The Unbelievable Moral Progress Game

by Tim Sommers

So, here’s a game. Try to imagine: “What unbelievable moral achievements might humanity witness a century from now?” Now, discuss.

“The trick, of course, is that if you can seriously contemplate its occurring, you are thinking too small, or so history suggest.” So says David Estlund who proposes “The Unbelievable Moral Progress Game” in his new book “Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy”.

The argument that political philosophy is, or theories of justice are, too often unrealistic is familiar enough. Estlund turns that argument on its head. He argues (among other things) that, at least sometimes, political philosophy is not unrealistic enough. Or, at least, that we should not be afraid to imagine the highly-unlikely, even the impossible, when thinking about what might be possible for us morally and politically.

Estlund’s previous book, “Democratic Authority”, besides being an influential, admirably clear, and widely read work on democracy is the source of the word. “Epistocracy.” It means the rule of the knowledgeable. You may have heard of it. He’s against it.

In “Utopophobia”, he takes head-on on a wide-variety of entertaining, often challenging, topics around the theme, obviously, of the wide-spread allergic reaction to utopianism in our culture. (In an earlier column, I used his “fallacy of approximation”. (“What if Equality of Opportunity is a Bad Idea?”) To simplify a bit, “It is not the case that where the first best solution is not available, the second best is always to be preferred.”) But this is not a book review. Let’s play the game.

There are real cases of unbelievable moral progress. Estlund mentions (among other things) the abolition of slavery and the legalization of same sex marriage. I asked a number of people for their thoughts on what the next great leap forward might me. (The list of those people is at the bottom.) This is some of what some of them said.

A number of people mentioned animal rights. Estlund suggests that this doesn’t count as unbelievable enough because animal liberation is well underway. But some people added-on to make it more unbelievable. Some suggested universal vegetarianism and a prohibition on pets. One suggested that advances in lab-grown meat might speed this progress. One person suggested that, given that some labs are growing unicellular food sources right now, as unlikely as it sounds, maybe we could expect plant liberation as well. Or even natural rights for natural features of the world. Will rivers and canyons have rights one day? Someone suggested that vegetarianism will not truly be universal until we protect wild animals from eating each other and supply lions and tigers and other carnivores with meat-free alternatives. I am not sure that they were serious – or if they thought they were supplying a reductio ad absurdum. One person suggested that if you combine a prohibition on eating animals with resource pressure and the issue of sustainability, in the future we might choose to eat our own dead. I felt like this person wasn’t really into the spirit of the game.

Sustainability was often mentioned. You could argue, again, that this is not unbelievable enough, because it is, at least, underway. But what about a future where anyone who engages in any sort of practice that is not, all on its own, sustainable is roundly condemned by society?

One person talked about rights for children. What if in the future children were granted many of the same rights as adults, including the right to leave their family of origin?

A complete ban on capital punishment seems like progress, but hopefully not unbelievable progress. Some commentators have argued that the intersection of the war on drugs with racist mass incarceration is “The New Jim Crow”. One person I talked to pointed out that, given that prisoners often work for little to no pay, we should really characterize it as the new slavery. One person went much further. They suggested (hoped for, really) the total abolition of prisons. The scale and the horror of incarceration in America is so vast, and so nonchalantly accepted, that this certainly is one to hope for. The unbelievable part is total abolition, of course. But even that project, while young, is underway. (https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/4766-prison-abolition)

One person suggested making boxing and football illegal. Prohibiting boxing doesn’t seem that unbelievable to me. But football? Even with emerging (and shocking) medical evidence about the long-term effects of head injuries, it’s hard to picture a complete ban on football. So, yeah, I say, ‘Unbelievable’.

I heard much more controversial suggestions. Prohibiting giving anti-depressants to anyone, but to teens especially, for example. And some more idiosyncratic suggestions. One person suggested that with near universal internet access people might come to believe it is unethical to published printed books – which kill trees.

Which reminds me. There’s a slight variation on the question I quite like. It’s based on a conversation my wife and I had with Dave. It goes like this.

“What practice now widely-accepted might, a hundred years from now, be as widely condemned as slavery as now?”

What I like about this variation is the specificity – and that it allows you to not take a side on whether the change you are predicating is an improvement or not. (See, way too many of the comments above.)

Alright. Here’s mine. You’ve heard about a future where there is no money or no property or both. (Don’t bother with Marx, see “Star Trek: First Contact”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=8rh3xPatEto) But what if we not only eliminated wealth and income inequality, but so embraced a universal ideal of material equality that ordinary people would be embarrassed (to the point of guiltily concealing) any kind of material advantage they had over others. Many people right now, feel shame in failing to help impoverished people they encounter. What if, in the future, we felt that way about anyone we met with less than us? Is that progress?

Please leave your ideas about “What unbelievable moral achievements might humanity witness a century from now?” Or “What practice is now widely-accepted that you think might, a hundred years from now, be as widely condemned as slavery as now?” I look forward to being surprised.

(I gave up on trying to track exactly who said what. But I want to thank Dave Estlund for the game and his thoughts on it. (See the book “Utopophobia” here https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691147161/utopophobia or here https://www.amazon.com/Utopophobia-Limits-Any-Political-Philosophy-ebook/dp/B07SVFLXBT) Thanks also to my wife, Stacey Holland, who had a lot to say during that first discussion with Dave. But, also, other people who shared thoughts that I borrowed. In no particular order, Katherine Holland, Richard Fumerton, Greg Landini, David Blanks, Karen Thoms, Cassidy Finley, Cloris Gao, Joe Glover, Jason Messerschmitt, Jamie Ritzo, T.Q. George, Jeff Gonzales, Jeff Rainwater, and Laura Brown. All the smart bits were theirs, the rest mine, so don’t blame them for what you don’t like.)

What unbelievable ideas about unbelievable moral progress to you have? Share in comments.

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