A close friend recently made a post on Facebook that read in part that “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” because she had just seen a television commercial on late night cable that advertised a social networking site designed to facilitate discreet sexual affairs among married people.
It’s not an uncommon phrase. This reaction is often provoked by the relaxation of sexual mores, but also by political issues such as prayer in public school. How many times have you heard that our society, our world, or are country are going to pot?
But is it really?
With all the negativity splashed across website banners and newspaper headlines, it’s easy to forget that our modern world is actually a pretty nice place to live and getting nicer all the time. I think it’s high time that we reflect on the great progress that we’ve made and continue to make in creating a better world for all.
Medical science has worked miracles in giving us longer, healthier lives. It’s common to complain about hospitals, doctors, and healthcare costs, but it’s also useful to remember what we are complaining about: the preservation of our lives.
Nowadays, when a baby is born, she is downright expected to survive, thrive, and live a long life. This was not at all the case until quite recently. No one in the world at that time had better access to healthcare than Abraham Lincoln. And yet, only one of his four children lived to adulthood.
We live in an era of open-heart surgery, bionic implants, colonoscopies, double-lung transplants, outpatient chemotherapy, and an enormous arsenal of antibiotics. No longer do people often die of scurvy, rickets, consumption (tuberculosis), exposure, jaundice, or common infections. The smallpox vaccine alone has saved five hundred million lives. So far, every generation has lived longer than the one before, an unbroken trend for the past two centuries.
Perception is everything. Many do not see this trend toward longer and healthier lives because they are fixated on things like rising levels of obesity and cancer. However, most of the reason why cancer is on the rise is because people are no longer dying of many other things. For the most part, cancer is an older person’s disease and until the latter half of the 19th century, most people simply didn’t live long enough to get cancer.
To cite just one small example: a single drug, Gleevec, has caused survival rates of a particular type of lymphoma to increase from 25% to 75% virtually overnight.
Another example: HIV/AIDS has transitioned from the rapidly deadly plague that it was just 25 years ago, to a manageable chronic illness for most patients in Europe and North America.
And one more: we all know someone whose life was saved or greatly improved by a simple surgical procedure, but we forget that the modern practice of surgery, with anesthesia and aseptic conditions, only become widespread around 100 years ago. Before that, surgery was not an option for the great majority of people. As a commoner, the bimalleolar fracture that I suffered on a high school soccer field would have left me a cripple for life. Had I been born any time except the modern era, I’d not have walked again.
Quality of Life in the Developing World
In the very developed western world, one could be tempted to think that our standard of living is no better now than it was a few decades ago. Especially so over the last six years as a weak job market has meant that many young people have failed to launch into careers as effortlessly as their parents had.
This view complete ignores that the standard of living has been progressing rapidly in the developing world.
Take India, for example, where almost one-sixth of the world’s people live. Only in the last ten years has the percentage of rural households with a functioning toilet finally crossed the 50% threshold. Although there is still a long way to go, each of the last ten decades has seen dramatic increases in access to indoor plumbing and clean drinking water. A poor person in India would beg to differ that the world is going to pot.
Development through Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America is progressing at an ever-increasing rate. Each year brings millions more people into homes with proper (non-earthen) floors. More and more small villages are gaining access to clean drinking water. Consequently, death rates due to diarrheal disease are falling dramatically. Famine and undernourishment are also on the decline.
More and more homes are getting electricity and even internet access, which was unthinkable in many places just ten years ago.
While progress is uneven and more needs to be done for the billions that still suffer, the percentage of people that live in abject poverty has been declining for decades. Much of this development is the result of aid and trade with developed countries, which has been facilitated by advances in technology, commerce, and communications.
The industrial revolution, though not complete, is finally reaching the distant corners of the globe.
I think this one is obvious. In the west, most of us have technology in our pockets or purses that didn’t even exist a few years ago. In fact, odds are, you are reading this post on a device that few thought possible just a decade ago.
Technological advancement has taken us to the moon, Mars, and to a comet. We’ve discovered galaxies so far away that their light had to travel for billions of years to reach us. We’ve harnessed nuclear power and we can now manipulate particles so small, they make protons look like behemoths.
Consider for a moment: streaming home entertainment, the miracle of air travel, cochlear implants, LED televisions, Wikipedia, email, and Pandora. Do we really long for a time when none of that existed?
To be fair, when people opine that the world is deteriorating, they are usually referring to so-called “moral decay”. The common claim is that we, as a society, are becoming increasingly immoral.
I disagree. While we certainly have a ways to go, I think western society has been been getting more moral over the past century, not less. Whether or not you agree will depend on how you define morality. For me, a moral society is one that values justice, fairness, and equality. By that measure, we have made a lot of progress.
Let’s consider one practice that every moral person considers abhorrent: slavery. From the early 1800s to today, the practice of slavery has been on a steady decline. Although, tragically, slavery stubbornly persists, it does so as a clandestine criminal enterprise. There is not a nation today that allows this ghastly practice that was once almost universally accepted by empires, democracies, and religions.
The dwindling of slavery is but one example of moral progress made in our modern era. Let’s celebrate some more.
Race, Sex, and Gender
Notwithstanding current levels of racial tension, there has been undeniable progress toward freedom and equality in western society over the past century. Black people, whether in America or Africa, have a better chance at a successful life than ever before. Throughout the 20th century, each decade saw marked progress toward racial equality. While nostalgia for the cultural norms of the 1950s may be common among middle-aged caucasians, you won’t often hear African Americans speaking about that time period with such fondness.
The same is true for women. Even in the most advanced and progressive countries in Europe and North America, women were mostly confined to the kitchen, denied an education (let alone careers), and generally kept as vehicles for raising children for the first half of the 20th century.
The liberation of women as autonomous persons with their own rights and control of their own destiny is a relatively new concept in western culture. Even in the most developed countries, there are women alive today who were born in a time when they were not allowed to vote. Try telling them that the world has gone to hell. While there is still plenty of road ahead of us in the march toward full equality, the world is a much more welcoming place to women than it was a few decades ago.
And let’s not forget the gays. Equal rights for LGBT individuals have swept through every country in the west at lightning speed, but not long ago, the story was much different. Even in the US, during the 1960s, homosexuals were arrested, locked up, beaten, chemically castrated, or worse. Far worse. Although freedom for gays and lesbians has yet to dawn in many corners of the world, there is no denying that the march toward equality has been steady, if slow, over the past few decades.
In summary, the last 60-70 years have seen dramatic social progress in the west for all people that are not fortunate enough to be members of the power-holding race, gender, religion, class, and sexuality. If you are in the dominant power group for those demographics, that progress can be easy to overlook.
Violence and war
It often seems that our modern world is plagued by unrest, terrorism, war, and violence, now more than ever before. It can feel like the world is indeed falling apart. However, the reality is quite the opposite.
Globally, war has been on a steady and dramatic decline since the end of the second world war.
Small-scale violence is on the decline as well. Crime rates, especially that of violent crime, have been declining for decades. We are living in the most peaceful era that our species has ever known. It just doesn’t seem that way because of the omnipresence of sensationalist journalism. To update the old adage that war sells newspapers, stories of terrorism and violence make good click-bait.
The fact remains: most people in the world are safer from violence, war, and homicide than ever before.
Let’s now return to the issue that inspired this post in the first place: a friend’s horror at an advertisement for a business that seeks to encourage, and profit from, marital infidelity. It’s hard to find anything redeeming in the brazen advertisement of sexual betrayal. I don’t intend to argue otherwise.
However, I don’t necessarily draw the conclusion that society is deteriorating because of this. It may be that our society has simply reached a point at which social taboos are no longer strictly enforced. Having taboos, even toward behaviors that most agree are indeed immoral, doesn’t necessarily mean that a society is moral. The Taliban enforced many social and religious taboos for things that are generally considered sinful in the west as well, such as adultery, blasphemy, and prostitution. Nevertheless, few would call theirs a moral society.
More to the point, it seems logical to assume that, since a business dedicated to infidelity has enough capital to run commercials on cable, extramarital affairs must be increasingly common. But, that might not actually be the case.
Another explanation is that infidelity has always been happening and our society simply no longer denies it or is shocked by it. It could be that many still attempt to maintain fidelity as the rule in their own marriages, but leave other people to sort that out for themselves. Thus, the question is: Is marital infidelity more common now than in the past?
ABO blood type testing was first invented in the 1940s which revolutionized modern medicine allowing, for the first time, safe blood transfusions (more progress!). It also represented the first time that it became possible, in certain cases, to convincingly demonstrate misattributed paternity. Two parents with type A blood simply cannot give birth to a type B child. If they do, the father is right to suspect shenanigans.
Early on, genetic surveys were conducted in the US and Great Britain in order to determine the frequency and distribution of the various blood types in the population.
Many of the scientists involved in these early studies were shocked to find that the attributed paternity was not genetically possible in around 5% of individuals for whom they had test results from both parents.
This number is actually an underestimate by about one-half because, more often than than not, an extramarital affair will still produce a child whose blood type is a possible result from the married parents. For example, if a husband has blood type A and a wife has blood type B (and nothing is known about either of their parents), all blood types may be possible. In that case, an extramarital affair would not result in children with suspicious blood types. Similarly, if the male interloper was the same blood type as the cuckold, this too would not raise a flag in blood type testing.
Thus, early geneticists had to grapple with the stunning realization that around 10% of children born to married couples were not the biological children of their assumed fathers. Many chose to withhold or sanitize their results rather than shock the public. I’m sure a few of them secretly took blood samples from their children. And their fathers.
My point is that marital fidelity is not exactly new, even if television commercials for it are. In fact, estimates of current levels of misattributed paternity are much less than those measured in the 1940s. Despite how it may appear after watching reruns of Maury Povich, less than 1-3% of children born in the US are not the biological progeny of the fathers listed on their birth certificates.
In fact, there is a rough general trend that more developed countries have less misattributed paternity and underdeveloped countries have higher rates. However, it’s dubious to draw too much from that. Access to birth control methods (not to mention the specter of future genetic testing!) is probably the key factor here, rather than lower rates of infidelity.
Misattributed paternity is a useful proxy indicator for sexual fidelity because rates of infidelity are very hard to measure. People are notoriously dishonest during surveys that cover their own transgressions. Nevertheless, attempts by many scientists working in many countries have largely agreed that infidelity rates are no higher now than in earlier periods. Sure, there have been temporary spikes during certain cultural-historical moments, such as the “free love” sexual liberation of the 1960s, but the overall historical trend is rather flat.
This flat trend continues to this day. Despite substantial increases in sexual permissiveness and sex-positive attitudes, especially on the coasts, Americans are no more likely to engage in concealed and dishonest extramarital affairs than they were in the 1950s.
There is more premarital sex nowadays, but that is quite a different story. Most people in the developed world no longer consider consensual premarital sex as immoral, per se, but almost everyone considers infidelity wrong because there is deception involved. Cheating is a flagrant violation of a prior promise of fidelity, while sex before marriage deceives no one and is thus fair game, according to current standards.
Final thoughts on a better world
Therein is the rub, I suspect. What is really getting to people, in my view, is not the deterioration of morality, but rather evolving standards of decency and how those apply to moral matters. Previously, anything considered immoral was also therefore indecent. Nowadays, more tolerant attitudes prevail. We may find something immoral enough to reject it ourselves, but that doesn’t always mean than we insist on its universal prohibition. In other words, what may seem like moral decay is actually our society become less judgmental.
This, too, may be a positive moral evolution because it is a move toward tolerance. Tolerance is a virtue and is put to the test when we encounter views and values that conflict with our own.
Progress must continue
Unfortunately, there is at least one way that the modern world is failing in its moral development: the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, climate change has begun, habitat destruction continues, the rate of species extinction is at historically high rates, and efforts toward more sustainable energy and food production have stalled.
I consider our behavior toward the environment and global climate as the great moral issue of our day. Will we ignore the consequences and continue with the reckless, scorched-earth pursuit of easy money? Or will we follow the example of our ancestors and attack this moral blight with the same conviction that previous generations attacked feudalism, self-government, slavery, imperialism, child labor, gender equality, and basic human rights?
This is why I have great hope. Previous generations solved the moral quandaries of their day, and so can we. Although we are stubbornly clinging to a dangerous path, I believe that we could be on the verge of turning a corner regarding our environmental stewardship. Hopefully we do that before it’s too late.
Each generation has left a better world for the next. Thousands of years of moral progress have brought us to this moment and there is much to celebrate. The torch has now been passed to us. Let’s not drop it. Let’s keep the train of moral progress chugging along. If our grandmothers and grandfathers did it, so can we.