Attempt at understanding the role of moral philosophy in moral progress

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

  • We pro­pose two al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tions for the role of moral philos­o­phy in moral progress: gen­er­a­tion of novel in­sights ver­sus le­gi­t­imiza­tion of ex­ist­ing ones.

  • Some prox­ies we found to dis­t­in­guish be­tween the hy­pothe­ses: in­de­pen­dent ideation, di­rect quo­ta­tion of (non) philo­soph­i­cal work, and a pri­ori ver­sus em­piri­cal ap­proaches.

  • In the case of women’s rights, it seems like philo­soph­i­cal work was im­por­tant to gen­er­ate novel in­sights, but the ev­i­dence is only weak.

  • In the case of an­i­mal welfare, it seems like philo­soph­i­cal work has mostly been use­ful for le­gi­t­imiz­ing ex­ist­ing ideas rather than de­vel­op­ing new in­sights, but again the ev­i­dence for this is only weak.

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

  • Women’s suffrage as a mile­stone brings into ques­tion whether we should re­ally be look­ing at democ­racy in gen­eral, as the lat­ter is con­tin­gent on the former, and took a lot less time to bring about (women’s suffrage suc­ceeds men’s by about 100 years)

  • Prior to the vot­ing re­form act of 1832 (UK) there are di­rect records and news­pa­per ar­ti­cles that point to women vot­ing, albeit with­out gen­eral en­dorse­ment, e.g. referred to as an “ex­trav­a­gant cour­tesy” in one ar­ti­cle [REF]

  • Ben­tham’s in­fluen­tial ideas on women’s rights, and women’s suffrage in par­tic­u­lar, seem di­rectly de­rived from his hap­piness prin­ci­ple [REF].

  • More gen­er­ally, the flurry of philo­soph­i­cal work un­der­taken dur­ing the En­light­en­ment seems to sup­port H1. For ex­am­ple see:

    • Ni­co­las de Con­dorcet, De l’ad­mis­sion des femmes au droit de cité (1790) [REF]

    • Etta Palm d’Aelders, Dis­course on the In­jus­tice of the Laws in Favour of Men, at the Ex­pense of Women (1790) [REF]

    • Olympe de Gouges, Dec­la­ra­tion of the rights of women and of the Fe­male Ci­ti­zen (1791) [REF]

    • Mary Wol­l­s­tonecraft, A vin­di­ca­tion of the rights of women (1792) [REF]

  • On the broader topic of women’s in­volve­ment in poli­ti­cal life and right to ed­u­ca­tion, Chris­tine de Pizan wrote books in the 1300s ad­vo­cat­ing for women’s ed­u­ca­tion and pre­sent­ing women as in­tel­lec­tu­als and poli­ti­cal lead­ers. Her ad­vo­cacy of women’s ca­pa­bil­ities and rights seems also to rest on ar­gu­ments from first prin­ci­ples, in line with H1. [REF]

  • We did not in­ves­ti­gate the ex­tent to which im­prove­ment of sci­en­tific ideas about the sexes cor­re­lates with progress on women’s rights, but it seems like this could be an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion.

Learn­ings about an­i­mal welfare

  • The an­i­mal welfare move­ment seems to have a long his­tory and differ­ent in­car­na­tions of it have spawned at differ­ent eras. Some rele­vant refer­ences:

    • An Act against Plow­ing by the Tayle, and pul­ling the Wooll off liv­ing Sheep (1635) [REF]

    • Jean Jac­ques Rousseau, Dis­course on in­equal­ity (1754) [REF]

    • Percy Bysshe Shel­ley, A vin­di­ca­tion of Nat­u­ral diet (1813) [REF]

    • Richard Martin, Royal So­ciety for the Preven­tion of Cru­elty to An­i­mals (1824) [REF]

    • Ruth Har­ri­son, An­i­mal ma­chines (1964) [REF]

    • Peter Singer, An­i­mal Liber­a­tion (1975) [REF]

  • Notably, early an­i­mal welfare leg­is­la­tion comes at ap­prox­i­mately the same time that Descartes wrote his Med­i­ta­tions on First Philos­o­phy (1641) [REF], where he ar­gues that an­i­mals are un­feel­ing au­tomata. Thus this early leg­is­la­tion was de­vel­oped de­spite of philo­soph­i­cal work, which is weak ev­i­dence for H3.

  • The spread of the move­ment seems to be in­dica­tive of moral progress hap­pen­ing in­de­pen­dently of deep philo­soph­i­cal work, but rather an ex­er­cise in col­lec­tive em­pa­thy. This points to­wards H3.

  • The case of anti fac­tory farm­ing ac­tivism is of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est. Ruth Har­ri­son wrote An­i­mal ma­chines in 1964, ex­pos­ing and de­nounc­ing the prac­tice of fac­tory farm­ing. As far as we un­der­stand, the book con­tains mainly em­piri­cal facts about the con­di­tions of an­i­mals in fac­to­ries rather than philo­soph­i­cal work. The book allegedly in­spired some leg­is­la­tive ac­tion, most no­tably the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion for the Pro­tec­tion of An­i­mals Kept for Farm­ing Pur­poses [REF], and philo­soph­i­cal work, most no­tably Peter Singer’s An­i­mal Liber­a­tion [REF], which in turn greatly grew the an­i­mal rights move­ment.

  • The tra­jec­tory of fac­tory farm­ing seems to be bet­ter sup­ported by the hy­poth­e­sis of moral philos­o­phy as syn­the­siz­ing and le­gi­t­imiz­ing ex­ist­ing in­sights (H2).


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:

  • It is very difficult to as­cer­tain what moral in­tu­itions were held by peo­ple in the past.

    • His­tor­i­cal arte­facts we think could be of use here are fic­tion, news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and per­sonal cor­re­spon­dences, but the lat­ter two are hard to come by.

    • In the case of women’s rights, it seems rea­son­able to as­sume that many of the peo­ple who would have held these ideas pre-en­light­en­ment would have been women, but women’s gen­eral dis­en­fran­chise­ment means his­tor­i­cal records of their thoughts are even harder to come by. We would ex­pect a similar is­sue when in­ves­ti­gat­ing the abo­li­tion of slav­ery.

  • Our col­lec­tion of data has not been very sys­tem­atic and likely bi­ased in ways hard to un­der­stand.

  • It is not en­tirely clear what the best way is of de­cid­ing whether a par­tic­u­lar mile­stone is bet­ter sup­ported by hy­poth­e­sis H1, H2 or H3. Some proxy in­di­ca­tors we have used are:

    • In­de­pen­dent ideation. Ideas that are de­vel­oped in differ­ent con­texts by differ­ent peo­ple seem to sup­port H2 and H3 bet­ter. Ideas that flow in quick suc­ces­sion from a com­mon line of thought seem to sup­port H1 bet­ter.

    • Direct quo­ta­tion of (non) philo­soph­i­cal work. If sub­se­quent work on an is­sue cites pre­vi­ous philo­soph­i­cal work that seems to sup­port H1-H2. The cita­tion of non philo­soph­i­cal work sup­ports bet­ter H3.

    • Work rely­ing on first prin­ci­ples ar­gu­ments ver­sus em­piri­cal claims. The former sup­ports H1, the lat­ter sup­ports H2-H3.

  • Some his­tor­i­cal mile­stones only make sense af­ter a re­lated mile­stone has taken place. For ex­am­ple, talk­ing about women’s suffrage only makes sense in a con­text where democ­racy is a well es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tion. But this blurs the line be­tween moral progress on women’s rights and the rise of democ­racy.

  • We have done only the most cur­sory look for pre­vi­ous work on this is­sue. A ful­ler liter­a­ture re­view on this topic would be likely to help a lot if we were to con­tinue the pro­ject.

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:

  • How has em­piri­cal work on the differ­ences and similar­i­ties be­tween the sexes af­fected the work on women’s rights?

  • What are other proxy ques­tions we could ask to dis­t­in­guish be­tween H1, H2 and H3?

  • What pre­vi­ous work ex­ists ex­am­in­ing the his­tor­i­cal role of moral philos­o­phy?

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.