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Moral Progress – An Illusion?


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.

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.


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  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you Julia for this post. It gives back the hope that you lose when you read about hate mails (http://justice-everywhere.org/democracy/experiencing-and-responding-to-hate/)!

    One point worth mentioning in order to make the moral progress thesis credible may be that moral progress is neither continuous, nor necessary, nor irreversible. We know that certain circumstances help furthering people’s concern for each other (and for distant others). Yet if social, economic and political circumstances are crucial, they can also brutally stop moral progress. I’m thinking here about Steven Pinker’s study on the decline of violence in history and his warning that sometimes a Leviathan is better for peace and moral progress than a “failed state”. The current situation in Syria and Irak is the perfect illustration: it looks as if decades of progress had been suddenly reversed by the regime fall. (This does not imply morally praising the previous regimes.)

    • Julia Hermann

      Thank you very much for this important addition! I completely agree that moral progress is neither continuous, nor necessary, nor irreversible. Furthermore, I take global assessments of moral progress to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, and prefer to focus on “local” moral progress. Many progressive developments are accompanied or followed by regressive ones. Moral progress in one area might involve moral regress in another.

  2. I’d be interested in hearing you say more about what counts as moral progress. For example, you mention how the environment that humans find themselves in can facilitate ‘moral’ behavior. Does it make a difference whether humans intentionally create such environments or just happen to end up in them? (I feel less inclined to describe the latter as a kind of moral progress – it seems more like it is just a case of humans luckily finding themselves in a situation where they are more likely to show concern for a larger circle of others).

    • Julia Hermann

      Hi Megan, on my view, changes in the environment of moral practices can lead to moral progress, but they are not themselves instances of such progress. For example, I would regard it as an instance of moral progress if people generally came to subordinate concerns for profit to human rights concerns, and if this subordination was manifested in practice, e.g. in the decisions and behaviour of companies and multi-nationals. I would conceive of this as moral progress even if it had happened more or less accidentally that the environment changed in a way that facilitated this change in attitudes and corresponding behaviour. If there is a development towards attitudes and behaviour that are commonly judged to be morally better than the previous ones, then that development is morally progressive. Moreover, given the ways in which individuals and the environment mutually affect each other, it seems unlikely that there are cases in which humans end up in a certain environment as a matter of pure luck. Even if the main purpose of making certain institutional changes is not per se a moral purpose, it is still the case that the resulting institutional environment is in large part the result of human agency, and it is likely that moral concerns played a role in the process.

      The intentional creation of an environment that facilitates moral behaviour and the development of virtues is not in itself an instance of moral progress, but a way of achieving moral progress. Once a state of affairs is reached in which we judge that people’s behaviour in a certain domain is morally better than previously, or that people have become more virtuous, moral progress has been achieved.

  3. Barbara Corson

    thank you for this post. it’s so important that we think about moral issues and discuss them.

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