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The wrong side of history

November 14, 2019 In the previous post we discussed problems associated with the tipping point theory and the assumption that success is inevitable for social change movements. In this post, we'll discuss a related "inevitability" fallacy.

Some circumcision opponents say that those of us who defend the procedure are on the wrong side of history. They say that in 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years, circumcision will be viewed as morally wrong, if not evil. At that point in time people who currently support circumcision will be viewed the way we today view people in earlier times who defended segregation or slavery.

Rebukes about the wrong side of history are based on three faulty assumptions. First, that the proposed social change is morally good and correct. Second, that moral progress is inevitable. And third, that one can know the future with certainty.

We reject the notion that circumcision is immoral or unethical. But we'll save a discussion on the moral and ethical aspects for another post. Today we'll simply propose that history doesn't move in a straight path toward morality.


Many recall American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." [1] Political scholar Jacob Levy pointed out that King later issued a less optimistic view. [2] King wrote, "Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” [3]

George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin noted that

The 19th century abolition of slavery and serfdom throughout most of the world—one of the greatest examples of moral progress in human history—was followed in the 20th century by communist and fascist regimes' massive use of slave labor on a hitherto unimaginable scale. Communists and Nazis developed new ideological justifications for an old evil, and technological advances enabled them to implement their horrific visions far more extensively than was possible in previous eras. [4]


The editors of Vox observed that many partisans refer to their opponents as being "on the wrong side of history". So the editors asked a group of 15 philosophers and scholars to predict what current laws, social norms, and habits will be considered unthinkable or barbaric in the year 2070. The list is remarkable. Vox experts predicted that each of the items on this list will be obsolute or unthinkable fifty years from now. [5]

  • Youth tackle football

  • Bosses

  • Eating meat

  • Conspicuous consumption

  • The drug war

  • The way we die

  • Prohibitions against sex work

  • 401(k) retirement plans

  • Ending the draft

  • Facebook and Google

  • Abortion

  • Self-driving cars

  • Our obsession with rationality

  • Abandoning public education

It's quite reasonable that many of the items on the list will be gone in fifty years. But every single item? We remain dubious.


In 1979 the United States Mint introduced the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. The U.S. Treasury Department spent three years to design, test, and mint the coin. In anticipation of a huge demand the Mint created a stockpile of 500 million coins. The vending industry spent $100 million (equivalent to $400 million today) to retrofit vending machines to accept the coin. The director of the Mint predicted that the new coin would be easier to use than the larger Eisenhower coin and that the Susan B. Anthony coin would become "customary to the American people in time". [6]

Those associated with the development and distribution of the coin could not have been more wrong. The public overwhelmingly rejected the Susan B. Anthony coin, confusing it for the quarter of similar size and color. Production was suspended after just two years, and the Treasury found itself stuck with millions of coins that would be more expensive to melt down than to store.

The past and present may be certain, but not the future. Predicting how later generations will view the present is a precarious affair. We could argue that intactivism is on the wrong side of history. We could predict that in fifty years, the idea of banning circumcision will be considered unthinkable.

Perhaps intactivists should be less optimistic about how history will view us and more concerned about how ongoing evolution could render all their efforts in vain. One blogger has theorized that an increase in infectious diseases is causing the foreskin to evolve out of existence. [7] He noted studies that show that 40% of Chinese men have foreskins that cover less than half the glans, and that foreskin length is associated with an increased likelihood of STDs. [8] [9] If this theory proves to be true, then intactivists won't just be on the wrong side of history. They'll be on the wrong side of the future.

[1] Martin Luther King Jr.; "Out of the Long Night"; Church of the Brethren Gospel Messenger ; February 8, 1958

[2] Jacob T. Levy; "The idea of a 'wrong side of history' will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now"; Vox; April 3, 2019

[3] Martin Luther King Jr.; Letter From a Birmingham Jail";The Atlantic Monthly; August 1963

[4] Ilya Somin; "Why Moral Progress Is Not Inevitable"; Reason; April 3, 2019

[5] Vox staff; "Hindsight 2070: We asked 15 experts, 'What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?' Here’s what they told us."; Vox; April 3, 2019

[6] Charles Logan; "The Anthony - Who goofed?" COINage; October 1979

]7] "Humans are evolving out of foreskin"; Circumcision and Sex; March 23, 2017

[8] Zixin Wang et al; "Acceptability of Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC) among Male Sexually Transmitted Diseases Patients (MSTDP) in China"; PLOS One; February 23, 2016

[9] Asian J Androl; "Redundant prepuce increases the odds of chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CP/CPPS)"; Asian Journal of Andrology; May 23, 2014

#History #WrongSideOfHistory #Inevitable #Inevitability #ArcOfHistory #MartinLutherKing #MartinLutherKingJr #MLK #SusanBAnthony #SusanBAnthonyCoin

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