Once upon a time, people believed that it was immoral to anatomise dead bodies, for women to pee in public, for a gentleman not to defend his honour through duelling, and for homosexuals to actively express their sexualities. Over time, public attitudes towards each of these practices has changed. Although there are some lingering moral conservatives, the majority of people in Western societies seem willing to at least tolerate these practices. To the outsider, it looks like we have undergone a series of moral revolutions.
Each of these examples is taken from Robert Baker’s book The Structure of Moral Revolutions. In the book, Baker presents a fascinating and provocative theory about how moral systems change over time and then applies it to several historical case studies of moral revolution. The historical details of the revolutions is the main focus of the book and for people who are not yet convinced that the past is a foreign country (and that they do things differently there), I highly recommend reading it. But since I’m more of a theoretician than a historian, I want to focus my attention in this post on the main features of Baker’s theory.
Baker’s main theoretical innovation is to apply Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory about scientific revolutions to moral revolutions. Others have attempted this in the past, but have reached the conclusion that there are too many differences between scientific theories and moral theories for the analogy to bear fruit. Baker differs in thinking that the analogy is quite illuminating. Furthermore, in the process of applying Kuhn’s theory, he draws distinctions between moral revolutions and moral reforms, as well as the related phenomenon of moral drift (or, as I prefer, moral evolution).
In what follows, I want to critically analyse Baker’s theory, paying particular attention to the conceptual distinctions he draws between moral revolution, reform and drift. Are these useful distinctions? Can we make sense of them? I have my doubts.
1. Lessons from Thomas Kuhn
To understand Baker’s approach, you need to know something about Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. If you have ever heard someone talk about ‘paradigm shifts’, then you have, perhaps unbeknownst to yourself, already been exposed to it.
Kuhn’s main claim was that science advances in different phases. At any given time, scientific inquiry will be dominated by particular paradigms. Kuhn isn’t entirely consistent in how he uses the term ‘paradigm’ but my preferred interpretation (and the one adopted by Baker in his book) is that a paradigm is a reasonably general perspective on the world or some specific feature of the world. To put it another way, scientists are interested in understanding the world (or specific features of it) and paradigms enable them to interpret what they are observing in the world in a particular way.
Paradigms, so understood, are distinct from specific theories, formulas or experimental hypotheses. Paradigms help to generate specific theories, formulas and hypotheses, but they are not reducible to them. That said, the line between a theory and a paradigm can be a bit blurry and, at a sufficient level of generality, a theory might become a paradigm. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (as modified by developments in genetics and molecular biology) is, arguably, the dominant paradigm in modern evolutionary biology. It provides the lens through which most biological data is interpreted.
When scientists operate within a dominant paradigm they are doing what Kuhn calls normal science. They are incrementally reforming and expanding the existing paradigm, generating new hypotheses and new theoretical adaptations of the paradigm. This is, essentially, what has been happening in evolutionary biology since Darwin came along in the mid-19th century. Every scientist since then (with minor exceptions) has been working within the evolutionary paradigm, modifying and expanding its reach to cover new phenomena (genetics, molecular biology and, more controversially, psychology).
Although certain paradigms dominate in science at particular moments, they are not unchallengeable or immutable. Occasionally, scientists will find flaws in the existing paradigm. Kuhn referred to these flaws as anomalies. These are bits of data that don’t seem to fit the existing paradigm: no satisfying theoretical adaptation of the paradigm seems to adequately explain their existence. The presence of such anomalies might encourage these scientists to come up with an alternative paradigm that can account for the anomalies. At first, it is likely that these alternative paradigms will be resisted by the proponents of normal science. But, over time, as the anomalies mount and the new paradigm attracts more followers, there can be a ‘paradigm shift’. Scientists abandon the old paradigm and start interpreting the data in light of the new one. When this happens, a scientific revolution can be said to have taken place.
Kuhn’s main example of a scientific revolution is the shift from the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the solar system to the Copernican heliocentric view. This revolution took place over the 16th and 17th centuries. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were the key movers and shakers in instigating this revolution. The Ptolemaic paradigm had dominated astronomy for the best part of a thousand years. It generated complex formulas for predicting astronomical observations. There were some unsatisfying anomalies in it, such as the odd movement of the planets that had to be accounted for using epicycles. That said, the Ptolemaic paradigm and its associated theories did seem to fit the existing data pretty well and was quite intuitive (to us, here on Earth, it feels like we are standing still). Copernicus argued for a paradigm shift, initially on largely aesthetic grounds, toward a heliocentric view of the solar system. Eventually, evidence mounted in favour of his geocentric paradigm and the theories and formulas it generated were more straightforward and accurate than those generated under the old Ptolemaic paradigm. A revolution took place.
That’s the gist of Kuhn’s theory. There are a couple of key features of Kuhnian paradigm shift that are worth emphasising before moving on. First, one of Kuhn’s key claims is that paradigms are incommensurate. That is to say, they cannot be measured or evaluated along a common rubric. Paradigms, in a sense, are the rubric. They are the framework through which evidence is evaluated and measured. Thus, the heliocentric and geocentric paradigms are incommensurate. They have radically different interpretations of empirical data concerning the movement of the planets and the nature of the universe. Second, another of Kuhn’s key claims is that revolutions are often evidenced through linguistic shifts whereby terminology that was endorsed under the old paradigm is evolved to fit the new paradigm. For example, the word ‘planet’ meant something different under the geocentric and heliocentric paradigms. Under the geocentric paradigm a planet was an aberrant star that appeared to ‘wander’ across the night sky relative to the fixed background stars. Under the heliocentric paradigm it was not a star but another Earth-like body orbiting the sun. Linguistic co-optations of this sort are important to building a new paradigm.
These are the points that Baker emphasises in his summary of Kuhn. I would like to note that I don’t quite agree with Kuhn (or, at least, Baker’s take on Kuhn) with respect to the incommensurability of paradigms. It’s no doubt true that competing paradigms are radically different but I don’t think they are necessarily incommensurate. I think there are some common criteria for theory choice and theory evaluation that these can be used to ‘measure’ the success of competing paradigms (e.g. predictive accuracy, simplicity). Indeed, these common criteria for theory choice may often be key to facilitating the ‘shift’ from one paradigm to another. I think this is particularly true in the case of moral paradigm shifts and I will return to this point below.
2. The Idea of a Moral Revolution
Taking onboard the lessons from the Kuhnian model, Baker argues that some types of moral change follow a similar revolutionary pathway. As noted above, he makes this case through the use of detailed historical case studies. Each of these case studies shares some structural properties. To understand these properties, we need to understand how Baker applies the Kuhnian framework to the phenomenon of moral change.
Let’s start with the concept of morality itself. Baker takes a descriptive approach to morality. He does not see morality as a timeless, abstract set of normative truths. Instead, he sees it as a practical, descriptive feature of human society and human behaviour. Morality is the set of norms and standards against which the members of a society measure their behaviour. It is a collection of ideas, shared among members of society, about what is good, bad, right and wrong. People use these beliefs to evaluate their own conduct and that of others.
This set of beliefs can vary from society to society. For example, one society might think that eating meat is morally wrong; another might think it is morally permissible. It can also vary over time, within the same society. For example, people in the 1800s in the US might have believed that slavery was morally justified whereas people in 2000s did not. Morality is, then, for Baker, a descriptive cultural and community based phenomenon. To make sure this is clear in your mind, and that you don’t confuse this understanding of morality with a more traditional philosophical understanding of morality, I will refer to it as ‘social’ morality in what follows.
Social morality is distinct from ethics. According to Baker, ethics is an explicit formalisation of social morality. This formalisation is usually undertaken by philosophers or lawyers. Most of the time, morality is implicit or tacit: it is just part of the unspoken tapestry of everyday life. It is only rarely that it is rendered explicit. Consider, for example, the specific rules that make up the various ethical codes of conduct for doctors. Many of these rules just codify practices that long predated their formalisation. Would we say that there was no morality prior to this formal codification? Surely not. Surely, the observed normative patterns of behaviour, and the associated practices of moral blame and evaluation, were sufficient for social morality to exist.
What, then, is a moral paradigm? Unfortunately, Baker is not very clear about this. He gives specific examples but no general definitions. This may be intentional. The parallel concept of a ‘scientific’ paradigm is not precisely defined either. It’s just one of those things you know when you see. Reading between the lines, however, I would guess that a moral paradigm is just a very general or abstract social moral belief. That is to say, a very general belief about what is good/bad, right/wrong. For example, Benthamite utilitarianism — the belief that maximising pleasure is the ultimate moral goal — might constitute a moral paradigm. It provides a set of a moral glasses through which to evaluate the world. It can be used to generate more specific moral theories (e.g. act utilitarianism) and rules (e.g. “we ought to end factory farming”). That said, Benthamite utilitarianism might be far more general than what Baker has in mind since some of his specific examples involve paradigms with much narrower scope. We will see this in a moment.
Getting clear about the nature of a moral paradigm is important because Baker uses it to distinguish moral revolutions from other kinds of moral change. As follows:
Moral revolutions: These are intentional changes to an underlying social moral paradigm.
Moral reforms: These are intentional changes to social moral rules that leave the underlying moral paradigm intact.
Moral drift: These are non-intentional changes to social morality (that could affect either the specific rules or the underlying paradigm)
As we can see from this, for Baker, the key distinguishing feature of a moral revolution, as opposed to other kinds of moral change, is that it involves an intentional change to a paradigm and not just to some specific moral rule.
This three-part distinction between revolution, reform and drift is intuitively appealing. In many ways, I like it. But does it stand up to closer scrutiny. Because there is a lack of precision regarding the concept of a paradigm vis-a-vis a moral rule, there is a danger that one person’s paradigm ends up being another person’s rule and vice versa. This creates some problems when we examine some of Baker’s examples of moral change.
3. Moral Revolutions versus Moral Reforms
Consider, for starters, Baker’s examples of moral revolution. Baker presents several such in his book. His three main ones have to do with shifting moral attitudes toward the sacredness of dead bodies, the permissibility of abortion and ethics in biomedical research. His opening example of a moral revolution, however, has to do with the rights revolution for homosexuals.
As is well known, Western societies have radically changed their social moral rules regarding homosexuality over the past 50 or so years. Not too long ago, it was a criminal offence to engage in homosexual activity, and people in homosexual relationships were denied the basic legal rights and privileges afforded to people in heterosexual relationships. This is no longer the case. Starting with the decriminalisation of homosexual activity, and culminating more recently in the legalisation of ‘gay’ marriage, many Western countries have now flipped their social moral rules to tolerate, and in some cases celebrate, homosexuality.
This is an example of a moral revolution, according to Baker, because it involved an intentional campaign to change an underlying social moral paradigm. There was an active social movement to change attitudes toward sexuality, led by organisations such as Stonewall (named after a New York gay nightclub that was raided by the police). These organisations operated with the specific aim of getting society to shift from a moral paradigm that saw homosexuality as a kind of ‘deviant’, abnormal and sometimes socially corrosive sexuality, to a paradigm that championed the freedom and autonomy of all individuals to express their sexualities as they saw fit (or as seemed ‘natural’ to them).
Contrast that with one of Baker’s examples of moral reform: changes in the attitude toward bastardy/illegitimacy in the UK. As he points out, for a very long time, children born outside of wedlock were treated with great moral and legal suspicion. The main reason for this was because female sexual activity outside of marriage was viewed as a moral crime or ‘sin’. The dominant social moral paradigm was one that valued female chastity and sexual purity. If a woman became pregnant outside of marriage, her purity was clearly impinged and she had to be disciplined. She would be taken away from society, oftentimes sent to workhouses or other institutions,* to hide her shame. Her ‘sin’ would then be passed down to her children. They would be sent to orphanages or given up for adoption. They would also be denied rights granted to other children, e.g. rights to property under laws of succession. They were tarred with the epithet ‘bastard’ and deemed to be ‘illegitimate’ in the eyes of the law.
Nowadays most people find this attitude towards children born outside of wedlock both odd and abhorrent. Our new dominant social morality thinks all children should be treated equally, irrespective of their origins. One of the reasons for this shift in attitudes, at least in the UK, is because there was an active campaign to reform the laws surrounding the treatment of illegitimate children. Unwed mothers became increasingly common in the UK in the early 20th century, particularly in the aftermath of WWI when so many young men were killed before they could marry the mothers of their children. In this new demographic reality, The National Council for the Unwed Mother and her Child (NCUMC) led a campaign to change the laws in order to save the ‘illegitimate’ child.
They were ultimately successful, managing to get the government to pass a law that protected ‘illegitimate’ children by providing for state support for all children, punishment for fathers who did not provide support for children born outside of marriage, a ban on women from being sent to the workhouse, and a pathway to legitimacy if the parents ultimately married (later laws further regularised the status of children born outside of wedlock).
This is an example of moral reform, according to Baker, because the NCUMC campaign did not challenge the underlying moral paradigm of female chastity and sexual purity. Instead, it focused explicitly on protecting the children. They were earmarked as innocent victims in the whole affair who should not suffer for the moral sins of their parents. As Baker puts it, the NCUMC focused on remedying the ‘deleterious effects’ of female sexual purity norms, and not on changing those norms themselves.
Is this a satisfying account of the distinction between moral revolutions and moral reforms? I’m not so sure. I see three problems with it.
First, regarding the moral revolution around homosexuality, why is Baker so convinced that the negative attitudes toward homosexuality constituted a moral paradigm and not just a specific set of rules that emerged from a more general paradigm? Perhaps, for example, there is a general paradigm based on the moral value of naturalness. From this, emerges a specific set of prohibitions against homosexuality. This, incidentally, isn’t just idle speculation. One of the most popular arguments against homosexuality was that it was, in some sense, unnatural: contrary to the intended purpose or function of human sexuality. Many homosexual activists rebutted this view by claiming that they were ‘born this way’, i.e. that their sexual preferences were naturally hardwired into them. They did not argue that it was an expression of their freedom and autonomy. They did not use this alternative paradigm to make their case. Could homosexual activists who deployed such arguments be viewed as moral reformers, as opposed to moral revolutionaries? Were they just working within the dominant moral paradigm, doing ‘normal’ morality and not encouraging a shift to a different moral paradigm?
Second, and still working with the example of homosexuality, is it really the case that the freedom/autonomy paradigm represented a radical and incommensurate alternative? Was that not already a very popular moral paradigm, particularly in countries like the US and the UK? Consequently, could the changes in attitudes toward homosexuality be viewed as simply the expansion of an already accepted paradigm? Or the end result of an older moral revolution that started in, say, the 1600s and 1700s when philosophers like John Locke started to espouse the virtues of freedom and toleration?
Third, shifting to the example of bastard/illegitimacy, why are we so convinced that this was a reform as opposed to a revolution? Why couldn’t the negative attitudes toward illegitimate children (and the associated rules) not constitute a foundational and general moral paradigm in and of themselves? Maybe they are an obvious derivation from (or consequence of) negative attitudes to female sexuality, but I don’t see that Baker offers any argument for this. He really just takes it as obvious that the latter is the paradigm and the former as something that derives from this. But there is at least some reason to question this since it is perfectly logically possible for children born outside of wedlock to be morally impugned and for unwed mothers to be treated with sympathy. We could, for example, live in a world in which negative attitudes toward male promiscuity and parental abandonment dominate, unwed mothers are viewed as innocent victims of men, and children carry on the sins of the father (not the mother).
Admittedly, I am arguing largely through rhetorical questioning here. That’s often a weak sign. But I think it is telling that Baker doesn’t raise these questions, let alone provide answers to them. Combined, I believe that the three problems speak to the difficulty of distinguishing revolutions from reforms and emphasise the point I made earlier: one person’s revolution could be another person’s reform and vice versa.
4. Moral Drift versus Intentional Moral Change
What about the distinction between moral drift and the two other kinds of moral change? Obviously this distinction rests on the intentional or directed nature of the change. Baker co-opts the term ‘drift’ from evolutionary biology. In biology, evolutionary changes that are the result of selection for biological fitness are sometimes contrasted with changes that are the result of chance. The former mechanism of change is referred to as natural selection; the latter mechanism is referred to as drift.
Consider an example. Suppose you have a population of ten humans with different eye colours (6 with blue and 4 with brown). Brown is the genetically dominant trait. Suppose that, as far as we know, there is no fitness advantage for people with different eye colours. They are not healthier or more attractive to potential mates. Now, suppose, that through sheer chance no blue-eyed members of the population mate with one another. What will happen in the next generation? Answer: everyone will have brown eyes. Does this mean that brown eyes were selected for? No. It was just an accident: the blue-eyed trait drifted away through sheer chance. Moral drift is the same: it is moral change that occurs through chance.
How does moral drift arise? Baker’s go-to example of this concerns changes in the attitudes to bastardy/illegitimacy in the US. Unlike in the UK, there was no concerted campaign to change the rules or social attitudes regarding legitimacy in the US. They changed as the unintentional side effect of other social, legal and technical changes. In particular, Baker suggests that the social prominence of certain children of unwed mothers (e.g. Marilyn Monroe), the ease and prevalence of divorce, as well as the availability of contraception and changing attitudes to extra-marital sex, made the concept of legitimacy increasingly anomalous and, eventually, redundant. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that the changes in attitudes toward legitimacy in the US were more radical than in the UK (at least initially) because they really emerged from a withering away of the dominant paradigm of female chastity and sexual purity. So there was a paradigm shift in the US, it just wasn’t an intentionally directed one.
Is this a useful distinction? Initially, it appears so: there does seem to be a clear distinction between intentional moral change and un-intentional moral change. But there are also two problems with the distinction. First, the adoption of the term ‘drift’ from biology is unfortunate. Natural selection in biology is not an intentional process. There is no divine watchmaker honing biological mechanisms so that they become more fit. Instead, there are just certain biological forms and functions that are a good fit for their ecological niches. These are the ones that tend to survive and reproduce over the long term. This means that the biological contrast between ‘drift’ and ‘selection’ is not cashed out in terms of a distinction between intentional and unintentional change; it is cashed out in terms of a distinction between change that is adaptive and directed (by natural forces) and change that is not. To adopt the term ‘drift’ from biology and then change its meaning so that it refers to intentionality is unfortunate because it misses out on the possibility that some moral change could be adaptive and directed, but not intentional. I think it is plausible, for example, that some moral changes are adaptations to new social or technical realities, not simply the result of chance. For example, the weakening of the taboo around extra-marital sex could be an adaptation to a world in which contraception was more freely available and hence the balance of risks and reward associated with extra-marital sex changed.
The other problem with the distinction is that it arguably focuses on the wrong thing when it comes to identifying what is revolutionary about a moral revolution. Using Baker’s framework, we identify revolutions by a combination of two main factors (i) their intentional nature and (ii) whether they result in a moral paradigm shift. But you could argue that (i) is a distraction. What really matters to a moral revolution is whether it results in a moral paradigm shift or not. The paradigm shift has far-reaching and radical consequences for social morality. Who cares whether this was intentional. In this respect, I tend to think that the changes in attitudes toward bastardy/illegitimacy in the US were, if Baker’s characterisation of them is right, truly revolutionary. To label them as a case of moral ‘drift’ does them a disservice.
Don’t get me wrong. Baker’s analysis of moral revolutions is informative and enlightening. I definitely recommend reading his book. I also don’t doubt that there is some value to focusing on moral changes that are intentionally directed. After all, many people who campaign for moral change today have explicit intentions to change social morality. They might benefit from learning from case studies of past intentional campaigns for moral change. That said, I don’t think the distinctions between revolution, reform and drift are as sharp or as useful as Baker seems to believe. I think it would be more useful to focus on the general phenomenon of moral change and then to accept that this comes in different degrees. Some moral changes are quite specific and local, others are more general and wide-reaching. Some affect deeply entrenched moral views, some affect views that are more weakly held. Some are the result of intentional action, some are the result of adaptation to a new social technical reality, and some are just random results of other changes. They are all part and parcel of the same thing and they all deserve scrutiny.
* I have to note here that this practice was prevalent in Ireland until the middle part of the 20th century, facilitated by both the State and the Catholic Church.