Looking back, it’s not difficult to spot something that looks like moral progress: abolition of slavery, increasing gender equality, democracy, and so on. (Though as the linked article points out, it’s not obvious that we’re not just changing at random, and what looks like progress is just motion toward our current position.) One thing we might ask ourselves is, “What will future societies think we were doing wrong?” Assuming the changes to commonly accepted morality that take place between now and then constitute “real” progress, these are things that really are wrong, and we’re just doing them because we don’t yet know better.
Here are three guesses about things we’re currently doing wrong:
My first guess is that killing and/or imprisoning animals in order to obtain meat, eggs, fur, etc. will be considered unethical. After all, in the future these things can probably be grown in a vat, and it’ll be hard not to just conclude it’s animal cruelty when you’re making animals suffer when there’s a substitute that doesn’t involve any suffering. But we don’t have to wait—that argument can be used today, albeit with substitutes that aren’t indistinguishable from the original. Future generations will look back and ask why we weren’t all vegetarians, just as we look back at our ancestors and wonder why they didn’t stop keeping slaves.
My second guess, maybe for the more distant future, is that leaving nature alone and not interfering will be as unethical as finding a dying person in the street and not doing anything about it. The reason we currently think that the right thing to do is to limit our influence on the environment as much as possible, is that historically, we’ve been shortsighted and stupid. For example, we’ve allowed people to pollute the atmosphere for free, leading to a tragedy of the commons. And so we’ve concluded that nature is best left untouched by humans, or as close to it as possible.
I’m proposing that this will cease to be a good idea once we’re capable enough. Judicious interventions could make ecosystems healthier than they’d be if unattended. “Natural” animal suffering could be reduced (or, with sufficiently large changes, eliminated). And there is a huge universe out there which is currently not filled with life, a vast but seemingly finite supply of negentropy being wasted when it could be put to good use (fueling civilizations of happy conscious beings, for example). The only reason not touching anything seems like good ethics at the moment is that like a first-semester medical student, we’re not yet skilled enough to do more good than harm except by accident. But someday we will be, and then it’ll become apparent that “don’t touch anything” was only a means to an end, not an end in itself.
My third guess is that in the future, ethics is going to become a real science. After all, if we as a civilization grow ever more capable of shaping the world around us, and if change can be preferable to leaving nature alone, then we’ll have a huge burden to actually do the right thing. Simply going by what feels right at the time has been decidedly suboptimal in the past, so I’m not hopeful it’s going to magically get better in the future. Today, doing what feels right is a virtue; in the future, it won’t be. (Well, hopefully our gut feeling is a sufficiently good approximation to the hypothetical “true” ethics that they won’t clash all the time, but sometimes they will, and then the gut feeling will have to yield. Compare the situation in present-day medicine, where we have odd and counterintuitive treatments involving cutting people open in order to make them healthier. You’d naively think that avoiding being sliced open would be good for your health all the time, but that turns out not to be the case.)