Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Can Individuals Spark a Moral Revolution?

Question: Can individuals spark a moral revolution?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: So a moral revolution, like a scientific revolution, and I was actually thinking about the analogy between ethics and science and thinking about Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" that got me into this in the first place.  Moral revolutions, like scientific revolutions, take longer than political revolutions, they take a generation usually.  And in many of them, there are small groups, not usually just one person, but small groups of people who are crucial in setting the process in motion.  

We think rightly of William Wilberforce as a crucial figure in abolitionism in Europe, in Britain, in beginning to articulate clearly and forcefully the arguments against the wickedness of the slave trade. Those people do their work in part by creating organizations; organizations of people who commit themselves to the new norm.  The anti-foot-binding societies in China are very important in this.  They commit themselves to the new norm.  When you joined one of those societies, you said, “I won’t bind the feet of my daughters and I won’t let me sons marry women whose feet are bound.”   You sort of double deal.  And if you are a woman, you said, “I will unbind my own feet.”  You commit yourself to the new practice.  

Abolitionists joined societies where they committed themselves not just to not having slaves, but, for example, in the case of Britain, to not consuming sugar because sugar was produced through slave plantations and hundreds of thousands of people in England in the late 18th Century stopped using sugar, which was just beginning to be an important consumer product, because they associated it with slavery.  

So if you create organizations which commit themselves to implementing the norm, not just as a norm of morality, but as a norm, as a convention of everyday life, as it were, as something you are going to live by, then you can be one of the key figures in... if you create such institutions, you can begin one of these revolutions.  And I think that in all of these sorts of cases—there was an anti-dueling society in England—in all of these cases it is very important to get people organized around the new norm and it’s kind of exciting to be in those societies because of the thing I said earlier, which is that you can see that you’re on the right side because other people, the people who are engaging in the old norm, the norm you’re challenging, already know in their hearts, in part of their hearts at least, that what they’re doing is objectionable in some way, that it’s causing unnecessary pain, that It’d denying people things they are entitled to, that it’s crazy in the case of dueling; it’s just irrational because of course, in a duel, who wins doesn’t depend on who’s right.  

Well it’s crazy to have a practice that’s supposed to put something to right where who wins doesn’t depend on who’s right.  Everybody knew this was crazy, and yet, nevertheless, they went ahead with it anyway.  

So, you can begin one of these processes, you can help to begin one of these processes I think by articulating clearly the sort of arguments and getting them connected with dishonor as opposed with honor and by organizing groups of people who are committed to the new norm.  And if we think about people who are important in these processes, like Kang Youwei, who was a  important figure in the Chinese anti-foot binding movement, or like Wilberforce is an important figure in abolition, or like the Duke of Wellington who joined the anti-dueling society, these people are partly important because of their role in these organizations.

Recorded September 13, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Individuals like William Wilberforce of the abolitionism movement or Kang Youwei of the anti-foot-binding movement helped sway public opinion to a tipping point at which society’s perception reversed.

LIVE ON MONDAY | "Lights, camera, activism!" with Judith Light

Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
Keep reading Show less

Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

Personal Growth
  • We spend 40 percent of our childhoods asleep, a time for cognitive growth and development.
  • A recent study found an association between irregular sleep patterns in childhood and either psychotic experiences or borderline personality disorder during teenage years.
  • The researchers hope their findings can help identify at-risk youth to improve early intervention.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

    Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

    Credit: Neom
    Technology & Innovation
    • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
    • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
    • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
    Keep reading Show less

    Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

    Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?

    Videos
    • From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
    • "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
    • Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.

    Quantcast