- "Moral progress" vs. the simple passage of time
By Holden Karnofsky 4 min read

"Moral progress" vs. the simple passage of time

In Future-Proof Ethics, I talked about trying to "consistently [make] ethical decisions that look better, with hindsight after a great deal of moral progress, than what our peer-trained intuitions tell us to do."

I cited Kwame Anthony Appiah's comment that "common-sense" ethics has endorsed horrible things in the past (such as slavery and banning homosexuality), and his question of whether we, today, can do better by the standards of the future.

A common objection to this piece was along the lines of:

Who cares how future generations look back on me? They'll have lots of views that are different from mine, just as I have lots of views that are different from what was common in the past. They'll judge me harshly, just as I judge people in the past harshly. But none of this is about moral progress - it's just about random changes.

Sure, today we're glad that homosexuality is more accepted, and we think of that as progress. But that's just circular - it's judging the past by the standards of today, and concluding that today is better.

Interestingly, I think there were two versions of this objection: what I'd call the "moral realist" version and the "moral super-anti-realist" version.

  • The moral realist thinks that there are objective moral truths. Their attitude is: "I don't care what future people think of my morality (or what I think after more reflection?1) - I just care what's objectively right."
  • The moral super-anti-realist thinks that morality is strictly subjective, and that there's just nothing interesting to say about how to "improve" morality. Their attitude is: "I don't care what future people think of my morality, I just care what's moral by the arbitrary standards of the time I live in."

In contrast to these positions, I would label myself as a "moral quasi-realist": I don't think morality is objective, but I still care greatly about what a future Holden - one who has reflected more, learned more, etc. - would think about the ethical choices I'm making today. (Similarly, I believe that taste in art is subjective, but I also believe there are meaningful ways of talking about "great art" and "highbrow vs. lowbrow taste," and I personally have a mild interest in cultivating more highbrow taste for myself.)

Talking about "moral progress" is intended to encompass both the "moral quasi-realist" and the "moral realist" positions, while ignoring the "moral super-anti-realist" position because I think that one is silly. The reason I went with the "future-proof ethics" framing is because it gives a motivation for moral reasoning that I think is compatible with believing in objective moral truth, or not - as long as you believe in some meaningful version of progress.

By "moral progress," I don't just mean "Whatever changes in commonly accepted morality happen to take place in the future." I mean specifically to point to the changes that you (whoever is reading this) consider to be progress, whether because they are honing in on objective truth or resulting from better knowledge and reasoning or for any other good reason. Future-proof ethics is about making ethical choices that will still look good after your and/or society's ethics have "improved" (not just "changed").

I expect most readers - whether they believe in objective moral truth or not - to accept that there are some moral changes that count as progress. I think the ones I excerpted from Appiah's piece are good examples that I expect most readers to accept and resonate with.

In particular, I expect some readers to come in with an initial position of "Moral tastes are just subjective, there's nothing worth debating about them," and then encounter examples like homosexuality becoming more accepted over time and say "Hmm ... I have to admit that one really seems like some sort of meaningful progress. Perhaps there will also be further progress in the future that I care about. And perhaps I can get ahead of that progress via the sorts of ideas discussed in Future-Proof Ethics. Gosh, what an interesting blog!"

However, if people encounter those examples and say "Shrug, I think things like increasing acceptance of homosexuality are just random changes, and I'm not motivated to 'future-proof' my ethics against future changes of similar general character," then I think we just have a deep disagreement, and I don't expect my "future-proof ethics" series to be relevant for such readers. To them I say: sorry, I'll get back to other topics reasonably soon!


  1. I suspect the moral realists making this objection just missed the part of my piece stating:

    "Moral progress" here refers to both societal progress and personal progress. I expect some readers will be very motivated by something like "Making ethical decisions that I will later approve of, after I've done more thinking and learning," while others will be more motivated by something like "Making ethical decisions that future generations won't find abhorrent."

    But maybe they saw it, and just don't think "personal progress" matters either, only objective moral truth. 

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