Moral and Socio-Political Progress

8–9 September, 2021


Federico Bina (Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milan)

Hanno Sauer (Utrecht University)

Confirmed speakers: Carla Bagnoli (Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia), Sally Haslanger (Massachussets Institute of Technology), Victor Kumar (Boston University), Peter Railton (University of Michigan)

The possibility of moral progress has received great attention in recent years, especially within naturalistic ethics (Kitcher 2011; Buchanan and Powell 2018). Among the main reasons for the growing interest in this topic is the significant mismatch between the need to satisfy the most pressing normative demands of our time – which require high levels of cooperation and motivation – and humans’ hard-wired psychological constraints. Pessimistic interpretations of the available data from cognitive and social psychology suggest that many desirable moral improvements are difficult to accomplish, at least in the short term and through ordinary means (Thaler and Sunstein 2008; Persson and Savulescu 2012).

Although some scholars have tried to defend an idea of moral progress which directly requires improvements in individual actors’ epistemic capacities and moral agency (Buchanan and Powell 2018; Harris 2011), others have defended socio-institutional accounts which consider moral progress to be feasible despite our cognitive and motivational limits. According to these views, significant moral gains have been (and can be) reached thanks to the right arrangement of social institutions – such as markets or democracy – which can produce progressive changes precisely by relying on humans’ limited capacities (Sauer 2019).

Recently, another relevant contribution to the debate has been offered by linking socio-political moral progress to metaethics. For instance, according to Luco (2020), progressive social change is caused by objective, natural moral facts. Human moral cognition has been selected for its capacity to grasp such natural facts (e.g. the impartial promotion of well-being of people facing a social dilemma). When other natural facts occur, such as higher control over action resources (e.g. wealth, intellectual skills, exchange of ideas), progressive social changes emerge (cf. Welzel, 2014).

This panel aims at bringing together scholars who work on the topic of moral progress to explore potential links and synergies among these different approaches to the issue. Papers which address the following questions would be particularly welcome:

  • Should the concept of “moral progress” refer only to institutions, political-legal systems, cultures, societies (Macklin 1977), or should it rather be applied to improvements in individual beliefs, judgements, attitudes, intuitions, emotions (Buchanan and Powell 2018) – or to both?
  • What, if any, is the difference between moral progress and social progress?
  • What, if any, are the causal links between progress on the cultural, socio-political,institutional, legal, economic level, and the moral progress of individuals?
  • How can political institutions foster a shared endorsement of progressive values and principles among individuals?
  • What, if any, is the role of reasoning, deliberation, reflection, motivation and freedom for societal moral progress?
  • Which role do epistemic and material conditions play for the promotion of moral progress?
  • Which role do artistic and cultural products play in societal moral progress?
  • Does an account of moral progress necessarily require a normative theory?
  • Does moral progress necessarily require moral realism?
  • Can moral progress be conceived in merely naturalistic terms?
  • Can moral progress be conceived in non-teleological terms?

If you want to apply, please submit a 500-700 words abstract of your paper prepared for blind-review by the 16 May, 2021. All abstracts and enquiries about the workshop should be sent to We aim to allow for 25-30 minutes per presentation and 15-20 minutes for Q&A. However, this may be subject to change.

Registration for the conference opens in May, and all participants must register in order to attend. 

This year’s fees are:

Academics:  £45

Graduate students, retirees, and unaffiliated attendees: £20

Non-speaker/non-presenting attendees: £15

A small number of bursaries (for graduate students only) are available. Please state in your application to our panel whether you intend to apply for a bursary.   

We look forward to reading your abstracts!