William Blake, A Divine Image
The topic of moral drift in America, Europe, Australia and many other countries is fascinating to me because there does seem to be a movement towards increasing sensitivity to human suffering, increasing belief in the universality of human rights, and an impressive improvement in the very language we use to talk about other people. Even among the poorly educated with whom I occasionally have contact, outright racism or homophobia is hedged very carefully into neutered statements about "they don't respect life like we do" or "I just can't stand the thought of two men kissing." I haven't heard the "N word" used in 20 years.
I mentioned previously that increased education and communications likely play a part in this effect, but I would like to refine that suggestion a bit based on research about how email flame wars erupt. Flame wars often arise, it seems, due to the lack of verbal and facial cues that we use in phone and face-to-face conversations. The rate of misinterpretation for email is as high as 50% according to some research. Not surprising, since communication via textual symbols is a side-effect of general communications capabilities that we assume helped with face-to-face information exchange and social interaction.
I think a similar phenomena is at work in terms of the general moral Zeitgeist. Even if evolution has tuned us to believe out-group should be less worthy of rights and opportunities than in-group, I think the rise of mass communications and visual presentations of other cultures that show our common humanity essentially converts xenophobia into acceptance by providing direct facial evidence of the out-group's similarity to us. In 1945, when incendiary bombing of Tokyo began, the amount of knowledge and understanding of Japanese culture in America was virtually nil. The Middle East and Islam had the same quality prior to the first Gulf War. But, as our understanding grows about the common humanity, we find it harder and harder to dehumanize. And faces may be the key.
William Blake, The Divine Image