Have We Made Moral Progress? I Think So. But My Friends Disagree.

From time to time I have become notorious among my friends for subscribing to a belief in moral progress, the notion that humanity, as a species, has been slowly improving over time. When I make these claims I tend to face howls of protest and a long list of modern sins: The Holocaust, WWI, WW2, Rwanda. I've stuck to my guns (pun?) in these debates and have defended the notion of moral progress from time to time on this blog.

I think there are a couple of reasons why my friends object to the notion of moral progress. First, they are rightly outraged at modern holocausts and genocides. And to call these things "progress" seems obscene. Second, from a moral pedagogical perspective, preaching progress might take the heat off us, morally speaking. The fear is that if we embrace a notion of progress we will begin to rest on our laurels.

But, as I think everyone can see, these objections are really non sequiters. They don't really answer the question about if, in fact, we have made moral progress.

I got to thinking about moral progress again this week. First, I watched this TED Talk by Steven Pinker On The Myth of Violence. In the talk Pinker marshals (pun?) much of the evidence I've used in my own conversations with friends:

And I also came across this essay (H/T Daily Dish) by the philosopher Jonathan Rée. Rée begins his essay on moral progress this way:

One of the most intriguing questions about morality, it seems to me, is what happens when it changes. What happens, for example, when the subordination of women to men, or their exclusion from higher education or the professions, ceases to seem innocuous or natural, and starts to be regarded as a grotesque abuse? Or when corporal punishment goes out of style, and homosexuality comes to be tolerated or even respected, or when cruelty to animals arouses indignation rather than indifference, and recklessness with natural resources becomes a badge not of magnificence but of monstrous irresponsibility?

There is of course room for disagreement about such alterations of moral opinion. But no one could maintain that they are devoid of discussible intellectual content. No one would claim that – like, say, changing fashions in moustaches or skirt-lengths – they simply reflect the unaccountable gyrations of taste. Indeed it seems probable that moral change, over the long term, involves something like an expansion of horizons, a process of learning, or even – to use a dated word – something you might call progress.

It seems timely, therefore, to turn back to Immanuel Kant’s celebrated treatment of the question “whether the human race is continually improving”. Writing in the 1790s, Kant argued that the “moral tendency” of humanity was, like human knowledge as a whole, destined to carry on getting better till there was no room for further improvement: humanity was imbued, he thought, with a transcendental impulse to refine and clarify its moral opinions as time goes by, or to grow in moral intelligence.

Kant’s faith in moral progress was popular in the nineteenth century (think of Auguste Comte’s Positivism and various branches of Hegelianism), but it is not likely to be promoted with much conviction any more. If you were to show any signs of moral optimism today you would be mocked as the dupe of political boosterism or moral grade-inflation, and friends would try to re-educate you with a catalogue of ferocious wars, futile revolutions and murderous regimes, topped off with some sad sagacity about the destructiveness and deceitfulness of human nature. The old proverb about pride applies to moral optimism as well, or so you would be told: hope comes before a fall.

But pessimists too can be guilty of narcissistic bad faith. If you want to be admired for moral perspicacity, all you need do is cultivate a habit of indignation and dismay: if you can see vice where others find nothing but virtue, or degeneracy where they see improvement, or corruption where they see probity, you can become a Person of Principle at no cost to yourself, while everyone else will look like a tiresome Trimmer, an exasperating Polyanna or an impermeable Pangloss. “Men are fond of murmuring,” as Voltaire once put it; “there is a pleasure in complaining,” he said, and “we delight in viewing only evil and exaggerating it.”

As a matter of fact, moral optimism is not as dead as you might think: it often floats to the surface of contemporary common sense without occasioning much comment. When people want to protest at contemporary horrors – torture, say, or forced marriage, human trafficking, or racial violence – they are likely to condemn them as “Victorian”, “medieval”, “primitive” or “antiquated”, while expressing astonishment that they should still be countenanced in the twenty-first century. The notion that the epochs of past time can function as terms of moral opprobrium, or that the present date constitutes some kind of moral standard, testifies to a stubborn faith in something like Kant’s doctrine of progress.

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11 thoughts on “Have We Made Moral Progress? I Think So. But My Friends Disagree.”

  1. as we look at stress,"personal", from a subjective and objective pov.at what point does social morality allow me the personal freedom to compromise my morality and thus changing the society i live with.
    at what point does my higher ideal fail to serve my needs.

    and then their is

    the exercise of the trinity in this mess, and I now live with hope that there is an ideal,if I will but believe and "JUST DO IT" FROM A SUBJECTIVE AND OBJECTIVE POINT OF VIEW OF GODS GOOD AND THE LOVE THAT IT TOOK TO ACCOMPLISH THAT .

    rich constant

  2. Job has a profound and touching moral defense in chapter 31.

    As I note there: Is it morality that we seek? Or that Job seeks? He achieves his desire. But not because he deserved it for moral behaviour. And it should not be so hard for us with the revelation of Jesus Christ as it were - behind us. But then that's the problem - we see its back when it is the face to face that we need.

  3. I think it is arguable human cultures have progressed in their understanding of morality - but you have to be careful not to tie it into enlightenment-oriented ideas about "progress." Auschwitz and Hiroshima are - to me - both signs that modernism did very little to alleviate evil, and very much to increase its potential for destruction.

  4. I know you've referenced and written about this before, but here's a question: Do you mean that human beings, as individuals with consciences and who act in their daily lives, have made comprehensive/substantial/empirical moral progress? Or that western society has grown in its recognition of moral ideas and actions which, on the whole culturally, are or are not "approved of" or acceptable (at least in public)?

    I think the latter is defensible. I'm not sure about the former. But I'm open to persuasion.

  5. We mostly do not acknowledge the plain facts that Joseph Campbell noted in his last book: Like other forms of life, we survive by feeding on other life forms, and like other forms of life, we colonize more of the biosphere if we propagate. Being a healthy-minded human seems to require a Pangloss-like belief in the best-of-all-possible beings: Us.

    It would be interesting to be around in 100 years to see whether we have sufficiently got over ourselves not to spoil the world too badly. I'll reserve judgment--the question's too big for me. But let's just say I'm not overly Polyanna about us.

    My dad used to call my critical-minded grandpa "Blue." My grandpa called my optimistic-minded dad "Brown." Those seem to be the choices.


  6. If moral progress via most traditional measures, such as Pinker uses, leads to more positive sum games for humanity, that should mean more human flourishing. But more human flourishing as measured by most traditional measures seems to mean accelerated overthrow of the biosphere--think mold on bread. Therefore, moral progress is undercutting itself. This needs a name. How about "ironic moral optimism," or--from the other side--"ironic moral pessimism?"

    What to do about our place in the biosphere is a really big version of a very old "garden variety" problem--in which the root of the problem is made out to be a need to get over ourselves. The old myth expresses a very deep perspective that even some of the best moral thinkers today are not dealing with...

    For the most optimistic thing I've seen in a long time, I'm going to link to a Jimmy Smitts TED talk that I listened to on John's Microclesia blog a while back.


  7. Oops, the wonderfully optimistic TED talk is by Willie Smits (not Jimmy) and I wasn't confident that I wouldn't screw something up when I went to set up a link, so here's the web address for you to use:


    This is the antidote to my depressing comments above, which are a complaint, really, that we aren't framing the question adequately. Smits shows that not only can we "get" the question, but come up with concrete--and impressive--ways to address it.


  8. The video is full of interpretive use of statistics. The use of the "fractal" time scale is not particularly useful.

    For example, shifting the "century scale" to 1850-1950 would paint a differnet picture I would think from a 1900-2000 period.

    I'd like to see a statistician play with the figures a bit more, to show the converse hypothesis might be possible.

  9. Hey, I blogged on this idea too and linked your post, so here's my two cents' worth on it:


  10. I think this question has to be connected, as the authors you have cited would seem to indicate, to questions about human nature: are humans good by nature, indifferent by nature, bad by nature?  Is human evil connected to a lack of knowledge, so that it can be remedied by education?  If we can store up a body of moral knowledge, the inculcation of which is continually improving people from generation to generation, then it seems plausible that there is moral progress.

    For my part I am skeptical that there is moral progress, because I don't think that there has been a collective accumulation of moral knowledge.  Perhaps there are now more true beliefs about what is right and what is wrong than in the past, but I think the large majority of people do not go beyond true belief when it comes to moral matters, and if, as must happen in the course of history, any persuasive individual should be motivated to dislodge these true beliefs in favor of other beliefs which are not true but seem, to the uneducated, equally plausible, I can't help but think that morality will go out of fashion as much as the size of mustaches or the cut of clothing.

    And further, I don't think that moral knowledge and moral progress are of such a nature as to accumulate to a community.  The moral arena is a matter of individual struggles first to learn what is good and then to act upon it.  And this seems to be a perpetual theater where different individuals confronted with different dilemmas act rightly or wrongly for reasons that are hard to divine but which to speculate upon is a perpetual entertainment and instruction.

    Finally, if I haven't said enough already to blatantly contradict myself, let alone you, I am worried that stories of moral progress can be nothing more than Tory history.  If you turn to many Christians in America and ask whether the nation has been making moral progress, they will probably say that morally it has been in continual decline since the 1950's.  If certain moral questions are controversial, and assertions of moral progress involve an evaluation as to whether society as a whole now takes the correct position on those questions, then assertions of moral progress will be no less controversial.

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