Are Humans Getting Better?

Published on Project Syndicate, by Peter Singer, May 4, 2012.

MELBOURNE – With daily headlines focusing on war, terrorism, and the abuses of repressive governments, and religious leaders frequently bemoaning declining standards of public and private behavior, it is easy to get the impression that we are witnessing a moral collapse. But I think that we have grounds to be optimistic about the future.  

Thirty years ago, I wrote a book called The Expanding Circle, in which I asserted that, historically, the circle of beings to whom we extend moral consideration has widened, first from the tribe to the nation, then to the race or ethnic group, then to all human beings, and, finally, to non-human animals. That, surely, is moral progress.

We might think that evolution leads to the selection of individuals who think only of their own interests, and those of their kin, because genes for such traits would be more likely to spread. But, as I argued then, the development of reason could take us in a different direction … //

… Pinker accepts that reason is an important factor underlying the trends that he describes. In support of this claim, he refers to the “Flynn Effect” – the remarkable finding by the philosopher James Flynn that since IQ tests were first administered, scores have risen considerably. The average IQ is, by definition, 100; but, to achieve that result, raw test results have to be standardized. If the average teenager today took an IQ test in 1910, he or she would score 130, which would be better than 98% of those taking the test then.

CommentsIt is not easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen the most do not require a good vocabulary, or even mathematical ability, but instead assess powers of abstract reasoning.

CommentsOne theory is that we have gotten better at IQ tests because we live in a more symbol-rich environment. Flynn himself thinks that the spread of the scientific mode of reasoning has played a role.

CommentsPinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This, in turn, leads to better moral commitments, including avoidance of violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that improved during the twentieth century.

CommentsSo there are grounds to believe that our improved reasoning abilities have enabled us to reduce the influence of those more impulsive elements of our nature that lead to violence. Perhaps this underlies the significant drop in deaths inflicted by war since 1945 – a decline that has become even steeper over the past 20 years. If so, there would be no denying that we continue to face grave problems, including of course the threat of catastrophic climate change. But there would nonetheless be some reason to hope for moral progress. (full text).

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