Improving Our Morality

How many times have you heard someone’s New Year’s resolution be to improve their morality? We typically want to improve our intelligence and health, but not our morality. We are more likely to acknowledge that we are unintelligent or unhealthy than that we are not good.

One of the reasons for this is that there is evolutionarily not much benefit from being more moral though there are benefits from being more intelligent or healthy. Another reason is that we think our morality cannot improve. If someone is saying that I am immoral, then doesn’t that mean I have always been immoral and will continue to be immoral? As a result of this line of reasoning, we get defensive when our morality is questioned; we find all sorts of ways to justify how we are thinking because someone is calling into question our very being. We can understand that the smartest physicist today knows more about physics than Einstein knew 100 years back, but it is difficult to imagine that the most moral person today knows more than the most moral person 100 years back. To improve our morality, we have to acknowledge that our morality can be improved.

The first phase of moral progress is the intellectual argument that calls for an expansion of our circle of empathy, a phrase that Peter Singer popularized. A primitive view would be that just you are worth moral consideration. We can then extend that consideration to your immediate family, your friends, your neighbors, your village, and a whole host of others. It took a while for us to understand that women are worth moral consideration. It also took a while for us to understand that children, or people of different races, religions, nations, sexual orientations, and abilities are worth moral consideration. There are arguments that extend our circle of empathy to all sentient beings, focusing on the problems with factory farming. Here are a few moral questions that aren’t given much attention: discrimination against unattractive people, suffering of wild animals, pet ownership, and schooling of children. You could imagine futuristic moral issues like caring for plants or freeing robots. Early intellectual leaps to expand our circle of empathy are laughable at first but seem obvious in retrospect.

The second phase of moral progress is the actual expansion of our empathy. Various things happen with people we know and institutions we interact with that encourage us to empathize with someone we didn’t empathize with before. This is the phase in which a black man marries a white woman and it isn’t frowned upon; your friend tells you that he is gay and you learn to accept it; a law is passed to allow women to vote and people learn to think of women as capable beings with agency. Moral progress is easier to observe when you reflect on the past. Hammurabi’s code of law seems regressive today; for example, law #129 states, “If the wife of a man has been caught lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the waters.” However, Hammurabi’s code was an improvement over the injustice meted out by fickle, despotic kings. It offered some protection from oppression for the poor and powerless.

Both phases, the intellectual phase and the actionable phase, are infinite rabbit holes for moral progress. We will constantly find ways to expand our circle of empathy and we will constantly find ways we fall short of acting on it.

Another important premise for us to improve our morality is moral realism, the idea that there are moral truths. This is difficult to justify in a philosophical argument but seems intuitively true. It almost might be an axiom, a self-evident truth, just like the reflexive axiom in mathematics (x=x) for which there is no proof. You have to accept the reflexive axiom to make progress in math; you have to accept the axiom of moral realism to make moral progress. In practice, no one can actually live life without the recognition of some moral truths. The fact that six million Jews died in the Holocaust is a more convincing argument for the fact that moral truths exist than most philosophical arguments.

We spend a disproportionate amount of time on trying to improve the morality of others rather than trying to improve our own morality. This isn’t as much the case when it comes to improving our intelligence or health. One of the most important steps to improving our morality is accepting that we are flawed and that our morality can be improved. In some cases, it is a luxury to care about improving your morality. For example, a soldier at war is thinking about staying alive, not expanding his circle of empathy.

As a society, it is difficult to know how fast morality is progressing. We have metrics to gauge scientific progress. GDP per capita and life expectancy, although imperfect, are indicators that over the long-run roughly measure if productivity has been increasing or reducing and if we have been producing scientific knowledge at an increasing or decreasing rate. We are alarmed when GDP per capita or life expectancy decreases unexpectedly, but we don’t know when to be alarmed about the rate of our moral progress. We know that morality has been progressing over the past several centuries because we have expanded our circle of empathy, but are we generating moral knowledge at the same pace as we are generating scientific knowledge?

I am curious if there is room for a modified Adam Smith-ian approach to speed up the rate of moral progress. Adam Smith famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Individuals have made the world richer by making themselves richer. Can individuals make the world more moral by making themselves more moral? Will morality progress at a greater rate if we focus more on improving our own morality and less on improving the morality of others?


Thanks to Sarah Friday, Shwetha Hariharan, and Daniel Schlabach for reading drafts of this essay.