Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 169–183 | Cite as

Slavery, Carbon, and Moral Progress



My goal in this paper is to shed light on how moral progress actually occurs. I begin by restating a conception of moral progress that I set out in previous work, the “Naïve Conception,” and explain how it comports with various normative and metaethical views. I go on to develop an index of moral progress and show how judgments about moral progress can be made. I then discuss an example of moral progress from the past—the British abolition of the Atlantic slave trade—with a view to what can be learned from this for a contemporary struggle for moral progress: the movement to decarbonize the global economy. I close with some thoughts about how moral progress actually occurs.


Moral progress Slavery Climate change Evolutionary ethics Moral realism 



This paper began life as a keynote address to the conference on “Moral Progress: Concept, Measurement, and Application” at VU University Amsterdam in 2015 and revises and extends material in Jamieson 2002b. I thank Professor Bert Musschenga for inviting me, and for all those who participated in the discussion. In addition to the comments of Professor Musschenga, I have benefited from those of two anonymous referees and two NYU colleagues: Duncan Purvis, and Nicolas Delon. My greatest debt is to my comrades in the New York Abolitionism Discussion Group: Jeffrey Flynn, and Mark Greif.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental StudiesNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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