This part of the conference tackles a set of questions regarding the relationship between evolutionary explanations of morality and accounts of moral progress. Are such explanations compatible with the occurrence of moral progress? Do they favour realist or anti-realist views of moral progress? What is the role of the notions of truth, justification and knowledge in an evolutionarily informed account of moral progress?
Values and practices have evolved dramatically over human history. In earlier work, I argued that this evolution is best explained by cognitive progress: societies tend over the long term to move from badly wrong ideas to less wrong ideas. This explanation suggests, given the general contours of historical moral progress, that a particular moral outlook, broadly dubbed “liberalism,” is objectively correct. Here, I consider the extension of this line of thinking to the political realm, where it may appear that parallel reasoning points to an objectively correct political ideology. I find, however, that the political case is more complex: recent trends in political values and practices – in particular, trends toward increasing regulation and increasing wealth redistribution – cannot be straightforwardly read as revealing the correct political views, for in this case, unlike the broader moral case, the discovery of objective truths does not provide the best explanation for the historical changes
Moral Progress and Evolution: Knowledge versus Understanding
The paper explores the interplay among moral progress, evolution and moral realism. Although it is nearly uncontroversial to note that morality makes progress of one sort or other, it is far from uncontroversial to define what constitutes moral progress. In a minimal sense, moral progress occurs when a subsequent state of affairs is better than a preceding one. Moral realism conceives “it is better than” as something like “it more adequately reflects moral facts”; therefore, on a realist view, moral progress can be associated with accumulations of moral knowledge. From an evolutionary perspective, on the contrary, since there cannot be something like moral knowledge, there cannot even be such a thing as moral progress. Therefore, the evolutionary challenge is whether we can acknowledge the existence of moral progress without being committed to moral realism. An alternative strategy can be to develop an account of moral progress based on moral understanding rather than knowledge. On this view, moral progress follows increases in moral understanding rather than accumulations of moral knowledge. In this respect, some points need to be considered. First, the ways in which moral understanding differs from moral knowledge have to be clearly delineated. Contrary to these non-reductionist approaches, one may object that understanding and knowledge are more closely related, and that whether an agent understands p depends just on how much she knows about p. Second, since knowledge is factive, whether the understanding-based account counts as an alternative to realism will depend on whether understanding, unlike knowledge, is non-factive or quasi-factive. These different conceptions of understanding will have crucial implications for our conceptions of moral progress. Which is the most promising way to take will be discussed and some consequences will be drawn.
Evolution and Moral Progress: Towards Better-Justified Moral Belief
I argue that we should conceive of moral progress as the development towards moral beliefs that are better justified than those of previous generations, and that thus understood, moral progress is compatible with evolutionary explanations of our capacity for moral judgement. How well a moral belief is justified depends on a) whether it is in conformity with moral values that play a central role in all human societies and b) whether it is compatible with the best empirical knowledge of the time. I look at two examples of developments in human history that are widely regarded as morally progressive: the abolition of slavery and the recognition that men and women are of equal worth. The belief that slavery is unjust is better justified than the belief that we may buy and sell human beings like goods, although the former belief possessed some moral justification at the time where slaveholding was a common practice. There are good grounds to insinuate that the members of slaveholding societies were committed to moral values that are incompatible with the practice of slavery. Evolutionary explanations of our capacity for moral judgement a) do not carry with them the implication that it is impossible for human beings to arrive at better-justified moral beliefs, and b) can contribute to the improvement of our moral beliefs. Evolutionary knowledge can help us to see that certain moral beliefs are ungrounded and ought to be given up. In addition, it can help us understand why some moral norms are universal.