Which of our policies and actions will be deemed grievously wrong in the future?

In the opening pages of his last book, published posthumously in 1913, the natuaralist and polymath Albert Russel Wallace (a co-developer, alongside Darwin, of the theory of evolution) observed that "that which at one time and place is held to be right and proper is, at another time or place, considered to be not only wrong, but one of the greatest of crimes" (Social Environment and Moral Progress, p. 8).  Examples of policies and actions illustrating Wallace's point are all too abundant in all parts of the world during the past several centuries.  Changes in ethics are universal, though they do not occur in the same way or at the same time in different cultures or even different subcultures.  

What do we know, and how do we understand changes in ethical perspectives and standards over time and across cultures?  More bluntly, can we gain a better understanding of the dynamics of ethical shifts, and, if so, how do we approach the task?  In the decades after Wallace's book was published, social, political and religious elites were convinced that policies based on eugenics; forced sterilization; the removal of indigenous children--and in some places, poor children--from their families and placing them in institutions; purposeful deforestation; unlimited exploitation of marine and other living species; environment-degrading industrial practices; political authoritarianism and many other practices were "right and proper."  More and more people, in more and more places, now believe such policies and practices to have been not only misguided but morally wrong.  Their deleterious effects are bemoaned today. 

Important progress has been made in the last few decades in some realms, such as climate change, disease prevention and nutrition and health-related behaviors.  Can we begin to work systematically toward identifying ways of anticipating--and possibly redirecting--current policies and actions across a wide range of domains that may, in the near to medium term future, be similarly condemned not only as harmful but as ethically deplorable? 

Depending on the level of interest, I am considering organizing a panel for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (end of August-beginning of September), moving forward from a volume of THE ANNALS American Academy of Political and Social Science (Vol. 617, May 2008)  published ten years ago for which I was special editor: The Politics of History in Comparative Perspective.  The deadline for submitting panel proposals is January 16, 2018.  If interested, please communicate with me directly at mheisler@umd.edu

Martin O. Heisler; Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics, University of Maryland.

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Tags: anticipating, change, ethical

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