A popular series of television ads by Liberty Mutual shows people doing small acts of kindness, which in turn influence others to do similar acts. The ads are powerful because they remind us how easily goodness is spread, from one person to another, one action at a time.
But if goodness is so easily spread, why isn’t there more of it? Why doesn’t the world get better and better with each succeeding generation?
In the 19th century, there was widespread belief in progress. After the industrial and scientific revolutions — and the rise of capitalist economies — most people believed that progress in every area of life was inevitable.
World War I, however, shook confidence in the inevitability of moral progress, and World War II brought even more discouragement, not only due to the size of the conflict but the immensity of evil perpetrated by “civilized” nations like Germany.
The disparity between humanity’s technological and moral progress led Will Rogers to quip, “You can’t say civilization don’t advance — for in every war, they kill you in a new way.”
Albert Einstein, looking back on his role in developing the atomic bomb, expressed the same idea, noting wryly that “technological progress is like an ax in the hands of a pathological criminal.”
Things haven’t changed much since World War II. Between 1945 and 2011, there were more than 260 major armed conflicts around the world, mostly civil wars. Global violence reached a peak in 1992 with 51 simultaneous armed conflicts. By 2010 there were only 12 armed conflicts taking place, but the number increased again last year. The dream of a sustained period of world peace has been largely abandoned — as has every other utopian dream in the past 2,000 years.
Given all the great minds who have written about ethics, and all the great leaders who have dedicated themselves to reducing wars, ending child abuse, promoting equality, enhancing freedom and encouraging civility, one would expect the world to be a better place than it is. If we can make progress in the areas of science and technology, why can’t we make moral progress as well?
One reason is the fact that science is a cumulative exercise: each generation starts with the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation. Newton, having described the law of gravity in the Principia in 1687, allowed others to pick up from there and advance the study of physics. Ethics, by contrast, is not cumulative, but cyclical. Each generation must start anew, discovering for themselves whether the insights, lessons, rules and guidance passed down to them are worth retaining.
Another reason is that science requires the full participation of only a small percentage of the population. The Salk vaccine can prevent polio simply by being injected into people; the recipients don’t have to know what is in it or how it functions; they don’t even have to believe it will work. But ethics, in order to have significant effects in society, must be understood and agreed upon by a critical mass of the population.
A third reason is that science advances by experimentation, but ethics by presence. In science, errors are corrected through trial and error, and once truth is established, it stays established. But ethics is passed along from one person to another on the basis of trust. If trust is broken, it can take years or even an entire generation to rebuild. Trust is a fragile condition in society, a condition that must be continually nurtured by each individual. It cannot be established once and for all.
Permanent moral progress may not be possible, but moral improvement is. Each individual, each family, each community, has opportunities to become better, by attending to mutual needs, often acting in little ways that encourage others to join in a conspiracy of goodness.
In this way, each generation does what is theirs to do. And even though our actions do not ensure a lasting good, they can contribute to the common good, painstakingly cultivated in each new child who enters the world, bringing that child into a safe and loving circle of family, friends and community, so that the same process may start all over again with the next generation.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.