In the face of an increase in shootings and terrorist attacks, Erdogan’s “cleansing” operations, the Brexit, an on-going refugee crisis and numerous other worrying developments, a post about moral progress might seem entirely out of place. Who would believe that there could be anything like that? Isn’t it obvious that human beings are unable to learn from history, that every hope that the world could become more just and peaceful in the long run is in vain? Don’t the recent developments show clearly that multiculturalism cannot work, that real integration is an illusion, that religious dogmas are stronger than arguments and that humans are unable to change their behaviour so as to stop global warming? Despite all reasons for being sceptical, some philosophers still firmly believe in the possibility for us humans to progress morally. In this post, I argue that we ought not to give up our hopes for a more humane, just and peaceful world, and explore ways in which moral progress could be achieved.
What is moral progress? Instead of providing a definition, I shall list some examples of developments that are, by many scholars, viewed as instances of such progress: the abolition of slavery, changed attitudes towards women, homosexuals, members of other races and non-human animals, and the emergence of basic human rights law. The abolition of (old forms of) slavery is for sure the most often cited example of moral progress. All of the examples listed can be subsumed under the heading “expansion of the moral circle”. They can be seen as developments towards more and more inclusiveness. We make moral progress by extending our moral concern to more and more (groups of) people, and to non-human animals. This is not the only form of moral progress, but certainly the most prominent one.
As Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell argue, our evolutionary history puts only weak constraints on our capacity to progress morally. Contrary to what “evoconservatives” claim, substantial moral progress is possible. While it can be explained by reference to natural selection why the in-group/out-group distinction is ubiquitous in human history, this does not mean that humans are biologically constrained to treat as objects of moral concern only members of their kin or other in-group – as numerous institutions and practices testify. Think of all the volunteers who are helping refugees in numerous ways, of the doctors who used their holidays to fly to Lesbos and take care of boat refugees. Think of people who risk their life fighting for human rights. That many people perform such actions, and that there exist institutions and organisations that facilitate them shows that moral concern is not biologically limited to a small group of people.
As I have argued elsewhere, if we think about the possibilities of moral progress, we have to consider both individual human capacities and the environment in which humans exercise these capacities. In this “environment of moral practices”, institutions occupy centre stage. A great potential for moral progress seems to lie here: by means of institutional design we can create an environment that facilitates moral behaviour and strengthens or broadens the scope of moral sentiments. Buchanan and Powell highlight that an environment that mirrors the (harsh) conditions of the middle-to-late Pleistocene – the period in which morality supposedly developed – is hostile to moral progress in the form of greater inclusiveness. That means that if we want people to have a more inclusive morality, we need to shape the environment accordingly. For example, in order to make it more likely that people in the West welcome refugees from the Middle-East and Africa and are willing to integrate them into their societies, we ought to: counteract prejudices that depicture refugees as threats, provide information about their cultures, enable more personal encounters between refugees and citizens of the host countries, create the institutional infrastructure necessary for peaceful coexistence and integration (universal access to health care, schooling, language courses and the job market; asylum seeker centres which enable enough privacy to prevent aggression; fast processing of applications for asylum) and pay particular attention to the education of the youngest members of society. Education is the main form of traditional moral enhancement (as opposed to so-called “moral bio-enhancement”, which is ethically problematic), and I believe that it should be one main focus in our efforts to effect progressive changes in this area. I do not claim that any of this is easy, only that universal moral pessimism is out of place and that there are numerous places to start changing the current situation for the better.