by Patrick Appel

Jonathan Rée wonders about moral progress:

[If] you can see vice where others find nothing but virtue, or degeneracy where they see improvement, or corruption where they see probity, you can become a Person of Principle at no cost to yourself, while everyone else will look like a tiresome Trimmer, an exasperating Polyanna or an impermeable Pangloss. “Men are fond of murmuring,” as Voltaire once put it; “there is a pleasure in complaining,” he said, and “we delight in viewing only evil and exaggerating it.”

As a matter of fact, moral optimism is not as dead as you might think: it often floats to the surface of contemporary common sense without occasioning much comment.

When people want to protest at contemporary horrors – torture, say, or forced marriage, human trafficking, or racial violence – they are likely to condemn them as “Victorian”, “medieval”, “primitive” or “antiquated”, while expressing astonishment that they should still be countenanced in the twenty-first century. The notion that the epochs of past time can function as terms of moral opprobrium, or that the present date constitutes some kind of moral standard, testifies to a stubborn faith in something like Kant’s doctrine of progress.

(Hat tip: 3QD)

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