In the Future, Which of Today's Norms Will Be Seen as Errors?

Finding our contemporary mistakes

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Every era of human history has its mistakes that may have seemed correct at the time. Even just three centuries of American history is riddled with behavior that we accepted then but now condemn: The Trail of Tears, slavery, oppression of women, minorities, and homosexuals, McCarthyism, and plenty more. What about the present? Which of today's norms will become tomorrow's abhorrent errors? Philosopher and author Kwame Anthony Appiah asked this question in a Washington Post column over the weekend. He's gotten a number of responses. Here's what he and others have said.

  • Our Treatment of Prisoners  Kwame Anthony Appiah, in the Washington Post, picks out the prison system. "Roughly 1 percent of adults in this country are incarcerated. We have 4 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. No other nation has as large a proportion of its population in prison; even China's rate is less than half of ours. What's more, the majority of our prisoners are non-violent offenders, many of them detained on drug charges. ... And the full extent of the punishment prisoners face isn't detailed in any judge's sentence. More than 100,000 inmates suffer sexual abuse, including rape, each year; some contract HIV as a result. Our country holds at least 25,000 prisoners in isolation in so-called supermax facilities, under conditions that many psychologists say amount to torture."

  • Meat Eating  The New York Times' Ross Douthat adds, "I’ll speculate that a century or so hence, breakthroughs in laboratory-created meat substitutes will have put an end to the killing of animals in general (in factory farms and family farms alike), and worked a revolution in moral sentiments that makes my present belief in the moral acceptability of meat-eating seem hopelessly barbaric. ... The moral arguments for vegetarianism and veganism have gained ground in the contemporary West because subsisting on those diets is easier for modern Westerners than for many earlier peoples. And the same will doubtless be true in the future." He says the advance of artificial, meatless "meat" will make today's "moral acceptability of meat-eating seem hopelessly barbaric."
  • Torture and 'Gay Cures'  The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, rounding up a number of responses, writes, "I'd add reparative therapy for homosexuals; and the torture regime conducted under the administration of Bush and Cheney."
  • Our Treatment of the Elderly  Kwame Anthony Appiah also writes, "Nearly 2 million of America's elderly are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight and, to some extent, out of mind. Some 10,000 for-profit facilities have arisen across the country in recent decades to hold them. Other elderly Americans may live independently, but often they are isolated and cut off from their families. (The United States is not alone among advanced democracies in this. Consider the heat wave that hit France in 2003: While many families were enjoying their summer vacations, some 14,000 elderly parents and grandparents were left to perish in the stifling temperatures.) Is this what Western modernity amounts to -- societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?"
  • Abortion  The New York Times' Ross Douthat writes, "I would (predictably) nominate abortion as a presently-tolerated evil that will one day be generally deplored. After all, it fits Appiah’s rubrics pretty neatly: The moral arguments against the practice are well known, its defenders are increasingly likely to defend the social necessity of abortion rights (often along “women’s equality depends on legal abortion” lines) and the impracticality of an outright ban than they are to defend the justice of abortion itself, and the pro-life movement spends a great deal of time trying to confront Americans with the physical realities of abortion, whether via ultrasound images or grisly photos of fetuses held up at protest marches."
  • Immigration Barriers  The Economist's Will Wilkinson writes, "The global system of nation-states, borders, visas, and their attendant limits on the human rights to free movement and association amounts to a worldwide system of apartheid and is responsible for tremendous avoidable suffering. Though I feel quite sure that this is indeed an unconscionable injustice and a source of immense harm, I am far from certain that history will come to see things my way." If this sounds odd it's because Wilkinson is being slightly tongue-in-cheek. While he says he does care about this, he professes that future generations will probably not share his "hobby horse."
  • Nothing--Things Will Get Worse  Econoblogger Tyler Cowen writes, "I am not convinced that we are going to see lots of moral improvement over the next fifty to one hundred years." Rather than future generations evolving beyond our current bad behavior, he sees them developing new bad behaviors. "Robot and drone warfare may become even more commonplace, as will targeting at a distance and selective cyberwarfare. ... With rising health care costs and tight budgets in many countries, can we not expect euthanasia to rise in moral popularity? ... Won't targeted genetic tests make abortion more popular and less sanctioned?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.