Atemporal Ethical Obligations

[All the trigger warnings, especially for the links out. I’m trying to understand and find the strongest version of an argument I heard recently. I’m not sure if I believe this or not.]

Edit: This was partly a hidden argument ad absurdum. I thought it was weird enough to make that obvious, but I forgot that this is the internet (and that I actually have people reading my blog who don’t know me IRL).

It is no longer enough just to be a “good person” today. Even if you study the leading edge of contemporary morality and do everything right according to that philosophy, you are not doing enough. The future is coming, and it will judge you for your failures. We must do better.

This may sound extreme, but it is self-evidently true in hindsight. Pick any historical figure you want. No matter their moral stature during their lifetime, today we find something to judge. George Washington owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln, despite abolishing slavery in the United States, opposed black suffrage and inter-racial marriage. Mary Wollstonecraft arguably invented much of modern feminism, and still managed to write such cringe-worthy phrases as “men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue [than women]”. Gandhi was racist. Martin Luther King Jr abetted rape. The list goes on.

At an object level, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Society has made and continues to make a great deal of moral progress over time. It’s almost natural that somebody who lived long ago would violate our present day ethical standards. But from the moral perspective, this is an explanation, not an excuse; these people are still responsible for the harm their actions caused. They are not to be counted as “good people”.

It’s tempting to believe that today is different; that if you are sufficiently ethical, sufficiently good, sufficiently “woke” by today’s standards, that you have reached some kind of moral acceptability. But there is no reason to believe this is true. The trend of moral progress has been accelerating, and shows no signs of slowing down. It took hundreds of years after his death before Washington became persona non grata. MLK took about fifty. JK Rowling isn’t even dead yet, and beliefs that would have put her at the liberal edge of the feminist movement thirty years ago are now earning widespread condemnation. Moral progress doesn’t just stop because it’s 2020. This trend will keep accelerating.

All of this means that looking at the bleeding edge of today’s moral thought and saying “I’m living my life this way, I must be doing OK” is not enough. Anybody who does this will be left behind; in a few decades, your actions today will be recognized as unethical. The fact that you lived according to today’s ethical views will explain your failings, but not excuse them. Thus, in order to be truly good people, we must take an active role, predict the future of moral progress, and live by tomorrow’s rules, today.

Anything else is not enough.