Attempt at understanding the role of moral philosophy in moral progress

post by alexhill · 2019-10-28T16:32:27.675Z · score: 32 (20 votes) · EA · GW · 8 comments


    Key insights
  Hypotheses and methodologies
  Learnings about women’s rights
  Learnings about animal welfare

by Alex Hill and Jaime Sevilla

In this article we describe our attempt at understanding the role of moral philosophy in bringing about major moral shifts.

In the first section we explain the research questions and hypotheses we were interested in evaluating. We then summarize what we learned in two areas — women’s rights and animal welfare. We finish with a reflection on the usefulness of this exercise.

Key insights

In total we spent about ~8 hours doing research for this project, between the two of us.

Hypotheses and methodologies

As we started this project we were trying to better understand how moral philosophy affects moral progress.

The three crude hypothesis that we were testing are:

  1. H1 Philosophers generate novel moral ideas from 1st principles
  2. H2 Philosophers synthesize, legitimize and popularize existing ideas
  3. H3 Moral progress happens more or less independently of moral philosophers

We most likely expect reality to conform to a mix of these three, but trying to gain better insight on their relative importance seemed like a valuable exercise.

In particular, having a better understanding of this question would allow us to ascertain what (if any) kind of moral research is better to pursue / fund.

To perform a first cut on this question, we resolved to:

  1. Decide on some key moral milestones
  2. Search for historical records of steps towards that milestone, both philosophical work and other records
  3. Make an educated guess as to whether the importance of related philosophical work for the achievement of the milestone is explained better by H1, H2 or H3

The two examples of moral progress we looked at first are women’s political rights and animal rights. Some other examples we considered were the abolition of slavery and LGBT+ rights.

For data collection we resorted to superficially googling terms that looked relevant such as “history of women’s rights”.

We did not have a predetermined way of analyzing whether, in each case, the data better supported H1, H2 or H3, but during the process we came up with some interesting questions to ask that are summarized in the conclusion.

We did not look in depth for previous work on this question, but we found this article by Michele Moody Adams arguing quite strongly against H1 and in favour of something like H2 [REF].

Learnings about women’s rights

Learnings about animal welfare


We have superficially looked into the history of women’s rights and animal welfare, trying to better understand how important moral philosophy was in each of those cases to bring about moral progress.

Tentatively, it seems like the history of women’s rights was precipitated by some key philosophical work around the enlightenment era (supporting H1), while animal welfare (especially factory farming activism) was catalyzed by some empirical observations about the conditions of animal stock rather than philosophical work, but philosophical work was important to organize effective action (supporting H2).

More important than the weak conclusions we have reached are the key limitations we faced:

In conclusion, we think that this was a worthwhile exercise but we do not intend to pursue this question further unless we can come up with a more concrete methodology.

Some open questions we encountered in our research:

This article was written by Alex Hill and Jaime Sevilla. We want to thank Ronja Lutz and Robert Wiblin for providing feedback on an early draft of the article.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by cole_haus · 2019-10-28T22:05:56.849Z · score: 15 (7 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Moral Bias and Corrective Practices: A Pragmatist Perspective (the full article is there if you scroll down) is interesting and somewhat relevant IMO. It argues that "the moral biases of slavery advocates proved largely immune to correction by the dominant methods of moral philosophy, which were deployed by white abolitionists. Ascent to the a priori led to abstract moral principles—the Golden Rule, the equality of humans before God—that settled nothing because their application to this world was contested. Table-turning exercises were ineffective for similar reasons. Reflective equilibrium did not clearly favor the abolitionists, given authoritarian, Biblical, and racist premises shared by white abolitionists and slavery advocates."

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2019-10-28T17:54:18.846Z · score: 9 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The question "to what extent did a specific moral philosopher cause moral progress/change?" (not the exact question you pose, but close) is an instance of the more general question "to what extent have individuals influenced history?" (e.g. Luther, Napoleon, Stalin). It could be useful to look at what people have written on that more general issue, both to generate priors, and to gain insights about various methodological and conceptual issues (which I suspect can be pretty tricky).

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2019-10-29T06:47:49.980Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Sentience Institute wrote a fantastic blog post [EA · GW] on the question of how tractable is it for a small group of individuals to change the course of history.

comment by NunoSempere · 2019-10-28T23:27:38.042Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Regarding "to what extent have individuals influenced history?", I have found Great Founder Theory, valuable, but it doesn't answer that exact question.

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2019-10-29T07:20:03.171Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for this work, it seems like a very important question and the report on the methodology is interesting for anyone considering similar research questions. My main takeaway here is that these kind of projects should start with a comprehensive literature review (which would be useful in it's own right) and to follow a specified methodology (which may be biased, but hopefully in a decipherable way).

I'd like to add a future research direction, to test in what cases the philosophical works had been influential. Perhaps there are some guides to how progress in moral philosophy can best influence the world. I think I remember that Bentham had a lot of influence, and Singer surely ;)

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2019-10-31T11:04:11.208Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

A new post on the history of the New Atheism movement by Slatestarcodex may be of interest.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2019-10-28T18:09:08.553Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Have the concept of speciesism and the argument from species overlap/marginal cases been important for animal protection? I'd attribute them largely to philosophers.

I think we should also look at the influence the EA community has and where its ideas come from. What would EA look like without a given idea from philosophy?

comment by JamieWoodhouse · 2019-11-22T15:27:55.644Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks - interesting perspectives.

I'm working to build a global movement around the moral philosophy of Sentientism (basically secular humanism extended to grant moral consideration to all sentient beings). It has much in common with EA values, of course - although it's explicitly naturalistic.

The community is new and small (although people from 56 countries involved so far in our main FaceBook group) - but anecdotally I've seen a fairly balanced mix of H1-H2-H3 so far. For some, sentientism just gives a name to a philosophy they already held (roughly humanism + ~veganism). For others, it's more novel and has led to different personal and institutional decisions.

It might prove an interesting case study at some point.