A lot of moral philosophies lead to strange, counterintuitive, and often demanding conclusions. Utilitarians think you should donate as much money as you possibly can to charity. Kantians think you should never tell even little white lies. Catholics think you shouldn’t jerk off. Et cetera.

Let’s say you believe in moral progress: that there are moral questions we as a culture get right now that we didn’t get right two hundred years ago. This argument requires a very weak form of moral progress– you don’t have to believe that our culture is right about everything, or even most things, just that there is at least one issue that the nineteenth century got wrong and we got right. For instance, two issues which spring obviously to mind for me are “should we sentence people to prison for engaging in consensual homosexual sex?” and “should women have the right to vote?”

Now, if a moral philosophy with no obvious relation to homosexuality or feminism happened to get both of those questions right, back in the nineteenth century, that seems to me to be a strong argument in favor of that philosophy. If their strange, counterintuitive, and demanding conclusions turned out, several hundred years later, to be a good idea, then probably the current strange, counterintuitive, and demanding conclusions which it’s peddling are good ideas too.

Virtue ethics was, unfortunately, not very popular during the nineteenth century, so one cannot check how well it holds up. However, Kant (characterized as “central to deontological moral theories” by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) does not come across very well at all. He said that homosexuality was an unmentionable vice. Not only did he believe that women should not vote for “natural reasons“, he believed that wives were owned much as one would own property, very much reflecting the prejudices of his time, but perhaps not what a reasonable person would conclude from “treat people as ends and not means”.

The position of Christians on homosexuality is well-known, and I direct the interested reader to the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on women:

The third branch of the woman question, the social legal position of woman, can, as shown from what has been said, only be decided by Catholics in accordance with the organic conception of society, but not in accordance with disintegrating individualism. Therefore the political activity of man is and remains different from that of woman, as has been shown above. It is difficult to unite the direct participation of woman in the political and parliamentary life of the present time with her predominate duty as a mother. If it should be desired to exclude married women or to grant women only the actual vote, the equality sought for would not be attained. On the other hand, the indirect influence of women, which in a well-ordered state makes for the stability of the moral order, would suffer severe injury by political equality.

On the other hand, by this criterion, the nineteenth-century utilitarians do very very well. Jeremy Bentham supported women’s full equal rights, while John Stuart Mill went so far as to write a groundbreaking feminist text, The Subjection of Women. Jeremy Bentham concluded that homosexuality is morally fine, while John Stuart Mill was silent on the topic.

In conclusion: don’t eat meat, give money to the Schistosomiasis Control Institute, and a hundred and fifty years from now someone might be writing a blog post about how great your moral system is.