The Possibility of an Ongoing Moral Catastrophe


This article gives two arguments for believing that our society is unknowingly guilty of serious, large-scale wrongdoing. First is an inductive argument: most other societies, in history and in the world today, have been unknowingly guilty of serious wrongdoing, so ours probably is too. Second is a disjunctive argument: there are a large number of distinct ways in which our practices could turn out to be horribly wrong, so even if no particular hypothesized moral mistake strikes us as very likely, the disjunction of all such mistakes should receive significant credence. The article then discusses what our society should do in light of the likelihood that we are doing something seriously wrong: we should regard intellectual progress, of the sort that will allow us to find and correct our moral mistakes as soon as possible, as an urgent moral priority rather than as a mere luxury; and we should also consider it important to save resources and cultivate flexibility, so that when the time comes to change our policies we will be able to do so quickly and smoothly.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    I have inherited a family heirloom, a handbell with an attached note identifying it as: “Bell used to call slaves to meals before Civil War.” I do not know exactly how it came to be in my possession, but I fear the worst—and wonder what else I may have inherited from the same tainted source.

  2. 2.

    Reflect on Thoreau (1849)’s statement: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

  3. 3.

    For example, I take Zimmerman (2008) to be defending such a view in sect. 4.2, pp. 173–193.

  4. 4.

    For some vivid examples of how moral beliefs can lead one into evil, see Bennett (1974). Of particular pertinence is the discussion of Heinrich Himmler on pp. 127–129.

  5. 5.

    This basic point appears in Singer (1974), p. 103: “One should always be wary of talking of ‘the last remaining form of discrimination’. If we have learnt anything from the liberation movements, we should have learnt how difficult it is to be aware of latent prejudice [....]”

  6. 6.

    “It is possible to fail in many ways […], while to succeed is possible only in one”—Aristotle (350 BCE), II.6.

  7. 7.

    For a more detailed comparison of a hypothesized present-day moral catastrophe to the Holocaust, and a defense of making such comparisons, see Sztybel (2006).

  8. 8.

    I produced this figure with a back-of-the-envelope calculation, using data from the International Centre for Prison Studies (2012).

  9. 9.

    See Singer (1972)’s classic article demanding humanitarian aid to the poor.

  10. 10.

    Even if our future turns out not to be quite that fragile, Bostrom (2005) has remarked that a one-year delay in finding a cure for old age would result in an extra number of human deaths greater than the population of Canada.

  11. 11.

    The classic anti-abortion argument appears in Marquis (1989). In a nutshell: given that it is wrong to kill an unconscious person who would wake up later if left alone, why is it not wrong to kill an embryo which would wake up later if left alone?

  12. 12.

    Worse, instead of rights being proportionate to consciousness, there might be some single threshold at which rights are achieved—and this threshold might be low enough to include pigs. For example, see the classic arguments for an “experiencing subject of a life” test in Regan (1983).

  13. 13.

    For an example of a possible catastrophe which the reader has probably never even contemplated, consider the possibility that the function of the corpus callosum in a human brain is not to unite the two hemispheres in the production of a single consciousness, but rather to allow a dominant consciousness situated in one hemisphere to issue orders to, and receive information from, a subordinate consciousness situated in the other hemisphere. For the classic philosophical discussion of this two-minds-in-one-body idea, see Nagel (1971); for a review of the neurological evidence in favor of it, see Bogen (1986). The worst-case scenario here is that there are 300 million human slaves in America, whose frustration, boredom, and oppression we have not made any effort to ameliorate. Our failure to notice their existence would perhaps be a partial excuse, but may not be completely exculpatory—especially now that the evidence discussed by Nagel and Bogen has been available for decades.

  14. 14.

    Singer (1993) takes this line on p. 119: “if you see something moving in the bushes and are not sure if it is a deer of a hunter, don’t shoot!”

  15. 15.

    For a discussion of how to formulate hedging in the case of moral uncertainty, and of some of the problems that can arise while trying to do so, see Lockhart (2000), ch. 4.

  16. 16.

    For a more extensive survey of ways in which some types of knowledge can be dangerous, see Bostrom (2011).

  17. 17.

    For an in-depth examination of what policies might hasten moral progress, see Buchanan (2002).


  1. Aristotle (350 BCE) Nicomachean ethics. Trans by D. P. Chase (1911)

  2. Bennett J (1974) The conscience of huckleberry Finn. Philosophy 49(188):123–134

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bogen J (1986) Mental duality in the intact brain. Bull Clin Neurosci 51:3–29

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bostrom N (2005) The fable of the dragon-tyrant. J Med Ethics 31(5):273–277

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bostrom N (2011) Information hazards: a typology of potential harms from knowledge. Rev Contemp Philos 10:44–79

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bryant AC (2003) Stopping time: the pro-slavery and “irrevocable” thirteenth amendment. Harv J Law Publ Policy 26(2):501–549

    Google Scholar 

  7. Buchanan A (2002) Social moral epistemology. Soc Philos Policy 19(2):126–152

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Dawkins R (2006) The God delusion. Houghton Mifflin, New York

    Google Scholar 

  9. International Centre for Prison Studies (2012) World prison brief. Accessed 20 January 2014

  10. Lockhart T (2000) Moral uncertainty and its consequences. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  11. Marquis D (1989) Why abortion is immoral. J Philos 86(4):183–202

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Nagel T (1971) Brain bisection and the unity of consciousness. Synthese 22(3):396–413

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Regan T (1983) The case for animal rights. University of California Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  14. Singer P (1972) Famine, affluence, and morality. Philos Publ Aff 1(3):229–243

    Google Scholar 

  15. Singer P (1974) All animals are equal. Philos Exch 1(5):103–116

    Google Scholar 

  16. Singer P (1993) Practical ethics. Cambridge University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  17. Sztybel D (2006) Can the treatment of animals be compared to the holocaust? Ethics Environ 11(1):97–132

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Thoreau HD (1849) Resistance to civil government

  19. Zimmerman M (2008) Living with uncertainty: the moral significance of ignorance. Cambridge University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I am especially grateful to Larry Temkin for his many helpful suggestions on this and related material. I also wish to thank Jeff McMahan, the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, the various audiences which have given me feedback on this article, and an anonymous reviewer.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Evan G. Williams.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Williams, E.G. The Possibility of an Ongoing Moral Catastrophe. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 18, 971–982 (2015).

Download citation


  • Hedging
  • Moral mistakes
  • Moral uncertainty
  • Progress