Robin Hanson suggests that recent changes in moral attitudes (in the last few hundred years) are better explained by changing circumstances than by progress in moral reasoning.

This seems plausible to me. It also seems likely that there would be a bit of a lag between the change in circumstance and the common acceptance of the new morality. (The sexual revolution following the introduction of the pill seems like a good example.)

Suppose this is broadly right -- that moral attitudes follow circumstances. Is there anything we can predict about where moral attitudes will be in the next few decades (or economic doublings), based on either recent technological or economic changes, or on those we can see on the horizon?

New Comment
21 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:26 PM

I note that it's difficult to point out changes that one thinks are outside the current Overton Window, and thus I worry that most discussions of this topic will be tilted towards "we need fifty Stalins!".

For example, some historical class-based systems had strongly different values of life for the different classes, in a way that seems roughly in line with their military value. (The armored and armed professional warrior can do what they like, and the manual peasant laborer has to stay out of their way.) Then mass armies and cheap, easily learned weapons dramatically changed the military calculus, and equalized the value of people, making mass democracy more sensible than it was historically. (If the peasants outvote the samurai, but the samurai could crush the peasants if it came to fighting, why would the samurai accept the votes of the peasants? If the samurai can out-privilege the peasants, but the peasants can crush the samurai if it came to fighting, why would the peasants accept the privileges of the samurai?) But will this continue to be the case, or will future developments further shift the military calculus?

But a 'political power flows from the barrel of a gun' story for the adoption of democracy is not a very flattering story, especially compared to the story of acknowledging the inner light that shines within each person, that democracy is uniquely positioned to listen to.

If your goal is to minimize violence, the best political system is likely to be one that gives people power in proportion to their capacity for violence. Otherwise people with little political power but lots of capacity for violence have an incentive to commit violence in order to change the status quo.

It seems obvious to me that after clean meat is developed we will see the vegan movement rise, and as life extension tech is perfected we will see fewer people advocating against immortality.

Why do you believe that the vegan movement will rise and not a kind of vegetarianism?

Wouldn't you expect both to rise?

Veganism as commonly practiced is something that's about personal identity and there's an desire for purity. If there's no reason to eat meat then the part about personal identity might get weaker and thus the desire for purity might also get lower.

ChristianKI is right: Murderless meat may make vegetarianism more palatable to meat-eaters, but it's irrelevant to veganism.

it's irrelevant to veganism

I don't think this is true. Murderless meat reduces the costs of being vegan or vegetarian. I agree that ChristianKI has a point though.

It reduces the cost of not eating meat, but not the cost of not eating dairy and eggs.

And veganism requires both. So it reduces the cost of veganism.

Are you just trying to argue that it doesn't reduce the cost of going vegan *if you're already vegetarian*? That may be true, but doesn't contradict the point that the overall cost of veganism would go down.

Quote referenced in post

In his recent Slate interview, Robin Hanson says:

In the last few hundred years there’s been a number of very strong long-term trends in attitudes and values that are striking. We’re more anti-slavery, pro-equality, pro-democracy, pro-leisure, pro-art, lower fertility. And one common favored explanation for these trends is moral discovery: that we have just reasoned about these problems and now better understand the moral truths about what better behaviors and attitudes toward these things are. I don’t find that very plausible as an explanation. One reason is that this theory of moral discovery predicts that it should look roughly like a random walk, because that’s how information processes change things, but instead it looks like steady trends.
And I instead favor a theory that the proximate cause is increasing wealth—that we are primed to change our attitudes on many of these things due to being rich. And the more underlying cause is that we are reverting to forager-like values as we get rich. Foragers are more attuned with nature and their feelings, and they basically lived doing what felt right, and that usually went roughly right. And farming was only possible because we had enough cultural plasticity to rein that in, and produce a lot of self-control through conformity pressures and religion, to create a whole different set of values and behaviors that was actually somewhat at odds with our forager nature. In the last few hundred years we’ve been getting rich, and as we get rich, these implicit threats that kept us true to the farming ways have just felt less plausible and compelling. And we have drifted back toward forager attitudes, which explains most of these major trends.

I expect certain changes in information flow to affect things somewhat. Anonymity on the internet allowed people to humorize their own laziness and patheticness without unmasking, which seems to have significantly increased common knowledge about lots of people being mentally unwell or otherwise bad at traditionally valued things like hard work. As this gets normalized I expect it to further erode adherence to mask-like values and promote the cluster of things like "be true to yourself" and "it's ok to be depressed and seek help" and other MtG red/green over white. In fact, the selection effect of internet heroes being young, engaged in the gig economy, non-neurotypical, etc may create a sort of new value stratum if it doesn't percolate further.

The social media bubble effect seems like it could also lead to a further divergence of values along various class/bubble lines as Vaniver mentioned was the case historically. This might be exacerbated on the economic axis if we keep seeing capital growth gaining relative to wages, though I don't know much about that trend.

But we also have the opposite narrative: people have more control over which parts of their life are shown in social media to their friends, so it's easier for them to selectively create mask values.

And since in real life you are incentivized to not remain anonymous, it seems like this effect should prevail IRL, relegating 'true' values to anonimous social interaction.

Im not endorsing either view, just signalling confusion about narratives that I see as equally persuasive.

What do you think?

Maybe moving towards a more tribal social system.

One technology that's likely to have a high cultural impact is the advent of driver-less cars. One easy prediction would be that it increases the societal stigma against drunk-driven because there's less justification for doing so.

I would be interested whether other people see other cultural developments that might be produced by self driving cars.

Unfortunately many attempts to figure this out end up as "I believe X is good morality, but not a lot of people do it. Well, everyone who disagrees with me about X is obviously biased by the fact that doing X is difficult. If doing X was easy, they would all be enlightened and recognize that I am correct about X". Is there something that you don't personally already think is moral, where changing circumstances would lead more people to think it's moral in the future?

Also, it's worth looking at the past as well and seeing what things did not change even though the theory you are using to predict changes in the future seems like it would predict them.

If doing X was easy, they would all be enlightened and recognize that I am correct about X

Do you have something in mind other than being vegan/vegetarian? That's the only thing that's coming to mind for me at the moment that fits this pattern.

I just used a 5 minute timer to brainstorm about this, and then committed to sharing that even though it looked messy.



How will morality change?

AI will change things a bunch

assume not AI

what is relevant?

Power is concentrated

Social media


notice I'd only been saying cynical things

expanding moral circle of concern

– animals

– who counts as in the ingroup

– who can we tell compelling stories about

cooperation – critch related things

Morality as cooperation mechanism

– what will we expect to need to cooperate on?

– who will we expect to need to cooperate with?

--- other people

--- software we create

--- corporations

--- aliens

--- acausal trade

Morality as random ebb

– postmodernism

– anticolonialism

Man everything's real cynical

Okay what if I were to just actually assume noncynical morality?

  • as people get better educated, can understand more complex or different things (re: both empathy and game theory)
  • Can you generate novel predictions within noncynical morality? Prob not.

Out of time!

Decreasing general propensity for violence, increasing refinement of social control technologies, increasing class stratification, the replacement of liberal with progressive justifications for institutions (e.g. the state), and internet communication technology (most notably, Google and social media) will result in the emergence of an ethic of nobility and peasantry, unless the current sharp correction goes through. The new noble class will not correspond well to any existing economic class, which will be a source of conflict for as long as this remains the case.

As life shifts from rural/frontier communalism (mutual support, barn-raising etc.) to atomized urbanism and Malthusian class competition, Christian forgiveness and the Quaker Inner Light will be replaced with an attitude closer to Zhang Xianzhong than to anything known from the West. The attitude toward local strangers may not necessarily deteriorate -- I don't think we'll see anything more like samurai killing random peasants to test their blades than what we already see in America -- but the nobility will regard the peasantry with disdain and fear, and each other as evil unless useful. On some level, they'll know that the peasantry might rise up collectively and overthrow them (so they must be hated, feared, controlled, and suppressed); that individual peasants might rise to noble status (so they must be hated and kept down); and that all the other nobles are, in a Malthusian sense, making their life worse by existing as nobility, and that their risk of downward mobility is high (so any given noble will hate all the other nobles that aren't directly useful to himself and want them expelled from the nobility).

These are the things I think we're already seeing.

The rise of blockchain technologies and related inventions may mean a move towards a more fiscally conservative economic policy.

Morality isn't what you see changing, behaviors are what changes, as well as publicly stated values. You seem to be conflating them. The fact that changing circumstances are changing people's behavior should not surprise anyone. Whether there really is some deeper change in people's morality is hard to tell. But I suggest that if you lived in, e.g. a slave society, for a few years, you'd adapt to their "immoral" state pretty well.

recent changes in moral attitudes [are not well explained] by progress in moral reasoning.

Of course not, that's ridiculous. Does someone actually believe that? It sounds like a strawman. What does "progress in moral reasoning" even mean?