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?
Debunking and Political Progress
In earlier work, I argued that observed changes in moral values over human history are best explained as cognitive progress: societies tend over the long term to move closer to the objectively correct moral stance. Here, I ask whether parallel reasoning also points to an objectively correct political ideology. Unlike the situation with the broader moral trends discussed in my earlier work, I find that recent trends in political values and practices, including trends toward increasing regulation and wealth redistribution, are best explained in ways that do not advert to the objective truth of the political ideology from which they seem to flow.
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.
Moral progress in belief and practice
Michelle Moody-Adams distinguishes between two forms of moral progress: moral progress in beliefs and moral progress in social practices (Moody-Adams 1999: 168). She conceives of the former as a process of deepening one’s understanding of moral concepts. In explaining what she means by that, she refers to Mark Platts’ notion of “semantic depth” (Platts 1988: 287). I argue that there is a plausible conception of the process of deepening moral understandings that does not commit us to the intuitionistic moral realism endorsed by Platts, and that is compatible with evolutionary explanations of morality. In deepening our understanding of, for instance, the concept of justice, we collectively try to work out what justice would mean in different human affairs. This involves identifying instances of injustice, thinking about different possible ways of counteracting them, and trying out different ways of realizing justice. This understanding of the process of deepening moral understandings leads me to reject the way in which Moody-Adams conceives of the relationship between moral progress in beliefs and moral progress in social practices. New moral insights are never gained entirely independently of practical changes. The morally progressive social experiments Moody-Adams refers to are part of the process in which the understanding of moral concepts is deepened. Moral progress in beliefs thus involves moral progress in practices and vice versa. This has implications for the role of agency in progressive moral change.