Will humanity someday look back at today as a dark time of primitive ethics, or a shining light of progress that paved the way for later civilizations? We have no way to know in advance, but we can still discuss the question, and try to be exemplars of our age.
When one looks back at human history, the ethics of various civilizations leap out at us – some as darkly different from our own, some as the foundation we have built upon in modern times. I don’t know of anyone who wants to go back to allowing the barbaric tortures of medieval times, and the less said about those who wish to return to the racism of the civil war era, the better. And yet, the Ancient Greeks, despite their sexism and slavery practices, were the first on record to live in a democracy, some 2,600 years ago. So we can see that while history in general has moved towards what we in current times consider a just and fair system of ethics, there are some rare civilizations that were, in some ways at least, ahead of their time.
One hundred years from now, how will we look back at the 2010s? Will we say we were descending into depravity and excess, as later civilizations said of the Ancient Romans? Will they say we were “products of our time”, trying to do the right thing but not being progressive enough? Perhaps both, perhaps neither, but we can rest assured that the ethics of the future will not simply look the same as the ethics of today. Ethics have changed wildly throughout human history, and I’m not quite bold enough to say we’ve finally reached the end point of that struggle.
Let us take a look at about 100 years ago, the 1920’s, to get some idea of how drastically society might change. With the right to vote being given to women for the first time in many countries, the prohibition having just started in the United States, the first socialist state having just emerged in the Soviet Union, and the very recent ending of World War 1 (then known as the Great War), the 1920’s seemed to be a sharp change from what had come before.
And yet, women wearing pants were considered shocking, and the flapper style of dress then in vogue was edgy and new, with daringly bared arms and shins. In America the Ku Klux Klan spread across the nation and gained power and respectability. Homosexuality was still illegal in both the UK and the United States, and while the 1920’s was actually quite permissive and culturally adventurous, social backlash would soon get much worse in the 1930’s. Women weren’t allowed in public pregnant (it was a sign you’d had sex!), and despite being killed in childbirth more than by anything else, were considered failed, selfish, and incomplete if they didn’t have children.
I don’t know about you, but I consider those morals wildly outdated, even rather horrifying, and that was during the decade known to history for being wildly progressive – the 1930’s and the onset of the Great Depression would send people back to more conservative mindsets. What will our descendants think, looking back on us? I soundly hope they see in us as working towards a better life as much as the braver folks in the 1920’s were; I hope they see that some of us, at least, saw the same things that now seem obvious to their society.