Ideas

How Can Society Prepare for the Moral Norms of Tomorrow?

One way of embracing this uncertainty is to adopt a stance of axiological open-mindedness toward the future. We can get a sense of what this might entail by considering how it works today. 

In his book, The Geography of Values, Owen Flanagan explores the moral differences between cultures and argues that we can learn from this diversity. As an example, he points out that many Western cultures are wedded to an ethic of individualism while Buddhist cultures reject that ideology, arguing that fixation on the self and its flourishing is often a source of suffering and frustration. At first, these value systems might seem alien to each other, but they both sustain meaningful ways of life. What’s more, people from these cultures often experiment with elements of both. Flanagan argues that there are often good reasons for them to do so and suggests that we remain willing to experiment with different moral views.

Where Flanagan focuses on geographical moral diversity, we can focus on temporal moral diversity. In other words, we can approach the moral future with a degree of curiosity and excitement, neither as zealots promoting change nor reactionaries opposing it, but as tourists willing to experiment with it.

How can we do this if we don’t know what the future holds? Two strategies present themselves. First, we can bear in mind the oft-quoted line from William Gibson: The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Scattered around our world today, perhaps in emerging subcultures and the imaginations of science fiction authors, are the seeds of future moralities. If we are willing to explore them, we can get a sense of where we might be headed.

Second, we can design our social institutions so that they enable greater normative flexibility. One way to do this would be to use abstract standards—rather than precise rules—when legislating for the future. For example, we can create laws that focus on transportation and communication in general, rather than on particular modes of transportation and communication, such as the automobile and phone. Another option would be to enable easy amendment of any formal rules (laws, regulatory codes, or guidelines) to streamline adaptation.

More important than either, however, would be adopting a more experimentalist approach to social morality. Instead of just waiting to see what will happen, we should actively create spaces (perhaps we could call them “moral sandboxes”) for subcultures to test the moral waters without committing an entire society to a new moral code. For instance, there are emerging technological developments in brain-to-brain communication that might allow people to feel what other people feel, see what they can see, or share their thoughts. To some, this nascent technology is terrifying, an attack on our ethic of individualism, and a step toward a Borg-like society. To others, it is exciting, holding up the possibility of greater intimacy, empathy, and collaborative problem-solving. Instead of committing to either of these views right now, we could facilitate controlled and carefully observed experimentation to explore the effects of this technology on existing values, such as autonomy, self-control, intimacy, and empathy.

There are, of course, limits to what we should experiment with. The Nazis were moral revolutionaries, but not in a good way. We cannot be so open-minded that we lose all sense of right and wrong. There are, perhaps, some values that should remain foundational, but there is a balance to be struck between the extremes of progressivism and conservatism.

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