Occasionally I wonder how social values will change over the next several decades. I’m pretty sure they will change, and our descendants will look back on the early years of the 21st century and find some of our ideals bizarre—as repugnant as we find slavery, sexism, and repression. But which ones? Here are some guesses.
As a race, we’ve shown a pretty clear trend toward abolishing arbitrary divisions
between people. We no longer consider some races to be sub-human, for example, or one
gender to be undeserving of the vote.
Ethical vegetarianism, practically unheard of a century ago, is increasingly common,
and animal cruelty is now widely considered to be a terrible thing.
To me this suggests we’re on the way to overthrowing
the belief that animals have no feelings worth considering, and that we have the
right to eat them. I don’t think we’ll ever consider animals to be our equals, but we
won’t think their feelings are worthless, either.
Prediction: First we’ll outlaw agricultural practices that cause animals pain, and eventually we’ll stop eating them.
When you’re under threat, patriotism makes a lot of sense:
your chances of survival go up if you band together with similar people.
But as globalization brings people of all nations closer together,
making international travel and communication astonishingly easy,
national boundaries mean less. The more we learn about foreigners,
the more we find we have in common with them; and not only that,
as the world undergoes a slow, inevitable cultural homogenization,
we do have more in common with them.
At the same time, a consistent pattern shows up every time citizens of a large Western nation go to the ballot box: city-dwellers vote liberal and country people vote conservative. How long before residents from Manhattan, London, Sydney, Paris, and Berlin have more in common with each other than they do with rural residents of their own country? Do they already?
Patriotism is a pretty crappy ideal in the first place. It’s clearly untrue that people who happen to have been born in your country are more special or worthy of your support than people who happen to have been born somewhere else. In fact, patriotism is even less defensible than racism, because at least there you have a biological basis on which to discriminate. When you’re patriotic, you’re using an imaginary line.
Prediction: Eventually people won’t identify themselves primarily by their nationality, but rather by their belief system.
Recent events in certain Western countries notwithstanding, the influence of
religion on people’s lives has been falling for as long as recorded human
history. So I don’t see why it should stop now.
Prediction: Few people will believe in a literal God or identify themselves as followers of a religion.
There’s more concern about privacy in democratic countries today, but there is less actual
privacy. It’s increasingly difficult to interact with government departments and
corporations without supplying personal details, and, thanks to improving technology,
it’s increasingly easy for those bodies to amass, analyze, and use that
information. Governments have strong incentives to invade people’s privacy, since
it increases their ability to control the populace, and they have very little
incentive to protect privacy.
As technology creates more powerful and more easily accessible weapons, a single rogue person will be capable of inflicting greater harm on other people. The best defense against this is probably surveillance. Since human beings are more interested in safety than privacy, I don’t think we’ll fight hard enough against loss of privacy to stop it happening.
Prediction: People will no longer believe in a basic entitlement to privacy from government.
Selflessness. Regulated capitalism harnesses the power of
self-interest to make societies more productive. It generates enormous amounts of
wealth that, more or less, benefits society as a whole. Thus, capitalism is here to
stay for the foreseeable future.
However, capitalism rewards selfishness. People who act only in their own best interests tend to accumulate more money than those who don’t. For evidence of this, you don’t need to look any further than the types of personalities who end up running major corporations—or corporations themselves, which are by definition the purest embodiment of selfishness, and society’s biggest wealth-generators.
In capitalist societies, money means success: power, influence, and status. And since the wealthy are society’s winners, they are its role models. To succeed, others will emulate their behavior.
Prediction: People will believe less strongly in the moral duty to help others, and more strongly in the morality of self-interest.
That’s my best guess (for now): a society that looks back on mass-farming with horror, shakes it head at our obsession with flags, pledges, and anthems, sees little difference between religion and superstition, finds bemusement in our worries about privacy, and sees altruism as naive, even childish. Utopia? Well, not exactly. But then, I’m not predicting what I’d like to happen.