Attempt at understanding the role of moral philosophy in moral progress

by alexhill 5 min read28th Oct 20198 comments


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.