In yesterday’s Washington Post, a column by Kwame Anthony Appiah asked, “What will future generations condemn us for?” We tend to marvel at the shortsightedness of our ancestors with respect to, say, slavery; Appiah argues that actions we unthinkingly accept today will be viewed with similar incomprehension somewhere down the line.
He offers three criteria for determining whether a current practice may be “destined for future condemnation”:
First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.
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Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)
And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit.
Readers will be forgiven for immediately thinking that abortion should top the list, as it perfectly fits these criteria; sadly, they would be wrong. Appiah’s contenders are: the prison system, industrial meat production, the institutionalization of the elderly, and the environment.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I think these are all big problems. But THE big problems? I’m not sure I would have picked some of these out of a lineup for worst offenders. Meanwhile, an assault on the basic human right to life goes completely unnoticed.
Different causes matter more or less to different people, I suppose. Sean Penn thinks our children will ask “where were you” in the fight for gay marriage; on the opposite end of the spectrum, pro-lifers say the same thing about the fight against abortion. We seem to have a hard enough time agreeing on what matters now without dragging future generations into it. (Edited to add: Not to mention the inherently flawed assumption that history will continue an inevitable upward march, and we will have a corresponding increase in clarity of moral vision to appreciate it.)
But let’s play anyway: What will the hypothetical populace of the future condemn from today?