Utilitarianism and Moral Progress. A Historical Analysis
Cyriak Schmitz and Christian Seidel
Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes
Some philosophers claim that morality does not merely change over time, but in fact, improves. The idea of an improving morality is often referred to as "moral progress". And after it had been neglected for a long time it started to receive considerable attention in the last years. Most publications and inquiries, however, are concerned with the possibility of moral progress itself, what phenomena accompany it, and how, if at all, it could be measured. What is, therefore, still missing is an analysis focussed on the distinct nature of the phenomenon itself. The previous neglect favours a historical approach, in which we take a closer look at established philosophers who already commented on the topic and evaluate their theories.
The utilitarian tradition appears to be the best starting point for an in-depth analysis of the idea because it features prominently in the works of most of its representatives. In this project, I attempt to analyze the concept of moral progress in the works of four eminent philosophers of the utilitarian school: John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, Peter Singer, and Derek Parfit.
I plan to proceed in two steps and start with an analysis of the positions of the philosophers just mentioned. At this stage, I mostly engage with exegetical questions. (What is, say, Mill's account of moral progress? What specific considerations the philosophers thought are in this context relevant and why? What is the relationship between their idea of moral progress and their ethical theories?) Afterwards, I compare, critically discuss and evaluate the ideas and themes employed in their approaches. A considerable part of this project is concerned with interpretive problems. Nevertheless, my ultimate goal is to provide an answer to the initial question and use the historical perspective as a means to achieve this end.