A debunking explanation for moral progress

Philosophical Studies 177 (11):3171-3191 (2020)
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Abstract

According to “debunking arguments,” our moral beliefs are explained by evolutionary and cultural processes that do not track objective, mind-independent moral truth. Therefore (the debunkers say) we ought to be skeptics about moral realism. Huemer counters that “moral progress”—the cross-cultural convergence on liberalism—cannot be explained by debunking arguments. According to him, the best explanation for this phenomenon is that people have come to recognize the objective correctness of liberalism. Although Huemer may be the first philosopher to make this explicit empirical argument for moral realism, the idea that societies will eventually converge on the same moral beliefs is a notable theme in realist thinking. Antirealists, on the other hand, often point to seemingly intractable cross-cultural moral disagreement as evidence against realism (the “argument from disagreement”). This paper argues that the trend toward liberalism is susceptible to a debunking explanation, being driven by two related non-truth-tracking processes. First, large numbers of people gravitate to liberal values for reasons of self-interest. Second, as societies become more prosperous and advanced, they become more effective at suppressing violence, and they create conditions where people are more likely to empathize with others, which encourages liberalism. The latter process is not truth tracking (or so this paper argues) because empathy-based moral beliefs are themselves susceptible to an evolutionary debunking argument. Cross-cultural convergence on liberalism per se does not support either realism or antirealism.

Author's Profile

Nathan Cofnas
Cambridge University

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