Why Moral Reasoning Is Insufficient for Moral Progress

Journal of Political Philosophy 28 (1):73-96 (2020)
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A lively debate in the literature on moral progress concerns the role of practical reasoning: Does it enable or subvert moral progress? Rationalists believe that moral reasoning enables moral progress, because it helps enhance objectivity in thinking, overcome unruly sentiments, and open our minds to new possibilities. By contrast, skeptics argue that moral reasoning subverts moral progress. Citing growing empirical research on bias, they show that objectivity is an illusion and that moral reasoning merely rationalizes pre-existing biased moral norms. In this article, I argue that both the rationalists and the skeptics fail to understand fully the role of practical reasoning by focusing exclusively on moral reasoning to the neglect of social reasoning. In the first half of the article, I argue against the skeptics by vindicating moral reasoning. I identify a Democratic Model of moral reasoning which is reliable and effective in overcoming bias. In the second part of the article, I argue against the rationalists. Drawing on a paradigmatic case of moral progress, i.e., the British abolition of the slave trade, I illustrate that moral reasoning, even when sound, is insufficient to motivate progressive action. The explanation for this puzzling phenomenon is not that the moral norm against cruelty is inert, as skeptics might suggest. Rather, it is that the moral norm against cruelty was overridden by the social norm of slavery which was tied to the British joint commitments to freedom and national honour. The debate between rationalists and skeptics centers around the moral rationality of human action, failing to recognize that human action is in fact primarily about social rationality. I defend a joint commitment account of social rationality, and offer a novel Communitarian Model of social reasoning which follows the logic of social rationality to revise social norms. I defend the reliability and efficacy of the Communitarian Model of social reasoning by applying it to the abolitionist social movement to show how Britons gave fellow Britons social reasons grounded in their joint commitments to freedom and national honour to end slavery.

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Agnes Tam
University of Calgary


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