I must say this was thoroughly entertaining:

The Lizard People Of Alpha Draconis 1 Decided To Build An Ansible - Scott Alexander https://www.lesswrong.com/s/zfXAcwLnGocsCsriG/p/iLMkKDKmfbMkDuQBm

The central theme is built on the following view: As the present generation is acting in a more and more moral fashion, continuing the trend of previous generations, there is clearly an objective pressure that over time will bring us to a moral utopia. This pressure is accepted to be evidence of objective moral values. (Michael Huemer is cited as a proponent of this view.)

Question: Is there any other proponents of "History as proof of Moral objectivism"? Are there any serious critiques of this view?

  • If we die off in nuclear war or in global ecological catastrophe, that would certainly invalidate this view :)
    – rs.29
    Mar 13 '19 at 0:19
  • How would we distinguish between societal converge toward objective moral values and societal convergence toward other things, such as better police technology and criminal deterrence, more functional economies (in which reduced poverty disincentivizes the hassle and dangers of committing crimes), or even just better ability to carry out our subjective yet evolutionarily shaped compassion?
    – Chelonian
    Mar 13 '19 at 13:48
  • The better angels of our nature. Steven Pinker.
    – Richard
    Mar 13 '19 at 22:55
  • @Chelonian One could look at children, or disenfranchised group behaviors. But education and media penetration would be difficult to disregard. - I've held evolution, in this context, to mean both biological and cultural. Either way evolution is a bit of a double edged sword, since an objectivist would claim that our evolution is tending toward objective values.
    – christo183
    Mar 14 '19 at 5:34
  • @christo183 Neither of those could likely be disentangled from the other societal changes I listed (poverty, in particular, strongly affects both children and disenfranchised people).
    – Chelonian
    Mar 15 '19 at 13:02

Huemer's views belong to what is called moral intuitionism, we have moral intuitions that track objective values, contra Mackie's argument from queerness that such intuitions would be unprecedented, and our having them an unmotivated leap. Huemer's argument from history is a response to what is called evolutionary debunking arguments against moral realism, it is modeled on the traditional historical argument for the existence of God, which worked better when the plurality of religions was less known. Modern versions identify what is common to most current religions, which includes much of the morality. Huemer just keeps the morality, which allows to be even more inclusive, e.g. of secular views.

The prevailing modern idea is that history would give evidence, if any, of adaptive utility of moral norms for social groups, rather than of objective moral values. Such utility is pretty commonly acknowledged. Lorenz famously traced the origins of morality to animal evolution, evolutionary ethics is built around the concept, Mackie in Ethics explains deontology as a device to avoid inferior outcomes in prisoner's dilemma situations. The debunking arguments go further in comcluding that even if objective moral values existed we are not likely to get to know them, because our moral sensibilities are shaped by adaptive factors. Here is Huemer in A liberal realist answer to debunking skeptics: the empirical case for realism:

"Debunking skeptics claim that our moral beliefs are formed by processes unsuited to identifying objective facts, such as emotions inculcated by our genes and culture; therefore, they say, even if there are objective moral facts, we probably don’t know them. I argue that the debunking skeptics cannot explain the pervasive trend toward liberalization of values over human history, and that the best explanation is the realist’s: humanity is becoming increasingly liberal because liberalism is the objectively correct moral stance."

In a sense, the debunking is an adaptation of Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, so the responses to it can, in turn, be adapted by moral realists. The problem is with the disanalogy between ethics and natural science related to the aforementioned queerness, the values/norms are not of the nature of facts, they are imperatives rather than declaratives. And one can explain the liberalization and convergence of moral norms by far more mundane utilitarian means. Morton reviews arguments against Huemer type views in A New Evolutionary Debunking Argument Against Moral Realism, and Hopster in Explaining historical moral convergence. See also Evolutionary Debunking, Moral Realism and Moral Knowledge by Shafer-Landau, who is more sympathetic to moral realism:

"The argument claims that given the extent of evolutionary influence on our moral faculties, and assuming the truth of moral realism, it would be a massive coincidence were our moral faculties reliable ones. Given this coincidence, any presumptive warrant enjoyed by our moral beliefs is defeated. So if moral realism is true, then we can have no warranted moral beliefs, and hence no moral knowledge. In response, I first develop what is perhaps the most natural reply on behalf of realism – namely, that many of our highly presumptively warranted moral beliefs are immune to evolutionary influence and so can be used to assess and eventually resuscitate the epistemic merits of those that have been subject to such influence. I then identify five distinct ways in which the charge of massive coincidence has been understood and defended. I argue that each interpretation is subject to serious worries. If I am right, these putative defeaters are themselves subject to defeat. Thus many of our moral beliefs continue to be highly warranted, even if moral realism is true."


There actually is evidence against objective morals throughout human history. In the book "homo sapiens", the author explains that - to this day - there are tribes which, in the past, have been observed killing for example elderly people, or members of the group who aren't productive to their group-mentality. When asked about it, they claimed that they would refuse to senselessly killing someone, as this would be strongly against their moral code. However, killing someone for the benefit of the group was considert completely normal and conventional. So, the fact that their moral code differs so much from - for example - ours, is definitely empirical evidence against an objective moral.

  • Would you have a source for the book? Perhaps a quote would be useful. Mar 12 '19 at 15:53
  • As for the book, which more precisely is called "sapiens, a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari, I have to look up the exact part in the physical copy I own. However, I found this article about said tribe, which doesn't explicitly describe the morals of it, but can give you a broad idea. I'll give you a quote from the book as soon as I can. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalaikoothal Mar 12 '19 at 16:30

If I understand your question, you're more or less asking if humankind is more moral today than it was in the past. That's kind of reminiscent of the ongoing argument over the virtues of Nature vs Technology, which is a can of worms.

As rs.29 noted, the whole idea of advancing morality goes out the window if we exterminate ourselves - a very real possibility. In fact, it could be argued that the entire planet is already slowly dying - overpopulation, habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, genetically modified food and on and on.

One could argue that the root cause of our environmental woes is overpopulation, which could be described as a biological, rather than moral, function.

Nevertheless, I think it could also be argued that people have less reverence for the environment that becomes an ever more distant memory as we lock ourselves in our urban cocoons. For some people, myself included, environmental morality is just as important as inter-personal moral values. I'd trade Christianity for some wholesome animism in a heartbeat.

But it isn't just about Nature. You wrote,

As the present generation is acting in a more and more moral fashion, continuing the trend of previous generations, there is clearly an objective pressure that over time will bring us to a moral utopia.

Seriously? I'd argue that we're moving in the opposite direction, with the rich getting richer and our civil liberties going out the window. Where was the moral outrage regarding Obama's murder-by-unmanned-drone campaign or the destruction of Libya? In fact, life has never been cheaper; over a million innocent people slaughtered in Iraq, and there has still been no justice.

We can add another twist with the question are the immoral ones a minority?

The Kyoto Protocol demonstrates the ability of people around the world to rally behind a good cause. But it also demonstrates the ability of a small, organized group of evil people to sabotage even the best efforts.

Looking at it from this perspective, we might argue that humankind in general has indeed advanced in terms of objective moral values, but we're being held back by a cabal of sinister power brokers who easily manipulated us through propaganda.

But this, in turn, is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy: If people who are essentially morally objective are brainwashed into believing that the war on terror is genuine and we should invade Muslim countries, then haven't they effectively morphed into the very monsters we're trying to escape from?

The final twist in the plot may lie in the solution. If we want to live in a truly moral world, then it might be necessary to retain our moral objectivism but at the same time rediscover our warrior past and learn how to fight back. Gandhi's tactics may have worked in India, but they have no chance against the corporate sector or the military-industrial complex.

Regarding notable philosophers who have commented on moral objectivism - well, a lot depends on how you define the term. Morality is a huge part of philosophy, and it isn't hard to find philosophers who have noted the difference between objective and subjective. According to Wikipedia,

Objectivism is a philosophical system developed by Russian-American writer Ayn Rand.


Whether or not Ayn Rand herself was a paragon of morality is highly debatable. I agree with those who call her a racist capitalist.

  • "Can we be better? No, we are the best!" Any writer that supports the morals of the day would likely be supported be the powers that be, and are better not trusted... My quote above is meant as a summary of the linked article which seems to me to be a critique of Moral objectivism. That said, I'm not closed to the idea that objective morals exist; we have after all a bulk of population that need to be lied to before they will sanction "war". That is some ways off from screaming masses straining to go wipe out "inferior" cultures...
    – christo183
    Mar 14 '19 at 6:17
  • Ghandi faced the British empire, a military-industrial complex in its own right.
    – christo183
    Mar 14 '19 at 6:18
  • 1
    Good point about Gandhi - even if the term military-industrial complex wasn't coined until much later by Dwight D. Eisenhower. But my point still stands; use Gandhi's tactics in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Libya, and the U.S. is still going to drop bombs and napalm on you. Vietnam, of course, was lucky enough to win, but they paid a terrible cost. Mar 15 '19 at 0:52

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