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The first ethical revolution

My maternal grandfather was born in 1896. He died in 1996. He saw a great many changes in his life. If my children live 100 years what changes will they see? To the same extent? In the biological sciences, I suspect so. In particular, in the domain of stell cells and genetic engineering it strikes me that many revolutions will occur. My confidence when it comes to automation and AI is weaker, but the potential is great.

That being said, there probably won’t be flying cars or day-trips to the moon base.

Why? This may be a function of the nature of the low hanging fruit that we’ve picked in the area of physics with engineering application to technology. If you agree with the work of scholars such as Robert J Gordon there’s been a decrease in technological innovation which changes our lives over the past century so (see The Rise and Fall of American Growth). This isn’t for lack of trying. The institutional structures and organizational effort toward novel innovation are far more directed, conscious and planned than in the past (here’s a Planet Money podcast on how technological change is slower now, though not for lack of trying).

Arguably the only major technological revolution of this century is the smart-phone. And I don’t think that that’s something you can dismiss, the smart-phone has interposed itself today into our lives in some deep and fundamental ways.

But the point of this post is that perhaps human society periodically goes through phases of innovation. And then, there’s nothing.

Fifty years ago Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Seventy years ago Karl Jaspers introduced the concept of the Axial Age. Both point to the same dynamic historically.

Something happened in the centuries around 500 BCE all around the world. Great religions and philosophies arose. The Indian religious traditions, the Chinese philosophical-political ones, and the roots of what we can recognize as Judaism. In Greece, the precursors of many modern philosophical streams emerged formally, along with a variety of political systems.

The next few centuries saw some more innovation. Rabbinical Judaism transformed a ritualistic tribal religion into an ethical one, and Christianity universalized Jewish religious thought, as well as infusing it with Greek systematic concepts. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese thought continued to evolve, often due to interactions each other (it is hard to imagine certain later developments in Confucianism without the Buddhist stimulus). Finally, in the 7th century, Islam emerges as the last great world religion.

It has long puzzled me why all the great institutional faiths arose in about 1,000 years. And then not much since then (numerically Sikhs are marginal, while the fracturing of Christianity in the 16th still left the daughter sects recognizable and possibly reconcilable).

I think here perhaps an analogy to our technological conundrum applies. One reason we don’t have jetpacks and flying cars is that the limitations of physics make it difficult.  Some things may be physically possible, but the engineering costs are prohibitive. The several waves of life-transforming technological revolutions between 1750 and 1950 slowly started to ebb in the past generations. Why? It turns out that going from horse and human power, to fossil fuels, and nuclear power, were huge transitions in terms of gains in power. There may not be much to do at this point (fusion is perhaps the major exception).

Similarly, the reason that modern people can get a lot out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Confucius’ Analects, and the Bible, is that the ethical low-hanging fruit was picked. Recently there have been advances in domains such as the abolition of slavery, so it isn’t as if no progress has been made. But if you read about the Bronze Age world, you see one where human sacrifice is still routinely practiced, as opposed to being an aberration. The distance between 0 AD and 1000 BC is arguably greater ethically than between 0 AD and 2000 AD.

Living in large complex societies with social stratification posed challenges. A religion such as Christianity was not a coincidence, something of its broad outlines may have been inevitable. Universal, portable, ethical, and infused with transcendence and coherency. Similarly, god-kings seem to have universally transformed themselves into the human who binds heaven to earth in some fashion.

The second wave of social-ethical transformation occurred in the early modern period, starting in Europe. My own opinion is that economic growth triggered by innovation and gains in productivity unleashed constraints which had dampened further transformations in the domain of ethics. But the new developments ultimately were simply extensions and modifications on the earlier “source code” (e.g., whereas for nearly two thousand years Christianity had had to make peace with the existence of slavery, in the 19th century anti-slavery activists began marshaling Christian language against the institution).

We may be living in the 21st century, but we’re still living by Iron Age ethics. And that’s not surprising.

17 thoughts on “The first ethical revolution

  1. A quick thought. Feel free to disagree:

    Many smaller religions seem to be slightly more modern tending offshoots of the big world religions. I’m thinking of Bahai, Sikhs, Mormons etc. Of course, by the standards of today, many of the original teachings of these groups are hopelessly retrograde. But many of them look quite liberal compared to what they are shooting off from.

    Counterexample: Buddhism, a big world religion, is in some respects more congruent with modernity than other big world religions, at least in theory. In practice, it is often not all that different.

  2. “The distance between 0 AD and 1000 BC is arguably greater ethically than between 0 AD and 2000 AD”

    This would be a very interesting debate topic.

  3. I think the single most important political argument of our time, within the United States, is this: is stagnation inevitable and necessary? or is it a choice that we are making, but could (with will to reform) unmake?

    My own view is that our current flattening is entirely self-inflicted, but that the political and economic interests in favor of stagnation (previously described by Mancur Olson) will be very difficult to shake off peacefully — if we can shake them off at all. I recognize that there’s no convincing way to prove the correctness of my view; the only real and imperfect test of its truth or falsehood will be our actual future history.

    Some more thoughts here:

  4. Was Mormonism really more modern than the low-church Protestantism it emerged from? The re-introduction of polygamy seems like going back in time, but then polyamory seems to the hip new lifestyle among Bay Area types.

  5. Assuming the future century isn’t an endless descent into ever more deranged virtue-signalling SJW dystopia, my next best guess – and I am not a vegetarian, personally – is that animal abuse, including killing them for meat, will become the next great moral crusade – especially with respect to the more intelligent ones, like pigs. I expect this to happen due to advances in consciousness research, and in cultured meat.

    Of more exotic scenarios like Hansonian ems or superintelligence will likely completely overturn ethics as we know them.

  6. “Was Mormonism really more modern than the low-church Protestantism it emerged from? The re-introduction of polygamy seems like going back in time, but then polyamory seems to the hip new lifestyle among Bay Area types.”

    I think the answer is “yes”.

    Polygamy is something of a sideshow. So is the fake history.

    The reason Mormonism is the #1 religious faith of Utah and Idaho, and the #2 faith of the Western U.S. is its communitarianism and pro-natalism.

    Mormons manage to devote a lot of their wealth and time and focus to looking out for each other outside the confines of government.

    While Evangelicals are inclined to let their communities collapse and to let the free market take whomever it wishes, Mormons put a lot of effort into having, raising and supporting children. If you keep the faith but are out of a job, the faith looks after you. They recognize that it takes a village to raise a child.

    Their practice of sending young adults out on missions builds commitment to the faith in a way that alternatives that involve less sacrifice do not, and it insures that their faithful build up defenses to the outside world that will not collapse when presented with new ideas (a sort of ideological vaccination) that more sheltered cults didn’t.

    Low-church Protestantism was a lazy version of high-church Protestantism for people who didn’t want to spare the resources required to maintain the latter. Mormonism is an extravagantly expensive faith to practice (not just in time and money, but in terms of social stigma and a need to believe weird things), but delivers much more to its members.

  7. According to the Wold Values Survey results, the basic message is that societal ethics are largely a product of affluence and security. If you have an affluent society where everyone is secure, you get a secular, liberal state. If you have a state of deep privation and personal insecurity, you get a religious, conservative state.

    If that hypothesis is correct, the future of ethics is largely a function of the extent to which the prosperity and stability that modern technological and economic advances make possible are widely shared. If they are, the future of ethics will look like Star Trek. If not, they will look like Battlestar Galactica.

  8. “Rabbinical Judaism transformed a ritualistic tribal religion into an ethical one. . .”

    Or maybe the other way around? The ethical dimension of Genesis and the later prophets is unmistakable, though, granted, it is at war with a more tribalistic Mosaic tradition, as has been the case ever since (the particular v. universal). Meanwhile Rabbinic judaism took refuge in the Torah and the 613 ritualistic mitzvot building a wall around the Jews in their exile.

    It never made much sense to me that something fundamental happened in Judaism around 5th century BC unless you want to argue that Genesis had its origins then, which from a stylistic point of view seems highly unlikely (see my Torah and the West Bank for detailed argument: ) Instead maybe it was a re-emphasis of a theme much older than that, long preserved in tradition? (Monotheism v. henotheism seems to me a distinction with no essential difference.)

    If there was something fundamental that changed in human mentality it looks to me like it happened in and spread out from Greece post-Plato, where people began to think in a modern linear way instead of metaphorically and analogically. Think Thucydides and Aristotle. Meanwhile in India and China people continued in the old way you still find in the New Testament. Whether this was a purely cultural or a cultural and biological (gene-culture evolution at the elite level) I don’t know. Even now with Marxist-Leninism in China it doesn’t seem universal, though works well in India (as exampled by you). Chinese American have it, which argues for culture.

  9. “According to the Wold Values Survey results, the basic message is that societal ethics are largely a product of affluence and security. If you have an affluent society where everyone is secure, you get a secular, liberal state. If you have a state of deep privation and personal insecurity, you get a religious, conservative state.”

    Um, sort of, but not really. The World Values Survey also makes it very clear that “secular” and “liberal” aren’t the same thing (specifically, cultural values organize along two axes, not one: “Traditional” vs. “Rational” and “Survival” vs “Self Expression”). One axis has to do with how you think about God and the sacred versus desacralized nature, the other has to do with the role of the individual vs. the group. You can have a very secularized society that’s not at all liberal (Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, to some extent East Asia), and likewise you can have religious societies that are fairly individualistic (Latin America).

  10. @Hector_St_Clare, well, the axes produced from the WVS data is really a set of vectors in a PCA space, so it’s worth looking at them directly rather than the axis names each they have been given: (each datapoint represents a vector that correlates with that value).

    This reveals a few things: Authoritarian (“respect authority”, “obedience”) and “national pride” values maximise largely along the same vector as religion in this dataset, and not clearly in an opposite direction to the “Have free choice” vector, or “tolerance”. China and Russia at the far poles away from Latin countries (which are neatly along the vector which maximise “national pride”, “obedience”).

    For OhWilleke, also perhaps still a place for cultural values. You’re right that it’s established that growing wealth tends to move a population left to right along the x and down to up on the y. However, wide range of positions fora given wealth level on each axis… Also not sure if shift in position may be driven to a few variables which we’d expect to change modestly as wealth increases (relating to the importance of money for example, or leisure) while leaving more substantive variance in other values.

    I’d also say it’s ambiguous how much that really represents an increasingly secular state. As countries move from “Survival” to “Well Being” end of x axis, there is reducing emphasis on “Trust science”, “Technology”, “Money”, with rising emphasis on for “Postmaterialist Values”. Position transformation may not also wholly benefit happiness; “Life satistifaction” loads slightly negatively towards “Secular rational” end of y axis and “Not happy” loads negatively towards “Secular rational”… (More religious states, esp. Latin American tend to have a happiness bonus relative to expected from GDP – /

  11. Space travel is going to be one of those things where it really depends on how innovation in robotics and materials science plays out. There’s a lot of potential there for the robots to make human space travel and colonization vastly easier, but we just don’t know how it will shake out. I’m personally more confident that we’ll have space colonies* in 500 years versus 50 years.

    * Although they’ll be dwarfed by the folks living on Earth, and the inhabitants will be atypical communities seeking isolation (particularly religious sects and utopian efforts that can afford the costs) and colonies that grew up around research bases off-world.

  12. An old semi-reformed hippie-type in Santa Cruz once told me, “Well, our generation (teenagers in the 1950’s) had already just seen in our short lifetimes: the eradication of polio: miracle plastics: nuclear power: space flight: etc. So, we quite reasonably thought, yes, ‘better living through chemistry’ may well have brought us this miracle drug, LSD, that will sufficiently juice our brains en masse, to induce the ethical-visionary insight humanity so obviously needs, that hopefully will springboard us way beyond short-sighted ecological destruction, world wars, and all-too-possible nuclear annihilation.”

    Yep, too bad that that particular shot at an e-z Second Ethical Revolution didn’t work out as initially hoped!

  13. I know that is not the main point of this post, but the “innovation is slowing down” is clearly wrong. Nothing in history compares to what has happened in IT in the last two decades. Amazon Web Services, 3G, 4G, fiber optics, Linux, Google, virtual machines… How computers are used to do what people want is incredibly more complex in 2018 compared to 1999 or 1989 or 1979. And it has huge real world impact. Find any industry that has not completely changed how it works because of IT, where many workers do not spend time in front of a screen connected to the internet.

    I have heard “but it is just 1970s tech”, but that is like saying that a car is 1000 BC tech because it is iron and fire. Organisation and capabilities matter.

  14. David Edgerton has a book called “The Shock of the Old”, that seeks to make the point that the long shadow of technological change takes centuries to roll out, and that historians of technology are missing half the story if they declare the revolution over as soon as the fancy innovations have become common in their first market.

    He uses the motorcar as an example, which Europeans and Americans might have thought a phenomenon of the early twentieth century, whereas it has continued to transform the world, penetrating into more and more of it, right down to the present. Another might be the mobile telephone, that wasn’t done with us by 2005, but is rolling on and on, changing Africa and India particularly.

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