Skip to main content
Log in

Moral Progress and Human Agency

  • Published:
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice Aims and scope Submit manuscript


The idea of moral progress is a necessary presupposition of action for beings like us. We must believe that moral progress is possible and that it might have been realized in human experience, if we are to be confident that continued human action can have any morally constructive point. I discuss the implications of this truth for moral psychology. I also show that once we understand the complex nature and the complicated social sources of moral progress, we will appreciate why we cannot construct a plausible comprehensive action-guiding theory of moral progress. Yet while the nature and sources of moral progress consistently thwart many theoretical hopes, the idea of moral progress is a plausible, critically important and morally constructive principle of historical interpretation.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Lasch also contends insists that “the dream of universal brotherhood, because it rests on the sentimental fiction that men and women are all the same, cannot survive the discovery that they differ” (Lasch 1991: 36).

  2. This definition draws on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of hope as “desire combined with expectation.”

  3. Much of Gabriel Marcel’s contribution to existentialism concerned the importance of hope in human existence. See Marcel (1951 and 1965). I am indebted to A. W. Musschenga for this critical reminder. Important contemporary treatments of hope include Chignell (2013); Lear (2006); Martin ( 2014 );and van Hooft (2014).

  4. For helpful discussion of this passage see Gravlee (2000: 466) and Duff (1987 : 10).

  5. Augustine, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, secs. 7,8, 114–116; Aquinas Summa Theologica I-II.62.1). These accounts build primarily on 1 Corinthians 13: 13 and 15:19.

  6. The question appears near the end of the Critique of Pure Reason (A 804–5/B833, and again in the Logic (9:25).

  7. For the statement of the “Partners in Health” mission, see

  8. Farmer makes this observation in an online interview at

  9. This observation is attributed to Laura Cooper a labor law professor, in reference to Jenson v. Eveleth, the first successful class action sexual harassment lawsuit in America . See Bingham (2003:388).

  10. The speech is archived at

  11. Though I cannot argue this point here, I believe that moral pioneers are often—perhaps always—people to whom we can (and should) look as moral exemplars and moral experts. This is one important source of my disagreement with the view of moral progress defended by Philip Kitcher in The Ethical Project. See, for instance, Kitcher (2011: 285–287). For a fuller account of the nature of their expertise, see Moody-Adams (1999).

  12. Rwanda’s progress is discussed in

  13. The plausibility of Putnam’s stance rejecting the idea that moral ‘problems’ have solutions is the principal reason that I fundamentally reject Amanda Roth’s idea that Ethical Progress can be understood as “problem-resolving.” Roth’s view is developed in Roth (2012).

  14. I cannot, here, provide the argument for this claim. That argument is central to some of my (as yet) unpublished work on “Civic Art of Remembrance and the and the Democratic Imagination,” that is part of a larger contribution to democratic theory.

  15. See Douglass (1994)

  16. The project produced between 164,000 and 175,000 photographic negatives, only some of which were developed and displayed for public viewing.

  17. See Franklin D. Roosevelt (1937), “One Third of a Nation” FDR’s 2nd inaugural address,


  • Bingham C, Gansler LL (2003) Class action: the landmark case that changed sexual harassment law. Anchor Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Calhoun C (1989) Responsibility and reproach. Ethics 99:389–406

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chignell A (2013) Rational hope, moral order and the revolution of the will. In: Watkins E (ed) The Divine order, the human order, and the order of nature. Oxford UP, Oxford

  • Davis DBD (1975) The problem of slavery in the age of revolution, 1770–1823. Oxford UP, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Dewey J (1980) Art as experience. Penguin Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Douglass F (1994) Autobiographies : Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom; Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Gates, HL (ed) Library of America: New York

  • Duff A (1987) Aristotelian courage. Ratio 39:2–15

    Google Scholar 

  • Farmer P (2013) To repair the world. U California Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  • Fricker M (2007) Epistemic injustice: power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford UP, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Gravlee RS (2000) Aristotle on Hope. J Hist Phil 38:461–1677

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jowett G and O’Donnell (2014) Propaganda and persuasion, 6th edition., Sage Publications: London Kant I Critique of Pure Reason

  • Kitcher P (2011) The Ethical Project. Harvard UP, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lasch C (1991) The true and only heaven: progress and its critics. WW Norton Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Lear J (2006) Radical hope. Harvard UP, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Lederach JP (2005) The moral imagination: the art and soul of building peace. Oxford UP, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lemkin R (1944) Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law, Washington, DC

  • MacKinnon C (1987) Feminism unmodified. Harvard UP, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Marcel G (1951) The Mystery of Being. Charles Regnery, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Marcel G (1965) Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope, tr. Emma Craufurd Harper & Row, Chicago

  • Martin A (2014) How we hope: a moral psychology. Princeton UP, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  • Merton R (1973) The sociology of science. U Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Moody-Adams M (1994) Theory, Practice, and the contingency of Rorty's irony. J Soc Phil 25:209–227

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Moody-Adams M (1997) Fieldwork in familiar places: morality, culture and philosophy. Harvard UP, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Moody-Adams M (1999) The idea of moral progress. Metaphilosophy 30:168–185

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Moody-Adams M (2003) The legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson.. Lott T, Pittman J (eds) Blackwell’s Companion to American to African American Philosophy Blackwell Press, Oxford

  • Morris A (2000) Reflections on social movement theory: criticisms and proposals. Contemp Sociol 29:445–454

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Musher SA (2015) Democratic art: the new deal’s influence on American culture. U Chicago Press, Chicago

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Nussbaum M (2007) On moral progress: a response to Richard Rorty U Chi L. Rev 74:939–960

    Google Scholar 

  • Platts M (1988) Moral reality. In: Sayre-McCord G (ed) Essays on moral realism. Cornell UO, Ithaca

    Google Scholar 

  • Posner R (1998) Moral change and social relativism. Harvard L Rev 111:1638–1709

    Google Scholar 

  • Putnam H (1990) Realism with a human face. Harvard UP, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Quine WVO (1980) Reply to Morton White. In: Hahn LE and Schilpp PA (eds) The Philosophy of W.V.O. Quine Open Court Publishing, La Salle

  • Rawls J (2001) Justice as fairness: A restatement. Belknap Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Rorty R (1991) Feminism and pragmatism. Mich Quart Rev 30:231–266

    Google Scholar 

  • Rorty R (2005) Is philosophy relevant to applied ethics? Bus Ethics Q 16:369–380

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Roth A (2012) Ethical Progress as Problem-Resolving. J. Political Philos 20:384–406

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rucyahana J (2007) The Bishop of Rwanda: finding forgiveness amidst a pile of bones. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville

    Google Scholar 

  • Scheffler S (2003) The appeal of political liberalism in Boundaries and allegiances. Oxford UP, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Sen A (1980) Description as Choice. Oxf Econ Pap 32:353–369

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Singer P (1979) Practical ethics. Cambridge UP, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Singer P (1981) The expanding circle: ethics, evolution, and moral progress. Princeton UP, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  • Slote M (1982) Is virtue possible? Analysis 42:70–76

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vrdoljak A (2010) Human rights and genocide: the work of Lauterpacht and Lemkin in modern international law. Eur J Int Law 20:1163–1194

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van Hooft S (2014) Hope. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Walzer M (1987) Interpretation and social criticism. Harvard UP, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Wilson WJ (1987) The truly disadvantaged: the inner city, the underclass, and public policy. U Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Tutu D (1999) No future without forgiveness. Doubleday Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michele M. Moody-Adams.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Moody-Adams, M.M. Moral Progress and Human Agency. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 20, 153–168 (2017).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: