Global poverty has fallen to a record low. Far fewer people are starving, child labor is experiencing a sharp decline, life expectancy is increasing, child mortality is decreasing — when it comes down to it, the world right now is the best that it has ever been.
It seems like we’re making progress — we’re advancing and improving the world according to our idea of the truth about right and wrong.
However, the idea of a universal truth about what is “good” is incorrect, naive and offensive, because it mistakenly implies that history is moving towards some goal — a goal defined by our current values, which are extremely Western-centric. For our purposes, I’m defining “the West” as Europe and its culture, including that of the U.S.
History is often taught like a story. Textbooks tend to create illusions of a beginning, middle and end to a section of the past. In reality, this is not the case. We see story arcs only because we have superimposed those artificial barriers on our perceptions of the past.
History happens. Many people believe that the Roman Empire moved Europe (and generally the world) a few steps forward, the Dark Ages a step back, and the Renaissance forward again.
“Forward” may exist, but it is constantly subject to change depending on the view of the marcher. Sometimes, depending on where we’re facing, “forward” might be one way. But when we turn, even a fraction of a degree, “forward” becomes an entirely different direction.
In this way, history does not march towards some sort of completion. Human existence is not a game of Chutes and Ladders where you get to the end, no matter the setbacks. Time is more like a rocket ship drifting through space, going in no particular direction, heading nowhere, serving no purpose. That rocket ship is heading somewhere only if we imagine it is, and it serves purposes only in our ephemeral minds.
Only human (and some primate) perceptions can discern right and wrong. Without our consciousnesses, there is no conception of good or bad.
Therefore, “good” is what humans in that moment consider to be good — what “works” for us. This is called a pragmatic definition of truth. For example, because the idea that “murder is wrong” works for most everyone, we consider it to be the moral truth.
Because it is entirely dependent on human perceptions of it, the “good” is, and always has been, constantly evolving. Nowadays in the U.S., for example, we think that oppression of any group is bad, at least in theory. We are no more objectively “right” about this than past Americans have been about their “moral duty” to keep certain groups “in their place” because “right” doesn’t exist except in our minds.
Here in the U.S., our current values are extremely Western-centric. For example, the West tends to believe that equality for women is what’s right, but other cultures around the world do not always hold that opinion.
This assumption that we in the West are more “right” than others, and that it is therefore our prerogative to enforce our views on others, is a form of paternalism that echoes Western colonialism.
What we think of as “objective truth” is rooted in the assumption that our current Western-rooted conceptions of good are always and forever right. It also implies that, like Manifest Destiny, Western values will inevitably conquer the world because they are superior.
The idea that anyone knows the “objective truth” is intensely narcissistic, naive and insulting to those who disagree. No one truly knows what’s actually “best” for the world, they only know what they think is best for the world.
This is not to say that no one should try to do what they think is right. Societies are founded on shared values. From where I stand in my society, it seems to me that decreasing poverty and hunger are good things, and people around me tend to agree.
However, I do not pretend that this viewpoint is the one “objective truth.” I just try to help people in the ways I know how — if the people in need have the same objective as me.
Perhaps one day all of humanity will agree on what is right and wrong. That day’s pragmatic truth will not be eternal, but at least everyone will enjoy the rocket ship ride.
Margot Rosenblatt SC ’23 is from New York, New York. Though you wouldn’t know it from this article, she assures you that she’s a very optimistic and upbeat person. She would like to thank the participants in professor Seth Lobis’ seminar “Why Free Speech?” for inspiring her to write this piece.