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Morality is a work in progress

Is it possible to make moral progress and have we done so? Read about why the possibility for disagreement about morality is so important to humanists

Can we make moral progress?

If there is no objective moral truth, then can we speak of making moral progress?

A humanist can argue that we can. The way to do this is to become more rational in our moral views. We explored how this was possible earlier this week. New facts can come to light that can inform our reasoning. Our moral views can also become more coherent and more consistent with each other.

The fact that human beings are often ignorant of the facts and often don’t think logically means there is plenty of room for us to make moral progress. This does not mean we are moving towards some objective moral truth, but it does mean we can move towards a more rational morality.

Have we made progress?

It is important to recognise that disagreement about whether our moral principles are better or worse today than they were in the past does not mean that the idea of moral progress is an illusion. If progress were impossible, there would be no point arguing over whether we had made any or not. Anyone who answers the question in either the positive or the negative is denying the relativist’s position that ‘what is right and wrong just depends on the time and culture to which you belong’.

A humanist will typically not accept the judgement that ‘we may be right today, but people in the past who thought differently were right then’. If we are right today, then they were wrong. Of course, being wrong does not mean that we are unable to forgive people in the past for the way they behaved or to hold back from blaming them for their actions. We can understand why they may have behaved the way they did, given the social conventions and knowledge available to them at the time. However, this does not require us to deny that their actions were still morally wrong. If slavery is wrong today, then it was wrong two hundred years ago.

Whether we have made progress or not is of course open to debate. People will highlight different evidence to try to defend their case. They may speak of war, slavery, terrorism, human rights (including women’s rights and LGBT rights), racism, torture, pornography, drugs, privacy, democracy, or the death penalty – some of these will appear on both sides of the debate.

What is important is that, where humanists believe we have seen moral progress, we can often attribute such shifts to those individuals (both religious and non-religious) who had the courage to apply their own intellects, to question the wisdoms of their day, and to apply reason and evidence to their arguments in order to shift moral opinion.


It is the possibility for disagreement that makes progress possible.

Humanists will often disagree about the best course of action in a particular situation. On ethical questions around war, vegetarianism, and our obligations to charitable giving, one will find arguments between humanists. Modern science, technology, and medicine have also raised many new complicated moral dilemmas. Even when humanists agree on their general moral values, they will sometimes disagree with each other (and often with themselves) on how best to realise them, or which to prioritise in a particular situation.

Disagreement at its best, however, encourages dialogue and debate. If both sides are prepared to listen, then it can enable us to recognise, empathise with, and take into consideration opposing arguments. Freedom of belief and the right to disagree are therefore essential to the humanist project. Without the freedom to argue about morality, and the opportunity to question received wisdoms, there is no hope for moral progress. We must be free to reach our own conclusions. However, in the face of new evidence and arguments, we must also accept the need to sometimes change our minds.

For humanists, morality is something we learn through taking part in life. It is not something written in stone or in the stars, but it is an ongoing journey, throughout both our own individual lives and across human history. Although we must think for ourselves and reach our own conclusions, we don’t need to do this completely alone. Education still has a role to play. We can draw on the wisdom of others. However, we must be encouraged to subject such wisdom to critical evaluation and argument, and we need to continually review and develop our moral codes in the light of changing technology and developments in human understanding. Morality is a human construct – a flawed construct, perhaps, but one for which some humanists believe we can be immensely proud.

Question: Is moral progress possible and have we made any? How might we make further progress in the future?

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Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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