Originally posted March 18, 2019
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.
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