I admire people who were morally “ahead of their time.” For example, being a white American morally against slavery in 1800 was an uncommon and virtuous position.
This admiration comes from an acknowledgement that it is hard to go against your culture’s prevailing morality and think for yourself.
So, it behooves me to think about this era, and what aspects of it will seem most abhorrent to an enlightened future observer.
There’s an aspect of this exercise that assumes that morality is increasing, which is not necessarily true. But at least it’s an intuition pump for challenging received wisdom.
My thinking here follows heavily in the footsteps of Peter Singer’s Expanding Circle argument, which suggests a clear approach: Look for beings that are not currently within our circle of moral concern, and imagine what would change if we expanded the circle.
Those not yet born
Economists and policymakers have a concept called the discount rate, which is a numerical quantity that relates how much we care about people alive today vs people who will be alive in the future. I think that discount rate is too low. There is also an argument about the mathematical form for this, rather than just the parameters, but I’m mostly making a qualitative argument for now.
My philosophy is expressed pithily by the maxim “Be a good ancestor”. When those future people arrive, they will be as sentient as us, as deserving of the chance to live and flourish.
This affects two kinds of policies. First, slow degradation, eg ecological destruction and poor record-keeping. Second, the amount we devote to existential risks (events that would end the human species).
Our nursing homes and end-of-life care are a travesty, basically a system for locking people away and giving them a bare minimum of creature comforts. If we saw the elderly as truly human we would never do this. Good introductions to this topic include Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal and Scott Alexander’s post Who by very slow decay.
We lock kids up for most of the day, make teenagers wake up far too early, don’t give them freedom. There is not a binary cutoff at 15, or 18, where suddenly you deserve freedom. We have removed any possibility of a sense of purpose for children, which they desire strongly. And the single-family suburban life deprives them of the rich network of relationships that they deserve and crave.
The mentally ill and developmentally disabled
Like children, like old people, locked away, told that the ways in which they are different from default is wrong and bad. That they must be medicated into dull neutrality. That in some cases they are forbidden from romantic or sexual relationships.
Well-trod ground, I don’t have much to add here. A good starting place is the EA primer. This is becoming mainstream, which is great.
Our “justice” system – who enters it and what happens when they enter – is appalling. This is easier to see because of the wide cross-country variation.
As mentioned on my twitter here, our concepts of adult friends and relationships are so limiting. Our society expects you to have a meaningful, life-changing relationship involving sacrifice with one person at a time, only if you’re sexually attracted to each other, and that the goal is for one of these to last forever.
I’m involved with the Effective Altruism movement/subculture, and many of these ideas come from that milieu or others I’m steeped in. So in a sense, this isn’t countercultural for me. But I believe all of these go against the dominant American culture.
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