Abraham Lincoln said: “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong”. Similarly we could say: “If the abolition of slavery is not an instance of moral progress, then nothing is an instance of moral progress.” The abolition of slavery is the favourite example of philosophers who write about the topic of moral progress. While the existence and the possibility of moral progress are contested, the view that if there were such a thing as moral progress, the abolition of slavery would be an instance of it is not. (By the way, I fully acknowledge that slavery still exists, especially new forms of slavery, which are in some respects even worse than the old forms. But this doesn’t change the fact that the slave trade that we used to have for centuries is now illegal in every country in the world.) Other popular examples of moral progress include the development of a human rights regime, the emancipation of women and the abolition of foot binding. In a previous post, I argued that moral progress is not impossible and cited evolutionary considerations. In this post, I challenge Michelle Moody-Adams’ view of moral progress in social practices as the realization of previously gained moral insights.

Michelle Moody-Adams distinguishes moral progress in beliefs and moral progress in social practices. On her view, the former involves “deepening our grasp of existing moral concepts”, while the latter involves “realizing deepened moral understandings in practice”. Her suggestion seems to be that people gain new moral insights, which then inform changes at the level of institutions and practices. First moral progress in beliefs, then moral progress in social practices. But is this plausible? (Moody-Adams acknowledges that the two forms of moral progress can occur in reversed order, but for her, the paradigm case is one in which the relevant changes at the practical level happen only after people have gained better moral beliefs.)

The question that occurs to me is: what does “deepening our grasp of existing moral concepts” consist in, and should we conceive of this process as preceding moral progress in social practices? Let us take the example of justice. Deepening our understanding of that concept involves, I suggest, working out collectively what justice means in different human affairs. This, in turn, involves identifying instances of injustice and trying out different ways of realizing justice. The latter can happen, for instance, in the form of drafting new laws, modifying existing regulations, and experimenting with policy measures such as an unconditional basic income. Experiences of injustice, for instance of oppression or discrimination, play a crucial role. The process also involves social changes and experiments that are not (primarily) motivated by the desire to realise justice, but by “considerations of social expediency and enlightened self-interest”.

According to Moody-Adams, “the task of embodying some new moral insight in social practices involves the slow and steady work of persons whose actions can directly reshape social practices and institutions”. Here she is referring to political leaders, policymakers, educators, parents, religious leaders, doctors, hospital administrators, lawyers and judges. The new moral insights that those people are said to embody in social practices are gained by, for instance, philosophers, and are most effectively disseminated by whom she calls “engaged moral inquirers”. I claim that the slow and steady work of all those people is part of what makes us, as a society, gain new moral insights in the first place. Moreover, in exercising their various roles, policymakers, educators and so forth can experience (new) forms of injustice and gain new moral insights. To me it seems most plausible to conceive of moral progress as a social process in which changes in moral (and non-moral) beliefs and changes in practices mutually affect each other. Only if there have been progressive changes at both levels can we speak about moral progress proper.

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.