On Moral Progression

by Kent Prion about a year ago in humanity

A Rebuttal to Relativist and Supernatural Objectivist Claims to the Possibility of the Progression of Morals

On Moral Progression

In this paper, I argue that there cannot be moral progress. I believe that moral progress cannot exist because there are no objective morals by which to judge another set of morals. Some critics of my view will say that, while there may be no objective morals, this does not mean there cannot be moral progression. For moral progress seems possible in relativism and in subjectivism. This is mistaken, because each morality is created by the relativists and the subjectivists themselves. This leads to the conclusion that moral progression cannot be made because, by the relativist's own admission, each moral set of facts are equal and none can therefore be considered better or more progressive than another.

A relativist or subjectivist may be prepared to concede that, while their meta ethical view does not allow for a permanent and standard measure of moral progression, there is indeed a way for them to measure moral progression within their own society and/or within the individual themselves, respectively. This could be called the high-standard issue. While a society or individual may not be able to measure moral progression with a permanent, standard set of moral facts, they could argue that they have made moral progress by better living up to the moral standards they themselves have created. Here we must define what we mean by "moral progression." I will offer what I believe to be the best interpretation of moral progression. The definition can be stated as “the act of behaving in a way which is in more accordance with a set of moral teachings than the previous ways of behaving.” With this definition, the relativists and the subjectivists can indeed claim moral progression, though by the very definition of what relativism and subjectivism mean, respectively. Thus, if a relativist or subjectivist decides to employ the former reasoning and accept the previously mentioned definition of moral progression, it is necessary to admit circular reasoning. However, even if one ignores the circular reasoning, it is important to note that this line of reasoning demands one must also accept another individual or society’s claim of moral progression within their own set of moral facts. That is, if a society claims moral progression because of their shift from slavery to freedom (with the assumption that freedom is morally factual in this society), then one must also recognize another society’s claim to moral progression because of their shift from equality to racism/classism, etc. (assuming the latter to be morally factual in said society).

The same holds true for the subjectivists as well. While this allows anyone who holds either of those two meta ethical positions to maintain intellectual integrity, this is all it will do. That is, a subjectivist or relativist can claim moral progression in the way previously mentioned, but will, in practice, disregard the idea due to innate instinct and behavior.

This mention of innate instinct and behavior brings us to the third and final meta ethical camp opposed to nihilism, objectivism. While the two previous groups criticized the conclusion of my statement, the objectivist will criticize the premise of my statement. That is, that there are no objective morals to begin with. I believe the strongest argument against nihilism to be the observation that humans appear to exhibit some fundamental moral concepts, such as murder, rape, theft, lying, etc., to be wrong. No matter the culture, individual or time (for the most part), nearly everyone agrees that some actions and behaviors are simply wrong.

If there are no moral facts, then how could nearly all humans possibly agree that some things are just wrong? To answer this question from the nihilistic perspective—which I would argue is the correct perspective—one must first ask what humans are and how we came to be. Humans are animals, specifically primates, which are descendants of a common ancestor shared with all other primates (apes, monkeys, bonobos, etc.). The process that transformed this common ancestor into apes, monkeys, bonobos and humans is evolution. This is not a premise, but a scientific fact, much in the same way that gravity is a scientific fact. With a tremendous amount of scientific evidence, which spans a multitude of different scientific disciplines, one can be sure that evolution is true. Assuming that one accepts this fact, the question of why we are the way we are becomes reasonable to ask and easy to answer.

Humans are pack animals, meaning that we operate within our environment in groups. Pack animals must necessarily be willing and able to not only tolerate one another, but work with one another. Additionally, this cooperation must be to our benefit. That is, the way in which we cooperate with one another should be for the betterment of the group as a whole. Thus, by evolutionary adaptation, humans have a natural proclivity for altruistic behavior, and a natural aversion for behaviors that are not altruistic. These non-altruistic behaviors are what we call immoral behaviors. They include murder, rape, theft, lying, etc... This does not completely disprove objectivism, though. An objectivist may accept this evolutionary explanation and claim that its results are the very objective set of morals they claim to be true. However, if this is the case, how does the objectivist reconcile this with non-altruistic behaviors of other animals, such as solitary predators? Surely if another animal exhibits the opposite traits humans possess, then the morality of these behaviors must also be opposite. The objectivist may, at this point, attempt to mention behaviors humans exhibit that do not seem to have an evolutionary origin, yet are still very much commonplace within humanity as a whole.

It is true that one is probably able to find (an) example(s) of altruistic behavior that cannot be explained by evolutionary adaptation. However, this does not point towards some objective morality—quite the contrary. Humans, and animals in general, are capable of empathy. The fact that this is present even in other creatures throughout the animal kingdom lends itself to evolutionary adaptation. This ability to empathize with another results in the human inclination towards social change. This can be observed simply by studying history, and how humans have changed their attitudes about one another through empathizing, which has resulted in the social construction of more empathetic behavior and attitudes. It is paramount to realize the motivation for social construction and what social construction is. The motivation stems from evolution-driven adaptation—not some realization of moral facts. Social construction is not humans creating moral facts. It is humans changing societal behaviors out of empathy, not out of ethicality. An attempt to use evolutionary adaptation in either of these ways is to misunderstand the motive and the role.

Kent Prion
Kent Prion
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Kent Prion

I'm a fourth-year pure mathematics major. While my primary focus is mathematics, I have a soft spot for the humanities, and so I really enjoy writing.

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