This post is part of my series on the belief in progress. This blog post deals with the evidence for a positive trend in the existence of moral understanding. In this post I am not arguing that moral understanding leads to good moral behavior, that an increase in moral understanding is inevitable or that moral understanding has not increased for non moral reasons (slavery in the US (and arguably in the UK) for example was abolished at the time it was for economic reasons). I am merely pointing to an extraordinary trend which I think requires explanation.
The world is improving in moral understanding:
10 Billion years ago: There was no life so there could be no moral understanding.
Clearly there can be no moral understanding before there are entities capable of decision making. Hence the beginnings of moral understanding can't have been earlier than around 1.4 billion years ago when animals originated.
1 Billion years ago: The emergence of animals allows decision making. Basic elements of morality such as helping your relations and some forms of cooperation would have started then.
1 Million years ago: Until humans we have little knowledge of the state of moral understanding. However, we can make shrewd guesses as to the origin of morality. Various other organisms engage in reciprocal altruism (a relationship not unlike friendship) and there is evidence in various primates of individuals being punished by third parties for misdemeanors. These abilities seem to depend largely on the intelligence of the animal concerned and hence their brain development. As brains probably have got more developed over time this would suggest that these capacities for proto moralities would have developed with them.
10,000 years ago: With modern humans came crude forms of morality. Most of our modern conceptions of social morality have analogues in this time.
100 years ago: Slavery, looting and pillaging are now generally regarded as wrong.
Now: In the last 100 years things have got considerably better in some of the world and stayed the same or got slightly better in much of the rest of the world. Clearly the West has had most of the benefits but it should be emphasized that this still means on average that things have got better.
In much of the world expanded suffrage is recognized as good. Freedom of the press and individual liberties are now also regarded as worth possessing.
In addition in the last 50 years there have been further significant developments. Racism, sexism and homophobia are now considered wrong in much of Europe (Racism and sexism elsewhere too). New movements such as vegetarianism & fair trade have just burst on to the scene and have made significant advances in the last 20 years.
I will address the question of moral behavior in another blog post. I shall also be trying my best to answer the question "What causes this trend?"