Michael Shermer at Reason writes that mankind is being uplifted by a “moral Flynn effect”–not only are we much smarter than our ancestors; we are also much more moral, and the smarter among us are the most moral of all. Of course, one’s opinion of this thesis will depend on whether one agrees or disagrees with the moral novelties of recent decades. I’ll leave the critique of the writer’s biases and unwarranted assumptions to readers who feel they’re not getting enough practice at that sort of thing, limiting myself to a quibble over language. I would say that the trend he describes is not so much men becoming more moral as men becoming more docile. The very intelligent, I am willing to concede, are a very docile bunch, inclined neither to violent crime nor to questioning the reigning liberal dogmas, these being Shermer’s two measures of moral advance. Docility is usually a good thing–heaven forbid I speak disparagingly of it!–but it is not quite the same thing as morality, a potentially wilder attribute.
What I’d really like to talk about is an interesting claim that comes up in the essay. Shermer proposes an explanation for the connection between intelligence and morality: intelligence helps us understand the perspective of others, which makes us treat them better. Thus, the more intelligent of us have broader sympathies, and as the Flynn effect raises the general IQ, society as a whole becomes more compassionate and just. Here we have an empirical claim that can stand apart from the ethical commitments of the writer. One might even make this claim while remaining ambivalent on the moral value of perspective-shifting. Traditionally, justice was seen as the “view from nowhere”; just sampling the different perspectives couldn’t reveal which one is right. Compassion can be misdirected. Failure to punish can be a defect of justice. The more sympathetic party is not always the one in the right.
In fact, I doubt we are getting better at perspective-shifting. My observations all go the other way. It seems to me that modern men are uniquely lacking in the ability to assume other peoples’ perspectives, and in fact that they have gotten noticeably worse at it over the course of my own lifetime.
Here’s an example you’ll all know. Back when I was growing up, it was not only possible but common to have a nuanced attitude toward the American Civil War. Those of us growing up in the North learned that we were in the right, but we were taught to respect the Rebels’ virtues. Gone with the Wind was a beloved movie throughout the nation, while today such a movie taking the perspective of the defeated (those “on the wrong side of history”) would be unthinkable. Indeed, the contemporary world goes to extraordinary lengths to shield itself from other perspectives. In its fiction, no sympathetic character is ever to be found without the full battery of contemporary progressive opinions. Shermer himself ends his essay boasting of his inability to understand significantly different points of view, saying that the attitudes of people one century ago “sure seem morally moronic to us today”, and thanks to the moral Flynn effect he doesn’t worry that this might mean that he’s missing something. In the days of Christendom, no man could call himself educated who hadn’t read deeply from pagan antiquity. Our new generation, having so little exposure to other perspectives, never had a chance to build up any tolerance to the experience and now finds itself outraged at the slightest ideological nonconformity.
We are the generation that invented a new type of movie to indulge revenge fantasies against long-vanquished enemies. Is it really true that the generation that enjoys Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained is is better able to adopt outsiders’ perspectives than the ancient Greeks who listened to The Iliad? Today’s distinctive moral style is better captured by “Spengler’s” response to Gone with the Wind:
Given the sad history of racial oppression in the South for a century after the Civil War, the only thing to regret is that Sherman didn’t finish the job. I stopped watching the film version of Gone With the Wind after Scarlett O’Hara saved her plantation from the tax-collector. I wanted her to pick cotton until her back broke.
Spengler can comfort himself that by the time the “Good War” came a century later, we had gotten much, much better at murdering civilians. One thinks also of Tim Wise’s famous gloating over the immanent death of white cultures as quite characteristic of our age. Scipio wept as Carthage was destroyed, realizing that such was ultimately the fate of all peoples, including his own. Such sentiments are totally alien to the moralists of today, confident as they are of being History’s chosen people. The posture is that of an Old Testament prophet reveling in the coming chastisement of idolaters and gentiles, and its essence is moralistic sadism.
Our age has not so much increased human sympathy as weaponized it. Empathy is directed exclusively to recognized victim groups (Jews, blacks, perverts), and it is meant to inspire not works of mercy toward these victims themselves but attacks on their supposed oppressors. Pity is no longer a check on aggression, but a spur to it.