Ethical Progress

Has humanity made ethical progress? Are we more moral than the ancients?

To answer this question we must agree what progress is. We must know how one should act, so that we can compare our actions. If one believes ethics is relative, then progress is impossible. But if we agree that there is a standard, then we agree that progress is possible, even if we can not always identify it.

In this essay I will assume that we have a shared sense of right and wrong, a shared sense of how one should act, a shared ethical standard. However, outside of the concrete examples, most of the discussion will not hinge on agreeing as to what this standard is.

It is an important question because its answer should affect how we act moving forward: If we have, then we should find its cause and we should try to continue making progress. If we have not, we should try to identify why not, and should remove these barriers. Furthermore, comparisons can lead us to clarifications.

Ethics is situational—to judge the past we need to know and understand the situations that individuals and society faced. Behaviors which may seem unethical may, upon further understanding of the historical situations they occurred in, be ethical. For example polygamy may have been a way to protect widows from starvation. Measuring ethical progress will thus require historical context. Our understanding of the past is limited by the surviving evidence, so our ability to measure progress will be similarly limited.

Ethical progress can occur in both individuals and societies. This distinction is key. It seems unlikely that the average person is innately better than the average person used to be; our biology has not changed substantially. But the societies we develop in have changed, and our society affects the individual.

Ethical progress is easier to measure in societies than in individuals because individuals face fewer situations. Imagine a situation, which we can call S. There are two choices that an individual in situation S can make, R and W. Choice R is the right choice. Imagine that a person is faced with situation S ten times during their life. Now imagine a society filled with thousands of people, each facing situation S approximately ten times in their lives. The discrete nature of the choices make progress easier to measure, and less susceptible to random variations, when there are more situations being considered.

It is difficult to discern ethical progress from technological progress. Ethics is the study of how one should act in a given situation. Technological progress will alter the type and frequency of situations that individuals and societies face. For example, medical technology has given rise to many new situations. Free sources of energy have diminished the importance of physical strength, perhaps allowing women a more equal role to men.

Progress may not be uniform. A society progress and treat their disadvantaged individuals better, while the average person is more selfish in their lives.