Is There Moral Progress?

MELBOURNE – After a century that saw two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin’s Gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, and more recent atrocities in Rwanda and now Darfur, the belief that we are progressing morally has become difficult to defend. Yet there is more to the question than extreme cases of moral breakdown.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to the crimes committed during World War II, the Declaration sought to establish the principle that everyone is entitled to the same basic rights, irrespective of race, color, sex, language, religion, or other status. So, perhaps we can judge moral progress by asking how well we have done in combating racism and sexism.

Assessing the extent to which racism and sexism have actually been reduced is a daunting task. Nevertheless, recent polls by WorldPublicOpinion.org shed some indirect light on this question.

The polls, involving nearly 15,000 respondents, were conducted in 16 countries, representing 58% of the world’s population: Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, France, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, the Palestinian Territories, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States. In 11 of these countries, most people believe that, over their lifetimes, people of different races and ethnicities have come to be treated more equally.