The Illusion of Moral Progress

You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.

The quote is painted in black and white across a brick wall building in a large cityscape, and is regularly quoted on social media as a statement calling for progress and change.[1] The concept of continuous moral progress over time, born out of the Enlightenment era [2] and continuing into postmodernity, has become a paradigm by which we critique the past, gauge our ethical compass, and form policy. The absence of moral objectivity and the assumption of ever-increasing moral growth are present in many areas of society, from social justice causes to pop culture, leaving us with no sound means by which to make genuine moral judgments beyond the subjective mantra of social progress.

Faith in the objectivity of ethics slowly eroded in the modern era and gave way to postmodernism. The road was paved by the Enlightenment, beginning in the 17th century with ideas like the Hobbesian “social contract” in which human beings decide their own “codes of law,” namely what is morally and socially acceptable for human living. Professor of philosophy Emrys Westacott notes that

an implication of this view is that moral tenets are not right or wrong according to whether they correspond to some transcendent blueprint; rather, they should be appraised pragmatically according to how well they serve their purpose.[3]

In the absence of a universal standard of law, the only way we can judge an ethical system is by our own ethical system, which is nonsensical.[4] If we believe that our ethical system gets better over time, then we concede that our current system is not ethically optimal. If we deny a universal rule of ethics, as moral relativism does [3], we are only able to judge the ethical system by our own ethical system, which we necessarily admit is imperfect if we expect it to progress in the future. Therefore, we cannot soundly judge whether a society is ethically progressing or not without a universal blueprint that is transcendent above human desire and judgment alone. 

Despite these epistemological inconsistencies, the assumption of moral progress is the invisible measuring stick by which postmodernists judge ethical systems that are different to their own. While the claim of zero universal truths is an ingrained mantra of postmodernism, there is an evident opposition to the truths of others in academic discourse and social justice movements, especially towards societies that are not Western or affected by westernization. The lack of a consistent standard by which to judge ethical codes that is above human rationale gives room to keep a hegemonic moral framework in power (so long as its society is equipped to do so) and that is often the Western framework (See: all attempts at “saving” women from their “oppressive” religious obligations). 

In postmodern times, universalizable codes of ethics are condemned because of their lack of respect and appreciation for multiculturalism. For example, people supporting the ban on face veils in France for Muslim women are criticized as being culturally intolerant and disrespectful of the moral codes of others, and this critique is extended to lament the supposed universal ethics upon which the face veil ban is principled. But of course, if a code of ethics is wholly determined by human ideals and is claimed to be “universal,” those universal ethics will always be intolerant to some society, culture, or practice. While the progressive movement rightly criticizes the unrelenting and unchecked spread of the West’s wrongful claim of universal ethics, the real criticism must be directed towards the notion of moral relativism.

Measures of Progress?

One way by which moral progress is acknowledged, particularly in the postmodernist progressive sphere, is the “expansion of the moral circle”: the new acceptance of behaviors and ideas. The actual moral acceptability of what is called for regarding every individual behavior or ideas is a separate discussion, but there remain many unanswered questions: what motivates the expansion of the moral circle? What desire or observation comes to be that renders change in our moral codes of conduct? G.C. Fields argues in his essay Is Moral Progress a Reality? that there will always necessarily be a gap in moral standards and actual human conduct, and rather than progress through living up to the moral standards more closely, society may lower their moral standards in order to better accommodate human conduct. This over time may weaken society’s capacity to uphold moral standards [5], leading into a “desire it, legalize it” cycle in which behaviors or beliefs once morally reprehensible are slowly deemed acceptable.

One defender of the Enlightenment vision of morality and progress notes [6]: 

“Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger…All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.”

One can agree with these ideas as progress if they firstly choose to ignore the costs at which these advancements are made, some of which perpetuate poverty in one society in order to create abundance in another (such as the fast fashion industry and its tolls on countries like Bangladesh and China). Secondly, they agree that we can measure moral progress through empirical methods such as “counting,” something not compatible with the methodology of Western philosophy, which has no place for empiricism in ethics. [7] 

Same Concepts, Different Packaging

There are often obvious illusions of moral progress, particularly in the realm of human rights. These illusions perpetuate the notion of the passive disappearance of evil and can deplete the sense of urgency regarding certain human rights violations. 

A notable example of this phenomenon is the abolition of slavery in the United States and “modern day slavery.” One might look back at American history in disgust at the slave trade and how African Americans who were forced into slavery were treated. While the 13th Amendment created a supposed policy change and slavery was abolished, unfair and oppressive treatment continued throughout American history, from the unfair segregation of black Americans during the Jim Crow era to the mass incarceration we see today; One in three African-American men will spend time in prison during his lifetime. Men of color toil and perform free work in the 21st century due to prison labor. Felony disenfranchisement (the revocation of the right to vote) in the United States disproportionately affects African Americans: over 7.4 percent of the black adult population is disenfranchised as of The Sentencing Project’s 2016 report.[8] Slavery was abolished in 1865 and segregation has been been overturned for over 50 years now, but the spirit of racism remains upheld through the American criminal justice system. 

“I can’t believe it’s year 20__ and ____ still exists!” This is a commonly heard sentiment echoed across social media and in conversations surrounding the struggles of racism and oppression of various underrepresented groups. Although an innocent comment, it is representative of the expectation of passive moral progress that is supposed to materially manifest as time passes. 

Anti-Traditionalism in Pop Culture

The belief that future generations are consistently smarter and more ethical than the previous generation has trickled down into pop culture and has become a regular part of the story arc of many American sitcoms and movies. That “moral progress” is usually represented through anti-traditionalism and a young protagonist(s), while the older generation characters of the show are backwards, stubborn, and overly imposing. Every typical “modern family” sitcom is likely to feature at least one parent who is unintelligent, in conflict with the children, or simply absent from the family. Parents put too much pressure on their children academically or socially, and in immigrant families, are made to seem obsolete as they impose “backwards” cultural traditions upon their children, who are trying to express to their parents that they are different and only trying to navigate “finding themselves” as someone with a hyphenated racial identity. This trend is notable in Disney sitcoms, and even their classic animated films. Multiple examples are cited in Sonia Poulton’s Daily Mail article on the portrayal of parents in Disney films.[9]

The Breakfast Club, a classic 1985 film directed by the famous John Hughes, depicts a textbook illustration of this parent-child dynamic.[10] Five high school students uncover their problems during detention. They all flock different spheres of the high school scene, but their common struggle are the problems caused by their parents, as they are either abused by them, intensely pressured by them to do well in school and sports, or completely ignored by them. The five students agree that the older generation does not know any better and is only interested in serving themselves. 

While intergenerational conflict is typical, that conflict is rarely nuanced in popular film, which usually displays the younger generation as the protagonist and the representation of progress, while the older generation is given an image of stubborn backwardness. This fosters in kids and teens who consume popular entertainment a sense of anti-traditionalism and a perception of the current generation as “the best.” Moreover, it becomes the framework by which they justify the new moral standards of their generation versus those before them.

Every generation tasks itself with the improvement of the society it has inherited—that endeavor is an admission that the current ethical code of conduct is flawed. The past is “deemed backwards, moral heritage means nothing, and we are the future.” Human beings are fickle creatures whose decisions are often a battle between desire and personal ethics; dependence on human rationale for moral code of conduct will always lead to continuous shifts in morality. It is crucial to be aware of our assumption of passive moral progress as we reflect on problems we see in our societies. The Prophet ﷺ  forbade us from cursing time— the outlet many take when lamenting on our unfortunate condition despite the years that have passed us.[11] Change occurs within ourselves first and foremost, by the guidance of transcendent moral guidelines, uninfluenced by the human condition. Allah ﷻ’s eternal words in the Qur’an declare: 

Had the truth followed their desires, the heavens, the earth, and all those in them would have certainly been corrupted. In fact, We have brought them the means to their glory, but they turn away from it. (The Clear Quran, 23:71) [12]

Works Cited:

  1. “A Quote by Eliezer Yudkowsky.” Goodreads, Goodreads, 
  2. Mouzakitis, Angelos. “Modernity and the Idea of Progress.” Frontiers (n.d.)
  3. Westacott, Emrys. “Moral Relativism.” Alfred University, U.S.A,
  4. “The Illusion of Ethical Progress.” LessWrong 2.0, June 28, 2020,
  5. Field, G. C. “Is Moral Progress a Reality.” Philosophy, vol. 6, no. 23, 1931, pp. 307–322. JSTOR, Accessed 7 July 2020.
  6. Pinker, Steven. “How the Enlightenment Gave Us Peace, Prosperity, and Progress.” Cato Institute, March/April 2018, Accessed 7 July 2020.
  7. “The Illusion of Ethical Progress – LessWrong 2.0.” Accessed 7 July 2020. 
  8. Uggen, Christopher et al. “6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement.” The Sentencing Project, October 6, 2016, Accessed 7 July 2020.
  9. Poulton, Sonia. “Why Does Disney Hate Parents? Ever Noticed Your Favourite Films Always Kill off Mum and Dad.” Daily Mail, September 2, 2010.
  10. The Breakfast Club. Directed by John Hughes, performances by Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, A&M Films, 1985. 
  11. Sahih Muslim 2246, Book 40, Hadith 5
  12. The Clear Quran: A Thematic English Translation of the Message of the Final Revelation. Translated by Mustafa Khattab, Book of Signs Foundation, 2016. 

About the Author: Sara Alattar is a medical student from Chicago and a graduate in Global Health. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, human rights advocacy, literature, and visual art. She is the Director of Operations at Thinkbites, an online publication nurturing spiritual, personal, and community development in the Muslim community. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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