Brief Natural History of Moral Progress

The history of human coexistence is the history of the freedom of the individuals and the individualities in which they are grouped. Freedom is an idea regarding the I-other pair, a concept capable of producing joy and capable of producing sadness. By combining these four concepts opposed two to two (I and the other, joy and sadness) we obtain, one by one, the ten human passions that move civilisation, its lights and its shadows. We combine them and name them:

Compassion: it is our own sadness for another’s sadness.
Envy: it is our own sadness for another’s joy.
Morbidness: it is our own joy for another’s sadness.
Empathic Joy: it is our own joy for another’s joy.
Self-Esteem: it is our own joy for our own joy.
Self-Pity: it is our own sadness for our own sadness.

Besides these six, there are another two combinations that are at the same time rare, intimate and contradictory. It is the nostalgic trace of certain sorrows (our own joy for our own sadness) and the melancholic trace of certain joys (our own sadness for our own joy). However, it is the first six which more intensely define the evolution of human coexistence, three positively and three negatively. Indeed, three act as the engine of progress and the other three as resistance: compassion is the engine of moral progress, morbidness its resistance; empathic joy is the engine of social progress, envy its resistance; self-esteem is the engine of creative progress, self-pity its resistance.

At first glance we would say that, in the natural world, our own benefit is a priority and that such a demand is either very or not very detrimental to others. With the exit from paradise someone forgot to summarise the rest of the story with one sentence: «and now start eating each other». There are many who dig in nature in search for arguments that explain cultural evil. Any human behaviour has its genetic and its acquired parts, but from that we cannot deduce that what is natural is a universal alibi for any attitude of the human being. For example: the ancestral existence of carnivore predators in the African savannah is not a moral license for the sport hunters in the current reserves. For example: the aggressiveness of the male mammal to defend a territory is not a precedent that makes sexist abuse or exacerbated nationalism understandable. A contradiction is not eliminated just by pointing out an even bigger contradiction.  For example: a whale shark condemned for life to swim in circles in an aquarium is not made any less deplorable by the fact of reminding us of the overcrowded life of farm animals.

But the existence of moral progress is an argument for (or against) the validity of our traditions. Does moral progress exist? Here follows a brief history of moral progress based on the advance of the domain of validity of compassion:

There was a time when only self-pity existed. But compassion did not take long to reach the other members of the family, our own, of course. Shortly after, compassion reaches the individuals of all the clan, our own, of course. Some time later, compassion is applied too to the entire neighbourhood, our own, of course. Then, compassion keeps advancing until it affects the individuals of an entire nation, our own, of course, or an entire religion, our own, of course, or an entire ethnic group… And that is how we reached to the point of admitting that every human being is worthy of compassion.

Yes, moral progress exists and its reality is so clear that when we look back we see ourselves as a psychopathic, barbaric or archaic society.

And now we conclude by induction. If, as it seems, moral progress exists, then sooner or later compassion will reach the life of any animal no matter how many contradictions we have to overcome. We cannot live without contradictions, but we can live with the minimum possible number of contradictions.

112-74Jorge Wagensberg
© Mètode 2012 - 74. Online only. The Enchanted Cove - Summer 2012

Professor at the Department of Fundamental Physics. University of Barcelona (Spain).