From rational self-interest to liberalism: a hole in Cofnas’s debunking explanation of moral progress

Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming)
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Michael Huemer argues that cross-cultural convergence toward liberal moral values is evidence of objective moral progress, and by extension, evidence for moral realism. Nathan Cofnas claims to debunk Huemer’s argument by contending that convergence toward liberal moral values can be better explained by ‘two related non-truth-tracking processes’: self-interest and its long-term tendency to result in social conditions conducive to greater empathy. This article argues that although Cofnas successfully debunks Huemer’s convergence argument for one influential form of moral realism – Robust Moral Realism, which holds that moral facts are non-natural, stance-independent normative facts – Cofnas’s debunking argument broadly supports a second type of moral realism: Enlightened Self-Interest Realism, the view that moral facts are reducible to stance-dependent requirements of instrumental (‘means-end’) rationality. Finally, this article argues that insofar as different Enlightened Self-Interest Realist theories make specific predictions about the intra- and inter-personal mechanisms behind moral convergence toward liberalism, empirical observations of cross-cultural convergence can provide independent support for Enlightened Self-Interest Realism. I conclude that this is an important mark in favor of Enlightened Self-Interest Realism over Robust Moral Realism.

Author's Profile

Marcus Arvan
University of Tampa


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