Are Humans Getting Better?

MELBOURNE – With daily headlines focusing on war, terrorism, and the abuses of repressive governments, and religious leaders frequently bemoaning declining standards of public and private behavior, it is easy to get the impression that we are witnessing a moral collapse. But I think that we have grounds to be optimistic about the future.

Thirty years ago, I wrote a book called The Expanding Circle, in which I asserted that, historically, the circle of beings to whom we extend moral consideration has widened, first from the tribe to the nation, then to the race or ethnic group, then to all human beings, and, finally, to non-human animals. That, surely, is moral progress.

We might think that evolution leads to the selection of individuals who think only of their own interests, and those of their kin, because genes for such traits would be more likely to spread. But, as I argued then, the development of reason could take us in a different direction.

On the one hand, having a capacity to reason confers an obvious evolutionary advantage, because it makes it possible to solve problems and to plan to avoid dangers, thereby increasing the prospects of survival. Yet, on the other hand, reason is more than a neutral problem-solving tool. It is more like an escalator: once we get on it, we are liable to be taken to places that we never expected to reach. In particular, reason enables us to see that others, previously outside the bounds of our moral view, are like us in relevant respects. Excluding them from the sphere of beings to whom we owe moral consideration can then seem arbitrary, or just plain wrong.