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Are we morally better people than our ancestors?

27 December 2017

11:00 AM

27 December 2017

11:00 AM

The doctrine of progress implies that things get better. This is clearly true in terms of scientific knowledge, though not necessarily of how that scientific knowledge is applied. It has proved broadly true, in our lifetimes, about economic and political freedom, though not so decisively that we can all sit back and relax. Is it also true of virtue? We often praise ourselves for having cast aside prejudice, taboo, imperialism, sexism and so on, but can we truthfully say that we are, on average, morally better people than our ancestors? We might simply be blind to different things. It is not difficult to make a list of virtues that are in decline (honour, patience, respect for the old) or not seen as virtues at all (virginity, obedience). Of the traditional Cardinal Virtues — Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance — only Justice is in the first rank today (though Gordon Brown pretended to care about Prudence). The ‘contrary virtues’ of the Seven Deadly Sins are Humility, Liberality, Chastity, Meekness, Temperance, Brotherly Love and Diligence, yet of these only Brotherly Love is now highly valued and even that has been gender-neutered. Yet this does not mean that we do not put a high moral value on some things — honesty, for example, kindness, non-judgmentalism. And we often value the same sort of actions as we would have done centuries ago. The Catholic Church’s seven Corporal Works of Mercy are — to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to harbour the harbourless, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned, and to bury the dead. With the possible exception of the last, these are still taken seriously and remain causes for which people expect to give money at Christmas. It would be hard to prove human progress or regress in moral terms. But perhaps we are less carefully trained in virtue than in the past, and so are clumsy and embarrassed about it, rather like people who have never learnt to dance.

This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Notes, which appears in the Christmas issue of the Spectator

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