morality in the age of leisure

It's like love in the time of cholera, except completely different.

I just came off of an excellent discussion with Dave, and I want to reflect on it and flesh out my thinking.

When people are living in conditions of existential stress, (wars, famines, pre-technological societies), (my) conventional wisdom says that social pressures increase. Stressful times create intense personal bonding, and with that bonding comes strong social pressure to conform to the group.

There's a point I want to make here, that I'm struggling with...

Remember when calculators were introduced to schools? A lot of people who grew up without them said, "[That's cheating! Children will never learn how to do arithmetic by hand! They will grow up stupid!]" And well they were right about the second sentence, but wrong about the first and third. The fallacy that they fell into, is that their experience tells them that you will live most of your life without access to a calculator. But their experience is completely inapplicable to their children's lives. Kids growing up today will always, always, have access to calculators, and google, and wikipedia. For the rest of their lives, forever and ever. So, why would they need to know long division? It's a cute trick, and it's good to know what it means to divide two numbers. But you're never going to use that skill as an adult, except to teach it to your kids, who will also hate it.

So: calculators are not cheating, they are the future. Looking up facts online is not cheating. Storing all of your friends contact information into your devices so that you don't have to remember their phone number is not cheating. Using a GPS navigation system is not cheating.

Morality is having the same culture shock.

Example one is sexual promiscuity. 200 years ago, it was a big deal, because it caused all sorts of very real social problems in the form of unwanted pregnancies, orphaned and abandoned children and mothers, and disease. Today, (almost?) all of those problems can very simply and easily be avoided. The consequences of divorce are down too; divorced mothers are no longer helpless and hopeless. It still sucks of course. But it's not the moral hazard that it used to be, by a long shot.

So... that's all really great news for society, that we don't have these horrible problems anymore. But when some people's behavior starts expanding to fill the new environment, other people get really upset. "[That's immoral! People will start having sex any time they feel like it! Society will fall apart!]"

I'm going to come short of finishing the analogy I've drawn here, because I'm too uncomfortable with the topic myself. But I think it's clear where this argument is going. If resurrection were cheap and easy, murder would not be nearly so serious a crime. Nor would suicide. We would still want to find it abhorrent, but it wouldn't threaten society to the same degree. You'd have recreational suicide, ritualistic sacrifice, lethal game shows. And it wouldn't ruin society at all.

So, perhaps, the more advanced, the wealthier society gets, the more depraved it becomes, in the eyes of the older society. But also, the more liberated it becomes? Like I said, I feel pretty uncomfortable with this discussion, or at least, with having this discussion in public, outside of my own brain-space. Taboos are powerful things. But I wanted to get the point out.


  1. It is very very interesting to me to think about the following: in a society where every moral dilemma could be sidestepped by technology (free time travel to unwind choices, for example), would there be any moral principle? I think your post above implies you think not, but I wonder: is there something intrinsic to *being human* (rational, sentient, empathetic) that can define even a single principle that transcends technological/societal context?

    BTW, great post! :)

  2. Can't remember name of the reference, but it may be google-searchable. Anyway... about how the freedom from existential pressure on societies creates self-serving bureaucracies to fill the pressure void. These systems grow complex over time, and ever more introspective, until it leads to the society's crash and return to existential means.

    It's hard to look at a bunch of historical examples of same and not ponder our own place in the pattern.

    Perhaps it doesn't tie back into your moral equivalency thoughts; except as a reminder that it's all happened before; and is probably encoded in genomes somewhere...

  3. 知識可以傳授,智慧卻不行。每個人必須成為他自己。..................................................