ESS Talk: Steering Moral Progress: Reasoning, Social Engineering, and Cultural Evolution

Daniel Kelly, Department of Philosophy, Purdue University
Life Science Center 572

Dr. Kelly will be speaking as part of the Evolution and Social Sciences lecture series. See link below for more details.

Steering Moral Progress: Reasoning, Social Engineering, and Cultural Evolution

What can we do to usher in moral progress? *Rationalists* see reasoning and human activity explicitly aimed at moral progress as playing a central and perhaps indispensable role to bringing it about. *Skeptics* have doubts that reasoning and human activity aimed at moral progress have the kind of influence that rationalists tout. Such theorists defend their skepticism with a number of related arguments. Some hold that recalcitrant elements of human psychology will resist moral progress, other hold that the systems of interconnected norms and institutions have become too large and complex for us to fathom, and so it is hubristic to think we can engineer their improvement. I formulate what I take to be the strongest version of one of these arguments, which emphasizes *causal opacity*, the idea that the process of cultural evolution can generate packages of traits whose complete workings and even adaptive benefits remain opaque to their human beneficiaries. I argue that rather than supporting the skeptical position, this cultural evolutionary perspective points to a third way between those suggested by either the skeptics or the rationalists. I end with a brief sketch of the program suggested by this third way, highlighting that it recasts the role of reason and reasoners as students and steerers of the process of culture evolution and the myriad mechanisms of change, but also implies that we should bring no small amount of epistemic humility to the task of trying to understand and guide moral progress.