David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Humanity’s Five Biggest Moral Challenges

Because I’m an especially broad-minded mood this morning, and because I haven’t been able to get my butt in gear to finish any of the other blog pieces I’ve been writing the past few weeks, I decided to come up with a list of what I consider to be humanity’s biggest moral challenges going into the 21st century.

The Thinker by RodinWhat do I mean by moral challenges? Well, defining morality is a sticky business even if you’re a full-time philosopher, which I’m not, or a believer in God, which I’m also not. The definition I’m favoring these days goes something like this: morality means making decisions that benefit the most number of people in the long run, and by extension the human race as a whole.

So what, in my opinion, are the greatest moral quandaries currently facing the species? Thinking from the long view, and trying not to get bogged down in short-term issues (e.g. the Iraq War), I’d argue that they are these five:

1. We need a sustainable way to live on the planet. As I’ve written before on my post about Global Warming Skepticism, I don’t particularly care about the Earth, except inasmuch as we can’t live without it. Right now, letting the Earth die means letting us die. So it’s imperative for the species’ survival that we either a) learn to conserve the planet’s natural resources, b) figure out how to keep the species going using renewable resources, or c) invest heavily in survivalism science that will let us live without them. (Or, more likely, a combination of a, b, and c.) Personally, I’d be happy living in a funky sci-fi dome city, but making something like that sustainable is much harder than it looks. Ergo: investing heavily in alternative energy is a moral imperative.

2. We need to divorce morality from religion. I don’t think anything good comes from the belief that we should refrain from murder, theft, and rape because someone wrote it down in a book five thousand years ago. Those of us who don’t believe in an all-powerful Being In The Clouds are just as capable of defining principles of morality and sticking to them — in fact, I’d argue that we’re more capable. If you want to continue to believe in God, great; but we can agree on moral principles regardless without the intervention of priests, pastors, rabbis, popes, ayatollahs, imams, or prophets. What I’m saying is that the species needs to be able to think moralistically in a way that’s inclusive of both religious and non-religious people.

3. We need to figure out how to balance personal freedom with equitable division of wealth. Westerners are inclined to see the political landscape as a spectrum between hard-core loony socialism (all the world’s wealth should be divided equally among its population, regardless of merit) and equally loony hard-core capitalism (everyone go grab your share of the pie, and if that results in radically uneven distribution of wealth, so be it). In Infoquake and MultiReal, I called these two poles governmentalism and libertarianism. Somewhere in the middle, theoretically, is a society where nobody’s starving and everyone can afford basic medical care, yet we still have ample freedom to make our own individual choices without governments taxing us to death. We’ve got to find that place, and figure out how to sustain it long-term.

4. We need to take the nuclear option out of the picture. Once upon a time, two countries were idiotic enough to play a high-stakes game of chess where the stakes were the survival of the human race. You don’t like my way of governing? Fine, then let’s blow the whole place to hell and you can’t govern any of it. Figuring out how to get rid of these weapons so that nobody has the power to scour the planet clean is one heck of a challenge. There’s no Cold War anymore, but the odds of a nuclear war breaking out in either the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent are still much too high for us to ignore. (Personally, I don’t think the threat is going anywhere until some theoretical point in the future when we’re living so much of our lives virtually that physical threats just don’t make sense anymore.)

5. We need to get serious about global human rights. The United States pays a lot of lip service to the idea of global human rights — and compared to much of the rest of the world, we’re willing to do something about it more of the time — but too often we back down from the ideals of democracy when it suits us. The way we’ve helped Israel shunt aside the results of free, democratic elections in Palestine is shameful, and the way we turn a blind eye to similar human rights abuses in our allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia is equally ludicrous. But compared to much of the rest of the world, we’re light-years ahead. We’ve ditched slavery, worked hard to put all races on an equal footing, and we’re in the long, slow process of recognizing alternative sexual orientations. Until the whole planet works the same way, we’re going to have a hard time moving forward as a species.

Okay, so these are my five long-term moral challenges for the species. What did I miss?

Update 1/16/08: Some interesting commentary on this article by S. M. Duke here, here, and here.

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  1. Ian Sales on December 3, 2007 at 12:00 pm  Chain link

    I agree with most of your points, but…

    – it’s not just morality which is tied to religion, in some cases it’s the entire legal system. Which makes it somewhat difficult to change. Also there may be some common moral ground between cultures, but there’s a lot that isn’t.

    – I don’t see how personal freedom and redistribution of wealth is linked. One is a purely political argument, the other is economic. The fact that those nations with the most planned economies have been totalitarian is an accident of history.

    – surely a willingness to interfere to prevent human rights abuse itself leads to an abuse? A sovereign people have the right to their own sovereignty. An invasion can never be a “liberation”. Rendition is also an abuse of rights. Or perhaps we should draw up some sort of abuse scorecard, one that gives a threshold where interference becomes morally right. Assuming, of course, we all follow the same moral systems…

  2. cephyn on December 3, 2007 at 1:03 pm  Chain link

    Bravo, DLE! I completely agree with you on the major points here. I wish more people would come to understand some of the REAL issues facing us as a human race. I especially think that #2 is hugely important, since religion is one of the most polarizing things on earth right now. We can’t learn to live together if we’re too busy worrying about who believes in what magic cloud. I think if we could get #3 and #5 worked out, #4 would turn into a pretty small problem. As for #1, I’m more of a believer than you are regarding the human contribution to global warming, but regardless of that, we either need to take the human eggs out of our only basket and spread out, or make damn sure our basket isn’t going to fall apart – no cost is too great, because the alternative is the end of everything for us.

  3. Al Billings on December 3, 2007 at 1:57 pm  Chain link

    I don’t think we should have to “afford” basic medical care. Like every other large industrialized nation, it should be something that is provided to the citizenry through our taxes. This removes the fear of losing one’s job and going bankrupt because of a heart attack, for example, or of having uninsured kids, etc. regardless of where one is at financially. We’re the only major nation that doesn’t do this.

    The same goes for higher education. Only when our best and brightest can be healthy and fully educated without running the risk of starting their professional lives with six figures in debt will equality be turned around. Until then, it is the Paris Hiltons of the world that have this freedom, not the sons and daughters of shop keepers or wage workers.

  4. David Louis Edelman on December 3, 2007 at 1:59 pm  Chain link

    Ian: Aren’t personal freedom and redistribution of wealth directly linked? If I earn $1000, and the government automatically takes away $333 of it (or more), they’re taking away 1/3 of my economic freedom.

    surely a willingness to interfere to prevent human rights abuse itself leads to an abuse?

    It can. But the Germans willingly voted Hitler into power, and they overwhelmingly supported his efforts to stamp out the Jews. I think there are certain cases where you have to be willing to step in. Where to draw that line? Ah, therein lies the moral dilemma.

    An invasion can never be a “liberation”.

    Really? We invaded Europe in WWII and liberated the fuck out of it.

  5. David Louis Edelman on December 3, 2007 at 4:22 pm  Chain link

    Al: Good points. But it’s always a question of whether we can afford basic health care or not. If you’re not paying it directly through your pocketbook — or through your health insurance — you’re paying it through your taxes. If we raise taxes dramatically to accomplish universal healthcare, it’s going to cost us. You’re going to take home substantially less in your paycheck — which means you might not be able to afford a house or a car or food for your kids.

    It’s just a question of finding the right balance, and I’m not sure we — or the other industrialized nations with universal healthcare — have found it yet.

  6. Ian Sales on December 4, 2007 at 3:46 am  Chain link

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by economic freedom. Are you saying that freedom has a price, is something that needs to be paid for with cold hard cash? Freedom, surely, is being able to do and say what you want – within the constraints of a moral system (as in your point 2). Money is only an enabling mechanism for one small aspect of personal freedom. And, perversely, that $333 tax might be the “price” you pay for your personal freedoms…

    We didn’t go to war against Hitler because he put Jews, political prisoners, homosexuals, the elderly, mentally ill, handicapped, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Romany in camps. We went to war against him because he invaded Poland, and broke a treaty. And I wouldn’t say we “invaded” Europe since France, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc., were already occupied by a foreign power – Germany. We went to restore sovereignty.

    Perhaps rather than moral challenges, we should be looking at how societies can provide as many levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as they can. When all physiological and safety needs are met, we can start building towards societies which accept all forms of love/belonging, and which allow us esteem and self-actualisation, at no personal cost. (My friends, incidentally, have accused me of being a utopianist :-))

  7. David Louis Edelman on December 4, 2007 at 9:50 am  Chain link

    Ian: Sounds like we’re mostly quibbling over semantics here. Perhaps I’m mixing economics, politics, and ethics too freely… I tend to try to strip away the terminology and construct my arguments from the level of simple logic, and that usually gets me into trouble. :-) Maybe what I’m trying to say is that we still need to find that balance between personal freedom and societal obligation.

  8. Ian Sales on December 4, 2007 at 10:59 am  Chain link

    Makes sense to me. On the topic of “societal obligation”, do you mean an obligation by a society to its members, or the reverse?

  9. David Louis Edelman on December 4, 2007 at 11:10 am  Chain link

    I was thinking about the reverse, but I suppose both concepts apply here.

  10. George Pedrosa on December 4, 2007 at 12:30 pm  Chain link

    As an anarchist, I pretty much have my own opinion about how #3 could be achieved. No, I don’t believe in “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Sorry Marx, I have a lot of respect for what you tried to do, but I just don’t believe in that. How are we going to be capable of having a society without any form of State (which is what you ultimately desire) and still manage to make people receive only what they need?

    I think the silliest and most dangerous thing ever to be invented by mankind is private property. In my mind, that is the cause of everyone’s problems throughout History. By property, I’m not talking about the house where you live. Neither am I talking about your comic book collections. Those are possessions. I’m talking about ownership of land that you don’t live on or that you don’t use. I’m a strong believer in the cooperative movement, where factories are owned by the people who work on them, and land is owned either by the people who live on it, or use it on a regular basis. It may sound “utopian”, but, at least here in Latin America (especially in Argentina), cooperatives are very popular. If you have groups of workers who regularly receive the product of their labour, that ends the problem of how to balance personal freedom with equality. At best, there won’t be enough workers for all the land (and everything that can be built on it: factories, stores…) that we have available, instead of not having enough land for so many workers. We don’t even need to live on an anarchist society to have that kind of system working, if you’re one of the many people who believe that we NEED to have a government.

  11. Kyle Oathout on December 4, 2007 at 2:30 pm  Chain link

    I certainly agree with everything you’ve said, DLE, about the moral crises facing humanity today. I also happen to agree with Ian that the law system in the majority of countries is also tied to religion. We have to actually reform the whole societal state and the nature of what Law is. How many Muslim and Hindu countries have law systems actually taken from the Koran and partially modified because of Western pressure?

    Furthermore, on the topic of investing in survivalist science and managing resources, the problem we face in the long run is that as long as global integration and development remains hostage to non-world friendly resources such as coal, we will have an almost impossible task of changing over the behemoths that are India and China. Unless Alternative fuel becomes cheap and exportable, we will never achieve the global integration necessary for survival.

    In addition, global societal integration remains impossible as long as Religion is politically powerful. Remove religion and morality can be established across cultures with independent standards. It will take years, but as long as religion is involved, it will never happen.

    When looking at personal freedom and division of wealth, the most profitable system ever invented was the capitalist system for many years. Now, the European cooperative is the most profitable economic system. Period. While I understand that economic freedom is reduced by taxes, I’d like to argue where and at what point economic freedom is actually reduced.

    The taxing system here in America is old. If fixed, capital taxes would rise to about 40% on persons/corporations who make more than 250,000$ a year. That’s fair. It allows for the reduction of the middle class taxes which would actually raise many personal economic freedoms and help contribute to the economy. Those who are “losing” it are actually affected less or not at all by the cumulative loss of wealth due to the amount of what they actually have.

    I hope I have expressed myself in a manner which is easily understood.

  12. Al Billings on December 4, 2007 at 5:49 pm  Chain link

    The tax issue for health care is a strawman.

    We used to have progressive taxation in this country. This funded much of the new deal and prosperity in the decades following. Beginning in the 70s and accelerating with Reagan, progressive taxation was dismantled.

    You realize that people making an annual income of the equivalent of many millions a year used to pay over 90% in taxes. The growing massive concentration of wealth into the hands of a few can be directly linked to the end of progressive taxation and the evicerating of the estate taxes.

    If we can afford to fund wars of adventure overseas, we can afford to keep ALL of our citizens healthy and educated. Period.

  13. Al Billings on December 4, 2007 at 5:54 pm  Chain link

    The fact that the middle class is concerned about their taxes being raised was created by propaganda. Almost all tax reform is focused on less than 2% of the population (the 2% at the top). The changes that allowed them to pay an easy flat tax (if any) and little tax on capital gains basically shifted the burdens TO the middle class. They should be shifted back.

    Sure, you are successful and rich because of your work. You should pay back the society that enables your wealth in proportion to your success. This allows the working class of society (and lower middle class) to have things like equitable wages, social programs to help them, health care, and education. You know that we use to give students grants for college? Now we give them loans, thanks to the work of Reagan. More money in the hands of the upper class and the reducing of their tax load…

  14. David Louis Edelman on December 4, 2007 at 6:42 pm  Chain link

    Al: Not sure why one of your comments ended up in the moderation queue while the other one didn’t. Let me know if you want me to delete one of ’em.

    (I agree with you on the taxation issue, btw. It’s gotten way out of hand.)

  15. Al Billings on December 4, 2007 at 7:22 pm  Chain link

    Nah, you can leave them.

    Basically, there has to be a middle ground where it is worth being successful but where you don’t jack most of the country to do it.

    Look at the situation where many many graduates from even middle class families are $50,000 or $100,000 in debt by the time they get their Bachelor’s degree (which is a requirement for most “professional” career paths). I managed to avoid this by timing and luck (and how long ago I went to undergraduate school) but imagine being 22, looking to start a career, and having that level of debt. That’s day to day life for many people that I know.

    Then there are the people who don’t have a corporate job or simply are between jobs who go bankrupt because they have a heart attack or catch a nasty disease (or get a tumor) and their bills wind up going sky high. “Well, you had a successful career and a home but you got that lung tumor in between work or while starting your business and now you have to sell your home and declare bankruptcy.”

    Think about what the cost of health care and education does to those with even normal means. Now, the wealthiest Americans don’t have to worry about this, just like they don’t have to worry that homes in most major cities cost more than $500,000.

  16. amesadeluz on December 5, 2007 at 4:16 am  Chain link

    Moral or not, I would add feed the hungry of the world, I guess you could add it to #3.

  17. Brian on December 6, 2007 at 10:51 am  Chain link

    Okay, so these are my five long-term moral challenges for the species. What did I miss?

    Good as far as it goes. I would add that we need cheap access to space and the rest of it will take care of itself, but CATS is my hobby horse not yours.

  18. Bill Ruhsam on December 6, 2007 at 1:19 pm  Chain link


    I have an issue with your #1. You are equating the death of human civilization with the death of the Earth. That in itself is (probably) true; without the Earth there won’t be any humans, or human civilization. But it would take an awful lot of effort, more than we can muster, to “kill” the Earth. We have the ability to obliterate the current human society with a massive war or far-reaching climate effects, and the attendant die-off, but I doubt we have the ability to cause our species to go extinct. That is the realm of a stellar incursion such as a large metorite/comet impact or gamma ray pulse or supernova or the like.

    Whatever we do, I’m sure that there will be humans left for quite a while. Whether or not there are 6 billion of us around and operating a cohesive global society is quite a different question, and I think what you are really driving at.

  19. David Louis Edelman on December 6, 2007 at 1:39 pm  Chain link

    Bill: Well, I think a nuclear holocaust might do a pretty good job of obliterating the human race. Or a Terminator-style AI revolt, or massive out-of-control global warming, or nanobot gray goo…

    But your point is well taken. I’m mostly talking about maintaining some kind of contiguous global society, one where we’re not all scurrying around in caves and forgetting everything we’ve learned since the Ice Age.

  20. Bill Ruhsam on December 6, 2007 at 1:56 pm  Chain link

    I agree. You merely hit one of my buttons. I get all hot and bothered when people are talking about nuclear annihilation or destructive global climate change and say, “…the end of the world!”

    Well, the end of our lives, yes.

  21. Hey on May 26, 2010 at 4:11 pm  Chain link

    Wait did u just put the USA cares more than any other country obout human rights?

  22. Links for 04-12-2007 | Velcro City Tourist Board on February 7, 2011 at 10:16 pm  Chain link

    […] 5 – Humanity’s Five Biggest Moral Challenges (David Louis Edelman’… […]

  23. Facetious Buzz on January 1, 2013 at 5:51 pm  Chain link

    Bill Ruhsam,
    You are mistaken. Hundreds of millions of years of decaying vegetation in polar regions, like Siberia, has resulted in an unfathomable quantity of trapped methane deposits under the permafrost. Global warming will gradually melt the surface in these regions, releasing the methane into the atmosphere, and increasing its percentage in the atmosphere. If the average percentage reaches a certain delicate threshold, the atmosphere itself could ignite and evaporate into space, ending existence on Earth, not just for us, but extinction for Gaia (biospheric ecosystem).

    Unlikely, yes, but not impossible. Nothing is impossible. If the human race is sufficiently delusional and arrogant, we are more than capable of destroying our only home. Consider how many other aspects of our existence we collectively claim to want to change, to make different, and what are the results?

    Our absurdity runs a far deeper into our subconscious than anyone has ever understood. Here’s a taste of what we’re dealing with, or should I say NOT dealing with: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/opinion/sunday/were-all-climate-change-idiots.html

    I have 4 simple questions I want each of you to ask yourself:
    1. Who am I? [Not your name, title, profession, age, race, status, or any other aspect of your life situation]
    2. Where am I? [Not your physical location in space/time]
    3. Why am I where I am?
    4. What do I intend to do about it?

  24. t davids on April 5, 2013 at 4:45 am  Chain link

    As a personal note, i do believe that the issue concerning religion are the greatest moral challenges facing the world.This is because we as a global village can never reach a consensus on any issue that affects us as humanity due to our different viewpoints borne out of our various religious affiliations

  25. qwety on April 6, 2015 at 2:39 pm  Chain link

    You should really censor my comment. I think you are a big ass believing in nothing, so I also don’t believe a word you say poepol.

  26. […] start this off I want to link to Edelman’s original post. He presented five moral challenges to humanity: sustainable energy, divorcing morality from […]

  27. Morality Giving Site on October 8, 2015 at 9:18 am  Chain link

    Moral challenges are related with our moral uniqueness. Moral challenge are not about universal “right”solution but they are about unselfish inspiration that comes from our self-improvement.

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