On Monday evening, I talked to Philip Kitcher about his novel account of moral progress, which he developed in his Munich Lectures in Ethics. Those lectures have just been published by Oxford University Press, together with comments from Amia Srinivasan, Susan Neiman and Rahel Jaeggi. In the Munich Lectures, Kitcher takes up the “Deweyan project of making moral progress more systematic and sure-footed”. He seeks to gain a better understanding of what moral progress is by looking at cases from history. He then proposes a methodology for identifying morally problematic situations and coming up with justified solutions to those problems. It is a methodology for moral and ethical practice (not theory!), and it manifests the hope that human beings are able to attain moral progress – even with respect to the highly complex moral problems of our times. In our conversation, we talked about the open-endedness of the moral project, the collective nature of moral insight, the kinds of conversations that Kitcher believes are needed to deal with the moral problems that humanity is facing today, and the role of technology in the moral project.

On Kitcher’s pragmatist understanding of morality, our ancestors invented morality to solve the problem of limited responsiveness. Morality is a “social technology”. Humans’ ability to sympathise with others is limited and morality was invented to help expand it. The moral project has no pre-defined goal – it is open-ended. While human beings exist, they will take this project further. Kitcher rejects what he calls the “Discovery View” of moral progress, which is the view that moral progress consists in discovering mind-independent moral truths. On his alternative account, “individuals and societies make moral progress as they amend their moral practices to overcome the problems that beset them”. Looking at three paradigm examples of moral progress – “the abolition of slavery, the expansion of opportunities for women, and the acceptance of loving relationships between people of the same sex” – Kitcher notes that those progressive changes of the past were unnecessarily slow and unsteady (whereby the third example constitutes a notable exception with regard to its speed). Moral progress could have been faster and more thorough, had the methodology been applied that he proposes in his lectures and that he calls “democratic contractualism”.

Kitcher’s methodology centres around the notion of an ideal conversation that includes the perspective of everyone affected by a moral problem. It echoes ideas developed by Kant, Rawls and Habermas, but Kitcher is eager to point out that unlike those thinkers, his methodology is intended for use by real people in the real world. He is not interested in ideal theory. Behind his democratic contractualism stands the conviction that moral insight is collective in nature. Human beings gain moral insights collectively, by engaging in inclusive conversations, which do not only have a cognitive component but also an affective component. In the conversations Kitcher envisages, participants have to open their hearts for the needs and feelings of others. He refers to our ancestors who sat down “in the long cool hour” and discussed the problems encountered by members of the group. Kitcher claims that those conversations “may well approximate the requirements of moral method more closely than virtually all the attempts to moral inquiry pursued during the past ten thousand years”.

How should such conversations look like in today’s world, in which the most pressing moral problems are of a global nature? More concretely, how can we apply Kitcher’s methodology to the problem of global warming? Kitcher believes his methodology is suitable for this context, and that it requires conversations in which all perspectives are represented, including those of future generations. The ability to sympathise with those who are not yet born requires moral imagination, the development of which should be one of the goals of moral education. To my question how we should go about in setting up these conversations he answered that Emmanuel Macron made a good start with his Citizens’ Convention on Climate. Something like this should happen all over the world, and in a next step those groups should talk to each other. To add my own thoughts to this, it seems to me that we need to experiment with conversations of different formats (face-to-face, virtual, hybrid) and at different levels (local, national, regional, global). With regard to possible virtual conversations, the question arises whether they can trigger capacities for sympathy in the same way as face-to-face conversations. How important is it to actually be in the same place, interacting with each other as embodied creatures?

This leads me to another topic we touched upon: the role of technology in the moral project. Kitcher sees technology as an important factor that shapes the environment in which individuals act. He believes that technology can play a positive role, facilitating the conversations that can lead to progressive changes. He also reacted positively to my suggestion to use technology for social experiments as part of moral inquiry, under the condition that all participants give informed consent. This raises a lot of questions of course, which we will hopefully have the chance to discuss on a different occasion. You can watch our conversation here.




I am an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Previously I have held research and teaching positions at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice, Maastricht University, Utrecht University and Eindhoven University of Technology. I hold a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. My husband and I live in Baarn, a village in the province of Utrecht, together with our two daughters Philine and Romy.