Whither Moral Progress?

Fol­lowup to: Is Mo­ral­ity Prefer­ence?

In the di­alogue “Is Mo­ral­ity Prefer­ence?”, Obert ar­gues for the ex­is­tence of moral progress by point­ing to free speech, democ­racy, mass street protests against wars, the end of slav­ery… and we could also cite fe­male suffrage, or the fact that burn­ing a cat al­ive was once a pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment… and many other things that our an­ces­tors be­lieved were right, but which we have come to see as wrong, or vice versa.

But Sub­han points out that if your only mea­sure of progress is to take a differ­ence against your cur­rent state, then you can fol­low a ran­dom walk, and still see the ap­pear­ance of in­evitable progress.

One way of re­fut­ing the sim­plest ver­sion of this ar­gu­ment, would be to say that we don’t au­to­mat­i­cally think our­selves the very apex of pos­si­ble moral­ity; that we can imag­ine our de­scen­dants be­ing more moral than us.

But can you con­cretely imag­ine a be­ing morally wiser than your­self—one who knows that some par­tic­u­lar thing is wrong, when you be­lieve it to be right?

Cer­tainly: I am not sure of the moral sta­tus of chim­panzees, and hence I find it easy to imag­ine that a fu­ture civ­i­liza­tion will la­bel them definitely peo­ple, and cas­ti­gate us for failing to cry­op­re­serve the chim­panzees who died in hu­man cus­tody.

Yet this still doesn’t prove the ex­is­tence of moral progress. Maybe I am sim­ply mis­taken about the na­ture of changes in moral­ity that have pre­vi­ously oc­curred—like look­ing at a time chart of “differ­ences be­tween past and pre­sent”, not­ing that the differ­ence has been steadily de­creas­ing, and say­ing, with­out be­ing able to vi­su­al­ize it, “Ex­trap­o­lat­ing this chart into the fu­ture, we find that the fu­ture will be even less differ­ent from the pre­sent than the pre­sent.”

So let me throw the ques­tion open to my read­ers: Whither moral progress?

You might say, per­haps, “Over time, peo­ple have be­come more will­ing to help one an­other—that is the very sub­stance and defi­ni­tion of moral progress.”

But as John McCarthy put it:

“If ev­ery­one were to live for oth­ers all the time, life would be like a pro­ces­sion of ants fol­low­ing each other around in a cir­cle.”

Once you make “Peo­ple helping each other more” the defi­ni­tion of moral progress, then peo­ple helping each other all the time, is by defi­ni­tion the apex of moral progress.

At the very least we have Moore’s Open Ques­tion: It is not clear that helping oth­ers all the time is au­to­mat­i­cally moral progress, whether or not you ar­gue that it is; and so we ap­par­ently have some no­tion of what con­sti­tutes “moral progress” that goes be­yond the di­rect iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with “helping oth­ers more of­ten”.

Or if you iden­tify moral progress with “Democ­racy!”, then at some point there was a first demo­cratic civ­i­liza­tion—at some point, peo­ple went from hav­ing no no­tion of democ­racy as a good thing, to in­vent­ing the idea of democ­racy as a good thing. If in­creas­ing democ­racy is the very sub­stance of moral progress, then how did this moral progress come about to ex­ist in the world? How did peo­ple in­vent, with­out know­ing it, this very sub­stance of moral progress?

It’s easy to come up with con­crete ex­am­ples of moral progress. Just point to a moral dis­agree­ment be­tween past and pre­sent civ­i­liza­tions; or point to a dis­agree­ment be­tween your­self and pre­sent civ­i­liza­tion, and claim that fu­ture civ­i­liza­tions might agree with you.

It’s harder to an­swer Sub­han’s challenge—to show di­rec­tion­al­ity, rather than a ran­dom walk, on the meta-level. And ex­plain how this di­rec­tion­al­ity is im­ple­mented, on the meta-level: how peo­ple go from not hav­ing a moral ideal, to hav­ing it.

(I have my own ideas about this, as some of you know. And I’ll thank you not to link to them in the com­ments, or quote them and at­tribute them to me, un­til at least 24 hours have passed from this post.)

Part of The Me­taethics Sequence

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