Peter Singer

is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne

After a century that saw two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin's Gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, and more recent atrocities in Rwanda and now Darfur, the belief that we are progressing morally has become difficult to defend. Yet more is involved than extreme cases of moral breakdown.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly's adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to the crimes committed during World War II, the declaration sought to establish the principle that everyone is entitled to the same basic rights, regardless of race, color, sex, language, religion, or other status. So, perhaps we can judge moral progress by asking how well we have done in combating racism and sexism. Recent polls by shed some indirect light on this question.

The polls, involving nearly 15,000 respondents, were conducted in 16 territories, representing 58 percent of the world's population: Azerbaijan, Britain, China, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States. In 11 of these territories, most respondents said that, over their lifetimes, people of different races and ethnicities had come to be treated more equally.

On average, 59 percent said this, with only 19 percent saying people were treated less equally; 20 percent said there had been no change. Respondents in the United States, Indonesia, China, Iran and Britain were particularly likely to perceive greater equality. Palestinians were the only people of whom a majority saw less equality. Opinion was relatively evenly divided in Nigeria, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Russia.

An even stronger overall majority, 71 percent, said they regarded women as having made progress toward equality, although once again the Palestinian territories were an exception, this time joined by Nigeria. Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan had significant minorities saying women were now treated less equally than before. In India, although only 53 percent said women had gained greater equality, an additional 14 percent said women now had more rights than men. (Presumably, they were thinking only of those who escaped abortion after prenatal tests showed the fetus not to be male.)

It seems likely that these opinions reflect real changes, and thus are signs of moral progress toward a world in which people are not denied rights on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex. That view is backed up by the polls' most striking results: very widespread rejection of inequality. On average, 90 percent of those asked said equal treatment for people of different races or ethnic origins was important. In no country did more than 13 percent of respondents say equal treatment was not important.

When asked about equal rights for women, support was almost as strong, with an average of 86 percent rating it important. Significantly, these majorities existed in Muslim countries as well. In Egypt, for example, 97 percent said racial and ethnic equality was important, and 90 percent said equality for women was important. In Iran, the figures were 82 percent and 78 percent, respectively.

Compared with just a decade before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this represents a significant change in people's views. Equal rights for women - not simply suffrage, but also working outside the home or living independently - was then still a radical idea in many countries. Openly racist ideas prevailed in Germany and the U.S. South, and much of the world's population lived in colonies ruled by European powers. Today, despite what happened in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia - and appeared possible after the recent disputed election in Kenya - no country openly accepts racist doctrines.

The same cannot be said about equal rights for women. In Saudi Arabia, women are not even permitted to drive a car, let alone vote. In many other countries, too, whatever people may say about sex equality, the reality is that women are far from having equal rights.

This may mean the surveys I have cited indicate not widespread equality, but widespread hypocrisy. Nevertheless, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and if racists and sexists must pay this tribute, it indicates some moral progress.

Words do have consequences, and what one generation says but does not really believe, the next generation may believe - and even act upon. Public acceptance of ideas is itself progress of a kind, but what really matters is that it provides leverage that can be used to bring about more concrete progress. For that reason, we should greet the poll results positively and resolve to close the gaps that still exist between rhetoric and reality.