Possibilities of moral progress in the face of evolution

J.S. Hermann

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7 Citations (Scopus)
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Evolutionary accounts of the origin of human morality may be speculative to some extent, but they contain some very plausible claims, such as the claim that ethics evolved as a response to the demands of group living. Regarding the phenomenon of moral progress, it has been argued both that it is ruled out by an evolutionary approach, and that it can be explained by it. It has even been claimed that an evolutionary account has the potential to advance progress in the moral domain. This paper explores the complex relationship between evolutionary explanations of morality and the possibility of moral progress. It seeks to answer the question as to what these explanations are able to tell us about the possibility of moral progress and the ways in which such progress can be achieved. It is argued that evolutionary explanations can inform moral education and other forms of moral enhancement, and that increased evolutionary knowledge figures among the changes in the circumstances of morality that can lead to moral progress. Evolutionary explanations can show us certain limits to the possibility for humans of progressing morally as well as certain enabling conditions. It is argued that both aspects – enhancement and changes in the circumstances – are equally important for the achievement of moral progress. This is illustrated by means of two examples of areas in which moral progress seems possible: our relationship towards the distant poor and our relationship towards non-human animals.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-54
Number of pages16
JournalEthical Theory and Moral Practice
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Animals
  • Distant needy
  • Education
  • Evolution
  • Moral enhancement
  • Moral progress


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