Moral Progress and Scope of Moral Concern

I just read the first few pages of Paul Johnston’s (1999) The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy, and he makes an interesting opening suggestion that addresses some of Robin’s concerns about whether we can know that we have made any moral progress – as he puts it, whether we can know that our moral beliefs are better than, say, those of Kant or Aristotle.

Johnston notes that the success of scientific explanation and challenges to traditional religious beliefs have given rise to various forms of moral skepticism and moral relativism, and suggests that, "Overall, there seems to be a real question as to whether, knowing what we do, we can still believe in right and wrong." The following paragraph, however, presents an interesting assessment of the situation of ethics in "modernity":

This issue looks surprisingly different when considered from a less theoretical perspective. Measured against our actual practices the suggestion that ethical thinking has lost its hold in our society seems exaggerated. Paradoxically, the modern world seems characterised not only by scepticism about ethics but also by the clash of strongly held moral views. Take the controversy about abortion. This debate highlights the divisions that can arise in our society, but it also refutes the suggestion that modernity and moral certainty are antithetical. Indeed, it could be argued that in some ways people today are more ethical than their forbears insofar as certain aspects of human life that were previously not believed to raise moral issues are now seen as doing so. The rise of vegetarianism and of new concepts such as animal rights suggest that, far from withering away in our society, ethical notions are gaining new force and fresh applications. Despite theoretical misgivings about ethics, the modern world seems willing to embrace moral codes even more demanding than those held in earlier times.

I suppose one could object to Johnston’s argument by claiming that we simply make mountains out of what our forbears would have only regarded as molehills. But it seems that saying that would commit one to the view that abolishing slavery and condemning sexual harassment are not to be regarded as moral improvements, since these are simply, to abuse Paul Graham’s phrase, "moral fashions." (Thanks for the reference to Graham, Daniel and Richard.)

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  • Yes, our morals make mountains out of what others would consider molehills, while we make molehills out of what they would consider mountains. And yes, if one doubts moral progress one must doubt that our morals are on average better than our ancestors’ morals. But I don’t see how either of these observations helps us to answer the question. It still seems to me that the best way to investigate the moral progress view is to try to identify the actual evidence that has allowed our improved view, evidence that would convince our ancestors if they could come visit our society for a year before returning to theirs.

  • michael vassar

    With respect to the empowerment of women, different ethnicities, and lower classes with equal rights, we have abundant evidence. The same is true with respect to reduced religious observance, less authoritarian government and increased sexual freedom. All of these things would have been confidently predicted to be incompatible with the maintenance of civilization and high standards of living by people who enjoyed spectacularly low standards of living by our standards.

    Extending moral consideration to foreigners during war-time is an even more obvious example.

  • Michael, I’d like to see evidence that Kant, Aristotle, or contemporaries thought our morality would lead to the loss of civilization.

  • Evidence: How about, “People with dark skin are also conscious beings who have complex experiences and whose lives are an issue for them – at least, if given the opportunity to see that they need not walk around in chains throughouot life – in roughly the same way our lives are an issue for us.”??? Ignoring the other-minds problem, is that evidence? It’s something we might say. I’m just a little bit worried about the notion of evidence here; does this presume that ethics is exactly like empirical science (which lives on evidence)?

    What is my evidence for the claim that “Torturing infants for sport is wrong”? Do I have evidence for that? Do I need evidence? (Is there already something gone wrong with me, morally, if I think that I might need evidence for such a claim?)

  • Matthew, my best guess is that out ancestors were well aware of the “evidence” you point to.

  • michael vassar

    I didn’t say that Kant or Aristotle predicted these things, but many of their contemporaries definitely did. On the right, some still do. For instance, read Orson Scott Card on sexual freedom, or read some of the writings of Ruskin on slavery. More generally, the need for theism to prop up ethics is touted Constantly by MANY theists.
    I was arguing here for the progress of practical moral philosophy, not theoretical. I argued in another post, which didn’t post that modern practical ethics is basically Mill’s theoretical ethics anchored to tradition, and that Kant and Aristotle were not engaged in the same activity as Mill was, e.g. the effort to discover the conclusions of a universal ethics. Aristotle’s ethics was explicitly constrained both by human nature and by the specifics of the cultures he was speaking to. Kant’s was explicitly aimed at justifying pre-ordained conclusions taken from the relatively liberal side of the Christian theology of his day.

  • TGGP

    Some good writings on morality and killing babies here by Razib from Gene Expression, and here by Stephen Pinker on the difference between killing newborns and other infants.

    I often note that people treat something an act as especially bad if the perpetrator benefits from it (for example “torturing babies for sport” rather than just “torturing babies”). It never made a difference to me whether the perpetrator enjoyed it or not; the victim was the only one that seemed relevant to me. I would guess that most people have that moral intuition because if people do benefit from certain acts they are more likely to commit them, so it is something we are primed to watch out for.

  • I believe it was Plato who as early as anybody argued that
    intentions matter. They certainly do in modern legal codes,
    as in what it is that constitutes first degree murder.

    In terms of conflicting moral codes, consider the current general
    abhorrence of cannibalism. Now, probably pretty much everyone would
    agree that it is wrong to eat prisoners of war, which was something
    done in many societies. However, the other major form of cannibalism
    in “primitive” societies was the ritual eating of relatives after they
    died natural deaths. In certain societies this was considered both a
    mark of respect for them and for the gods and indeed for the whole natural
    order. In his book, Collapse, Diamond reports how back in 1965 he was
    working in New Guinea, and his assistant quit to go home to eat a dead
    relative (actually, prospective son-in-law) ritually. When told of how
    the dead were buried in the West, this man was shocked and denounced the
    “waste” and “disrespect” of sticking a relative’s corpse in the ground
    to be consumed by maggots.

    Can we really say this man was wrong?

  • michael vassar

    But Barkley, we moderns *don’t* think that cannibalism is innately wrong. We feel that it’s gross, as a result of tradition, and we may even anchor a bit towards disapproval as a result, but we clearly don’t think it’s wrong. Further, very few moral philosophers who have ever lived would think this. Surely Kant and Aristotle wouldn’t think it was wrong either.

  • I wouldn’t do it myself, but I don’t think that grokking dead relatives is wrong.

  • Michael Rooney

    Robin has asked (more than once) what might the evidence be that would lead to someone to change their moral views, “evidence that would convince our ancestors if they could come visit our society for a year”. Why resort to time-travel thought-experiments? People from cultures with nigh-medieval moral codes have been known to take up residence in our neck of the woods. Sayyid Qutb and his followers aside, I’d guess (based on immigration, if nothing else) that the majority of Visitors from Another Moral Plane are convinced by old-fashioned empirical evidence (with its persuasive force varying inversely with the robustness of existing normative beliefs: but this is not altogether different from theory-modification in general, as Duhem and Quine teach us).

    To paraphrase Mill, the only proof that gets people to adopt a new norm is that they try one and like it. Or, conversely, they find extant norms aren’t worth the trouble. If you like, this is a sort of natural selection: as the social environment changes (in large part thanks to technology), some norms cause more pain or other expense than they bring social utility. Case in point: excessive care for individual life may be maladaptive in a subsistence economy; thus infanticide (or, in extremis, gerontocide — cf. Turnbull’s The Mountain People) may be tolerated. As scarcity decreases, it becomes possible for individual life to become a sacred value: and this may be driven in part by logical considerations such as simple consistency. However, as technology extends the borderlands of life in both directions, people find the existing norm unbearably agonizing or absurd (could every sperm really be sacred?). Ergo, euthanasia and abortion become tolerated. This in turn requires (possibly substantial) revision of existing norms for the sake of coherence. Usw. (Rawls said all this decades ago.)

    In this sense, then, there could be moral progress, just as one might regard a behavior or trait maladaptive to a given environment. (Such as, e.g., economists regarding bias as something to be overcome.) If this account is correct, one would expect norms to be partly biological. And they might be.

    A last point: Robin said above that our ancestors were likely well aware of empirical evidence that, say, dark-skinned humans were people with inner lives basically the same as Europeans. I have my doubts. Kant, for example, had few if any opportunities to see any non-Europeans at close range. Even within one’s own nationality, it was acceptable practice (not so long ago) for eminent minds such as Gibbon’s to say of the peasant that he was “superior but little to his fellow labourer the ox in the exercise of his mental faculties.” (Remarks not dissimilar to Gibbon’s have appeared from time to time on this blog too, though fortunately not implying such traits are linked to any particular social class.)

  • michael v.,

    I suspect that if one were to take a poll, one would find an overwhelming majority of the population would regard cannibalism as morally wrong, even if it is a question that has not exercised the attention of moral philosophers all that much.

    You admit that the tradition of viewing it as “gross” does “anchor a bit towards disapproval,” but I would suggest that this has a lot to do with it, a whole lot. After all, rumor has it that human flesh is actually reasonably tasty, if properly prepared. The distaste is clearly socially induced, and pretty strongly socially induced. I think that a widely held moral judgment, if not adumbrated at length by official (or unofficial) moral philosophers, is very much what lies at the foundation of this distaste.

  • Note that in Barkley’s example there are two different kinds of cannibalism going on: the one practice involving eating prisoners of war, and the other practice in which relatives eat their dead. I don’t know enough about the first practice to speculate upon what values are expressed by it, but the latter practice exemplifies the idea that “it is good to show respect for the dead” – for some groups, this has been done by eating dead relatives. For others, this has been done by burying them with markers. Consider what Herodotus said about this in The Histories:

    “I will give this one proof among many from which it may be inferred that all men hold this belief about their customs. When Darius was king, he summoned the Greeks who were with him and asked them for what price they would eat their fathers’ dead bodies. They answered that they wouldn’t do it for any amount of money. Then Darius summoned those Indians who are called Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them (the Greeks being present and understanding through interpreters what was said) what would make them willing to burn their fathers at death. The Indians cried aloud, that he should not speak of so horrible an act. So firmly rooted are these beliefs; and it is, I think, rightly said in Pindar’s poem that custom is king of all.”

    Now, custom may be king when it comes to how we express certain values (or how much emphasis particular values get), but someone holding out for a general objectivity (or ubiquity) of values would point out that, while each society has its own way of doing it, they are both showing respect for the dead. (Of course, many in each society would think that members of the other society were being disrespectful, but this could be dismissed as a kind of short-sightedness, or a failure of depth of understanding about what the other society’s practice is aiming at.)

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