The Progress of Liberalism: Michael Huemer at TEDxMileHigh


Translator: Arie Migoya
Reviewer: Denise RQ I’m a philosopher and as a philosopher,
I sometimes hear people complain that there hasn’t been
any progress in philosophy, that philosophers are still debating
the same questions they were debating 2,000 years ago. Well, this is completely false, actually there’s been enormous progress and in particular, there’s been
progress in moral philosophy, so I want to talk about that. I’m going to talk about how human values
have progressed over time, and what does this can tell us
about the nature and source of values. Most of this progress
has been in a direction we could call a liberalization of values. I don’t mean this in the sense
of contemporary American politics, I mean, liberal
and a broader philosophical sense which is characterized by these 3 things. First, we see increasing respect for the dignity and the rights
of the individual over time. Second, we see an increasing recognition
of the moral equality of persons as opposed to the earlier idea that there were some people or groups
who are inherently superior to others and therefore, entitled to rule over them. And the third thing is we see
an increasing aversion to violence, and an aversion to resorting
to physical force to solve human problems. I’m just going to talk about
some examples of this moral progress. Several examples: first start with the issue of slavery. Slavery was very widely practiced
throughout human history – throughout history
and across the world – not only that but it was
actually explicitly endorsed by some of the moral
thinkers of the past. This is a quotation from Aristotle: “But the art of acquiring slaves,
I mean of justly acquiring them, differs both from the art of the master
and the art of the slave, being a species of hunting or war.” Try to imagine somebody today saying that we need to go to war
to capture some slaves. Second, this is from the Bible: “If a man beats his male
or female slave with a rod, and the slave dies as a direct result,
he must be punished, but he is not to be punished
if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.” You’ll appreciate that these are not
minor or obscure sources, this is Aristotle who is
one of the leading figures, possibly the leading figure
in the history of Western philosophy, and the Bible, which is considered by many to be the leading source
of moral wisdom for human beings. Fortunately, attitudes have changed
dramatically over the past 200 years. This is the timeline for when slavery was abolished
in each of 49 different countries. Slavery is now illegal
everywhere in the world. The last country to abolish it
was Mauritania in 1981. War was also a worse and more commonly
practice in the past than it’s today, and it was also endorsed by some
of the moral thinkers of the past, This is a quotation from the famous
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Ye say it is the good cause
which halloweth even war? I say unto you: it is the good war
which halloweth every cause.” And elsewhere he says: “One has renounced the great life
when one renounces war.” And then this is from
the famous French author Emile Zola: “Would not the end of war
be the end of humanity? War is life itself. Nothing exists in nature, is born,
grows, or multiplies except by combat.” In the past, more people
as a percentage of the population died as a result of war; this graph is based upon anthropological
studies of 7 different primitive tribes, this is the estimated percentage of people
who end their lives as a result of war. You can see that it ranges
from around 10% to around 30%. The tiny bar at the bottom
that you can barely see is Europe and the United States
in the 20th century, that’s including both World Wars. This other graph, this is the same idea except this is based
on prehistoric primitive societies. This is from archaeological sites where the archaeologist
dug out human remains and they looked for signs of death
at the hands of other human beings, such as weapon marks on the bones. So this is an estimate of how many people, what percentage of people
in these societies, died at the hands of other human beings. And again, the tiny bar at the bottom
that you can barely see, that’s Europe and the United States
in the 20th century. Torture and execution were
also much more popular in the past, so these are medieval torture devices. This one is a chair
that you could be asked to sit in; actual torture device. This one is known as the Judas cradle, the victim was forced to sit
on the point of that pyramid. This is how they used to execute
people in the Ancient Rome as you all know about that, and this is how the witches
were executed during the Middle Ages. And by the way, these are only two of the many
horrific ways of killing people that human beings
have developed over the centuries, and those were just a couple
of the many horrible torture devices. Those aren’t even the most horrific
pictures that I could have shown. During the French Revolution they came up
with this new humane method of execution; it was the guillotine,
and after the execution, the executioner would hold up
the head for the crowd to look at, because this was a former
public entertainment became this great spectacle and people
would be entertained by looking at that. OK, this is when judicial
torture was abolished in each of 19 different countries; it’s now been abolished throughout Europe
and much of the world. Mostly between 1600 and the year 2000,
torture has become much less popular. Execution has also become
much less popular. This is the US execution rate
from the year 1700 until 2000. This is the number of executions
per 100,000 population per year, so, your probability of being executed
in the US has gone down dramatically. Throughout history, the overwhelming majority
of societies have been dictatorships, the overwhelming majority
of governments had been dictatorial, only in about the last 200 years
that has changed dramatically. So, this is a graph showing the number
of democratic countries in the world by modern standards. By modern standards in the year 1800
there were no genuine democracies, and it goes to after 2000 when there are almost 100
which is about half the world. By the way, the spike
that you see, after about 1990, that is following the collapse
of the Soviet Union. OK, what else? Racism and sexism have been
much more popular in the past and much more blatant. In 1960, black people were expected
to ride on the back of the bus, they had to use
different drinking fountains, they couldn’t go to the same schools, all of that was changed
by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. At the beginning of the 20th century, half of the adult population
of the United States could not vote because they were deemed inferior. These are women suffragettes
protesting in 1917. They got the right to vote in 1920. This shows the number of countries
that have women suffrage in the world from 1840 to the present. As you can see, starting around 1920,
the idea just spread across the globe. Some of the sexism in the past
was remarkably blatant. This is a coffee ad from the 1950s. It says, “If your husband ever finds out you’re not ‘store-testing’
for fresher coffee, if he discovered you’re still taking
chances on getting flat, stale coffee woe be unto you.” So it’s just a little bit of domestic
violence humor there. (Laughter) OK, this one is even more amazing, This is a man’s clothing ad from 1970, and the text underneath says: “Though she was a tiger lady, our hero didn’t have to fire
a shot to floor her. After one look at his Mr. Leggs slacks, she was ready to have him
walk all over her. If you’d like your own
doll-to-doll carpeting, hunt up a pair of these
he-man Mr. Leggs Slacks.” Would that convince you
to buy this clothing? OK, now the question is:
why did this change happened? There are a great many theories
that you could have about this that we don’t have time to talk about and I’m only going to talk
about three theories that people have about
the nature and source of values and see what they can tell us
about this question. So, first, inspired
by evolutionary psychology, there are some who believe that,
essentially, morality is an adaptation, that our genes program us
to hold certain moral beliefs because somehow that helped
our ancestors to reproduce more. The problem with this theory is you can’t explain the phenomenon
that I’m talking about, because the liberal values that we have
are too recent of a phenomenon and the progress has occurred too quickly
to be explained by biological evolution. It’s not plausible
there was this racism gene that was selected out
of the gene pool in the 1960s. Another theory that people have
is cultural relativism. Some believe that all of our values
come from our culture, and that there’s no culture
independent standard for values. There are two problems with this:
the first problem is it doesn’t explain why cultures around the world should be
changing in a specific direction. The trend towards liberalism
is very widespread, it’s been going on
for a long time, for centuries, and it’s been going on in many countries. Slavery for example was abolished
throughout the world, and we have to explain
this kind of convergence. The other thing is it doesn’t explain why
we should regard the change as progress. If there is no culture independent
standard of morality, then we should just view it as changing
from one arbitrary set of practices to another equally arbitrary
set of practices, and we don’t regard it that way. So lastly, there’s moral realism, the view that there are actual real facts about what’s right and wrong,
just or unjust. There’s quite a lot to say about this
that I don’t have time to say, but I’m just going to suggest: suppose that these liberal values
that I’m talking about are the objectively correct values, and suppose that human beings have at least some sort of limited ability
to grasp the truth. Then we have an explanation for why this
trend has occurred over the centuries because in every area of human
intellectual endeavor we see this kind of progress, we see a move from simplistic
and inadequate ideas to ever more sophisticated ideas,
ideas that are closer to the truth. And that’s in all of the sciences,
it’s in mathematics, it’s in philosophy, and we would expect
the same to be true in ethics. And so the suggestion
is that, for example, the reason why slavery
was abolished was it was unjust, it wasn’t that it wasn’t profitable, and it wasn’t that it was against the interest of some
powerful group of people; the only thing going against it
was that it was unjust. OK, but that proved to be enough. I’m afraid that we’re
just about out of time, I’m just going to suggest
some further reading. So you can look at John Mueller’s book,
“The Remnants of War”, which makes the case
that the reason for the declining war has been a change in our values
and attitudes about war. There’s Steven Pinker’s book,
“The Better Angels of Our Nature”, from which I got a lot
of the information for this talk, and he just talks about how violence
has declined dramatically over the centuries and millennia. Finally, there’s my own book,
“Ethical Intuitionism”, which talks more about this idea
that there are some objective moral facts which we have at least
some kind of ability to grasp. I’m afraid that that’s all
I have time for today, so… Thank you. (Applause)

25 thoughts on “The Progress of Liberalism: Michael Huemer at TEDxMileHigh

  • As far as humans go, yes we are overall more compassionate towards other human beings around the world compared to history. But the more interesting question to me is what can philosophy tell us about humankind's increasing lack of connection with the natural world? We don't kill other 'tribes' as much as we used to, but we have also lost a connection to the place we live and the non-human life forms around us. Would this also be considered progress?

  • Sure there is less violence in Europe and the US, but could it be argued that we have just outsourced our violence to the third world?

  • You say the changes are based on a change in values, but it could easily be argued that we stopped total war because it's not useful anymore. We don't fight a war with China, for example, because our economies are too tied up. It's not feasible to fight wars of conquest and weapons are too powerful. But small-scale warfare remains around the globe.

  • Irrelevant philosophers' quotes (philosophers like to provoke but are hardly representative of the population's sentiments), sensationalist pictures (e.g. the "doormat") and in general unoriginal content (more or less a rehash of Steven Pinker's thesis)…

  • How is it Pinker' s thesis since in his book he even acknowledges that other people had the same ideas before him?

  • I know that Pinker's admitted to making extensive use of the research of others (he's a linguist after all, not a social scientist), however I'm not sure anyone presented all these points in the same package so to speak. This presentation reminds me a lot of how Pinker presented his case, but maybe I'm being unfair and Huermer has done some work of his own independent of Pinker's on the same subject? Either way, my comment was mainly provoked by the appalling quotations and examples used…

  • 7:40 "This is a coffee ad from the 1950s. It says, 'If your husband ever finds out you're not "store testing" for fresher coffee… if he discovers you're still taking chances on getting flat, stale coffee… woe be unto you. So it's just a little domestic violence humor there."

  • Modern liberalism stands for none of the stated goals. It's all about control and dependence on the state. Same ol dishonesty from progressive academia.

  • Evolutionary Psychology does not say that selections of genes for morality caused a general liberalization and decrease of violence. Straw man.

  • Slavery, as an example, declined because it is immoral, but only WHEN it became less useful and less profitable than the worker/consumer society. Both morality and utility are factors.

  • Abortions now claim over 1 million lives per year in the US alone. It is interesting that slavery is unjust, and executions unjust, torture unjust, but boy are the liberal "progressives" fighting for the right to kill those unborn human beings!

    So…yeah, in some ways we have moved forward. In others, we've reached even greater horrors. Sounds like people haven't learned anything by thinking WE define what is moral and what is not.
    Same old same old.

  • In human nature there exists traits that explain this progress,which I think should be debated. 1= Humans tend to be 'insatiable', whether for good or bad we have a hard time with saying "good enough". 2= We are generally 'voyeuristic', we notice how other people live and compare it to are self's. And in the last 1-200 years information is spreading rapidly giving people in less modern countries a glimpse of how the more advanced cultures live.3=Humans tend to be 'competitive' this is worthy for advancement of a culture only when it leads to good, like justice and equality regardless of your religion,race,sex or the class you were born into. I'm not sure if freedom is innate, but it sure is important, the freedom to express your thoughts with out persecution is the salient feature to the whole thing.

  • Is the world becoming a better or worse place to live? imma sun worshiper … leave it to the sun to decide … di zun – der eyntsiker balebos..

  • I need this argument expanded in a book so that I can read it every time I start getting extremely skeptical about the utility of what I am studying.

  • There have been five or six instances in the last 50 years where nuclear exchange was a near miss. One of those would undermine Huemer's (and Pinker's) entire argument about the decrease in violence and increase in moral progress. We are teetering on the brink of unfathomable destruction.

  • One day ill give a ted takk about <̷(̷( 𝐆ʟᴏʙᴀʟ 𝐋ɪʙᴛᴀʀᴅɪsᴍ )̷)̷>
    an it woud be glorious..

  • Industrialisation did make slavery inprofitable. Industrial revolution was followed by the the almost immediate abolishing of slavery.

  • I think biological evolution and (especially) technological progress go hand in hand. On triggers the other, which in turn affects the first again. There is an intricate interplay between biological, technological and ideological factors, and yes, they likely affect eachother.
    I think the book "10,000 year explosion" lays out an interesting model here. Also Huember's speech is very interesting and raises many interesting question. Especially it raises questions against biologism that make the discussion more interesting.

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