Ethics: Moral Arcs

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Martin Luther King Jr

This entire treatise has been premised on the idea that obvious assumptions that people naturally believe mathematically imply summatarianism. However, I want to take a brief break by considering a completely different approach which is based on slightly more hand-wavy arguments.

There's a common idea that our society becomes more moral over time.

There is a cynical response to this: our morals will be more similar to people in the recent past than the distance past regardless of whether our morals are actually better, so it will look like we're getting better whether or not we actually are.

That being said, I think there are some reasons to believe that our morals are getting better in a more objective sense:

  1. The typical person has gotten unbelievably richer over the past couple centuries. The more money people have, the less people have to worry about their own livelihoods, which allows them to spend more time/energy/money pursuing other things such as following rules, pursuing character virtues, and pursuing the well-being of others.
  2. Intuitively, the equilibrium society that results from democracy seems likely to be more moral than the society that results from democracy's predecessors (monarchy, feudalism, etc.)
  3. As a society, we deal with conflicts between moral intuitions and presumably resolve these conflicts with more than 50% accuracy.
  4. We understand the universe better each year, which probably doesn't ever solve philosophical questions, but it definitely sheds some useful light on them.

Suppose you buy these arguments, then we can evaluate ethical systems based on whether they expouse moral ideas ahead of their time. I think utilitarianism (and hence summatarianism) are well-supported by this paradigm. Consider, for instance, the founder: Jeremy Bentham. Despite living in the late 1700s and early 1800s, he supported a number of moral theories far ahead of his time Jeremy Bentham. For instance, Bentham opposed

  1. slavery - banned by Britain in 1833
  2. the death penalty - still exists in the US; banned in Europe (except Belarus)
  3. physical punishment (for criminals and children) - last used on criminals in 1952 in the US Judicial corporal punishment
and advocated
  1. for animal rights - some state laws after 1828; US national law in 1966 Benjamin Adams
  2. codifying all common law - still not done in England Codification (law) but widely done otherwise
  3. legalizing homosexual sex acts - sodomy was finally legalized in the US in 2003 Sodomy laws in the United States
  4. for legal equality of the sexes - women got the right to vote in 1920

The founder of utilitarianism was pretty forward-looking guy - no? The other major proponent of utilitarianism at the time was no less forward-looking John Stuart Mill.

Compare this to Immanuel Kant, who believed homosexuality was immoral Thomas Pogge, supported the death penalty Kant and capital punishment today and only opposed slavery later in his life Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives.

Kant's stance on homosexuality is actually interesting, because people have later argued that his ideas should have supported homosexuality. This is an important point: Kant's philosophy is vague enough that even on an issue as simple and obvious as consensual sodomy, there's room for interpretation. This means that rather than helping us decide which morals our society should adopt, Kant's philosophy is reinterpreted to mesh with what we already want to believe - probably not what we want in an ethical system.

Utilitarianisms' prescience relative to other philosophies suggests that, unlike other moral systems, utilitarian-esque systems are likely to better match our society's values in the future - rather than be viewed with disgust 200 years hence.

Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives. Retrieved from Benjamin Adams. Legislative History of the Animal Welfare Act: Introduction. Retrieved from Codification (law). (2018, February 10). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 6, 2018, from Jeremy Bentham. (2018, February 5). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 11, 2018, from Judicial corporal punishment. (2018, March 6). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 6, 2018, from Potter, N., T. Kant and capital punishment today. The Journal of value inquiry, 36 , 267-282. Sodomy laws in the United States. (2018, February 26). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 6, 2018, from Thomas Pogge. Ask Philosophers. Retrieved from Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 18). John Stuart Mill. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:26, August 19, 2021, from