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Friday, September 30, 2022

The Nature of Moral Progress: Definitions, Types and Measures

John Danaher
Philosophical Disquisitions
Originally posted 24 AUG 22

Moral progress is something to be celebrated. But what is it, exactly? In answer to that question, many people point to paradigmatic cases of moral progress: the abolition of slavery, the extension of legal rights to women and racial minorities, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and so on. But what is it that unites these cases? What makes them all instances of moral progress? Can we identify progress as it happens or does it only become obvious in retrospect?  These are important questions. They are important from a social perspective since past episodes of moral progress have improved the state of the world for many people. We might like to accelerate such progress in the future. They are also important from an individual perspective since we want to be on the right side of history. We don’t want to be reactionary, conservative, relics of the past. At least, most of us don’t.

But it is not always easy to say what moral progress is or to understand how it comes about. Philosophers and social scientists have been studying this topic for some time and there is considerable disagreement about what it is and whether it exists. Indeed, as some academic commentators have noted “for much of the 20th century, it was taken as a sign of moral progress that we had stopped believing in it” (Sauer et al 2021).

Still, we can say some things about the nature of moral progress. In particular, following a recent review by Hanno Sauer, Charlie Blunden, Cecilie Eriksen and Paul Rehren, we can say something about: (i) the definition of moral progress; (ii) the different forms of moral progress; and (iii) the epistemic challenge of identifying episodes of moral progress. In what follows, I will consider each of these in more detail. In doing so, I am inspired, but not constrained, by what Sauer and his colleagues have to say. Much of what I write will summarise their insights; but some of what I write will expand upon or criticise what they have to say. It should be obvious when the latter is happening.


From Measuring Moral Progress section

And therein lies the rub. The measurement problem arises from the fact that there may be too many measuring sticks and they might not all reach the same verdict about a particular instance of moral change. What’s more, these measuring sticks might be contested, with some groups preferring one over another. The demoralisation of homosexuality might be progressive when measured against the values of autonomy and individual well-being but, according to conservative critics, would be regressive (or transgressive) when measured against the values of purity, naturalness, and social cohesion.

And the problem may go even deeper than this. If moral measuring sticks are themselves subject to progressive moral change, then it might be even more difficult to classify instances of change as progressive. You have to have some fixed set of values against which to measure change as progressive. If nothing is fixed, then all progress seems illusory (or at least highly contingent and relativistic).

These are not new problems. They have been part and parcel of moral philosophy for a long time, but they do affect the study of moral progress. I tend to think there is no entirely satisfactory resolution to them. The best we can do is to be clear about the measuring sticks we are using.