The future moral Zeitgeist
Updated: Jan 30
Our morals are becoming better with time: this is the Zeitgeist! But this also means we will probably be considered as bigots by our descendants… Here I try to guess where our own morals might be wrong and how they might change in the future.
The Zeitgeist? What is that?
Zeitgeist is a German word meaning “spirit of the times”, that is, the way people think in a certain era. Here I am talking specifically about the moral Zeitgeist, which is the way people of an epoch feel about what is ethical or unethical.
If you look at the antique times, you will find that almost everyone thought that slavery was a normal thing. Today, even the worst dictators on Earth don’t openly advocate slavery. This is because the Zeitgeist has changed.
Even when looking back at people we consider to be role models, we are sometimes surprised to discover things we consider obviously immoral about them. For instance, we might be shocked to learn that George Washington owned slaves , or that Abraham Lincoln considered it impossible that black and white would ever have the same rights . In fact, by today’s standards, almost everyone living a few hundred years ago would be considered racist and misogynic. Against, this is a sign of the moving Zeitgeist.
But within each society, not all individuals think the same way, some are “in advance” of the Zeitgeist changes (like feminists in the early 20th century), while others are lagging and still believe in the morals of the old Zeitgeist (like homophobic people today).
We could make a parallel with the way that diffusion of innovations is often described, with at first some early adopters using the innovation, then a large share of pragmatic people, until it reaches the more conservative and finally the most reluctant . In the same way we could describe the diffusion of “moral innovations”, like the abolition of slavery, anti-racism, equal rights for women, LGBT rights, etc.
There is of course nothing magic about the Zeitgeist. It’s not a mystical force or anything, it’s simply a result of the progress of science and philosophy, people exchanging ideas, the diffusion of information, etc.
In the Zeitgeist of the future
In each era, we can find innovators who were in advance compared to their Zeitgeist, and whose ideas looked crazy for their time even though they are now completely accepted.
A particularly striking example is the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He wanted to abolish slavery, decriminalize homosexuality and even advocated animal rights. Each of these examples is more striking than the previous one. Let’s see why.
Slavery was prevalent in him time, but some people were already criticizing it as immoral, so Bentham was on the progressive side but not alone.
Regarding homosexuality, this is very different. Nobody advocated gay rights at all back then. Think that even two centuries later, not even that long ago, the great scientist Alan Turing was sentenced to chemical castration for being homosexual , while he should instead have been celebrated as a hero of Freedom for his key contribution in defeating the Nazis . How we treated him is a shame for our civilization! Today, we are in the mid-way in the adoption of tolerance towards homosexuality, with a large part of people accepting it, but still a significant fringe rejecting it.
Finally, consider Bentham’s position on animal rights. He thought that animal suffering should be given equal consideration to equivalent human suffering . This idea is still in minority in today’s Zeitgeist, although it is spreading. Bentham was not only in advance for his time, but he is still in advance in our time!
Is the Zeitgeist moving for the better?
Is the current Zeitgeist better than the one before? I would think so, as I think there is a general trend where the Zeitgeist is moving for the better.
A first reason to think that is that the Zeitgeist seems to be moving in a direction, and not randomly in circles. When we look at history, the further we go back, the more we are horrified by the morals of the time, with slavery, torture, women being treated as possessions and human sacrifice if we go far enough.
Another way to answer the question is to use an external criterion for judging the morals, like the one Jeremy Bentham proposed: look at what brings happiness and suffering. If something brings only happiness to some people and does not bring any suffering to anyone, like homosexuality, then it should be morally acceptable. On the other hand, slavery and animal cruelty bring suffering, so they are wrong. This philosophy is called utilitarianism (which Bentham basically invented). Although I personally criticized this philosophy because of its limits, I must recognize that it allowed Bentham to challenge the morals of his time and propose ideas that were centuries ahead.
Another external criterion that we might use to judge the morals of a time would be to use John Rawls’ idea of “veil of ignorance”. Let’s say you don’t know who you would be in a society, black or white, man or woman, in a rich or poor family, etc. You would be born as someone at random in this society, but you must choose the kind of society to live in before knowing what your role would be. In that case, you certainly don’t want to play this game in a society with slavery, as you might be born in the group designated as slaves. You can read more about Rawls’s idea in another article I wrote.
I recognize that the perfect moral criterion for judging a Zeitgeist have yet to be discovered. The philosophies of both Rawls and Bentham have their limits, and we have probably not discovered everything in philosophy yet, so there’s a good chance we will discover even better criteria.
My bets for the future
Even if our ethics are better than those of previous times, it would be very unlikely that we happen to have, right now, reached then final Zeitgeist. There is probably still progress to make, as we can observe that our morals are still changing fast, so we have certainly not reached a stable state. So here I am going to try to guess what might change in the centuries ahead, providing moral progress continues (which I think it will).
I think we will entirely adopt Bentham’s idea that animal suffering is to be given equal consideration to equivalent human suffering. This means in practice that farms will probably have to follow very strict rules for animal welfare. This will make meat a lot more expensive, but it’s likely that people will be eating less of it anyway for environmental reasons (as I am already doing for instance).
I imagine people of the future will regard our current standard farm practices as outrageous (like removing pigs’ tails and chickens’ beaks, castrating pigs without anesthetic, putting chickens in cages…). They will probably look at it with the same kind of disgust that we experience when we are told about how slaves were packed in ships to bring them from Africa to America. By the way, we would say today that “slaves were treated like cattle” but people it the future would probably not use this expression because they would not even treat animals that way.
Here I want to mention this interesting idea that the French Youtuber “Mr. Phi” explained in this video: It is customary today for children to take the name of their father. However, this is clearly a tradition inherited from times where women did not enjoy the same rights as men. He goes on that in the future we might instead be free to choose whatever family name we want when we get married, even by creating a new name which is not even one of the two people getting married. He cites the example of philosopher William MacAskill who chose the “MacAskill” name when he got married although it was neither his nor his wife’s name.
Religious education in schools
Let’s go back to a more serious topic. Today, we look at the education children were given under the Nazis or in the USSR as scandalous because they were heavily indoctrinated into believing in specific political ideas. This is considered wrong by most people today, and we expect schools not to indoctrinate children into voting for a specific party for instance. We want schools to remain neutral, teach only facts and present things in an objective way as much as possible.
The famous biologist Richard Dawkins argues that we are nevertheless doing the same by educating children into a specific religion. He goes on mentioning that no one would call a child “communist” or “libertarian”, but we often say thinks like “a Catholic boy” or “a Muslim girl”, while we should feel this is also wrong . Strangely, it feels even stranger to talk about “an atheist child” because this feels like a statement about ideology the child would have, while it’s assumed on the other hand that children have religious beliefs and can be labelled by those.
I would bet that people will probably agree with Dawkins in the future and religion will be considered as politics, something children start making their minds about when they reach adolescence or adulthood.
Fixing genetic diseases before birth
Today, some services like 23andMe allow you to predict which genetic diseases your future children might have by analyzing your and your partner’s DNA. However, there is currently no way to fix the genes of your future child if you discover a probable genetic disease. The best that can be done is preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which consists in making an in-vitro fecundation and then to select the embryos that don’t have the genetic disease. This technique does not allow to fix several genes at the same time, it can just “cheat” a bit with random chance by selecting the right embryo.
But in the future, progress in genetic engineering might make it possible to fix the genes directly in egg or sperm cells. This would be like in the 1997 science-fiction movie Gattaca which depicts a future in which all genetic diseases or disadvantages are eradicated. Although this is presented as a dystopia in the movie, I think such a future is actually enviable. I think this “nice kind” of eugenics will be accepted and commonly practiced (as opposed to the kind of eugenics of the past which consisted in exterminating or sterilizing a specific population, which will of course still be considered wrong). It might even be generally regarded as immoral to give birth to children with genetic diseases when those can be avoided. Perhaps there might even be laws to protect the children against that.
Even in LGBT-tolerant countries, polyamorous relations are still regarded as either strange or even wrong . Here I am talking about several people in love with each other, for example 3 people each in love with the two others, not like “old-style” polygamy which was a privilege of men and not often with the real consent of the involved women (and who were certainly not supposed to have relations with each other). I am betting that in the future this kind of relations will be more common, more “visible” (polyamorous people might often not reveal it today) and legally recognized.
Some of the ideas I have presented here might shock you, and that’s expected. If they were already accepted by everyone, they would already be part of the current Zeitgeist. My goal here was to try to be a bit like Bentham and see where the morals of our own time are wrong. I strongly believe, although I cannot prove, that the future Zeitgeist will be better as it will make people happier and be the basis of a more just society.
 The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, chapter 9