What's the Present-Day Equivalent of Slavery? (UPDATED)

People used to keep slaves and hang homosexuals and beat their spouses. And it was socially accepted. Are we doing anything now that's just as bad?

Last week, in an opinion piece at The Washington Post, the Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah posed the question: What will future generations condemn us for? He points out that some pretty barbaric practices, such as beating a spouse or trading in slaves or hanging homosexuals, were once common and socially accepted.

Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?

Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.

Is there a way to guess which ones? After all, not every disputed institution or practice is destined to be discredited. And it can be hard to distinguish in real time between movements, such as abolition, that will come to represent moral common sense and those, such as prohibition, that will come to seem quaint or misguided.


So what current practices will we one day regard as totally immoral? Appiah has four candidates: our prison system, industrial meat production, the institutionalized and isolated elderly, and our treatment of the environment.

Many other writers weighed in on the question, though. Ezra Klein goes with industrial meat production. So does Matt Yglesias:

I’m least certain about the environment and most certain about meat. Mike Tomask’s uncertain that future people will all be vegetarians, but Ross Douthat has this right—technological improvement will lead to the creation of better alternatives to animal slaughter and that’ll be the end of it.


Ross Douthat suggests abortion:

I would (predictably) nominate abortion as a presently-tolerated evil that will one day be generally deplored. After all, it fits Appiah’s rubrics pretty neatly: The moral arguments against the practice are well known, its defenders are increasingly likely to defend the social necessity of abortion rights (often along “women’s equality depends on legal abortion” lines) and the impracticality of an outright ban than they are to defend the justice of abortion itself, and the pro-life movement spends a great deal of time trying to confront Americans with the physical realities of abortion, whether via ultrasound images or grisly photos of fetuses held up at protest marches.


Over at The Economist, Will Wilkinson says that, of the various candidates, he is "most confident that we will one day find today's criminal-justice system abhorrent."

For my part, I agree with Wilkinson. My prediction is that as brain science and genetics advance, educated people will start to adopt a much more mechanistic view of human behavior. From that perspective, criminal behavior will look more like a physiological or chemical defect than a moral one. That will undermine the rationale for retribution and hurting wrongdoers for the sake of causing pain will fade as a purpose of punishment. Instead, we'll focus on what's humane and socially pragmatic.

UPDATE: I've noticed that a number of people on Twitter mention that slavery itself still exists. That's true. But Appiah is asking which current, socially sanctioned practices will be eventually be regarded as barbaric. We still have human trafficking, but there's broad agreement in society that it's morally wrong, so it's beside the point vis a vis Appiah.

via International Monetary Fund / Flickr and Streetsblog Denver / Flickr

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