Yesterday Kriston linked to an interesting post by Ilya Somin over at The Volokh Conspiracy that wondered what the next changes in our cultural morals will be. Nobody thinks that slavery is okay or that women are inferior to men; similarly, it now seems inevitable that homosexuality will eventually be accepted by society. But what will come after that?
Somin identifies animal rights, capital punishment and forced national service as the likeliest candidates. It’s a pretty good list, although I think his libertarian instincts may make him overestimate the likelihood of forced national service becoming a real cause celebre. Similarly, my own instincts make me want to believe that the moral and policy case against capital punishment will gain traction soon — but I also suspect that the death penalty’s usefulness for podium-thumping means that it’s here to stay for a while longer.
The question of animal rights is the most interesting of the three, I think, and one that I can easily imagine becoming a significant cultural issue. Among my peers, at least, I think there’s a general sense that animal suffering is bad and should be minimized, but also an understanding that it may be acceptable in some circumstances. Medical testing? Probably. Rhinocerous-horn aphrodisiacs? Probably not. What’s the exchange rate between animal suffering and human enjoyment, anyway, and is it weighted by the complexity of the animal’s nervous system? I’m not too worried about a bivalve’s subjective experience of pain — pig is more problematic (maybe we should breed or engineer stupider ones). What of bacon?! A little bit goes a long way, after all.
Anyway, it does make one wonder whether there’s an end point to society’s moral evolution or whether this will be an endless process. It’s clear that we haven’t yet arrived at what you or I or most people would define as a completely just society. But it also seems likely that someday we’ll slip into fuddy-duddy-dom and have our own sense of social justice eclipsed by earnest door-to-door canvassers campaigning for, I don’t know, the right to urinate in public. We’ll think that we and we alone were fit to judge the right stopping place for the march of progress. No doubt our great-grandparents thought the same thing.
Alternately, maybe we’ll someday reach an endpoint. We’ll all shuttle through pneumatic tubes in silver jumpsuits and androgenously shaved heads, confident that that there are good and immutable reasons for the few remaining limits on personal liberty that we impose on one another. I’ve got no idea which scenario will triumph. I’m pretty confident that I’ll be dead by the time it all shakes out.
What’ll actually be relevant (and at least somewhat related) are the new advances in rebelliousness implemented by the lousy teenagers that many of us will eventually spawn. There’s obviously an element of unpredictability here — you wouldn’t want to defy social norms in a way that can be anticipated by the squares, after all — but the range of innovatively outrageous teenage behaviors that are at all practical seem to be diminishing. I suppose that the biological realities of parenting make sexuality, tattoos and drug use sort of evergreen options for misunderstood teenagers. But those are also all pretty common in our popular culture. To really be at the forefront of rebellion the kids will have to come up with something new.
My money’s on voluntary limb amputation. I predict a sudden uptic in the incidence of BIID, a rash of shocked newscasts, and a lot of impassioned essays about the limits of the ADA. It’s going to be really irritating and, to me and my fellow liberal paternalists, more than a little tragic. Our only hope is for cyborg modification to become feasible first. As you can probably guess, I’m a bit more bullish on that issue.