Moral Progress: Cognitive Mechanisms and Social Change

Abstract

This paper makes three main claims. First, the recognition that moral truths can be discovered, taught or learned does not require a commitment to metaphysical moral realism as opposed to a pragmatic account of truth. Second, changes in institutions and practices typically precede, rather than follow the discovery of moral truths. Third, instances of moral progress (like instances of progress in natural science) depend on an array of case-specific inputs. In the moral case, they produce new ways of seeing established practices and institutions. First-person testimony, and cognitive strategies that fracture assumptions, including strategies supplied by but not limited to abstract moral theory, play a role in inducing moral change for the better. Expressive and socially disruptive protest and the emotional expression of grievances appears to be a necessary factor in these transformative processes.

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