Moral Progress & Moral Truth?

By | March 26, 2010

The claim that there has been moral progress in history, stated as a movement toward a transcendent moral truth, raises a number of critical questions: First, we can ask what is meant by “moral progress” and “moral truth.” Secondly, we might ask what philosophy (theory) of history is presupposed by such a grand theme as moral progress in history, and is that philosophy of history a rationally compelling one.

In his recent book, The Evolution of God (Little, Brown & Co., 2009), Robert Wright claims that history displays moral progress, a movement toward moral truth.

“Certainly there has been a kind of net moral progress in history, if only in the sense that moral imagination today routinely expands farther than the circumference of a hunger-gather village. And certainly religion has played a role in this progress.”

(page 427)

He then adds that it is certainly a fact that

“.. history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation — “salvation” in the original Abrahamic sense of the term: salvation of the social structure.”

(page 429) .
As these quotes from his latest book make clear, and as he argued in his earlier book, Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright claims to find moral progress in history.

For the purpose of this essay, let us set aside Wright’s general themes — a higher purpose in nature, an objective moral order in the universe, and an evolution of God in religious phenomena —-, all of which call for critical attention. Here I shall direct attention to his use of the ideas of ‘moral progress’ and ‘moral truth,’ both of which present a number of philosophical issues.

Wright claims to find a general direction in history of moral progress. The thesis of a general pattern of moral progress implies a progressive philosophy of history. There have been a variety of philosophies of history advanced; some examples are the 19th century theories by the German Idealist, G. Hegel, the founder of Marxism, Karl Marx, and the cyclical theories of Oswald Spengler, none of which give a clear picture of moral progress. Wright offers his theory of history. Does he make a compelling case for his philosophy of history, which is mostly an adaptation of the ancient doctrine of the Logos operating in history, developed by early Greek Stoics and the Jewish theologian, Philo? It is surely a questionable view of history. It is not clear how one could defend it philosophically; and Wright really does not offer an effective case in favor of his theory.

Has there been moral progress in history? While a number of people would agree with Wright that the general trend in history is one of moral progress, others have reasons for questioning that claim. The most that Wright has shown is that some aspects of historical change over the centuries can be seen as progressive changes in some respect. Increasing complexity and economic relations between societies can be seen as improvements over small tribes mostly antagonistic to each other. But progressive change is not necessarily moral progress. However, we can surely agree that there has been some moral progress in specific areas of historical, sociological development; e.g., progress in general attitudes regarding justice and human rights for people who used to be subject to enslavement; and progress in our notions of economic justice and human rights for women and ethnic, racial minorities. In other words, depending on which aspect of history we look at, we can argue meaningfully either for some kind of moral progress or argue for its absence, as long as there is agreement on the relevant value judgments, e.g., we agree that a situation in which people have a say in their government is an improvement in which they are subject to the arbitrary rule of the dictator; or we agree that conditions of religious freedom are better than conditions of religious totalitarianism. However, our recognition of ‘moral progress’ in this limited sense is not enough to not support Wright’s claim of general historical movement of moral progress.

As noted above, Wright assumes that talk of moral progress implies a progress toward moral truth: “..history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth.” This calls for at least two points of criticism:

1) There isn’t any reason for concluding that moral progress logically implies a movement toward moral truth. Talk about moral progress or moral improvement does presuppose a value judgment to the effect that the later stage is better than the earlier one; but this does not have to involve reference to ‘moral truth’; it can be stated in terms of the realization of certain values or satisfaction of a specific set of rules, with no commitment to any ‘moral truth.’

2) Wright is vague on what exactly is that ‘moral truth’ that historical moral progress approximates. The best I can get from his books is the statement of certain purported truths (“people everywhere are the same”; or the ‘truth’ that regional warfare has diminished and there is greater inclusion of people cooperating). While these propositions are relevant to morality in some way, they are not obviously moral truths. Wight’s ‘moral truths’ are more in the line of purported truths of historical patterns and sociological-anthropological truths, and they’re surely not ‘truths’ separate from the historical development that he purports to trace; they’re not separate truth toward which history is driving closer and closer. They are merely developments in history itself. .

So we have a definite problem is with Wright’s idea of moral truth, sitting out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. As anyone who has studied the subject of ethics beyond the introductory level, claims of moral truth are problematic.

For starters, the language of ethics seems to be prescriptive (e.g., statements of what one ought to do) and evaluative (e.g., value judgments concerning some action or choice). In neither case is propositional truth our primary concern, and probably does not even apply. When we turn attention to cases of moral conflict, such as issues of abortion, euthanasia, morality of war, distribution of benefits when there’s not enough for everyone, and other such issues, the claim that moral truth can be discerned is questionable to say the least. A genuine moral conflict means that we don’t have a ‘truth’ to which we can appeal; we lack any knowledge of moral truth which would settle the conflict. We simply have to make a choice based on our best judgment as to what is the right thing to do.

In his classical book, Ethics (Penguin books, 1954), P.H. Nowell-Smith tells us that “..moral philosophy is a practical science; its aim is to answer questions in the form ‘What shall I do?’. But no general answer can be given to this type of question.” (p. 320 ) He also rejects the notion that knowledge and truth can be applied to morality: He writes that sometimes philosophical theories rest on sheer logical confusions, and gives as a prime example the transferring concepts from mathematics and the sciences to moral discourse. This leads people to think that knowing how to lead one’s life is knowledge of theoretical truths, either about human nature or about a special realm of ‘values’. (See pages 317-318)

Many twentieth century analytical philosophers emphasized the difference between descriptive sciences and disciplines, where notions of truth and knowledge apply, and normative philosophies such as ethics, which deal with value judgments and prescriptions as to what one ought and ought not do. Here the notions of truth and knowledge have doubtful application.

However, as Alan R.White points out in his book Truth (Anchor Books, 1970), at least with respect to what he calls “moral pronouncements,” there is no obvious reason for denying that talk of moral truths is correct. Examples of moral pronouncements: Murder is wrong. Torture of babies is wrong. Giving help to the needy is good when one has the resources to do so. Genocide is evil, When these are stated in propositional form, there is no reason for denying that ‘truth’ can apply to them. White adds that “…moral pronouncements, unlike prescriptions, commands, or advice are expressed in the indicative mood, which is commonly a sigh that what is expressed can be true or false.” These are propositions about which we can agree or disagree with, but also argue about, or contradict; in some cases, he tells us they are also such that they “can be discovered, assumed or proved, believed, doubted or known; all of which characterize what can be true or false.” (pp. 60-61)

We can add that people are inclined to allow talk of truth with respect to universal principles, such as the Golden Rule, where there tends to be general agreement on the general truth that we should not do to others what we don’t want done to us. Utilitarians will argue that the principle of utility (Act so that greatest benefit for the greatest number results) is a moral truth. Kantians argue the same for the Categorical Imperative stated as “Always treat humans as ends-in-themselves, and never as a means only.” Few would argue that the unnecessary killing and torture of children is justifiable.

The issue of moral truth or ‘truth’ applied to moral discourse is a complicated one. It surely oversimplifies matters to assume without argument that there is such a thing as moral truth and that moral progress in history discloses this moral truth, as Robert Wright does. The sense in which ‘truth’ can apply to moral pronouncements and universal principles could be part of a general thesis that historically human societies are making progress in realizing such moral ideals, for example, the moral ideal embodied in the Golden Rule. But this is not how Wright has developed his thesis of moral progress in history.

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