Bryan Caplan  

Evil in Plain Sight

PRINT
What is Service?... Robert Murphy on Why Governmen...
12 Years a Slave is a great chance to feel morally superior to monstrous slavers of yore.  But it is also a time to reflect: Will our descendents ever look back on us with contempt for our blatant wickedness?  If so, what will draw their ire?

It is of course possible that seemingly innocent actions today will lead to mass horrors.  Maybe you'll adopt an orphan who grows up to assassinate a world leader, precipitating World War III.  But the future is unlikely to damn us for such actions.  We don't curse the name of Princip's mother; how was she to know that her son would bring a continent to ruin?  As long as the chain of inference from our choices to disaster is long and complex, posterity will give us a pass.

No, the evil for which our descendents will condemn us, if any, will be evil in plain sight.  Slavery is a perfect example.  Anyone with eyes and a conscience was capable of grasping the wrongness of extorting labor through threats of torture and death, right?  Yet American Southerners saw slavery with their own eyes, day after day, and yawned - merely because they knew that their fellow white Southerners were yawning with them.

So what present-day practices plausibly qualify as evil in plain sight?  Each of the three leading ideologies of our day - liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism - suggests an answer.  For liberalism: the way we treat animals.  For conservatism: the way we treat fetuses.  For libertarianism: the way we treat foreigners.

1. Treatment of animals.  This Thanksgiving, Americans ate tens of millions of turkeys because they taste good (if well-prepared).  We could have eaten vegetables, but we didn't feel like it.  Few of us have the steel to kill a turkey face-to-face; instead, we outsource the butchery to professionals long-inured to animal suffering.  And of course, such behavior is hardly reserved for the holidays.  In our society, even self-styled "vegetarians" regularly consume meat.  Under the circumstances, then, it's easy to imagine our descendents viewing us with moral horror.

2. Treatment of fetuses.  The United States alone has roughly a million legal abortions a year.  If those pregnancies came to term, we would condemn subsequent "termination" as heinous murder.  But perform the termination a few weeks earlier, and most of us nonchalantly shrug.  The vast majority of these abortions could be avoided - and a life saved - if the mothers endured nine months of discomfort and inconvenience, then put the babies up for adoption.  And the best evidence says that women denied abortions soon end up at the same depression and anxiety levels as comparable women who get abortions.  Fetuses don't feel pain or think?  You can say the same about any healthy adult under anesthesia, but we condemn their murder nonetheless.  If the fact that an anesthetized adult is only temporarily unable to feel pain or think is morally significant, why doesn't the same go for fetuses? 

Agree or disagree, it is not hard to imagine our descendents finding these arguments convincing, and damning us for evil in plain sight.

3. Treatment of foreigners. If the NYPD bombed Harlem to kill one rampaging murderer, we'd condemn the NYPD agents as murderers.  But if the USAF bombs a town in Afghanistan to kill one rampaging murderer, we forgive the bombers - or cheer them on.  If the state of Alabama made it a crime for blacks to take white collar jobs, we'd damn them as racist monsters.  But if the entire U.S. government makes it a crime for Mexican citizens to take any U.S. job whatsoever, we accept and justify the policy.  What's the difference between "fighting crime" and "fighting terrorism"?  Between "Jim Crow" and "protecting our borders"?  The mere fact that the victims are foreigners, so up is down and wrong is right.  Or so our descendents might conclude.

It's quite possible, of course, that our descendents will be as indifferent to the treatment of animals, fetuses, and foreigners as we are.  Maybe more so.  And even if we were absolutely certain that they would condemn us, that foreknowledge is far from a conclusive argument.  Maybe we're right and they're (going to be) wrong.

So why even discuss the views of future generations?  To jolt us out of our comfortable conformity.  When slavery was popular, it was easy to blithely support it.  Foreknowledge that slavery was going to be unpopular would have been Drano for clogged minds.  Vividly imagining such a future would have had a similarly clarifying effect.  Once intellectually deprived of social support, antebellum Southerners would have been ready for honest moral argument.

The same goes for us.  We too can ready ourselves for honest moral argument by dwelling on a future that condemns us.  How then would you respond to future generations who condemned our treatment of animals?  Of fetuses?  Of foreigners?


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (64 to date)
Tom West writes:

My guess - cruelty to animals. As long as we have tasty substitutes (vat meat), it will be fairly easy for us to be horrified at the fate of food animals in the future.

As for abortion - only if we develop some for of artificial womb.

Foreigners - well, when allowing immigration doesn't materially affect our well-being (including the well-being that most experience from being among those like themselves.) Not sure how that could come about. (When we mostly live in a virtual world?)

Experience has shown that most human beings are very moral... unless it's expensive.

James Miller writes:

Treatment of the future by our willingness to risk the destruction of all mankind.

Noah Yetter writes:

Enforcement, through incalculable violence on a near-unimaginable scale, of the dogmatic notion that the State gets to decide what chemicals you can put in your own body. Which is to say, the Drug War.

It is my sincerest hope that THIS is what we will look back on with all due moral horror.

Norman Maynard writes:

Treatment of the poor and homeless. If all developed countries eventually adopt a guaranteed basic income, looking back on the day when such a policy was economically plausible but not implemented may fill future generations with disgust.

jos writes:

There are certainly innumerable ways we could currently improve our lives, ways we can't even know. Perhaps future generations will condemn our land use for private cars as a horror that's unimaginable. Perhaps they will view building height restrictions as the work of neo-cro-magnons. We can't know what the future will think.

I think the best lesson is, as I once heard John O'Sullivan say, "treat the past with a bit of forgiveness." We can't understand how hard things were for them because the past is its own foreign country. Our descendants won't understand how hard things were for us, but perhaps they will judge less harshly.

Frank Lantz writes:

I find this exercise incredibly valuable.

The most important thing is to come up with candidates that you, personally, *don't* currently consider morally wrong.

It's easy and comforting to imagine future generations vindicating your current beliefs, but that's completely counter to the true purpose of the exercise.

The point is to think about all the behaviors that seems perfectly natural, normal and acceptable to you - which of them are potentially horrifying and repugnant to your descendants?

If this thought experiment doesn't make you feel humbled and a little frightened, you aren't doing it right.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Treatment of animals? That's weak. Animals eat other animals. It's nature. And it's hardly a liberal cause.

The obvious liberal contribution is our treatment of the disadvantaged.

Brett writes:

The "abortion" one is unlikely, because the trend is mostly in the opposite direction of restrictions when you look at things worldwide (despite a number of US states, and those survive because of classism in conservative states). It would take a pretty major shift in opinions (or more likely "always-on" contraception being mandatory after puberty, plus artificial wombs) for things to change.

The "vegan" objection is certainly possible, especially as we get closer to having synthetic meat substitutes that can completely replicate the taste and texture of real meat (such as Beyond Meat chicken).

I also tend to think the "drug war" will be considered as contemptuous by future generations, as well as many of the rationales used for military interventions.

Once intellectually deprived of social support, antebellum Southerners would have been ready for honest moral argument.

Slavery was already becoming less morally acceptable outside of a handful of countries, with Great Britain being at the particular forefront of anti-slavery efforts. But the American South didn't react by becoming more amenable to moral suasion - they just became more racist, more reactionary, more defensive and shrill about their "peculiar institution" and how the perceived inferiority of people with African ancestry was justification for their subjugation.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

The other obvious one is climate change, although I'd file that under treatment of foreigners (I find it confusing that that's associated with libertarianism).

Ted Levy writes:

Daniel thinks the real distinctive liberal cause is concern for the disadvantaged. But that would only make sense if Daniel thinks that conservatives and libertarians really don't care at all about the disadvantaged.

MikeP writes:

The other obvious one is climate change...

I must concur. I expect that our progeny a century hence will be dumbstruck by the desire to give them a greatly poorer planet in order to try to stop a couple degrees of warming. Hopefully we never really act on this insanity.

...although I'd file that under treatment of foreigners...

I must concur again. First world busybodies' condemning developing nations to a future path that does not allow maximum use of the cheapest energy available is abominable.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Not at all Ted Levy.

Presumably we are talking about more than just feeling bad here, right? I'm sure lots of Northern non-abolitionists felt bad about the state of slaves. Hell, slaveowners felt bad about the state of slaves in many cases.

If that's all we're talking about then I mistook the nature of the conversation.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

But MikeP - the whole exercise is that things might not work out how you see things now. You accept an evil in plain sight (climate change) because you dismiss it as stopping "a couple degrees of warming".

Slavers would scoff too. They're civilizing the Africans, after all. They're giving them three square meals and a roof over their head, etc. etc.

But if you're wrong on the moral question, then you can see how it would cause our descendants to look back on us with horror, right? If we are really devastating our descendants - if we are really brutalizing African slaves - then what we are doing is indeed a moral atrocity.

I think you're missing the point of the exercise.

I'm pro-choice mostly because I don't feel like we have a grasp of questions of personhood in the womb and I don't think the government should dictate such a contested issue. But I still recognize that if that indecisiveness is wrong we will have committed a great moral atrocity.

MikeP writes:

But Daniel Kuehn - the whole exercise is that things might not work out how you see things now. You accept an evil in plain sight (massive economic disruption to avert climate change) because you dismiss it as stopping "devastating our descendants".

Climate change plainly doesn't pass the same unbalanced muster as the other examples. Nor does your "treatment of the disadvantaged" since libertarians would do more for the disadvantaged than either of the others. Witness their willingness to open all borders to all economic migrants, hence doubling global GDP, mostly accruing to the most poor.

Cody Fenwick writes:

This thought experiment is what led (among other causes) to my becoming a vegan, so I am quite fond of it. It's also made me consider deeply the question of abortion, but I continue to be pro-choice. My willingness to radically alter my beliefs about animals gives me reason to believe it is not mere status quo bias that leads me to think of abortion as permissible.

I would also suggest that our treatment of prisoners is appalling and will eventually be considered to have been so.

Perhaps, for our descendants, this type of thinking will lead them to respect the right of androids that they will so carelessly ignore.

[url is broken. Next time please check that your links work when previewing!--Econlib Ed.]

Daniel Kuehn writes:

MikeP -
First, don't presume to know what I think about climate change.

But you're right - that could be another evil in plain sight. I think your point is more strained at this point in time because we are not grinding the gears of economic progress to address climate change. So there's no real evil even if that is a potential evil.

So it's an odd answer (it would be like citing the abortion thing in a case where abortion was outlawed) but it's a legitimate answer. I never said yours wasn't a legitimate answer.

Your last paragraph is ridiculous on the facts but again misses the whole point. You're turning a question of moral standing into a question of whose policy is better (and you're really garbling libertarian vs. non-libertarian policy: plenty of libertarians are opposed to open borders and lots of the push for liberalization comes from liberals).

Slavers and abolitionists argued over whose policy was better for the slaves.

The question of whether slavery itself was a moral abomination that needed to be removed was pretty narrowly restricted to abolitionists.

There are some strong consequentialist libertarians out there, but few libertarians take the moral standing of the problem of poverty and economic disadvantage as a guide to the right thing to do. Most libertarians would accept poverty if it conflicted with their politics. That's the difference. "Liberalism" is a broad term, but there are a fair number of liberals that take alleviating disadvantage as the purpose of their politics and then seek out policies that do the best job at it. In the same way most libertarians take weakening the state as the purpose of their politics and then seek out perspectives on specific policy questions that align with that.

As I said to Ted Levy, nobody LIKES poverty. Of course everyone prefers there wasn't any poverty. Thomas Jefferson wished he didn't own slaves. Big deal. So what? It is not a guiding moral question for libertarians.

MikeP writes:

But you're right - that could be another evil in plain sight. I think your point is more strained at this point in time because we are not grinding the gears of economic progress to address climate change. So there's no real evil even if that is a potential evil.

Fair enough. But it's only because policy makers fortunately haven't yet listened to the Al Gore's and the Jim Hansen's of the world.

My point was that this example doesn't seem to fit the high-moral-cost, low-pragmatic-benefit tradeoff of the original examples. In fact it is highly uncertain what the right answer is simply because we would need to see history play out to actually know. Yet each side can rightfully put forward plausible futures in which, looking back, the other side was behaving immorally.

Of the three examples of today, I of course believe the future will vindicate that all born humans are equally endowed with equal rights, hence show that today's treatment of foreigners is an abomination. But I definitely can also imagine the unborn and the unhuman gaining enough moral standing not to be killed for so little benefit as a few months' discomfort or more flavorful food.

Climate change and treatment of the disadvantaged, on the other hand, appear to me to be questions of policy further removed from core issues of morality.

Ted Levy writes:

Well, clearly either Daniel K. or I myself have some difficulty with historical analogies. Let me spell this one out in more detail than I did previously and then people can decide one way or the other.

Bryan in his OP deals with the following historical situation: Once upon a time, some people, slaveholders, found nothing particularly wrong or evil with holding slaves. Few slaveholders argued: “Slavery is of course a gross and obvious evil, but we’re making a profit so we’re going to keep committing this gross and obvious evil.” Rather, and this IS Bryan’s point, most people of the day saw slavery as acceptable conduct, and only a relatively small band of abolitionists saw it as the gross and obvious evil we ALL see it as today.

With that as background, Bryan wonders what our descendants will think of actions that many of us today see as acceptable conduct. He offers eating animals as something that puts today’s liberals in the role of yesteryear’s abolitionists…abortion as something that puts today’s conservatives in that role…and the atrocious way we allow our government to treat foreigners as something that puts libertarians in that role.

“Not so fast,” says Daniel. A preferred scenario for today’s liberals would be: “our treatment of the disadvantaged”.

For Daniel’s offer to make sense, it would have to mean, as I tried to imply above, that most people today see our treatment of the disadvantaged is not a problem at all, save in the future-attuned eyes of the liberals. Only if this were true would it be analogous to the conservatives’ view of abortion, or the libertarians’ view of how foreigners are treated. Liberals and libertarians see no great and obvious moral evil in having an abortion. Some view it as a right. Some view it as a simple minor surgery of no moral weight. But only the conservative, like the abolitionist of yore re slavery, sees it as a heinous and massive and continuing moral crime. [I admit I paint here with a broad brush to focus on the point at issue.]

But is this TRUE about our treatment of the disadvantaged? Only cartoonish Progressive ideologues—is Daniel applying for a position?—really believe that libertarians and conservatives think the current treatment of the disadvantaged is a GOOD, or even not horrible, thing. All three ideologies AGREE about the plight of the disadvantaged in a way the slaveholders did not bemoan the plight of the slaves. The DIFFERENCE involves what the solutions are viewed as: Liberals stress government programs; Conservatives stress family and bourgeoise virtues; Libertarians stress the free market. Does Daniel, for example, really think that libertarians oppose minimum wage laws because they are unfair to businessmen, as opposed to being actively harmful to the poor and disadvantaged?

So, to repeat, Daniel’s suggested alternative to “eating animals” fails at a fairly basic level. I trust that is more obvious now.

Pajser writes:

Killing of animals, emotional beings weaker than us - for meat, i.e. pleasure - is enormous evil. The fish is pulled out of water and left to die from suffocation for hours, even days.

Abortions are close, but at least people try to avoid it.

Capitalism is bad on many ways. Libertarians are just wrong about that. Communism is the future. But I wouldn't say that capitalism is evil, i.e. bad on purpose. It is more like weakness, humanity cannot organize anything better now.

I do not care for closed borders of wealthy countries. The world would be a better place if wealthy countries stop paying the best people from poor countries to leave these countries.

Christopher Rasch writes:

I don't think abortion will be looked on with much moral horror.

Agree regarding carnivorism and immigration.

Other candidates:

Circumcision
Drug war
Prisons
Treatment of pedophiles
Treatment of mentally ill
Chinese medicine
FDA
Patents
Copyrights
Inflation
Licensure
Compulsory schooling
Overfishing
Opposition to nuclear power
Opposition to GMO's
Rainforest deforestation
Pollution
Socialized medicine
Uncontrolled pet breeding


Daniel Kuehn writes:

MikeP -
re: "Climate change and treatment of the disadvantaged, on the other hand, appear to me to be questions of policy further removed from core issues of morality."

But the entire point is that's what was once said of slaves. Anyway, real humans - foreigners and otherwise - are affected by this so given what you've said already it's not clear why you feel this way except that you clearly really want to pick out the libertarian concern as the important one.

Then again, that's how "evils in plain sight" persist I suppose.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ted Levy -
Views of slaveholders towards slaves changed over time of course, but my point is that there was sympathy that was broader than the abolitionists. Many thought it was immoral but did not want to eliminate it. Many slaveholders did recognize it was morally problematic (although this declined as we approached the Civil War when apologists for slavery increased), but felt like their hands were tied.

None of that amounts to a "moral abomination" worthy of outright rejection except in the case of the abolitionists.

This is precisely where we are today. I know almost nobody likes the plight of the poor.

Few libertarians see it as a moral abomination.

My guess is we're just fine making historical analogies and understanding Bryan - we just disagree on those last two sentences.

Perceived good consequences for the poor resulting from libertarianism are for almost all libertarians icing on the cake. No libertarian I am aware of would reject libertarianism if it turned out it would not substantially reduce poverty. They would rationalize poverty and maintain their libertarianism, because they are almost all libertarian for OTHER moral reasons.

Jameson writes:

I find it hilarious that there are commenters suggesting which examples they don't think will happen. It pretty much confirms the very phenomenon being warned against: the incapacity to imagine that your own moral preferences will one day be judged as monstrous.

Southerner 1: "Imagine one day, slavery will be judged as monstrous."

Southerner 2: "Nah, that's not gonna happen. But they probably will think we're crazy for letting all these foreigners in."

RPLong writes:

I'm surprised there isn't more push-back on the animals thing.

Tom West writes:

as a few months' discomfort

Is there any woman on the planet who has had a child who would classify the total effect of pregnancy on a woman as "a few month's discomfort"?

As understatements go, it's up there with calling the sum total of racism "a few names in the school yard".

(Sorry, perhaps I am over-sensitive to the idea of dismissing challenges that we will never face as trivial.)

patrick k writes:

Most people, thankfully, don't waste any time on "evil in plain sight" analysis of the past. What they do instead is concentrate on what is right in front of them at their time in history. It's too funny hearing all the preaching about Southerners when half the slaves they owned were sold to them by Northerners when the economics no longer worked up north. It reminds me of the today's arguments that the Civil War was about slavery. LOL. It may have been imagined by the religiously inclined abolitionists but it wasn't by the Union armies that returned slaves thru Confederate lines for a large part of the war.

Eating meat, abortion, treatment of foreigners will never raise even an eyebrow. It will fall by the wayside much as burning witches, heads on a spike, monster kings and the like--simply part of human history and our evolution. Unless you plan on hating a part of yourself, embrace/understand it all. For myself, I have not eaten meat in 45 years, never been part of an abortion, haven't had any slaves in this lifetime, I treat everyone the same and if you don't, so be it. We all get where we are going on our own time. Remind me again who you are to look back in history and moralize how wonderful you are to now know that general trends in history were "evil in plain sight"? The only reason you now know, because they dealt with the issue in real time, not you. We get to live in the afterglow with some of us even touting, "had I been alive, I would have known!". Yeah right.

How's that car you are driving? There may come a time when future academics/pundits will scratch their heads and ask, how could they? Thankfully most people will ignore the question.

Floccina writes:

I think that one day people will look back at abortion with horror.

On animals are there any people who only eat animals that would eat them given a chance? For example shark is good and you can buy it most big markets. Chickens would eat people if they could but cattle would not.

Finch writes:

As an atheist libertarian who is very uncomfortable making decisions for other people, and is at least somewhat pro-choice, it's obviously abortion hands-down. It will be viewed as the greatest crime of the 20th century in a couple of hundred years, trailed somewhat distantly by the holocaust and the various slaughters of socialism.

People forget how quickly technology changes. It will be what, fifty years before removing the child from the womb and saving their life is viable at any point? It's already modestly viable from roughly 0-4 weeks and 20-40 weeks and there's significant pressure to expand that envelope from ART and people who want to save their pre-term babies.

So, in the future, abortion will be seen for what it is, child murder, and the moral subtleties that surround that (which I think are real) will be lost to time.

Thomas Firey writes:

How about compulsory military service during peacetime? Not only does it enslave a class of people (in this case, young males), but it provides a ready supply of cheap labor for warfare.

Jeff writes:

This whole exercise is prone to self-congratulatory cognitive bias-projection.

The other problem here is that you really have to embrace the Whig theory of history to think this exercise will have value. Certainly, the past is a foreign country, as was pointed out above, but beyond that, fads and fashions color the culture of any era, and culture influences popular moral codes in lots of different ways. If people in the present were totally deluded regarding the morality of some common phenomena, we cannot be certain that people in the future will not be similarly deluded when they judge the past. For example, I could easily imagine a future where the Universalist dogma which informs Bryan's open borders moralizing is looked on as naive utopianism, much the same way that arguments for communism turned out.

Glen Smith writes:

Many slaveholders lived with the cognitive dissonance of owning slaves while believing that such an arrangement was evil. Many just decided to ignore the issue while others struggle with concepts such as "lesser evil". In any case, the near term evil in plain sight is likely something that the actor does that he knows is wrong but is economically beneficial to that actor.

Joe Donatelli writes:

Great post, Bryan. Coincidentally, I wrote about this very topic on my blog today. I think your third point is the one that we'll feel the most shame about in years to come - treatment of foreigners. We will look back on the War on Terror with deep regrets.

Hazel Meade writes:

What about capital punishment?

I could see people in the future being horrified that we execute people as a punishment/deterrent.

Hazel Meade writes:

Another possibility: War.

Someday, we may get to the point where the use of military force to resolve disputes becomes anathema.

I could imagine a society 500 years from now looking back in horror at the fact that we would routinely engage in these conflicts to the death with other people's children.

Put that one at the top of the list.

Krishnan writes:

When regressives mention "Climate Change" - I know the discussion becomes totally useless ... To equate "slavery" being ignored with "climate change" being ignored is nonsense.

"Climate Change" is an issue of science, data ... regressives are NOT interested in the science and analysing the data honestly - Cannot imagine that BUT for humans, the climate will not change. Incredible nonsense.

Slavery WAS and REMAINS a deliberate human action - ... And yes, while many may have thought it OK then, there were many who DID SAY it was morally wrong.

Slavery != Climate Change (whatever the heck that "Change" may mean

ConnGator writes:

I agree with Cody: the way America treats prisoners is disgusting.

I read somewhere (can't find source right now) that it is estimated that more men than women are raped each year in the USA. Just horrific.

DaveL writes:

Resource depletion. We have used up many of the easily accessible resources (e.g., oil that just bubbles out of the ground, surface and near-surface metals). While we may be able to provide substitutes or be able to find smaller and smaller deposits of each, we eventually run out.

It is not hard to imagine that if there is ever a technology hiccup (WW3, climate apocalypse, zombies, ...), we might never be able to recover.

A subset of this which melds with our treatment of animals is the loss of biological diversity (animal and plant) that human activities are causing.

(I find the "Climate Change isn't happening!" posts a good example of the sort of thing the people of the future would be likely to point at with contempt. Good job; they are parodies, right?)

Seth writes:

Evil in plain sight: Giving people fish for political gain, rather than teaching them how to fish.

Adam writes:

I'm surprised the minimum wage didn't make it onto the list. It blocks young and low skill worker from offering their talents to help others, blocks them from learning-by-doing on the job and forces them to beg on corners (recall the cardboard sign: Will work for food!) or subject themselves to a life of meager, creepy gov handouts. Definitely strikes me as cruel and evil.

I'm not buying the vegan thing. I imagine there will be more vegans, but they'll be unhealthy and short lived. The healthfulness of a low carb, moderate animal fat diet as well as sensory appeal will keep meat and dairy in the diets of people who want to see 100. Besides, all those turkeys were given life only that they might be food. No meat and no dairy demand means no turkeys, no cows, no cattle, no chickens, and no hogs. Ok, come to think of it, I'm fine with no hogs.

I'm almost with you on the foreigner thing. Distance makes the heart grow fonder--including fonder of cultural and personal differences. Perceived group differences and territorial boundaries seem to run deep--they're found among primates like chimps and many other animals. What's going to have to come to pass so that humans are able to accept and prosper in close proximity to all our wonderful differences? Does is mean that humans will become (1) more accepting of differences? Does it mean we'll (2) become oppressed by political correctness--where some differences become more equal than others by the force of arms and government? Or does it mean that (3) those who are different will be murdered as has all too often happened in the recent past-- Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao's China, Bosnia and continuing genocides in the Middle East and South Asia? I hope it's (1) but it seems hard to rule out (2) and (3) given the present world.

I hope you're right on abortion. One million murders per year cannot be ethical when pregnancy prevention is so simple. One million murders per year means that there are at least 2 million people per year who are unable to foresee consequences and make appropriate choices. That's a lot of moral myopia.

Tracy W writes:

I lost 3 litres of blood giving birth to my first. I still chose to get pregnant again but pregnancy is rather more serious than a few months of inconvenience and discomfort. There's a big difference between choosing a risk yourself and saying that others are morally obliged to take it, let alone not assuming that risk yourself.

Why not pick Singer's argument that we should all be living on the minimum necessary and donating the rest of our earnings to life-saving charities? That's not life-threatening and it's one that applies to you personally.

Finch writes:

Tracy W's comment made me think of this one:

Failure to have as many children as you reasonably could have. This is the dreamtime, and we're all under-reproducing relative to what's sustainable. So future generations will criticize us for the human beings we failed to make and the utility thereby foregone.

Clearly, this is going way out on a limb, but I think it's in the spirit of the exercise.

English Professor writes:

No suggestion makes sense without a specific view of what the future will hold. Here are some conflicting possibilities:

1A) If man-made global warming becomes a major problem, compromising the survival of human or animal populations in large parts of the world, we will be despised for placing economic growth ahead of the desire to decrease green-house emissions.

1B) If technological advances render global warming insignificant, the "hysteria" over the threat of global warming will be despised.

2A) If the destruction of the rain forests or genetic engineering of crops compromises the biosphere, virtually all aspects of capitalism may be looked on as corrupt. We will be seen as the people who "put profits before plants" and ruined the world. Libertarians in particular will be considered monsters.

2B) If all resource constraints are overcome by innovation and the world ends up richer than ever before, then our rich descendants will indulge their soft and privileged positions in despising any number of unforeseeable flaws in our society. Here too libertarians will probably be considered strange, simply because the average person still probably won't understand the role that free markets played in supporting innovation, and to such people libertarians always seem strange.

English Professor writes:

One more thing. In general I fear that people favor various forms of socialism or corporatism over free markets, and in my imagined dystopia of the future, "capitalists" will be placed on a par with slave holders.

quadrupole writes:

At the risk of being completely transgressive:

1) That we leave some children in the care of radically bad parents (thus dooming the child).

2) That we economically incentivize people who cannot afford to raise children to have them.

There is a lower bound in terms of parent quality below which kids are very very very screwed. Leaving kids with those parents and worse incentivizing them to have kids financially I suspect may be in the future viewed as truly evil.

johnleemk writes:

Here's one conjecture -- a middle ground between Caplan's open borders (i.e., our descendants will be horrified that unarmed civilians were once shot, jailed, and/or deported like violent invaders/criminals just because they were born in the wrong country) and Sailer's closed borders (i.e., our descendants will be horrified that we once let foreigners cross borders without subjecting them to an extremely high set of preconditions for entry): how we treat refugees today.

This one I think almost might be out of the scope of this exercise, simply because to a very large degree it should already horrify us or at least a significant minority of us. International law since the 1940s has codified open borders for refugees into law. Yet look how we treat refugees/asylum-seekers today. The response of the Italian government to hundreds of African and Middle Eastern asylum-seekers drowning at Lampedusa -- because these refugees were given no legal way to enter Europe or Italy -- was to posthumously grant citizenship to the dead, and jail the survivors. There are literally thousands of people fleeing the Syrian war to get into leaky boats sailing to Italy or Australia.

Even if you think "economic refugees" shouldn't have open borders, there's no way avoiding the fact that international law commits all governments who have signed the applicable conventions to having open borders for refugees. Virtually every government of the world abrogates this commitment today. The US government was willing to spend billions of dollars to bomb Syria because its government was gassing its citizens to death. But the US government wasn't willing to spend any fraction of that money on opening its borders to Syrian refugees. After the governments of the world denied asylum to the Jews, Roma, and other persecuted peoples fleeing the Holocaust, the human race supposedly said "never again" would we allow refugees to be murdered or persecuted by their own governments. Yet that is exactly what we have done with Syria.

It seems so obvious to me that this is evil in plain sight, but it isn't obvious in the least to others -- even to my left liberal friends otherwise sympathetic to expending billions of dollars on aiding refugees, as long as that expenditure only involves dropping bombs or dropping aid on those countries. Even if the world never opens its borders, I don't think it implausible in the least that our descendants will one day regard how we treat refugees today as appalling. They would only think of us the same way we think of the governments who, in the 1930s and 1940s, stood by and watched a government murder millions of people. "Never again."

John Soriano writes:

How has no one mentioned discrimination against gays? That would seem to be the obvious liberal one to me.

Chip Smith writes:

Whatever people come around to viewing with retrospective horror, chances are I would be inclined to disagree. It probably won't skew libertarian, in any case. Remember when people drove cars without wearing helmets?

I hope routine infant circumcision will seem as obviously evil to future generations as it seems to some of us in the here and now. Mutilating healthy baby peckers is pretty far gone, and the arguments that people use to justify this religio-medical ritual have a desperate ring that's reminiscent the rhetorical contortions that once upheld chattel slavery.

Steve J. writes:

But if the USAF bombs a town in Afghanistan to kill one rampaging murderer, we forgive the bombers - or cheer them on.

? Who is "we"?

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Lacks an economic and biblical perspective on slavery.

Biblical because slavery was the accepted social reality in biblical narratives. This was used to support slavery.

See "Hierarchical Structures and Social Value: The Creation of Black and Irish Identities in the United States," by Richard Williams (1990). Recently reprinted, I think.

Williams covers the historical period after 1617, Jamestown settlement that tracks the introduction of slavery as an economic necessity.

Scott Scheule writes:

We're all full of crap here, and I don't think any of us has the slightest idea how things will proceed.

But! I like to imagine more unexpected developments in our collective morality. The exercise doesn't have much bite if we don't imagine the counterintuitive. So imagine future society saying:

"My God, can you believe that they believed slavery was evil?!"

"My God, can you imagine how much time they all wasted trying to save endangered species?!"

"My God, can you imagine how hesitant they were to kill people who were obviously guilty?!"

"I can't believe they didn't allow stronger people to eat weaker people!"

"I can't believe they had a problem with killing children! Even as young as two years old!"

Massimo writes:

I challenge the premise that today's society finds past slavery monstrous.

The Greeks, Romans, and Aztecs extensively practiced slavery, but that's generally not vilified, that's just how life was. Even 20th century slavery in the middle east or in Africa is excused.

The modern view of slavery is universally framed in terms of guilting the people of today who have enviable wealth and power.

You can find ethnic groups in Yemen or West Africa who's ethnic ancestors committed more horrific human rights abuses such as slavery much more recently in history, but why waste your breath? They are living in shanty towns. No one cares.

Kevin Smith writes:

Abortion is a reasonable candidate. As we learn more about neuroscience and as more people are exposed to 4D US could change. Almost all European countries have more restrictive abortion laws than US. However, this one confirms bias - so...

I suppose eating meat is a candidate, but is harder to see it as intrinsically evil from any viewpoint (I know - the whole point). We are biologically omnivores so eating animals does not seem amoral in any way. Perhaps we may decide to treat great apes better.

The treatment of foreigners I just see as a libertarian delusion wishing that would happen. Would not make top 20 list as a consideration.

I cannot agree with the prisoner thing. I think we treat our prisoners very well in America (have worked as physician in prison system). How well should we treat them? Better than our poor who don't commit crimes? I think having a minimum income would be more likely.


As others have pointed out, the future does not unfold naturally. If Iran nukes a country, Pakistan nukes some countries, our ancestors could look back and despise our unwillingness to reduce other countries to ash pre-emptiveley as disgusting because of what we allowed to occur. Stranger things have happened?

Maybe they will look back at horror in how we used antibiotics for minor afflictions or to fight HIV/organ recipients if it allows a super bug to wipe out a large portion of the population.

Treatment of gays is not good candidate since shaming has already started and cannot be a "future" thing since is now thing.

How about religion? In an atheist future they could all look back with revulsion on religion. Or if demography ultimately favors the religious and they look back on atheism as a weird evil. Or they could look back at revulsion in us having children naturally - or the unwillingness of highly educated people to have children as a crime against the genetic pool.

I think Christopher Rasch has an interesting list above.

John Soriano writes:

Kevin Smith,

That's a good point about treatment of gays. However, there was shaming about segregation in the 1960's and earlier and we still look back at that time as one where a good portion of our society had a major moral deficiency. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed in the late 90's which many would still consider recent. F*gg*t is still a very commonly used word and many people still use "gay" as a derogatory word. Gay marriage still isn't legal in the majority of states. There are only 16 states where it is legal and 33 states with an outright ban.

Gay rights activists are far from claiming victory.

Roger Powell writes:

Here's a couple that I consider safe bets for moral disgust in the future:

1) Our prohibition of assisted suicide to terminally ill patients - making them suffer instead (See Scott Adam's impassioned rant at:
http://dilbert.com/blog/entry/i_hope_my_father_dies_soon/?Page=3)

2) Refusal of clemency (due to political cowardice) for people wrongly imprisoned or with sentences grossly disproportionate to the "crime". E.g.
http://www.azcentral.com/insiders/laurieroberts/2013/11/25/buckeye-man-freed-finally-from-insane-prison-sentence/

Mark V Anderson writes:

With all the comments above, the best was the first one by Tom West. As he implies, what they consider abominations in the future will depend on what is easily avoided. We hate slavery now because it no longer makes economic sense (there is a train of thought that perhaps slavery was never more economical than employing volunteers, but it certainly made more economic sense before the rise of machines).

Thus I think eating animals is the most likely example, since there are bound to be very good substitutes for meat from a previously living creature in the next 100 years.

I suspect abortion is another good candidate, as our technology makes it unnecessary at some point.

It is likely that war and other killing of foreigners will be considered inexcusable in the future. But that will be partly because technology will make us closer to others around the globe, so the very sense of "foreigner" will become obsolete.

John Soriano writes:

Mark... do you actually think economics is the main reason we hate slavery now? There were people who objected to it at the Constitutional Convention when it still made economic sense and it arguably would make economic sense if the the consumers and the workers didn't morally object to it.

Brian writes:

There is little doubt that abortion will be seen as the greatest example of evil in plain sight. With hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of human lives destroyed, it will be seen as evil on the grandest scale. Taking into account the pain inflicted on the fetus (and it DOES feel pain) will amplify the horror.

It is possible that eating meat will fall into disrepute, but it will never be seen as a true evil. We are carnivores and everyone in the future will view it at worst as a necessary evil that could only be avoided by the advance of technology. It will more likely be viewed as tragic, in the same way as death by various diseases before the development of effective medicine is tragic.

Our treatment of foreigners, as far as KILLING them goes, will be seen as evil but a relatively minor one (because of low numbers). Immigration restrictions will never be seen as evil, any more than tariffs are evil. They may not be good policy, but they're not EVIL in any reasonable use of the word.

Nicholas Chandler writes:

Brian - we are actually not carnivores. This is a common misconception. If you look back to our evolutionary roots, meet was a very small part of our diet and we subsisted largely as hunter-gatherers who ocassionally ate fish, wild chicken or turkey, etc. It has only been with the advent of modern agricultural practice that our human culture has largely shifted toward a highly meat based diet.

My concern when it comes to eating meat is not so much the meat eating itself, but the incredibly savage way in which most of that meat is produced for human consumption, particularly in the United States. Take a look at any number of videos or reports online relating to modern factory farming operations, gestation creates, conditions for egg-laying hens, veal calves, foie gras production, and I think you will see that our modern version of "meat-eating" has become a grotesque capitalist endeavour with no real regard for the suffering of the animals involved.

With even companies such as Papa John's pizza committed to moving away from gestation crates for raising their pigs, I think it's safe to say that in 50 years people will look at the way America farmed animals (on a mass-agricultural scale anyway) as downright evil.

Michael Crone writes:

Abortion is clearly the most likely to be viewed with disgust. It is not only the only one of the examples without a long, historical precedent, it is also the only one of the examples where the public opinion trends that currently exist seem likely to change behavior soon (at least in the USA - anyone with worldwide data, I'd be curious to see it). If you're skeptical of this, consider the data here.

Consider especially the link to the PDF w/ historical data. Self-identification of "pro-life" has been trending upward over the time series (about the last two decades) and is already has a slight advantage over "pro-choice" identification.

IMHO, a major change in abortion policy, likely including an outright ban, is only waiting for the pro-life movement to recognize the power of its current numbers. I realize this is an unusual opinion, but keep in mind that similar major changes (fall of communism, end of slavery) were not widely anticipated even a decade before they happened).

But since in my case, the previous paragraphs are a case of self-congratulating imaginings, I find it interesting to consider the only one of Bryan's 3 choices where I would be on the wrong side of history: treatment of animals. I view deadly violence between species as inevitable. I have some slight chance of convincing, say, Bryan Caplan, to drop his participation in enterprises that kill other animals, and may even be able to train a pet cat to do the same. Even in the unlikely event that I am successful in these endeavors, how do I induce all the wolves, bears, racoons, sharks, dolphins, fish, etc. in the wild to join in even if/when artificial meat substitutes (better than tofu) come to be developed?

But I actually hope (but don't expect) that we are viewed with disgust on this one too, because that would suggest the world has changed and a world without violence between species seems great.

Brian writes:

Nicholas,

Well, technically we're omnivores, which includes eating meat. Even if it's true that meat used to be a smaller part of our diet, it has always been a significant part, even if limited to fish, wild chickens, and turkeys. Our canines don't lie.

If it's true that our meat-eating is more extensive than it used to be, that doesn't bode well for the idea that meat-eating will one day be viewed as evil. Meat-eating is resource intensive, which means it is the food of the rich. As humans become more prosperous and poverty becomes legend, meat-eating will become more, not less, common.

It is true that animals suffer for it, but it's also true that suffering means less in non-sentient creatures. The only way I see the view of meat-eating change significantly from an ethical perspective is if we gain unexpected insights into the mental capacities of animals. This could happen, of course, but seems unlikely. If animals really had something special going on, we would likely have noticed it by now.

Alan writes:

Our treatment of children.

I don't mean abortion - as fetuses of sufficient immaturity can be argued to not be self-aware. Rather, the way our culture treats children as second-class citizens in many ways - even to the point of selling them into debt-bondage for the current generation's benefit.

Nicholas Chandler writes:

Brian -

I mostly agree with you, I don't think that meat eating will be viewed as evil in the future, but I do believe that our modern factory farming practices will be roundly denounced as barbaric and that future generations will be completely shocked that we allowed them to take place at all (both for humane reasons and human health reasons.)

Brandon writes:

As for the Treatment of Animals, you speak of Americans eating tens of millions of turkeys and that because they taste good. But, aren't we just following what our ancestors did and keeping tradition afloat?

As for Treatment of Fetuses, I have mixed feelings about abortion. On one hand, I think that if a girl gets pregnant she should have the baby and not end his/her life. On the other hand, you also have to think about the level of happiness that the baby can sustain from the predicament that he/she will be put in: whether to be put up for adoption, or if the mother keeps the baby. But what if the baby never knows his/her father? That is also something to think about.

As for Treatment of Foreigners, the difference between fighting crime and fighting terrorism is that a crime can be something small like stealing a candy bar. A terrorist is an evil, sadistic, monster. A terrorist claims war on a country. their government, and their people.

Kevin writes:

I think Nicholas is right about animal treatment, not least because caring about how animals feel is something rich people do, and people are getting richer. It will survive rich people's desire to eat meat, and they won't stop eating it. The narrative will be "I have no problem with an animal losing its life so I can eat meat, but it's wrong for an animal to *live* a *horrible* life *so* the meat I eat can be *cheap*."

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top