Societies past were barbaric: slavery, witch-burnings, child labor, and wooden teeth. Writing in the Washington Post, Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah wonders what future generations will condemn us for. He suggests our prison system, treatment of animals in factory farming, neglect of the elderly, and desecration of the environment as four contenders for what will be viewed as our greatest crimes. What do you think?
We already know that the massive waste of life in our prisons is morally troubling; those who defend the conditions of incarceration usually do so in non-moral terms (citing costs or the administrative difficulty of reforms); and we’re inclined to avert our eyes from the details. Check, check and check.
And the full extent of the punishment prisoners face isn’t detailed in any judge’s sentence. More than 100,000 inmates suffer sexual abuse, including rape, each year; some contract HIV as a result. Our country holds at least 25,000 prisoners in isolation in so-called supermax facilities, under conditions that many psychologists say amount to torture.
The arguments against the cruelty of factory farming have certainly been around a long time; it was Jeremy Bentham, in the 18th century, who observed that, when it comes to the treatment of animals, the key question is not whether animals can reason but whether they can suffer. People who eat factory-farmed bacon or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they’re doing. Instead, they try not to think about it too much, shying away from stomach-turning stories about what goes on in our industrial abattoirs.
Nearly 2 million of America’s elderly are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight and, to some extent, out of mind. Some 10,000 for-profit facilities have arisen across the country in recent decades to hold them. Other elderly Americans may live independently, but often they are isolated and cut off from their families. Is this what Western modernity amounts to — societies that feel no filial obligations to their inconvenient elders?