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Moral Progress and Human Agency

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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 http://www.pih.org/pages/our-mission.

  8. Farmer makes this observation in an online interview at http://www.pih.org/media/video-dr.-paul-farmer-on-hope.

  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 http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1941/410824a.html.

  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 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/science/rwandas-health-care-success-story.html?_r=0.

  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, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5105/.

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Correspondence to Michele M. Moody-Adams.

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Moody-Adams, M.M. Moral Progress and Human Agency. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 20, 153–168 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-016-9748-z

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