My friend Bryan G. Stephens is a mental health and management professional in Georgia. The following excellent essay was originally posted on Ricochet.com. Welcome, Bryan!
Morality in society is driven by what is possible. I can use many examples, but I am going to focus on three:
The best estimate we have is that half the people who have ever walked this earth lived before the dawn of history and agriculture. That will change this century. Still, for today, half of human beings lived as hunter-gatherers, moving about in tribes of 100-200 individuals or so. Humans being born, living, loving, laughing, crying, and dying in a world that changed little from generation to generation. Their technology was primitive, with fire, stone, and wood. Of course, these humans did some amazing things. Somehow, ancient people crossed the Pacific Ocean and colonized Hawaii and Easter Island. Humans wandered across every land bridge and colonized the world. We are amazing creatures. We also tend to think of “our tribe” as the only “true” humans.
There are so many examples of this in history (once it starts up) that we have to believe this was the norm in the past. Humans seem naturally tribal. My tribe is worth altruism, support, and care. The other tribe is not entitled to any of that, and they may be the enemy. The idea that all human beings are of the same value is, let’s face it, a pretty inhuman concept. Really, can a tribe that does not eat fish really be fully human? What about those guys over there who cannot even drink milk? You see how it goes. Humans pick up on superficial differences to make points. I joke about food taboos, but these are exactly the sorts of things groups seized upon to make their lines demarcating themselves from others.
With the advent of cities, driven by the revolution of agriculture, things changed. Now, somehow, humans had to figure out how to get along with strangers. Dunbar’s number of about 150 individuals we can know gets breached and we are in new territory. It was the technology of agriculture and that changed things. We had to get along as strangers, so the idea of a supertribe was mandatory to get along. People had to say, “I am not just part of this 100 or so people, but I am a member of Ur, the great city. The other people of Ur or my kin and they have value too, though not as much as my family. What is important is they are not those people in Babylon.”
It is hard to talk about slavery at all in 2022, which is in and of itself a sign of our detachment from history and hardships. Slavery has been endemic to Mankind since the days of early agriculture. Once societies moved from the paleolithic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles and into farming, they discovered a need for someone to farm. While agriculture provides more food and more stability, there is some evidence it also ushered in longer working days and certainly required more energy for creating food. Even in the early days, there was enough surplus for a small number of people to have lives not devoted to the acquisition of food. We call this Civilization.
Now that more people could be fed, it made sense to produce as much food as possible. The only way to make more food was through the use of Mankind’s first renewable power source: muscle power of humans and animals. Animals are clearly in bondage to humans. It is a small leap to put other humans into bondage as well, especially if they are of “The other” and maybe not as human as you are in the first place. In short, it is an easy jump from planting to forcing others to plant for you. After all, those other people are not as of much value as your people are anyway.
Slavery, in some form or another, has therefore been with us for 10,000-plus years. It cropped up in all human societies with agriculture around the world. The West only moved against slavery in the past two centuries, less than 2% of the time since the agricultural revolution. By the time that happened, every philosophical idea used to counter slavery already existed. Yes, it was Christians who turned on slavery. It was also Christians who had spent the previous 1,500 years before that happily engaged in it. Yes, it was the West itself, with ideas of the rights of people, ideas that dated back to Rome and Greece. Yet, those same people engaged in the practice of slavery. While some might argue that chattel slavery is fundamentally different than some ancient practices, I disagree. Chaining someone to oars and making him row until he dropped dead or leaving him to burn in a ship is not honoring that man as a person. The reality is, all slavery is wrong as it robs people of their God-given rights to self-determination. Chattel slavery may be its worst form, but it is a lie to think that suddenly came about with European expansion. Slavery is a normal part of civilization throughout history. Therefore, we have to ask, just what changed in the Christian West to make people decide that slavery was antithetical to Natural Rights and Christ’s teachings. The answer is clearly technology.
As I said before, what drove the existence of slavery was the demand for more muscle power. For most of Mankind’s existence, that has been the only real power we have had. Yes, water mills and windmills and sails have all been around, but the work they did was minor compared to the blood, sweat, and tears throughout the ages. That all changed with the industrial revolution. With the burning of wood and then fossil fuels to power machines, far more work could be done. Slavery was no longer needed to maintain as many people outside of farming. In 2022, modern nations don’t need slaves because we have machines that do it all for us. We don’t need servants either. Even the poor have time freed from mundane tasks such as washing clothes and extensive meal preparation because of our machines. Electricity from the wall is magic we take for granted. Slavery fell out of fashion.
I would be remiss if I left a discussion on slavery and technology without mentioning the technology that kept it alive, the Cotton Gin. Slavery was dying as uneconomical in the South. Everyone thought it would just fall off. Then technology changed and the morals on the ground changed, and slavery was just back on. The industrial revolution was not all one direction!
Child labor is one of those things that people of the 21st Century look at and feel their stomach turn. Children should have fun lives, get to enjoy their childhoods, and have some time to grow up. This is not something people felt until the middle of the 20th Century in the West. For most of the history of civilization, children could be and were economic assets. Children worked on the farm early. This has been the way from the old days. Yes, child number five might get more of the childhood as we understand it, but if you were first born, for most people, life was working that farm. With industrialization, children could be put to work in factories, and they were. This made a lot of sense for lower-income families, as it put more money into the kitty. Today, around the world, children work in factories and their families are darn happy they get the money.
Of course, for 21st-Century Americans, it is illegal, and we find it abhorrent. I mean, not so abhorrent we don’t buy cheap things made by children in horrible situations in other nations because that is what free markets are all about. We just don’t want it for our kids in America. But I digress. What has happened is technological progress. Even the poorest of Americans have enough to eat, a place to stay, and access to resources that most humans throughout history would have called paradise. (Homelessness is its own subject and not addressed here, but let’s be honest, in America no one is in danger of starving to death). Poverty in America is not poverty as it has been understood. There is simply no reason for families to have their five-year-olds work to support the family. Indeed, we believe in this so strongly, we will give you more aid for your children. Is that civilized or what? We are rich enough and technologically advanced enough that having young children work no longer makes sense. So we can condemn it (just keep those cheap products coming from China).
As we have seen, humans have not tended to see even other humans as moral equals. This has been demonstrated even more so between men and women. Until the 20th Century, women were second-class at best and property at worst. What happened in the 20th Century was not just a sudden surge of enlightenment. As we saw with slavery in the industrial revolution, we see a diminishment of the importance of muscle power. This lowered the relative value of a man. As the wealth of all has increased, civilization can actively take people from farming and put them into providing security. Women no longer need “their” man to protect them from other men because we can outsource that particular function.
With the rise of jobs without high requirements for muscle power, women’s ability to provide income for the family outside of running the home increased. Early on, this might have been working in mills, but this growing economic power helped to give women a seat at the table for their own political power. While (all) women in 1700 were not property in America, they sure did not have the political power of men.
Of course, women also benefited from the rise in medical science in the 20th Century. Before modern obstetrics, women did not live longer than men on average. Our big-brained heads being passed through our upright bodies have long been a design flaw in the form of Homo sapiens. Today, death in childbirth is far less likely. If not dying is not increasing one’s power and value, I don’t know what is. Other technological improvements include little things like pads and tampons to manage menstruation. Guys, this is no small thing in modern technology to liberate women. And as long as we are talking babies and periods, let us come to the biggest technological change since Mankind started planting food: birth control.
Throughout history, humans have sought effective birth control because sex is a lot of fun and it leads to babies. In the 1960s, “The Pill” was upon us and it heralded the sexual revolution. Women could control conception for the first time. (Though the Romans may have had a plant they could use. We can’t be sure as they used it to extinction.) Women could both enjoy sex and delay pregnancy. Thanks to medical science, abortion could be performed safely as well (a big change from millennia of unsafe abortion and outright infanticide). This allowed women to live the lives of men if they choose. Society adapted, and in the 1970s, the world changed for us. Traditional norms were being overturned. None of this would have happened without the technology to support it. Today, we are engaged in a great experiment of the past 60 years to see if men and women can work side by side, which is not how human beings have ever operated before.
Technology has altered human thought and human behavior. The first half of Humanity, when it was static, culture seems to have been static. It was with the advent of agriculture that things started to change, and people were even able to try out new ideas and concepts. With increased technology came more opportunities for experimentation and change. This has only accelerated. We attempt to find a moral framework to cope with the power and knowledge that we have today.
Future technology will cause different changes. An example is abortion. Part of the success of the pro-life movement has been the advent of pictures of babies in utero that are clearly babies. When we develop artificial wombs that any embryo or fetus can be transferred too, what of abortion then? I think the pressures against abortion will be much higher then. I wonder what other ethics and morals will change with what the future brings.
Readers, if you would like to read more of what Bryan has to say, please visit his own site at www.talkforward.com. Thanks so much for reading, and feel free to comment below.