, in the sense that societies are gradually changing their moral and social systems to be more compatible with the instinctual needs of the vast majority of their citizens.
But while the broad sweep of history seems to be moving in that direction, the setbacks will still happen, and the suffering of those caught up in them will remain. After all, the desire to be the alpha male (or alpha female, history has shown that women aren’t necessarily immune) continues to be a latent urge in many of us.
What do you think? Is there a moral arc? Or am I just engaging in wishful thinking? What effect might technology have on moral and governance systems in the future? Will we ever be able to eliminate hierarchies? Should we?