We are accustomed to assume reason drives human agency. We think we understand the difference between feelings and reason, firmly standing on the Enlightenment ideals that forged humanism, the relentless driving force towards progress. Through human history, our moral circles have expanded; today we bring to the spotlight moral issues that were invisible in the past. Take, for example, the ongoing debate on the pay gap between women and men at the workplace, or the intensive campaigning against bullying. Fifty years ago, women could not even vote in many countries (Switzerland was the last European country to extend the right to vote in 1971), today the right is seen as universal and a no-brainer even in developing countries. Similarly, bullying in schools was common practice in the 60s, seen as natural and unavoidable in every school playground. Then, it was normal to target the weaklings and make them endure being mocked, ostracized, and humiliated, it was just part of school life. Today, we are quick to denounce the abusers and exhibit bullies to show why is wrong. It makes perfect sense to us to watch news on bullying making the headlines, and we see fixing bullying at school as an urgent issue for which we cannot give in if we are to stand for sane and healthy children. Fifty years ago, news reports on bullying or the male-female pay gap would be considered nearly a joke, entirely absent from our moral sensitivity.
This moral evolution is undeniable and has made inroads everywhere we look around. Our moral compass has become increasingly sensitive, from championing animal rights to environmentalism. Today, we start to challenge the judgement passed by religion or tradition, when Human Rights are vulnerated or come in conflict with human flourishing. Yet, to be fair, the barrier today seems to be right there. For the most, we are still rooted in our respective cultures and assume ourselves not qualified to judge if practices within a given culture are questionable, in the spirit of the universality of cultures, cultural relativism, and the self-determination of states, much of it heritage of post-modernist thinking.
But nothing is static. The moral circle will likely continue to expand, trascending tradition and religion. The real underlying question is whether an universal morality will emerge. Several philosophers envisage such morality based on the simplest of principles: the minimisation of suffering of any being or entity, starting with Humankind as a whole, then extensible to all living beings and the environment we live in. How would that come to be? Imagine religions to universally decay (developed economies show a slow but steady decay in number of believers) and be superseded by the principle of human flourishing, naturally extensible to animals, plants, and the environment. For this to happen, a necessary condition is the forces of tradition, tribalism, and self-righteousness to be played down and conquered. These counteracting forces are part of our human nature, built in the deepest part of our minds by evolution to maximise our ability to pass on our gene pools to the next generation. To this end, an important variable to imagine moral universality is multiplying and sustaining our ability to flourish and decrease suffering, which shall allow for the rest of Humankind to see its benefits and move forward. History has shown that thinking about the wellness of others comes always after self and kin: you are not likely to care for others if you are starving or in distress.
It is hard to tell whether the process of universal moralisation will overcome the apparent permanence of the evolutive forces driving self-interest and tribalist thinking. Yet, the advance to recognize the rights of others in the last century has moved at a pace that allows for entertaining the conjecture of moral universality.
The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, both by S. Pinker
The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
The Righteous Mind by J. Haidt
Rotterdam, April 2018