We often wonder how people of the past, including the most revered and refined, could have universally engaged in conduct now considered unconscionable. Such as slavery. How could the Founders, so sublimely devoted to human liberty, have lived with — some participating in — human slavery? Or fourscore years later, how could the saintly Lincoln, an implacable opponent of slavery, have nevertheless spoken of and believed in African inferiority?
While retrospective judgment tends to make us feel superior to our ancestors, it should really evoke humility. Surely some contemporary practices will be deemed equally abominable by succeeding generations. The only question is: Which ones?
I’ve long thought it will be our treatment of animals. I’m convinced that our great-grandchildren will find it difficult to believe that we actually raised, herded, and slaughtered them on an industrial scale — for the eating.
To be sure, there has been a salutary turn in our attitude toward animals, especially their display and confinement. To its credit, Barnum & Bailey is retiring its elephant acts. Festooning these magnificent creatures with comically gaudy costumes and parading them about, often shackled, is a reproach to both their nobility and our humanity.