A Theory of Moral Diffusion

Does the morality of society, on the whole, improve? It would be extremely naïve to answer with a straightforward “yes”: the 20th and 21st centuries have seen atrocities that more than match the most reprehensible of history’s offerings. But if we adjust the timescale to one far larger than that of centuries, and imagine instead the whole of human history, present, and future, then does the situation change? Or is humanity doomed, by its very nature, to stay at roughly the same moral level?

Consider, if you will, the following thought experiment. There are two tribes, living close to each other, but oblivious of the other’s existence. The first tribe is close to modern society in ethical terms, in that they consider it immoral to kill, rape, or steal. The second tribe is the complete opposite: they consider cannibalism good, subjugation of women acceptable, and murder an understandable method of solving disputes.

Now suppose that both of these tribes begin to run low on resources, and each think that it would be desirable to expand their territory. The populations of the two tribes, as well as their military powers, are exactly equal. They slowly begin to expand their villages closer and closer to one another. This culminates in a standoff. There is a giant tree stood exactly on the newly drawn border, with an ample supply of apples for their delectation. Exactly one half of the tree hovers over each tribe’s land. Naturally, there is disagreement about who should own the tree, and for a time there is tension between the two tribes. They hold off any military action, however, mainly out of caution. As each tribe learns of the cultures and practices of the other, the tension between them mounts. The first tribe considers it despicable that the other tribe commit murder and cannibalism so readily, while their neighbours consider the fact that they don’t eat each other a sign of immense disrespect to the gods.

Assuming that they never resort to violence, and that the war between them is strictly cold, who wins the standoff?

Well, there is a probable consequence that should be considered first. While each tribe learns of the supposedly bad features of the other’s culture, it will also learn of the good. This means, first, that moral considerations that they may have previously taken for granted will become subject to questioning. Secondly it means that some members of the cannibal tribe who may have had misgivings about cannibalism will become even more uncertain about it; conversely, any equal-and-opposites in the other tribe will also experience the same phenomenon, reversed. Assuming that all people who have misgivings eventually abandon their tribe for the other one, which tribe will end up with the most people?

Clearly, the “good” tribe will. And as the population of the “bad” tribe decreases, more people within it will gradually judge that it is safe to leave, and will do so. Eventually, the tribe will be reduced to a small collective of die-hard tribesmen who, at least in terms of size, carry very little influence. Soon enough, they will die away, and the “good” tribe will have triumphed, along with their moral system. However, this conclusion is only true on the important condition that the freedoms of both thought and expression are allowed in both tribes.

Different moral systems will inevitably come into contact with one another: the only things that can stop this are pure contingencies. These aside, when they do meet, they will have to resolve any tension that arises between them. Either the stronger society (though not moral system) will win if it comes to a war, or they adjust to one another’s presence and a compromise between the two systems, if necessary, is found. The compromise, of course, is hardly ever instantaneous: it can take hundreds of years or more, and essentially involves an osmosis of peoples (the good from the bad tribe go to the good tribe, and vice versa). When the newly formed moral system meets another one, the process will repeat. Eventually, all moral systems within a “world” will have mixed and settled into that world’s moral system. This morality will be better, on average, than the vast majority of moralities that have been in the past. It won’t of necessity be the best morality possible. If that world meets another world, another compromise may be necessary, and so on. Of course, there is no necessity to the amount of worlds. This means that it is unlikely ever to reach perfection, but will merely converge towards it.

When two or more societies are in conflict, all that is needed is that most people of both societies reach a high enough level of thought-freedom, and the people in the morally inferior society will, slowly but surely, change their views to that of the superior. Eventually the inferior system, despite some possibly violent death throes, will wither away. The question arises: do people choose the moral system which is objectively better, or is it merely a choice of convenience? Perhaps these are not mutually exclusive?

Note that the theory ignores contingencies. It’s just the natural progression of morality; it doesn’t take into account the possibility of an alien race conquering us militarily, or a Sarah Palin accidentally nuking the world.

P.S. The existence of terrorism may actually be a sign that world morality is improving. How? Terrorists must confine themselves to small, radicalised groups, constantly hiding for their lives, cowering hypocritically under the protections of good nations-because it has become difficult to hold their views in an “official”, or state capacity. Under my theory, eventually the majority of the terrorist “tribe” will begin to appreciate this protection, and convert accordingly to the ways of their host countries.


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