I happened upon the term pessimistic induction (the history of science is a "graveyard" of once empirically successful theories whose central terms have been found not to refer) on this page and thought I could articulate my question more clearly by misappropriating from philosophy of science for metaethics.

Works of moral realists, that I've read, usually evolve around defending moral realism against other positions and arguing for the purported mechanism by which we would be able to grasp moral truth. They rarely address arriving at actual moral truths.

Recent moral changes in, say Germany, include the abolition of slavery, the argument for gender equality and the rise of vegetarianism.

Often, when one reads historical fiction (my current example: blah… Jacob de Zoet by Mitchell), the characters one shall empathize with are the ones who stand out for having a 21st century view on issues like slavery, women etc. Even though I'd imagine it would be harder to be so progressive in morality when one's peers aren't. Highly regarded philosophers have "fallacious" moral views like natural slavery just as much as fallacious scientific views like elementalism in the case of Aristotle.

I think about this when talking to people about human immortality, which many people find inherently wrong without lucid reasoning guiding their judgement, or when reading this humorous article about the limits of empathy.

So, my questions are:

Who addresses the problem that more morals than not that were once held to be true were later discarded or argues that said premise is wrong?

Who offers descriptive accounts of moral paradigm shifts?

I don't really know what those would be, maybe a switch from honour to dignity or from hedonism to knowledge or "humans matter" to "sentient beings matter".

  • 2
    +1 Nice question! Although I suspect the only really satisfying treatments (unless you're content with Nietsche's overkill approach in Beyond Good and Evil/ Zarathustra) are going to be anthropological or psychological in flavour. Two good theories to look at are 'in-group morality' (which covers most of your examples) and 'heirarchy of need' (which I think covers the rest). Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 11:38
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    Sounds like the answer I could accept if you fleshed that out :-) I read Zarathustra and I know of in-group/out-group effects (partly inspired this question). Maslow has little evidence going for his ranking I believe (so does Kohlberg). I'm not loth to psychology/anthropology (am a psychology student). Still I'd love to find a philosophical treatment of the first bolded question.
    – Ruben
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 11:50
  • Why thankyou @Ruben! :) I would have done just that, had I not also been intrigued to see a decent philosophical treatment (hence the +1). But I do think it's unlikely- most philosophers are concerned either with creating or destroying arguable universal truths and changes therein are anathema to the majority. If noone does post the hoped-for treatment, I might craft this into an answer before the bounty period exists. In the mean time, check out the pragmatists for an account of sorts: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatism#Ethics Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 12:23
  • ...They see changing (moral) practices as direct consequences of changing facts, 'cos for them the two are sort of the same thing. Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 12:25

3 Answers 3


Well, you got me to read the Cracked article, which I enjoyed. To summarize: we only have room for a small number of people within our "Monkeysphere" (roughly the people we can know well enough to identify as people without resorting to stereotypes) and therefore we can treat the vast majority of humanity with indifference. And of course, one way to analyse changes in moral practice over time is to examine the shifts of who morale principles apply to and who they don't.

Take for instance the Golden Rule:

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

The principle of reciprocity can be seen in all human cultures, but the key breakdown occurs with the word "others". It can be imagined, for instance, that slaves fall outside the requirement to be treated as we want to be treated because they aren't really people. We find that idea repugnant, but if we could grant that premise, the principle of reciprocity need not apply to slaves.

One area of study that may be helpful to you is Moral Foundations Theory, developed by Jonathan Haidt, which suggests these universal principles:

  1. Care for others, protecting them from harm.

  2. Fairness, Justice, treating others equally.

  3. Loyalty to your group, family, nation.

  4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority.

  5. Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

According to this theory, variations in moral systems come not from using different principles (everyone uses these five to some degree or other), but from the weight assigned to the principles. For instance, Christianity diverged from Judaism by reducing the value of 3, 4, and 5 and increasing the value of 1 and 2. Eating pork (a violation of 5) is allowed since it may allow us to treat others more equally (an affirmation of 2). See Acts 10 and this passage in particular:

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” -- Acts 10:28 (ESV)

If we say that some set of principles are moral truths and if there are potential conflicts among the principles, changes in moral practice may arise not from rejecting previous moral truths, but from rejecting the weight assigned to those truths in application.

Ruben made an excellent comment below asking about some features of the Moral Foundations Theory. I should start by pointing out that it is still a work in progress as the authors are considering new principles and realigning the existing ones. There have been several suggestions that may expand the range of foundations to cover more systems of human morality.

I'd say that for the Aztecs, 3, 4, and 5 (hallmarks of sacrificial systems of worship) so outweigh 1 and 2 that sacrifice of outsiders is seen as virtuous. The victims (as I remember from history and anthropology classes) were usually captured enemies and the sacrifices symbolized the Aztec dominance over its portion of the world. In addition, excellence in battle was highly prized and being captured would be shameful, so killing captives could be seen as a sign of mercy in a twisted way.

More difficult is child sacrifice found in the ancient near east, which seems to violate family loyalty. That practice probably arose from total dominance of the "Respect" principle for particularly brutal gods. It could also arise from loyalty to the nation rather than family as it was sometimes performed by kings killing their own sons in times of national distress. (See 2 Kings 3:27.) Further, it could be that child sacrifice arose not from faulty morality, but from faulty science: if you believe that famine comes because a god demands sacrifice, you could believe that voluntarily sacrificing a small number of people could save a great many more by preventing famine.

The deeper issue is whether different weights represent different moral frameworks. I'd say that they do. Anyone finding themselves considering child sacrifice, can be confident that they've got their priorities wrong somehow. Anyone defending an action on the basis of someone else not really being human in some way, should know they've mis-weighted their moral system along the line.

Aristotle would likely suggest that weighting any morale foundation much heavier than another is itself an immoral choice. The graveyard of rejected moral systems would be filled with extreme weights like purity 1000 times more important than fairness. Moral Foundations Theory has the virtue of giving us a meta-framework that can help us understand distant cultures and analyze their moral systems. How the Aztec system arose is not an easy question, but how they went wrong morally is almost trivial if you consider the equal weighting of moral foundations an ideal system.

  • It is a good and interesting answer, but in essence I think assigning weight to moral truths (or restricting who they apply to) can be considered a part of the moral framework (and weighting e.g. purity 1000 times higher than fairness may be considered right or wrong by moral realists), so changes in priority would still be real, problematic changes. I also have trouble fitting in Aztec human sacrifice in this 5 dimensional room. How does such a tradition arise in the first place? Hating care?
    – Ruben
    Commented Jul 15, 2011 at 7:49
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    @Ruben: I've tried to address your comment in the answer. I think you are correct in your analysis and I hope I've fleshed out your thoughts helpfully. (Have you considered attempting an answer yourself? It seems like you've thought deeply about the issue.) Commented Jul 15, 2011 at 18:57

A shift in social economic balance and progress creates an unbalance in what is moral and what is not. The question of individual, family and social morality is a question humanity has been asking since we discovered fire.

Back in the day, we dumped the old oil from the car on the ground. Is this morally correct now?

Here's a bigger question. Sending corn to Africa and selling it cheaper than they can grow it—is it morally OK to destabilize their economy to the point of mass starvation?

The small and big questions we tackle “or not” are the moral shifts we take on or live with.


The association of quantity to morality is superfluous for the very nature of ethics is not derived into partitions from which a juxtaposition of good can be transposed into one paragon entity. Dogmatic institutions have liberated their reins into accepting individuality of interpretation in accepting an increasingly globalized humanity.

Unitization and digital rendering lead the march in making objects of personality, actions of behaviour quantifiable and the acceptance of an action is judged with consideration of the prism by which humans transfigure through the applicability of data, namely laws and bien séance.

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    Ah yes. I'm confused by one little thing, however: what do you mean by "digital rendering"? (So you know, it's unlikely that nonsense, even very clever nonsense, will be appreciated here.) Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 22:33
  • structuring in a numerical form.
    – dgm
    Commented Jun 17, 2011 at 23:41
  • I see. Just one more question: which RTN grammar do you use? Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 0:18
  • itself.­­­­­­­­­
    – dgm
    Commented Jun 18, 2011 at 0:39

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