What are some moral catastrophes events in history?

post by adriana_arauzo · 2021-06-22T06:37:22.604Z · EA · GW · 10 comments

This is a question post.

Hi there! I'm making a compilation of moral catastrophes through history. I think this compilation could help us understand better how often moral catastrophes happen and the scale of suffering they cause.

In this EA forum post [EA · GW], I found a definition of moral catastrophes that until now seemed satisfactory to me. 

  1. Must be a serious wrong-doing (closer to wrongful death or slavery than mild insults or inconveniences).
  2. Must be large-scale (instead of a single wrongful execution, or a single man tortured).
  3. Broad swathes of society are responsible through action or inaction (can’t be unilateral unavoidable actions by a single dictator).

Some examples that I found:


answer by finm · 2021-06-22T08:43:28.858Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The practice of foot binding stands out for me. It originated in China as early as the 10th century, and remained commonplace up until the early 20th. Foot binding was painful and permanently disabling, and rendered women effectively housebound and wholly dependent on their husbands.

From the tiny amount I've read, it sounds like the practice was sustained for so long through some combination of (Neo-)Confucian attitudes, and its entrenched role as a marker of beauty / femininity / honour / national identity which was only really possible to escape collectively — similar to less terrible but more familiar examples of harmful beauty standards. Top-down enforcement was not entirely necessary: the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing dynasty even tried to abolish the practice, but failed partly owing to its popular support.

The especially sad thing is how contingent its origins seem to be — upper-class women began to imitate a story about a court dancer to the emperor, who reputedly bound her feet "into the shape of a new moon". The practice took hold as a status symbol among the elite, and spread throughout China.

I would be confident in saying at least half a billion women were subjected to this. One estimate claims some 2 billion women broke and bound their feet in total.

comment by AmAristizábal · 2021-06-22T15:34:28.664Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This makes me wonder if current hair removal/depilation methods for women could fit the definition (or curious why they would not). We could think of them as minor inconveniences, but maybe women perceived foot binding as a minor inconvenience too (I can think of examples in which we don't categorize things as major inconveniences even when they have huge levels of pain). 

answer by Larks · 2021-06-22T17:50:22.593Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

A lot of this is going to rest on your specific moral views and the way you define the question, rather than historical factual issues, I suspect.

  • The clearest examples are going to be things like genocides and wars. For example, the An Lushan Rebellion was (arguably?) responsible for the largest fraction of humanity to be killed in on event. There have been enough of these that you could fill a very respectable list.
  • If you relax your definition of what constitutes an event, things like 'all murder ever' are going to qualify. But these are clearly less dense in space-time than genocides, and many people would not count them as 'an event'.
  • If you accept events that are less bad per capita, but more widespread, things like the denial of education to women, which has been quite common, and could plausibly qualify.
  • If you think that government acts should be judged similarly to private ones, mass taxation, conscription, imprisonment and immigration restrictions might qualify. 
  • If you accept more indirect responsibility, the failure to accelerate technological development resulted in hundreds of millions of unnecessary deaths from disease.
  • If you believe in a right to a competent electorate, voters supporting predictably incompetent or immoral governments could qualify.
  • If you accept ex ante rather than ex post catastrophes, early nuclear testing, where there was a plausible risk the atmosphere might catch fire, could qualify, though maybe the responsibility is not widespread enough.
  • If you accept victims other than adult humans, things like factory farming and abortion will qualify.
  • If you assign a lot of weight to children's preferences, mandatory schooling which forces them into strict compliance for most of the day could qualify.
comment by Question Mark · 2021-06-26T07:56:34.702Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Abortion is only a moral catastrophe if you reject antinatalism. From an antinatalist/negative utilitarian perspective, one could argue that abortion prevents an entire lifetime worth of suffering. This is especially the case if abortion disproportionately targets fetuses that would have lived lives that are worse than average.

answer by djbinder · 2021-06-22T07:45:59.149Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Great Big Book of Horrible Things is a list of the 100 worst man-made events in history, many of which fit your definition of moral catastrophe.

Practices (rather than events) that might fit your definition include

comment by Charlotte (CharlotteSiegmann) · 2021-06-22T21:14:44.440Z · EA(p) · GW(p)



I also want to note that the things I have added and many others added are still ongoing. It would be naive to say that these are only moral catastrophes of the past.


A few more controversial moral catastrophes: 

  • religion (arguably counterfactually responsible for at least a few wars and a few really unhealthy cultural traditions, though it is hard to say whether the counterfactual would have been much better)
  • no available education for everyone - under certain moral philosophy (I am thinking of Mill, in particular), the access to academic thought and literary texts, critical thinking is of critical importance. Billions were barred from it. 
comment by Question Mark · 2021-06-26T14:49:03.789Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Male genital mutilation is far more widespread and is arguably just as horrible as female genital mutilation.

answer by Jsevillamol · 2021-06-22T07:30:40.655Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Wikipedia has a handy and terrifying list of genocides by death toll


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Lizka · 2021-06-22T07:40:12.883Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It seems valuable to distinguish between long-standing practices and things that might be called historical "events." For instance, different systems of slavery would be moral catastrophes that were long-standing practices. Wars and genocides might be more like "historical events" (although some happened over rather extended periods of time). 

Some other long-standing practices that seem to qualify, depending on your moral views. 

  1. Factory farming
  2. Forms of (mass) incarceration (and other systems of state-sanctioned punishment)
  3. Certain actions with respect to our environment and non-human life on the planet
  4. Mass mistreatment of certain groups of people (e.g. societies that accept rape)

Possible "events" that seem to qualify: 

  1. Setting up colonies (many instances, was usually supported by large groups of people, not just by the governments themselves)
  2. Some additional categories of events that are always or often moral catastrophes: wars, genocides, any situation in which large groups of people suffered and the world could have helped more than it did (any famine, refugee crises, etc.), democides (e.g. millions of people killed under Stalin in the USSR, even setting Holodomor aside)
  3. There are resources like this list of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll (this also provides ideas for classification)

I'm a little concerned that attempts at trying to determine what "how often moral catastrophes happen and the scale of suffering they cause" will be highly definition-dependent. E.g. if you lower your bars for criteria # 1 and 2 for what you call a moral catastrophe, you'll get more moral catastrophes. But I personally found thinking about past "moral catastrophes" and the ways in which they were justified in different societies helpful for trying to identify possibly current and future moral catastrophes, so the project does seem quite useful. 

(By the way, another possible resource for this could be the list of references in the paper linked in the post you reference--- although I haven't actually read the paper or the references, only the summary.)

(I made this a comment as it doesn't seem specific enough to be an answer, but I'm not sure that that was the right call.)

comment by Vhanon · 2021-06-22T19:00:40.604Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Your definition of moral catastrophe is based on historical measurable effects. It does not take into account internal human experiences, and it does not completely represent those subtle changes of human thinking and behaviours that could be considered immoral.  I would argue that the moral catastrophe is already in small every day immoral choices that slowly creep in the mind of people and become normal patterns of thinking.

There are moral catastrophe that lead to multiple catastrophic events like the idea of race superiority that eventually leads to slavery, and the holocaust.

There are catastrophic events that are the consequence of perfectly moral habits, like the spread of pandemic due to people taking care of their sick family.

I would suggest to revise your definition of moral catastrophe as "a pattern of thinking and behaviours that are the subtle cause of repeated situation-independent suffering for a large group of people".

Under this definition, the idea that men and women have distinct roles in society can be regarded as a moral catastrophe, as it caused many women to suffer unhappy lives throughout all human history.