Moral Progress Is Not Like STEM Progress

In this post I want to return to the question of moral progress. But before addressing that directly, I first want to set up two reference cases for comparison.

My first comparison case is statistics. Statistics is useful, and credit for the value that statistics adds to our discussions goes to several sources: to the statisticians who develop stat tests and estimates, to the teachers who transmit those tools to others, and to the problem specialists who find useful places to apply stats.

We can tell that statisticians deserve credit because we can usually identify the particular tests and estimates being used (e.g., “chi test”) in each case, and can trace those back to the teachers who taught them, and the researchers who developed them. New innovations are novel combinations of stat details whose effectiveness depends greatly on those details. We can see the first use cases of each such structure, and then see how a habit of its use spread.

Similar stories apply to many STEM areas, where we can distinguish particular design elements and analysis tools, and trace them back to their teachers and innovators. We can thus credit those innovators with their contributions, and verify that we have in fact seen substantial progress in these areas. We can see many cases where new tools let us improve on the best we could do with old tools.

My second comparison case is the topic area of home arrangement: what things to put in what drawers and rooms in our homes, and what activities to do in what parts of what rooms at what times of the day or week. Our practices in these areas result from copying the choices of our parents, friends, TV shows, and retailers, and also from experimenting with personal variations to see what we like. Over our lifetimes, we each tend to get more satisfied with our choices.

It is less clear, however, how much humanity as a whole improves in this area over time. Oh, we prefer our homes to homes of centuries ago. But this is most clearly because we have bigger nicer homes, that we fill with more nicer things than our ancestors had or could afford.

As new items become available, our plans for which things go where, and what we do with them when, have adapted over time. But it isn’t clear that humanity learns much after an early period of adaptation to each new item. Yes, for each choice we make, we can usually offer an argument for why that choice is better, and sometimes we can remember where we heard that argument. But the general set of arguments used in this area doesn’t seem to expand or improve much over time.

It is possible and even plausible that, even so, we are slowly getting better in general at knowing where to put things and what to do when in homes. Even if we don’t learn new general principles, we may be slowly getting better at reducing our case specific errors relative to our constant general principles.

But if so, the value of this progress seems to be modest, compared to our other related sources of progress, such as bigger houses, better items, and more free time to spend on them. And it seems pretty clear that little of the progress that we have seen here is to be credited to researchers specializing in home arrangement or personal activity scheduling. We don’t share much general abstract knowledge about this area, and haven’t added much lately to whatever of that we once had.

We see similar situations in many other areas where there is widespread practice, but few research specialists or teachers of newly researched tools. There might be progress in reducing errors where practice deviates from widely accepted stable principles, but if so that progress seems modest relative to progress due to other factors, such as better technology, increased wealth, and larger populations.

With these two reference cases in mind, STEM tools and home arrangement, let us now consider moral progress. The world seems to many to be getting more moral over time. But that could be because we have been getting richer and safer, which makes morality more affordable to us. Or it could be due to random correlated drift in our practices and standards, combined with our habit of judging past practices by current standards.

However, it also seems possible, at least at first glance, that our world is getting more apparently moral because of improved moral abilities, holding constant our wealth and knowledge about non-moral topics. For example, moral researchers might be acquiring more objective genera knowledge about morality, knowledge which morality teachers then spread to the rest of us, who then apply those improved moral tools to particular cases.

In support of this theory, many people point to particular moral arguments when they defend the morality of particular behaviors, and they often point to particular human sources for those arguments. Furthermore, many of those sources are new and canonical, so that a great many people in each era point to the same few sources, sources that are different from those to which prior generations pointed. Does this show progress?

If you look carefully at the specific moral arguments that people cite to support their behavior, it turns out that those arguments look pretty similar to arguments that were known long before. While each new generation’s canonical sources have some unique examples, styles, and argument details, those differences don’t seem to matter much to the practices of the ordinary people who cite them.

This situation seems in sharp contrast to the case of progress in statistics, for example, where the details of each new statistical test or estimate show up clearly and matter greatly to applications of those stats. It seems more consistent with moral arguments being used to justify behavior that would have happened anyway, rather than having moral arguments cause changes in behavior.

Yes, some old moral arguments may well have been forgotten for a time, and thus need to be reinvented by newer sources. For example, while ancient sources plausibly expressed thoughtful critiques of slavery and gender inequality, recent critics of such things may well have not read such ancient sources.

Even so, progress in morality looks to me much more like progress in home arrangement, and much less like progress in STEM. Even though locally new home arrangement choices continually appear, they don’t appear to add up to much overall progress relative to other sources of progress. Similarly, while it is possible that there is some moral progress due to slowly learning to have lower local error rates relative to constant general principles, I think we can pretty clearly reject the STEM-analogue hypothesis that morality researchers invent new detailed morality structures which then diffuse via teachers to greatly change typical practice.

Thus an examination of the details of moral change suggests that little of it can be credited to moral researchers, and only modest amounts to practioners slowly learning to cut errors relative to stable principles. Thus most apparent progress is plausibly due to our getting richer and safer, or to drift combined with a habit of judging past practices by current standards.

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