We treat each other differently than our distant ancestors treated each other. In particular we are “nicer”, at least by our lights, to a wider circle of associates. For example, we enslave, rape, and murder each other less. The two main explanations offered for this change are:
We are built to be nicer to each other when times are good,
This seems to fit the story Benjamin Friedman's tells in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, where he
contends that periods of robust economic growth, in which most people see their circumstances palpably improving, foster tolerance, democracy and generous public support for the disadvantaged. Economic stagnation and insecurity, by contrast, usher in distrust, retrenchment and reaction, as well as a tightfisted callousness toward the poor and—from the nativism of 19th-century Populists to the white supremacist movement of the 1980s—a scapegoating of immigrants and minorities.
Re: I don’t know the scientific standing of dual inheritance theory (both behavioral genetic AND cultural selection) [...]
I made a video about that topic recently (http://youtube.com/watch?v=....
Synopsis: 1 textbook - subject explicitly excluded; 1 textbook - subject not mentioned; 1 textbook - subject covered in a few paragraphs. Coverage was generally appalling.
Here's what the textbook that got it right said:
"In short, humans have two unique hereditary systems. One is the genetic system that transfers biological information from biological parent to offspring in the form of genes and chromosomes. The other is the extragenetic system that transfers cultural information from speaker to listener, from writer to reader, from performer to spectator, and forms our cultural heritage."
- Evolution, Strickberger, 1996.
Uhm, tell that to Genghis Khan. One bad guy can upset quite a lot of social selection for good behaviour.
Also, do you have any evidence to indicate social pressure to be effective at such relatively short evolutionary time scales?
I agree with you, but I'm not a social scientist, so feel free to tell me I'm being naive here. I would add that: (1) law and order (especially the fear that one may be arrested, tried, prosecuted, and punished), and (2) fear of God (in particular, a religious belief that one will be judged if one does not obey God's laws, even if one is not caught by one's fellow man) might have something to do with this "moral" behavior? Add to that, (3) the "great equalizer" (see http://www.factmonster.com/... and (4) the relative minor importance/economic value nowadays of human slave labor (heck, we don't even enslave oxen all that much, in modern societies), and I think you might have much of the explanation for our "moral progress." In contrast, societies run by despots (e.g. North Korea, Cuba) demonstrate, I think, that modern humans have not advanced at all biologically, in any moral sense. Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin are hardly fundamentally different from us in their genes. Rather, they were not subject to (or overcame) moral constraints on their behavior. Woe to any society that fails to constrain these ambitious, clever, and utterly ruthless monsters. Let us not delude ourselves that humanity has advanced beyond them. And remember, "good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." -- George Orwell
Being rich doesn't prevent the bottom from rebelling, its more the opposite during a crisis of rising expecations. Read "The Economics of Repression" in Luttwak's Coup Detat. He uses Papa Doc as his case study, but Kim Jong Il's North Korea is a good example today.
Technology is good at concentrating weath in the hands of an elite few. The rest of society just has to be kept rich enough not to stage a rebellion and seize power. So far, that has meant that a majority of voters do OK - and a trailing edge falls into the poverty gutter.
More resources will probably mostly make the rich even richer. General quality of life might rise a bit - but there will probably still be a poverty gutter.
As to what will happen when most minds live inside computers - then we will probably have brains of many different sizes with different roles - and then the whole concept of "per-capita wealth" won't make much sense - except as a meaningless average.
You've left out an important explanation: biological evolution of humans. For most of recorded history, societies have branded many of those who treat others badly as criminals and killed, imprisoned, and otherwise lowered their genetic fitness. While this process is imperfect, in that some groups manage to escape notice or deflect blame, it is nevertheless sufficient to produce steady moral progress with no other explanation needed.
I think it's a feedback loop; becoming wealthier allowed our ancestors to bring more people into "personhood", which in turn by increasing the returns of dealing with them more closely and reliably increased their wealth; which lead them again around the loop, a "virtuous circle" as it were.
I expect we will actually see a future of much lower per-capita wealth, after the em transition
I find that unlikely. Because, well before ems are technically possible, we will have huge intelligence-amplifying tools, which is a much simpler problem. This will lead to giant leaps in per-capita productivity, and thus large increases in per-capita wealth.
I suspect that the entire human population will be hugely wealthy, well before ems are sufficiently good to merit the status of "personhood".
Now, if you think that after that point, per-capita income will plunge ... well, maybe so. But also maybe, it won't matter, since per-capita net worth will be so high. Labor income will no longer be a significant part of the human story.
I would note that people's ideas towards "maturity" are much the same - the change in behavior is largely because of a change in circumstance rather than actual development. Adults who are already established have little need to act brashly out of insecurity. Likewise married adults no longer need deign to deal with the messy realities of mate selection.
"Since we are now richer and have interactions with more distant others, we are nicer to a wider range of allies."
There's a very strong argument that we are richer because we are nicer in our interactions with distant others. The fundamental problem of exchange and its effects in primitive economies is pretty well understood, and one effect of improving our treatment of distant others is that it can significantly improve the collective outcome of a multi-period prisoner's-dilemma type problem. The fact that I can trust some store in Germany to have my credit card number, use it only to pay for the transaction in question, and actually ship what I've ordered, plus trust all the middlemen in between not to steal it, makes a great deal of profitable exchange possible that otherwise would not be. This may even be a mechanism by which morality expanded; trade with others required the development of trust, and the development of trust was paired (in one causal direction or the other) with a belief in the humanity (i.e. moral relevance) of distant others.
Breaking the rather complex development of cultural morality into, "Experts told us," vs. "We got richer, so we could afford it," may more than slightly oversimplify the issue.
At the risk of committing that same mistake, most of the change in Western morality appears to develop from a refinement of the concept of personhood; it used to apply to tribesmen, and has over time expanded across nations, races, genders, and numerous other dividing lines to include most humans. I'm under the impression that most acts of rape, violence, etc. were between rather than within tribes, so this would represent more of a change in how we view the world than a change in how our morals work. Of course, this more of a description of what happened than a reason why; the answer to that is that I don't know enough to provide a succinct reason, if such a reason in fact exists.
Your last paragraph about children in school is very thought provoking. "Moral progress" would explain children's behaviour nicely. But it "Conditional morality" were true, then that would reflect quite badly on schools and the education system.
It also makes me wonder why we tolerate children being violent to eachother so much?
so do we spend a lot of resources preparing for bad times that never happen? I'd venture that all hyperbolic time discounting falls under this category (you never know when your resources will be stolen and you murdered, so enjoy them while you can. go ahead and buy that car if it will help you mate tomorrow, who cares about 10 years from now.)
I think the term "moral progress" just muddies the waters. "Less violent" does just fine. I don't know the scientific standing of dual inheritance theory (both behavioral genetic AND cultural selection) but I think this would be a natural place to consider it. It seems plausible to me that more violent people (or people with less impulse control) have been selected against genetically over generations from pre-agricultural periods to today.As for ems, who knows what the fuck will happen, of course. Slavery progress is an interesting question because while capital may have become less overtly coercive to labor, it seems to me to have become better at extracting productivity from labor. Slavery/autonomy seems to me to be more of a spectrum than violence, and I can see situations where coercive labor improves algorithmic persistence odds for a society as a whole (although perhaps there are situations where violence, state or non-state sanctioned, does so as well).
In response to a query off-blog, perhaps I should emphasize that the foregoing is not a guaranteed prescription for the prevention of catastrophic "Black Swans", but the factors of coherence (for efficiency) and hierarchy (for adaptive resilience) are probably key to an optimum approach within an inherently uncertain and evolving environment. Lather, rinse, repeat...