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The Enemy of the Good: Towards a Theory of Moral Progress

Project description

A new theory for perfect moral progress

Ethics studies are dominated by the idea of moral progress throughout human history. It says the circle of moral concerns gradually expanded in a difficult, and imperfect process: from the moral recognition given only for a family or tribe members only to larger groups including other nations, classes or races of people, and finally, today, even to non-human beings. However, this theory is based on contractually chosen traits and ignores the limits of human psychology. The EU-funded PROGRESS project aims to develop an alternative theory of moral progress. The research will focus on human attitudes, evolutionary limits and smart institutions that can help to overcome our psychological issues and uncover possibilities for real moral progress.


According to the currently dominant account of moral progress, the story of moral progress goes something like this: once, moral recognition used to be the privilege of a select few. Full moral status was only accorded to people of a certain class, age, gender, ethnicity, or religion. Over time, the moral franchise was gradually extended, however imperfectly, to include human beings of all races, creeds, or genders. Eventually, even species membership is recognized as morally irrelevant, and the moral circle is extended towards non-human animals as well. Many influential ethicists call this the “expanding circle” of moral concern. Moral progress, on this account, consists in further expansions of the moral realm beyond ethically arbitrary features. This account, however, faces a serious feasibility problem: our moral concern is limited due to features of our evolved psychology. Empathy is parochial; altruism remains tied to friends and kin. This project will develop an alternative theory of moral progress. By focusing on different forms of moral progress other than the expanding circle, different moral attitudes which are not subject to the same evolutionary constraints, and smart institutions that can bypass the limits of our inherited psychology, it will be shown that the prospects of moral progress have been severely underestimated.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 500 000,00
3584 CS Utrecht

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West-Nederland Utrecht Utrecht
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 500 000,00

Beneficiaries (1)