Over on Aeon Ideas, Nigel Warburton posted a link to an interesting article from Salon entitled "You would’ve hated your heroes: Why history’s great people seem so morally deficient". Drawing on a combination of Steven Pinker’s and Peter Singer’s work, the article proposes that we are getting morally better. It is an interesting proposal, but I have a few reservations with the notion that we are becoming more moral per se.
First, when famous people act in im/moral ways, their behaviours are highly visible. Since they are well known, their im/moral acts are of public interest, and frequently they are presented as im/moral exemplars. Accordingly, aspects of their im/morality may be hyperbolised to make the case. I have my doubts regarding the proposal that we draw direct correlations between those high-profile, possibly exaggerated incidents and the attitudes held by the populace more broadly.
Second, political correctness is the cultural norm (certainly in the UK), so it might be the case that our current generation of famous "heroes" – and the populace in general – harbour morally offensive attitudes, but simply know better than to express those attitudes publicly. That is, there is a difference between being moral and being seen to be moral.
Third, it might be the case that our cultural “heroes” are those who are (or are seen to) conform to the norm of politically correctness; i.e. we might reward individuals who are moral exemplars (with our attention), and punish those who fail to conform to the norm. Yet, that might not mean that the populace generally are morally good themselves. I suppose it could be argued that if the public acknowledge that the values represented by “heroes” are good, then members of the public hold those values themselves (or something to that effect). Yet, it could be the case that: i) a member of the public recognises that being morally good is praiseworthy; ii) he/she feels more morally good her/himself because he/she holds those values; but iii) he/she fails to perceive that her/his own behaviour is immoral because he/she thinks of her/himself as a “good person”, or iv) the individual does not feel pressure to be good at a personal level because the hero does the “being good” on his/her behalf, and so forth
Fourth, is it always so easy to spot when we are behaving immorally? I like to tell myself that I am not a moral “jerk”, but it is not clear to me that I can make an objective judgement about my “jerkdom”. Let us say that in the year 2050, I will look back on the attitudes I held, the expressions I used and so forth in the 2010s. Surely it is likely that in 2050 I will find at least some of the attitudes I held in 2015 to be questionable, if not morally suspect. The cultural climate may shift in ways that expose to me problems with some aspects of my current thinking. That kind of shift seems inevitable to me. To mock past heroes for their moral failings while proclaiming that we are getting morally “better” strikes me as being arrogant at best, if not outright deluded about the impact ideology has on our ability to self-evaluate
One of the problems here is with the comparison between moral betterment and Pinker’s work on the decline of violence. Moral attitudes are not as easy to measure as violence insofar as Pinker can at least point to crime statistics, the number of deaths resulting from war and so forth to substantiate the argument that violence has declined. Moral attitudes cannot be recorded in the same ways. The article’s comparison highlights one of the flaws in Pinker’s argument; Pinker necessarily relies on recorded statistics, which themselves may be inaccurate estimations, doctored in the name of contemporaneous political spin, and so forth. Such evidence cannot capture private and unreported acts of violence. That is, the argument relies on visibility. Like morality then, perhaps it is the case that presently we are better at hiding (or worse at recognising) that which we find disquieting: we might be living in an era where we are so focused on visible violence and visible moral failings that we fail to spot systemic, invisible, private acts of violence or moral failures. This scenario might arise out of our current uses of technology, which have led to a state in which we expect that data about our indiscretions to be recorded, and in which we routinely expose ourselves to scrutiny.