It’s hard to believe, but it’s been more than a month since the Communications Network Conference, and I’m still checking off the mental to-do list of deep thoughts with which I wanted to engage. This last one wasn’t even part of the conference, but something I found during my morning trawl through the blogs.
Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of philosophy at Princeton, interested in ethics as they are applied in our modern world. The question he poses in his latest book, and in a Washington Post op ed that I read during the conference, is a simple one: what will our grandchildren condemn us for?
This is a subject that I’ve given some thought to over the years, wondering how our understanding of what’s just and right changes over time, and what the terms of debate will be in a hundred years. I have a hunch that future generations will not take kindly to my fondness for hamburgers, for example.
I found Anthony’s anwers to this question compelling, as is his logic for determining which of our (many) failings our progeny are likely to look back on and shudder.
He lays out three criteria for making the decision: first, that the arguments on either side of a debate are familiar; second, that the defenders of a custom rely more on an appeal to tradition (“That’s the way it’s always been”) than moral arguments; and finally, that the supporters of a wrong engage in a willful blindness about the true costs of the practice.
Anthony identifies four aspects of our modern American society that he thinks fit the bill: our prison-industrial complex; our industrial meat system; our treatment of our elderly; and our degradation of the natural environment.
Each of these surely represent a major failing on our part, of course, and I might add to them two others: marriage inequality and our treatment of immigrants. The arguments against the former are based almost exclusively on an appeal to ancient prejudices; those against reform of our broken immigration system rely on a willful ignorance about the economics of our construction industry and agricultural system.
I’ve had the honor of working with groups that I believe are on the right side of history such as Just Detention International, which fights to end sexual abuse in prison, and Welcoming America, which attempts to forge bonds between U.S.-born populations and the immigrants who have joined their communities. Increasingly, climate change seems to me a defining issue of our times, particularly as its contours become clearer and its impact seem certain to fall hardest on countries least able to deal with it.
There’s a danger with this kind of thought experiment, of course, that we argue backwards towards a condemnation of those practices we find personally abhorrent. Several conservative commentators have taken Anthony to task for precisely that failing, while proposing their own, quite different, set of practices sure to horrify future generations.
Still, it’s still an important exercise in my book, particularly for those of us whose work touches so directly on issues of social change.
Where should we be spending our time?