12 Years a Slave is a great chance to feel morally superior to monstrous slavers of yore. But it is also a time to reflect: Will our descendents ever look back on us with contempt for our blatant wickedness? If so, what will draw their ire?
It is of course possible that seemingly innocent actions today will lead to mass horrors. Maybe you’ll adopt an orphan who grows up to assassinate a world leader, precipitating World War III. But the future is unlikely to damn us for such actions. We don’t curse the name of Princip‘s mother; how was she to know that her son would bring a continent to ruin? As long as the chain of inference from our choices to disaster is long and complex, posterity will give us a pass.
No, the evil for which our descendents will condemn us, if any, will be evil in plain sight. Slavery is a perfect example. Anyone with eyes and a conscience was capable of grasping the wrongness of extorting labor through threats of torture and death, right? Yet American Southerners saw slavery with their own eyes, day after day, and yawned – merely because they knew that their fellow white Southerners were yawning with them.
So what present-day practices plausibly qualify as evil in plain sight? Each of the three leading ideologies of our day – liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism – suggests an answer. For liberalism: the way we treat animals. For conservatism: the way we treat fetuses. For libertarianism: the way we treat foreigners.
1. Treatment of animals. This Thanksgiving, Americans ate tens of millions of turkeys because they taste good (if well-prepared). We could have eaten vegetables, but we didn’t feel like it. Few of us have the steel to kill a turkey face-to-face; instead, we outsource the butchery to professionals long-inured to animal suffering. And of course, such behavior is hardly reserved for the holidays. In our society, even self-styled “vegetarians” regularly consume meat. Under the circumstances, then, it’s easy to imagine our descendents viewing us with moral horror.
2. Treatment of fetuses. The United States alone has roughly a million legal abortions a year. If those pregnancies came to term, we would condemn subsequent “termination” as heinous murder. But perform the termination a few weeks earlier, and most of us nonchalantly shrug. The vast majority of these abortions could be avoided – and a life saved – if the mothers endured nine months of discomfort and inconvenience, then put the babies up for adoption. And the best evidence says that women denied abortions soon end up at the same depression and anxiety levels as comparable women who get abortions. Fetuses don’t feel pain or think? You can say the same about any healthy adult under anesthesia, but we condemn their murder nonetheless. If the fact that an anesthetized adult is only temporarily unable to feel pain or think is morally significant, why doesn’t the same go for fetuses?
Agree or disagree, it is not hard to imagine our descendents finding these arguments convincing, and damning us for evil in plain sight.
3. Treatment of foreigners. If the NYPD bombed Harlem to kill one rampaging murderer, we’d condemn the NYPD agents as murderers. But if the USAF bombs a town in Afghanistan to kill one rampaging murderer, we forgive the bombers – or cheer them on. If the state of Alabama made it a crime for blacks to take white collar jobs, we’d damn them as racist monsters. But if the entire U.S. government makes it a crime for Mexican citizens to take any U.S. job whatsoever, we accept and justify the policy. What’s the difference between “fighting crime” and “fighting terrorism”? Between “Jim Crow” and “protecting our borders”? The mere fact that the victims are foreigners, so up is down and wrong is right. Or so our descendents might conclude.
It’s quite possible, of course, that our descendents will be as indifferent to the treatment of animals, fetuses, and foreigners as we are. Maybe more so. And even if we were absolutely certain that they would condemn us, that foreknowledge is far from a conclusive argument. Maybe we’re right and they’re (going to be) wrong.
So why even discuss the views of future generations? To jolt us out of our comfortable conformity. When slavery was popular, it was easy to blithely support it. Foreknowledge that slavery was going to be unpopular would have been Drano for clogged minds. Vividly imagining such a future would have had a similarly clarifying effect. Once intellectually deprived of social support, antebellum Southerners would have been ready for honest moral argument.
The same goes for us. We too can ready ourselves for honest moral argument by dwelling on a future that condemns us. How then would you respond to future generations who condemned our treatment of animals? Of fetuses? Of foreigners?