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Tom Gilson on the Ethics of the Latest Today

Modernity is good. Tradition is bad. Who knew it was so simple? ¶ But when did modernity begin, and what gave it such ethical primacy? What is the message here? Is [it] that later is better, and older is worse? That’s an argument that’s far too easily made today. It can’t be disproved! What I mean by that is that there is nothing later than today, nothing more modern to judge today, nothing to prove today wrong, as long as the standard is that newer is better. ¶ The problem with that, of course, is that there were other todays before today’s today. Some of them were quite modern todays. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century was all about progress and modernity, and during the todays of that era, progress and modernity carried the same ethical force they carry for [some] today. Hitler’s Germany was about progress and modernity in its own “today.” So were the killing regimes of Stalin and Mao.

In that light it’s hard to join … in condemning those whose moral choices are guided by something other than the latest latest. It’s equally hard to share in … reverent praise for progress, and … mocking of tradition just because it’s traditional.

Science progresses, and that’s good: we acquire more knowledge, more technology, more understanding, and more control. [Some seem] to think that morality progresses as well, but toward what? If progress and modernity define morality, [do they] think that moral progress consists in the passage of time? Such a view brushes up against tautology. There’s nothing new in moral knowledge except that if it’s new it’s new, and if it’s new it’s good.


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