Suppose that in the coming decades, Americans have a moral awakening with respect to the consumption of meat.
Suppose they conclude that eating meat is a grievous moral wrong, above all because it promotes cruelty to animals, but also because it contributes to environmental problems, including climate change.
That could happen. Many observers think that with the rise of plant-based meat alternatives such as the Impossible Burger, people will eventually be shocked and outraged that their parents and grandparents used to raise animals for food, allow them to suffer, and then eat them — without the slightest moral compunction.
If so, political candidates would undoubtedly be called to account for their onetime eating habits.
But my topic is not meat-eating. It is how to evaluate people’s behavior today in light of the moral judgments that people will make decades from now — and how to evaluate their behavior decades ago in light of the moral judgments that people make today.
The question is sharply posed in the context of the 2020 presidential contest by the controversy over former Vice President Joe Biden’s actions and comments in the 1970s, including his willingness to work with conservative senators who had terrible records on racial issues.
In 1977, Biden explained that he was skeptical about “court-ordered busing” in circumstances in which “there is no evidence that the governmental officials intended to discriminate.”
As the race for the Democratic nomination intensifies, Senator Kamala Harris of California has mounted a harsh and apparently effective attack on Biden’s behavior during the heated debates of the 1970s. But to be fair to Biden, it’s important to get a good handle on those debates — and from the standpoint of 2019, that’s not so easy.
To oversimplify: At the time, members of Congress could be divided into three groups. The first group despised Brown v. Board of Education, the great 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down the legal basis for racial segregation, the idea of “separate but equal.” They opposed busing altogether, even when courts ruled that it was a legally mandatory response to a history of segregation. It is right to characterize them as “segregationists.”
Members of the second group believed in racial integration. They were favorably disposed toward busing — even when no court had ruled that it was legally mandatory, and even when government officials had not engaged in old-fashioned racial segregation. Many of them emphasized that white children were going to better schools than African-American children. They wanted to fix that.
Members of the third group believed that federal and state officials were going too far in ordering busing to produce what they saw as “racial balance.” In their view, busing for that purpose could be a terrible inconvenience for both parents and children, and it threatened to do less good than harm.
The third group included racists and defenders of segregation, who saw busing as a dirty word, and who would do whatever they could to stop it. But it also included reasonable people who deplored discrimination and favored busing as a response to intentional segregation — but were convinced, rightly or wrongly, that public authorities were going a lot further than they should, or than Brown required.
From the standpoint of 2019, it looks as if Biden was making common cause with segregationists. In a way, he was. Still, it’s charitable, and more accurate, to see him as one of those reasonable people in Group 3.
But the real point doesn’t involve any particular controversy or any particular politician. It’s much larger.
Moral time travel is a perilous enterprise.
Cass R. Sunstein, Bloomberg