Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Moral regression

This Tyler Cowen post is interesting in regards to Cote d'Ivoire, morality and philosophy: 
Syria is undergoing moral regression (one NYT update here), just as Lebanon did in the 1970s or the former Yugoslavia did in the 1990s or for that matter Germany in the 1930s. The behavior of the government is far more evil and oppressive than before, while the moral quality of the opposition is worse than what we might have expected several decades ago.

That said, most of the world is not regressing morally and arguably can be seen as advancing morally, at least on the fronts of general tolerance, democracy, and the moral virtues which are encouraged by prosperity and market exchange.  
Syria is only a small percentage of the broader world and there are only a few other places which count as (possibly) morally regressing. In total they will not sum to a billion people. Just for purposes of argument, if you toss in DRC and parts of Pakistan and Egypt, along with a few other areas, let us say it runs at five percent of the world’s population which is morally regressing (though DRC has made some very recent progress and is arguably the new undervalued nation).
Does this argument imply that countries that are not morally regressing are in fact progressing, or is it possible to remain morally static?  Is it even worthwhile to think of whole societies as morally regressing or progressing?  

To the latter, yes, I think so.  As for whether most societies are morally progressing or morally static, I think the answer is that most societies are morally progressing at a very slow rate, but that crises puncture these gains and cause a rapid crash in moral capital, which can then take generations to rebuild.  

In Bill James' Popular Crime, he explains how American violence levels were abnormally high for a generation after the Civil War, which makes a lot of sense, since there were undoubtedly a lot of people with PTSD (although we didn't have a word for it at the time) going around and trying to function normally in a society without any concept rebuilding mental health.  So we had decades of peace and moral growth, followed by the Civil War, in which moral capital crashed, followed by several more decades of peace in which moral capital eventually surpassed its previous level and continued upwards.  

One worries about a similar fate for the Cote d'Ivoire, where decades of peace and increasing prosperity were undermined by an irresponsible political class at the turn of the century, which encouraged xenophobia and led to violence and moral regression.  Rwanda provides a hopeful counterpoint to this narrative.  

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