Does “The Future” Have Moral Authority?

People are changing their minds about a great deal of moral and religious truth claims. Because of these dramatic changes, I’ve heard many people advocate for adopting the future moral consensus as the right moral consensus.

For instance, consider four significant trends with me:

  • A recent census in the U.K. showed that the number of self-reported Christians was down sharply, while the number of atheists was up sharply. (Though apparently 176,632 people identified themselves as “Jedi Knights”).
  • Social approval of the gay lifestyle and gay marriage has strongly increased in the past decade.
  • The rate of global warming is steadily increasing, with the best scientific evidence attributing this to the collective decisions of human activity.
  • The executive director of a U.N. task force that includes human trafficking has said, “We fear the problem is getting worse, but we can not prove it for lack of data, and many governments are obstructing.”

For some of these trends, my friends have told me that I need to “stop being old-fashioned,” or, more positively, to “get up to-date with modern, civilized perspectives on morality.” For others, my friends have lamented how stupid, bad, and wrong the human species can be, and launched campaigns to try and turn the tide in a better direction.

Here’s the point: depending on whether I am talking to someone who is religiously liberal, religiously conservative, or irreligious, I get different answers about the moral authority of the future. But no one, whatever their worldview, will admit to me that if human trafficking becomes commonplace and widely accepted that this practice will become a moral good.

What this demonstrates is the truth of a certain kind of “Moral Equation,” namely:

The Future Moral Equation: “The social consensus about morality in the future” does not equal “what is actually moral.”

But as obviously true as this equation is, when I’ve shared it with some of my friends, they’ve strongly protested: no, no, no they say, human trafficking will never be approved of, people will wake up to the science of global warming and do something about it, atheism will finally triumph, and gay marriage will flourish. We have confidence in this future scenario, and it is this future morality that you should accept as normative.

A few questions: Really? How can we know the future will be this way? And if, for some reason, the future moral consensus is different, would you accept this alternative moral order as the correct one?

Let’s take a lesson from history. For instance, “The trade of slaves in England was made illegal in 1102, although England went on to become very active in the lucrative Atlantic slave trade from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century.” Would it have been acceptable to argue in the 1600s that “slavery is a moral good” because English society was about to become “very active” in the slave trade? Would “the future” have made the pro-slavery position the moral position?

No? Why? Because slavery would later become illegal in England? But then human trafficking is potentially on the rise again today. What if, once more, slavery becomes the new moral norm in a hundred years time? Slavery was once illegal in England, but it then became legal. So even though the practice is illegal now, it could certainly become legal again.

Another example from history: the social acceptance of prostitution. A hundred years ago in Europe, prostitution was widely looked down upon and viewed as immoral and illegal. Now, however, prostitution is legal and regulated in many European countries (Austria, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, etc.). Perhaps we should all agree that prostitution is good and fine? Or is it acceptable to advocate for women’s rights by opposing legal prostitution and seeking decent jobs for women?

These historical examples make it clear: the morality of the future may not look the same way you think it should.

The moral consensus of the future may be better than the current moral consensus. It may be worse. And that’s the point: “The social consensus about morality in the future” does not equal “what is actually moral.”

A Surprising Twist: Another Kind of Future Morality

As I have continued to talk through this issue with many people, I’ve noticed a consistent and profound hopefulness that the future will be better. That the future will be moral. That things will get better. That, one day, everyone will realize the difference between right and wrong.

Consider, in that spirit, these words from the last book of the Bible, from Revelation 21:22-27 (I’m using the English Standard Verson translation):

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Consider this a clue: your longings for a better future fit with God’s plan to make all things right. That which is truly evil will be revealed and punished; that which is truly good will be acknowledged and honored.

Think about it: if you sincerely hope for a better future, perhaps this is a hint that you were made in the same world that the Bible says is real.