Symposion on Moral Progress
2019 (41) Issue 2
Table of Contents
Title: Précis of The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory
Author: Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell
The idea of moral progress played a central role in liberal political thought from the Enlightenment through the nineteenth century but is rarely encountered in moral and political philosophical discourse today. One reason for this is that traditional liberal theorists of moral progress, like their conservative detractors, tended to rely on under-evidenced assumptions about human psychology and society. For the first time, we are developing robust scientific knowledge about human nature, especially through empirical psychological theories of morality and culture that are informed by evolutionary theory. On the surface, evolutionary accounts of morality paint a rather pessimistic picture of human moral nature, suggesting that certain types of moral progress are unrealistic or inappropriate for beings like us. Humans are said to be ‘hard-wired’ for tribalism. However, such a view overlooks the great plasticity of human morality as evidenced by our history of social and political moral achievements. To account for these changes while giving evolved moral psychology its due, we develop a dynamic, biocultural theory of moral progress that highlights the interaction between adaptive components of moral psychology and the cultural construction of moral norms and beliefs, and we explore how this interaction can advance, impede, and reverse moral progress.
Title: Is There Moral Progress?
Author: Eva Buddeberg
Post- and decolonial theory have contested the idea of historical progress as a Eurocentric, hegemonic, or neocolonialist misconception. Does this imply that we should give up any idea of moral progress? This paper critically examines Allen Buchanan’s and Russell Powell’s book The Evolution of Moral Progress and their claim that there is still a need for a theory of moral progress. For Buchanan and Powell, such theory should allow and guide a better understanding of what moral progress consists of. Even though they do not claim to already provide us with such a comprehensive theory of moral progress they aim towork outwhether and how certain types of moral progress are possible and assess their limits. In doing so they mainly focus on improvements in terms of social participation as an uncontroversial type of moral progress. In the following, I will first discuss the characteristics of the authors’ notion of progress and then raise some critical concerns about the example they have chosen of the history of human rights as a history of progress and, particularly, about the history of the rights of people with disabilities.
Title: Evolutionary Foundations for a Theory of Moral Progress?
Author: Kim Sterelny
Buchanan and Powell develop a concept of moral progress, and build a middle-range theory of how moral progress comes about. They argue on the basis of their view of the evolutionary origins of normative thought that further moral progress towards more inclusive moral and political systems is possible. In doing so they rebut a conservative reading of the evolution of normative thought: a reading that regards the hope for inclusive moral systems as utopian. Buchanan and Powell argue that this ‘evoconservative’ argument overlooks overwhelming evidence of the adaptive plasticity of normative thought. I agree with their rejection of that evoconservative position, but give an alternative account of the evolutionary foundations of normative cognition and its plasticity. But I also argue that there is a gap in their defence of their view of moral progress: it begs the question against exclusive, relational conceptions of the naturalistic foundations of normative obligations and rights. Their account is less fully naturalistic than they seem to suppose, for it lacks a developed account of the natural facts which make normative claims true, and it is not clear that there is an account to be given that would vindicate their inclusive liberal intuitions about the normswe should have.
Title: Moral Progress for Evolved Rational Creatures
Author: William J. FitzPatrick
Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell have developed a rich ‘biocultural theory’ of the nature and causes of moral progress (and regress) for human beings conceived as evolved rational creatures with a nature characterized by ‘adaptive plasticity’. They characterize their theory as a thoroughly naturalistic account of moral progress, while bracketing various questions in moral theory and metaethics in favor of focusing on a certain range of more scientifically tractable questions under some stipulated moral and metaethical assumptions. While I am very much in agreement with the substance of their project, I wish to query and raise some difficulties for the way it is framed, particularly in connection with the claim of naturalism. While their project is clearly naturalistic in certain senses, it is far from clear that it is so in others that are of particular interest in moral philosophy, and these issues need to be more carefully sorted out. For everything that has been argued in the book, the theory on offer may be only a naturalistic component of a larger theory that must ultimately be non-naturalistic in order to deliver the robust sort of account that is desired. Indeed, there are significant metaethical reasons for believing this to be the case. Moreover, if it turns out that some of the assumptions upon which their theory relies require a non-naturalist metaethics (positing irreducibly evaluative or normative properties and facts) then even the part of the theory that might have seemed most obviously naturalistic, i.e., the explanation of how changes in moral belief and behavior have come about, may actually require some appeal to non-naturalistic elements in the end.
Title: The Space Between
Author: Ellen Clarke
Buchanan and Powell hope to rescue optimism about moral perfectibility fromthe ’received view’ ofhumanevolution, by tweaking our view of the innate character of morality. I argue that their intervention is hampered by an unnecessary commitment to nativism, by gender bias within the received view, and by liberal presuppositions.
Title: The Progress of Moral Evolution
Author: Tim Lewens
Buchanan and Powell’s book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the evolution of morality. I suggest that they exaggerate the degree to which their view of the evolution of moral progress is committed to a form of moral realism. I also suggest that Darwin’s own approach to the evolution of the moral sense shares more with their view than they may realise. Finally I point to some tensions in their invocation of the concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).
Title: The Evolution of Moral Progress Meets Social Science: Suggestions to Augment an Ambitious Argument
Author: Steven Hitlin
Buchanan and Powell’s ambitious work offers a wide-ranging philosophical treatment about one of social science’s active inquries: human morality and how it evolved. This review humbly offers a brief engagement with the social science of morality, both to support the book’s conclusions and occasionally to build productive interdisciplinary bridges toward an even more fuller treatment of the topic.
Title: Reply to Comments
Author: Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell
Commentators on The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory raise a number of metaethical and moral concerns with our analysis, as well as some complaints regarding how we have interpreted and made use of the contemporary evolutionary and social sciences of morality. Some commentators assert that one must already presuppose a moral theory before one can even begin to theorize moral progress; others query whether the shift toward greater inclusion is really a case of moral progress, or whether our theory can be properly characterized as naturalistic’. Other commentators worry that we have uncritically accepted the prevailing evolutionary explanation of morality, even though it gives short shrift to the role of women or presupposes an oversimplified view of the environment in which the core elements of human moral psychology are thought to have congealed. Another commentator laments that we did not make more extensive use of data from the social sciences. In this reply, we engage with all of these constructive criticisms and show that although some of them arewell taken, none undermine the core thesis of our book.
Title: The Crucifix Dispute and Value Pluralism
Author: Beata Polanowska-Sygulska
This article seeks to interpret the striking divergence between the two judgments passed by the European Court of Human Rights in the Lautsi v Italy case in terms of value pluralism. The latter is a hotly debated position in ethics, brought to life in the second half of the twentieth century by Isaiah Berlin. Pluralism elucidates these in interestingways. First, value pluralism sheds light on three major aspects of the trial before the European Court of Human Rights: the nature of the collision of values, the discrepancy between the two decisions, and the rationale of the final judgment. Secondly, this is my thesis that while the first judgment fits ethical monism, which underlies Dworkin’s ‘one right answer’ theory, the second ruling chimes with pluralism. The pluralist spirit of the Grand Chamber’s final decision turned Europe away from the path of Americanization.
Title: Value Pluralism: Crucial Complexities
Author: George Crowder
Discussing the crucifix case, Beata Polanowska-Sygulska concludes that the decision on appeal fits with Berlinian value pluralism, while the initial judgement was ethically monist. Her assumption is that pluralism favours cultural diversity against uniform law. This assumption is too simple and needs to be qualified by several considerations. First, we should be clear that, under pluralism, a moral question may have ‘one right answer’ if this is contextual. Second, so far as pluralism connects with cultural diversity, this has multiple dimensions, applying not just among societies but within them as well. Third, pluralists ought to be concerned primarily with promoting a diversity of values rather than cultures. When these matters are properly taken into account, it can be seen that a uniform lawmay be more pluralist than a multiplicity of local laws, depending on
Title: Perception and Reality—Economic Inequality as a Driver of Populism?
Author: Michael Hüther and Matthias Diermeier
Can the rise of populism be explained by the growing chasm between rich and poor? With regard to Germany, such a causal relationship must be rejected. Income distribution in Germany has been very stable since 2005, and people’s knowledge on actual inequality and economic development is limited: inequality and unemployment are massively overestimated. At the same time, a persistently isolationist and xenophobic group with diverse concerns and preferences has emerged within the middle classes of society that riggers support for populist parties. This mood is based on welfare chauvinism against immigration rather than on a general criticism of distribution. Since the immigration of recent years will inevitably affect the relevant indicators concerning distribution, an open, cautious but less heated approach is needed in the debate on the future of the welfare state. In order to address and take the local concerns of citizens seriously, an increased exchange with public officials on the ground is needed.
Title: ‘Inequality is not a Problem’: How (Some) Economists Responded to Thomas Piketty
Author: J. E. King
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century makes hardly any reference to the ethics of inequality. Surprisingly, this is an omission shared by most of his critics. In this paper I investigate the literature on which he and his reviewers might have drawn and speculate on the reasons why they did not. I outline the four ‘views of society’ and the related issues in moral philosophy that were presented by Michael Schneider in his book on the distribution of wealth. I then summarise the criticisms of Piketty made by those few reviewers who did show some interest in ethical questions and examine the slightly earlier and quite different case against reducing inequality made by one of these critics, N. Gregory Mankiw. I consider the economic, political and social costs of inequality identified in a book-length study of Piketty’s work by Steven Pressman, and conclude by reflecting on the reasons for the widespread neglect of moral philosophy by mainstream economists.
Title: Social Norms, Expectations and Sanctions
Author: Francesco Guala
Hindriks’ paper raises two issues: one is formal and concerns the notion of ‘cost’ in rational choice accounts of norms; the other is substantial and concerns the role of expectations in the modification of payoffs. In this commentary I express some doubts and worries especially about the latter: What’s so special with shared expectations? Why do they induce compliance with norms, if transgression is not associated with sanctions?
Title: Varieties and Functions of Institutions
Author: Lina Eriksson
Hindriks describes institutions as norm-governed social practices, and argue that his theory help bring together and complete earlier theories of institutions. In this comment on his paper, I argue that his argument would be even better if he clarified certain parts of his argument with regards to the nature of institutions and the relationship between institutions and social norms. I also argue that he should reconsider his claim that institutions (and social norms) exist in order to solve cooperation and coordination problems.