|Picture taken from William Murphy on Flickr|
We often speak as if we believe in moral progress. We talk about recent moral changes, such as the legalisation of gay marriage, as ‘progressive’ moral changes. We express dismay at the ‘regressive’ moral views of racists and bigots. Some people (I’m looking at you Steven Pinker) have written long books that defend the idea that, although there have been setbacks, there has been a general upward trend in our moral attitudes over the course of human history. Martin Luther King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but bend towards justice.
But does moral progress really exist? And how would we know if it did? Philosophers have puzzled over this question for some time. The problem is this. There is no doubt that there has been moral change over time, and there is no doubt that we often think of our moral views as being more advanced than those of our ancestors, but it is hard to see exactly what justifies this belief. It seems like you would need some absolute moral standard or goal against which you can measure moral change to justify that belief. Do we have such a thing?
In this post, I want offer some of my own, preliminary and underdeveloped, thoughts on the idea of moral progress. I do so by first clarifying the concept of moral progress, and then considering whether and when we can say that it exists. I will suggest that moral progress is real, and we are at least sometimes justified in saying that it has taken place. Nevertheless, there are some serious puzzles and conceptual difficulties with identifying some forms of moral progress.
1. Morality and Change: Clarifying the Idea of Progress
Before we talk about the idea of moral progress, it will help if we clarify what morality is and how it changes. This makes sense since moral progress is just a specific kind of moral change. I’ll talk about this in relatively abstract terms, but I think that is appropriate because moral progress is a relatively abstract phenomenon.
Morality is concerned with good and bad and right and wrong. A complete moral theory consists of an axiology — which identifies what is good and what is bad — and a deontology — which identifies what is right and what is wrong (and some other qualities of moral action too). Moral concepts and principles are essential to building a moral theory. The concepts will identify core values (like freedom, pleasure, equality, welfare etc.). The principles will tell us how we should act in order to protect and promote those core values (“you ought to give 10% of your income to charity” etc.). Moral theories will also usually identify groups of moral subjects and moral agents. Moral subjects are the beings or entities to whom moral value can accrue (and who may themselves possess intrinsic value) and so have to factored into our moral calculus. Moral agents are the beings or entities to whom principles of right and wrong apply. They are the ones that have to uphold the moral standards.
When morality changes, this means that there is some change in one or more of the constituent elements of our moral theories. We recognise a new value or discard an old on;, we expand the scope of an old moral principle, or drop it completely; we identify new moral subjects or exclude those we previously recognised as having moral status. And so on. All manner of changes have taken place over the course of human history. The challenge is to figure out whether any of those changes has been progressive or not.
There have been a few interesting articles written about this over the years. Michelle Moody Adams’s article “The Idea of Moral Progress” is widely cited. In it, Adams suggests that there is such a thing as moral progress, but that it is always local in form. Progress can only be assessed relative to a particular moral standard or concept (or set of moral standards and concepts). So, for example, we can talk about the world becoming more free or more equal, relative to some particular conception of freedom or equality, but we can’t talk about the world becoming better or worse simpliciter. Adams claims that this localised form of progress is a process ‘semantic deepening”, where we develop an enriched understanding of what a moral concept means and to whom it might apply over time.
An example might help. Consider the changes in our understanding of morally salient harm over the past couple of hundred years. Initially, we recognised a very narrow subset of harms as being morally salient, usually only physical harms experienced by a conscious being. Over time, we realised that harm was a broader phenomenon and started to accept psychological harms as being morally salient. This led philosophers to formulate general and abstract theories of harm, claiming that harm was a ‘serious setback to life interests’, and allowing for some open-endedness in what might count as a life interest. Some push for even further broadening, arguing that environmental or property-related damage should be seen a kind of harm. Some resist this. Nevertheless, following Adams, there is a clear sense in which the broadening of the concept represents a localised form of moral progress, i.e. progress in how we understand and apply the concept of harm. And what is true for harm is true for other concepts too, such as freedom, equality, and well-being.
Adams’s localised understanding of progress has been endorsed by others. Nigel Pleasants, for instance, in his article on ‘The Structure of Moral Revolutions’, rejects the claim that there is a single universal understanding of moral progress, but accepts that there can be progress relative to particular moral traditions. I think this is correct and that Adams’s localised understanding of moral progress should be relatively uncontroversial. I like to think about it in visual terms. I like to think about moral concepts and principles having a scope of application (i.e. there are groups of people, actions, events, and states of affairs to whom they apply); and I like to think that progress takes place when that scope of application expands. For example, we might recognise a right like the right to vote. Initially, this right is granted to a narrow group of people. Over time, the number of people included within the scope of the right expands. This represents progress. I have illustrated this approach to moral progress below.
The problem is that this definition of moral progress seems pretty thin. Sure, there is progress relative to a particular concept, but does this allow us say that the world is getting better or worse in general? Do we have to be relativists and sceptics about moral progress if we accept this localised definition?
2. The Challenge of Moral Progress
Patrick Stokes discusses this problem rather well in his article “Towards an Epistemology of Moral Progress”. I mentioned earlier that moral change is an indisputable historical fact. But not all moral change takes the form of progressive scope expansions. Indeed, sometimes moral change takes the form of dropping or rejecting certain bloated moral concepts. Take, sexual purity as an example. This was once highly morally-valued. Society condemned or outlawed sexually impure activities. Though this ‘purity’ mentality lingers to some extent, it is rejected by most people of my generation living in advanced economies. We favour sexual liberty over purity. In fact, we think that this preference for liberty over purity represents progress.
But, as Stokes points out, the fact that principles and concepts change in this way — that some get dropped or added to the mix over time — should cause some pessimism when it comes to our belief in moral progress. To be more precise, he argues that moral change of this sort presents an epistemological challenge to the belief in moral progress. How can we know that the moral concepts we are currently using to measure progress are not themselves going to be cast away in the next moral revolution? And if they might be, doesn’t this have certain radical consequences for morality more generally? Doesn’t it mean that we should feel no strong sense of moral obligation to our currently favoured moral concepts and principles?
Stokes has his own specific solution to this puzzle, which I will get back to later, but in essence he suggests that relativism and scepticism can be avoided if we accept that there are some basic, unchangeable moral concepts and principles. Though there are those who reject this idea, it does not seem like a huge stretch to me. Protecting and promoting basic values such as well-being, freedom and equality probably won’t go out of fashion any time soon, and while specific conceptions of these values might deepen, expand and contract over time, the commitment to them probably won’t. If so, then it may be possible to argue for a consistent, historically-stable theory of moral progress.
Michelle Moody Adams seems to endorse this view in her article. She suggests that the ideal of equality, for example, always contained within it the notion that women and slaves deserved to be treated as moral equals. This insight was available to Aristotle and others living in Ancient Greece. If he and those others had just thought a bit more deeply about what their moral concepts demanded, we might have arrived at a more equal society much sooner. There are, no doubt, interesting psychological, cultural and economic explanations for why this did not happen, but it was a latent possibility nonetheless, hidden right there in the basic moral concepts.
I agree with this to some extent. I think there are, indeed, basic moral values that are relatively fixed and stable (though I think this stability is dependent on features of human biology and sociality that may ultimately be malleable). But I don’t think this stability, in and of itself, gets us past the problem identified by Stokes. While it may be possible to measure progress in terms of expansions in how we understand stable moral concepts such as freedom, well-being and equality, the really hard cases arise when those expansions conflict.
Go back to the earlier example of sexual purity versus sexual liberty. The expansion in our understanding of sexual liberty (which resulted in more sexual acts being deemed permissible) seems to have come at the expense of sexual purity. In other words, we couldn’t expand sexual liberty without at the same time contracting (and eventually abandoning) sexual purity. The same is true in other cases. Consider the conflicts between freedom and equality, or welfare and equality. Economists like to remind us of these conflicts all the time. They suggest that equalising the distribution of economic gains sometimes comes at the expense of preventing an increase in the overall size of those gains. There are cases where we can expand one but not the other. In these cases, the obvious question arises: in which direction does moral progress lie? Can we say that favouring expanded equality over expanded welfare represents progress?
The most plausible answer to that question is to establish some hierarchy of basic values. This hierarchy would allows us to clearly identify one form of expansion as being more progressive than the other (because it serves a higher good). But this is not always going to be an acceptable strategy. It is often hard to pick and choose between basic values like freedom, equality and well-being. Some people would argue that they are all equally important, or that they are interdependent in sometimes counterintuitive ways. And it is not like the conflicts between these values are marginal cases either. It is often the preferred resolution to these conflicts that gets weaponised in debates about moral progress. It may be that there is no overarching definition of progress in these cases; there is just arbitrary preference.
3. The Expanding Moral Circle: The Uncontroversial Case?
To sum up, I tend to agree with Adams and Pleasants that moral progress is possible, but can only be assessed relative to certain moral concepts and principles. This does not, however, mean we have to be radical moral sceptics or relativists about progress. There may be some historically stable moral concepts which allow us to talk meaningfully about consistent forms moral progress. There is no guarantee that history will bend in the direction of moral progress — there will often be cases of moral regression — but it does mean we can talk about progress without shame. That said, there will be tough cases where basic moral values conflict, and where we cannot progress along one dimension one without contracting along another. In these cases, it may not be meaningful to talk about moral progress at all.
Let me conclude on a more optimistic note. There does seem to be one form of moral progress that philosophers have been willing to endorse: the expanding circle of moral concern. Accepting that basic human rights apply to all human beings, irrespective of gender, colour and creed, and that animals have at least some degree of moral considerability, even if it is not equivalent to that of human beings, is generally taken to be a mark of progress (at least among philosophers; clearly many people are fearful of the expanding circle of moral concern). This is why the retrenchment towards cultural chauvinism, racism and sexism is widely viewed as regressive, and why many people regret historical moments when we had a narrower circle of moral concern.
In his discussion of moral progress, Patrick Stokes suggests that there may be a good reason for the widespread acceptance of this as a form of moral progress. Using the work of the Danish philosopher K.E Løgstrup as his guide, he argues that the core of morality is our response to the ‘Other’. We have to encounter Others in our daily lives (other people, other beings) and we have to decide whether or not to respond to them ethically or selfishly. Ethics demands that we project ourselves out of our own predicaments and consider the potential needs of these Others. Do they matter? Do they count? Stokes has a complicated story to tell about this core ethical demand, but in the end he argues that all moral progress is assessed relative to it. Does a change in moral attitudes respect the core ethical demand or not? If it does, then it may count as progressive; if it does not, then it is more likely to be regressive.
So, on this theory, being other-regarding is the core of morality and is the metre stick against which all moral progress is measured. Consequently, it kind of makes sense that expanding the circle of moral concern is generally viewed as progressive. After all, what could be more respectful of the core ethical demand than to recognise Others as a moral beings with moral status? And what could be more progressive than continually expanding outward that circle of moral concern?