June 16, 2008 |
Over the weekend, Eric Posner of Slate asked whether humans have become any more moral in the last few thousand years. His target was opinion leaders (most recently, David Brooks) who decry a moral decline in our society.
Posner asks if opinion leaders have been making such statements since the beginning of time (I believe they have, but I couldn’t track down the right citation), and whether if we are to take from that fact that we as humans are far less moral than our caveman ancestors.
Posner suspects that we are at least as moral as our ancestors. I’m not sure if there is good data on morality (definition would be the first problem in that study), but there is good evidence in terms of violence.
In pre-state societies, about 60% of men die in violence. Since the Middle Ages, the murder rate in Europe has fallen a hundredfold. A smaller proportion of the human population died due to violence in the 20th century than in any previous century (yes, that’s including both world wars and Stalin).
The first two of the factoids above come from The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Chapter 17 is particularly relevant.