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Epistemic Status: I've researched this broad topic for a couple of years. I've read about 30+ books and 100+ articles on the topic so far (I'm not really keeping count). I've also read many other works in the related areas of normative moral philosophy, moral psychology, moral epistemology, moral methodology, and metaethics, since it's basically my area of specialization within philosophy. This project will be my PhD thesis. However, I still have 3 years of the PhD to go, so a substantial amount of my opinions on the matter are subject to changes.

Disclaimer: I have received some funding as a Forethought Foundation Fellow in support of my PhD research. But all the opinions expressed here are my own.

Index.

Part I - Bibliography Review

Part II - Seven Philosophical Takes and Opinions

Future parts will discuss: moral circle expansion, normative theories of progress, empirical takes and opinions, possibilities for measuring moral progress, and policy implications. They will be published as my research progresses.

Introduction.

Hi everyone, this is my first proper research-related post on the EA Forum, on a topic that I've been working on for several years, since even before my PhD, and now as part of my PhD in Philosophy at the London School of Economics. 

This post is the start of a series on my work on the topic of Moral Progress, which includes and intersects with Moral Circle Expansion (also called Inclusivism or Moral Inclusion), Moral Progress, Social Progress, Social Movements, the mechanisms that drive progress and regress, the possibilities of measuring these phenomena, and policy or practical implications.

This first post is a bibliography review, which I hope will serve to orient future researchers that might want to tackle the same or similar topics. Hopefully it will help them to save time by separating the wheat from the chaff, the good research articles and books from the minor contributions. Initially, I had my reservations about doing a Bibliography Review, since now we have GPT4 which is quite good at purely neutral descriptive summarizing, so I felt maybe perhaps this work wasn't needed. However, given that now we have it as a good research assistant for pure facts, that also allows me more freedom to be more opinionated in my bibliography review. I'll try to tell you what I think is super worth reading, and what is "meh, skim it if you have free time", so you can sift through the literature in a more time-efficient way.

The eventual goal outcome of the whole project would be to distil the main insights into book on the topic of Moral Progress with serious contributions to the current literature within interdisciplinary moral philosophy, but that probably won't happen until I finish my PhD thesis manuscript around 2026. Then after that, I'll have to rewrite that manuscript to turn it into a more accessible book, so it probably wouldn't be published until a later date.  I'm also not sure just yet whether it would be an academic book on a University Press or something closer to What We Owe The Future, which aims to be accessible for a broader audience.

So the finished work is quite a long way. On the brighter side, I will publish some of the key findings and takeaways on the EA Forum, probably in summarized form rather than the excruciatingly slow pace of writing in philosophy, which often takes 20 pages to make some minor points. Instead of that, I guess I'll post something closer to digestible bullet points with my views, attempting to foster online discussion, and then defend them in more detail over time and in the eventual book.

Your feedback will of course be appreciated, particularly if I change my mind on substantial issues, connect me with other researchers, etc. So let's put our collective brain together (this is a pun having to do with cultural evolution that you might not understand yet...) and make it the best version it can be. You might even appear in the acknowledgments of the thesis/book, eventually! :)

Guiding Questions.

What is the point of researching moral progress? Let's break that down into smaller questions. My work aims to answer the following questions. Even if the answers end up being partial, I hope I can illuminate several of them:

  • What is moral progress? and related conceptual questions.
    • I'm not looking so much for the "correct definition", which I think is trivial and mostly uninformative. Moral progress is "when a state of affairs improves, morally speaking". That's pretty much what there is to say about the right definition, which is correct but not very interesting or informative.
    • Rather, I aim to be informative. To illuminate what I mean, let's borrow from a similar case. John Rawls distinguished the concept of justice from a conception of justice. The concept (or definition?) of justice is something like: "being given what we are owed, giving people what is their due" (Plato/Aristotle). Meanwhile, a conception of justice is the particular substantive theory that Rawls put forward in A Theory of Justice, with his veil of ignorance, original position, etcetera.  So in conclusion, we need a conception of moral progress, not an analysis of the concept of moral progress.
  • How does progress fit as a subset of normative moral and political philosophy?
    • There are some subtleties regarding whether a theory of moral progress is compatible with moral anti-realism. I and other authors working on the topic would like to claim that it is. My key guiding principle here is to not be eliminativist. That is, I want to say that moral progress is an interesting idea or subject of inquiry without collapsing it, eliminating it, or reducing it to "just find moral truths and follow them".
    • The contributions to the topic of moral progress shouldn't aim to just attempt to recreate moral philosophy, with its typical moral dilemmas and thought experiments like its trolley problems, experience machine, non-identity problem, etc. Ideally, we would want to sidestep that discussion.
  • Can we create a plausible substantive normative conception of moral/social progress?
    • I think we can, and this is the philosophical core of my project, and my focus for this and next year. I think I have the basic idea, but there's a lot of theoretical refinement left to be done. So sadly, this part is not ready yet.
    • I don't think any authors have put forward any normative conception in the way that I aim at doing. Authors until now have mostly focused on Singer's idea of the expanding circle of moral consideration, an idea that is limiting (towards the phenomenon of moral inclusion) compared to the entire field of moral progress, which seems to me much broader.

That's on the conceptual or philosophical side. My project has a second part, which is more interdisciplinary and closer to social science.

  • Can we predict moral progress, speed it up, and/or secure it, at least in broad strokes?
    • This is a core aim of many of the books and articles on moral progress, although I believe they mostly fail at doing so. I have different approach that I hope will be more illuminating here.
  • Can a broad theory of moral progress help us find points of intercultural/universal overlapping consensus? Could such a theory help us secure human rights, duties, etc.? Can it avoid hegemonism/imperialism and even integrate the standpoint perspective of marginalized groups (perspective of black people, women, global south, avoid ageism, avoid ableism, etc.)?
    • My hope is that it can, but I won't be sure until the project is closer to completion.
    • In addition, it's very important to always keep in mind that finding what moral progress is doesn't mean enforcing it to other cultures. That is a further question that requires much further moral and political discussion and particular expertise of the situation.
  • Can a metric of moral progress be used by social science fields? Or deployed to study societies?
    • My initial thought is that perhaps different indicators such as GDP, Gini, Democracy Index, Peace Index, etc. can be combined into a single metric of wide, collective social progress.
    • The issue with this approach is that it probably cannot make judgements about progress without making strong judgement calls about value tradeoffs (how to trade off GDP vs inequality, or a point in the Democracy Index vs a point in the Peace Index, etcetera.) in order to put them on a common scale.

Who has a good Personal Fit for becoming a Moral Progress researcher?

(This is me justifying that I'm a good fit for this project and that I'm not wasting my time by researching this rather than doing something else. I think it has some insights of who's a good fit for this particular topic of research, but if you don't care, just skip this section.)

Since this is the EA Forum and I've been in touch with EA ideas and the community for years, I know that we worry a lot about the Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness heuristic and about personal fit within a research topic. So I often ask myself: "Is my time better spent working on conceptual and empirical issues regarding this thing called "moral progress", or should I instead research something else in moral philosophy that seems more Global Priorities Research-approved, like population ethics? Should I be in academia at all, or should I go work on policy or an EA organization?"

In fact, one of my takeaways is that research on moral progress (and the broad concept of progress in general) is not very time-efficient, due to both empirical and conceptual complexity, so I feel I have to defend the fact that I'm researching this topic rather than something else. Okay, here's an attempt, which is imperfect but better than nothing.

  1. My interdisciplinary interest and approach to philosophy. I like doing what philosopher Eric Schleisser (2019) calls Synthetic Philosophy. Here's a summary. To brutally simplify it, it means that I find theories that bring insights about big questions of human nature interesting. Schleisser mentions Daniel Dennett and Peter Godfrey-Smith as good examples of synthetic philosophers. I'd add hedgehogs in Isaiah Berlin's sense. I have a propensity for theories of everything, a theory of the social world, and/or a theory of progress. A system with coherent metaethics, normative philosophy, etc. that makes internal coherent sense. On the other hand, I find narrow philosophical puzzles boring (e.g. Newcomb's Paradox, the Sleeping Beauty Problem, the Non-Identity Problem). I'm also bad at them, skeptical of our capabilities to solve them (see e.g. Machery 2017), and skeptical of their practical usefulness.
  2. I have previous experience with similar topics. My main areas in philosophy since undergrad have been Moral Epistemology (stuff about methodology and intuitions, how do we have moral knowledge?), Metaethics (the debate between moral realism, anti-realism, constructivism, and what is a true statement in ethics, semantically and metaphysically?), and Moral Psychology (stuff like Jonathan Haidt, evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology. Can we trust moral intuitions? In what situations? Do evolutionary predispositions, or even cultural influences prove that our moral beliefs are biased and thus unreliable?). For more details on my research interests, see my personal website
  3. I'm actually not that good at writing normative moral philosophy, because I'm a boring utilitarian with not much to add to the discussion (Bentham figured it out, folks!). Sadly they don't let me publish papers that are three lines long saying "well, actually the total utilitarian position is right rather than these more complicated positions", whether they are correct or not, so lots of normative moral philosophy is not for me.
  4. Luckily, the topic intersects with some of the key areas within EA, particularly having to do with value change and social institutions. It is not a "core" priority area (like top 10), but it's a "second-class one" (like top 30). Which hopefully means the work could be socially impactful in terms of takeaways for policy recommendations and for longtermism. The idea is that there's at least some low probability that there can be policy takeaways and insights learned from this research that can improve our institutions (governments, social movements, invisible hand mechanisms, etc.), which could create enormous benefits for the long-term future. That's my belief, anyway. In fact, What We Owe the Future ended up arguing points that I aim to pick up, so hopefully I'm not so off-track.
  5. I feel my personal life experiences make me more wary of extrapolating local cultural stuff to universal. I've lived half my life in Europe, and the other half in Latin America. That doesn't prove anything by itself, but I feel it has given me a bit of a multicultural perspective regarding the universality (or lack thereof) of moral codes and judgements.
  6. In terms of university environment and departmental fit, I'd say the London School of Economics is an extremely good environment for my kind of interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary philosophy connected to social science is a strength of the department and of the university.
  7. Extrinsic motivation and social interest. Most people find the topic of moral progress, social progress, social movements, etc. to either be fascinating and it leads to an interesting discussion, or it leads to the knee-jerk response that the world is obviously getting worse and to an interesting discussion anyway. Everybody has opinions on progress. This gives me motivation to keep going, which is nice given the high rate of academic burnout
  8. The topic of moral progress is still surprisingly neglected and underexplored. Consider an analogy: moral progress is to moral philosophy what growth is to economics. (Probably not a perfect analogy, but good enough). How many books have been written on moral progress? Like 10, tops, most of them in the past 5 years, and I go over most of them in the bibliography review below. How many books, and man-hours have been spent in economics on economic growth? Innumerable. So yeah, I'd say it's a neglected topic, by comparison.
  9. As mentioned, the topic of moral progress has been revived in the past five years. There are reading groups and conferences on the topic and surrounding topics. It's also a perfect time to make contributions to the literature and shape the discussion before it ossifies.
  10. Sunk cost fallacy or expertise? At this point, I've spent several years researching and thinking about this topic and had hundreds of conversations on it. I must have read more than 15,000 pages on it or topics related to it. So for better or worse, I might have become "one of the leading experts" within this niche area of interdisciplinary moral philosophy.

This list ended up being a nifty decalogue, which makes my aesthetic sensibilities happy. :)

Bibliography Review.

Alright, let's dive into it. I will divide it into three bibliographies: (1) Books, (2) Articles, and (3) Works by EAs. 

I will also rank the bibliography by how good it is.  So the earlier titles are better than the latter ones (even within the same number of stars, though that's based mostly on "vibes", because they cover very different topics).

TL;DR / Recommended Reading Order.

"I'm new to the topic of moral progress. What should I read?" Well, here are my recommendations to get you started:

Philosophy / Conceptual Issues: Allen Buchanan and Rachel Powell - The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory (2018), then Hanno Sauer - Moral Teleology: A Theory of Progress (2023), then concrete articles that might interest you, see below in my article list or on Luis Mota Freitas' Reading List.

Material / Empirical Improvements and Social Progress: Steven Pinker - The Better Angels of Our Nature. The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (2011) or Oded Galor - The Journey of Humanity (2020).

Cultural Evolution and Norms: Joseph Henrich's - The Secret of Our Success (2016), then Joseph Henrich - The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020), not sure what to recommend after that, so check the full reading list to see what interests you next.

"I don't have that much time, give me a quick rundown of the empirical and normative details in a single short book": Victor Kumar and Richmond Campbell - A Better Ape: The Evolution of the Moral Mind and How it Made Us Human (2022) or Philip Kitcher - Moral Progress (2021).

"A book is still too slow, quicker, one article": Hanno Sauer et al. Moral Progress: Recent Developments (2021).

Amazing books (5/5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - Read them and take notes)

Allen Buchanan and Rachel Powell - The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory (2018) - Genre: Moral Philosophy - No Audiobook

Pros: This is the current "classic" or reference book on the debate around moral progress. Everyone working on the topic cites it. I believe it easily supersedes Singer's Expanding Circle book on the topic. While it is long and a bit slow-paced, I think it's the classic for a good reason and most pages have a worthwhile insight. Unavoidable if you care about this debate. It draws a lot from their previous articles, so if you want to cut to the chase, maybe read their articles (2015) and (2016). 

Cons: I believe the book has two big flaws, both of which have to do with how they constrain the topic. One is that they only focus on the expanding circle or inclusivism. As I aim to show in my own work, moral circle expansion is one of many mechanisms that fall into the label moral progress, not the whole story. Hanno Sauer (2022) argues the same, successfully I believe. The other issue is that they solely or mostly focus on psychological mechanisms, particularly those relating to ingroup-outgroup empathy, while neglecting social or sociological mechanisms such as laws, customs, and the welfare state. As pointed out by Hanno Sauer in his (2019) article, also found in his book Moral Teleology (2022, Ch. 2), this is problematic. It already concedes the terms of the debate to the "bioconservative" a position sometimes represented by people who think human beings are essentially nepotistic and not very malleable by culture, and argue that our empathy is limited and that we cannot be morally universalist in a strong sense. This position is sometimes attributed to Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Francis Fukuyama, or Eric Posner.

As a result of these constraints or flaws, they don't develop a general theory of moral progress. Instead, they develop a mostly biological and psychological approach to the expanding circle (inclusivism). It's not the whole story of moral progress, and while it tries to bring in culture to defend their position, I'd argue that their position is still too biological and not cultural enough. Still, a worthwhile read.

Pros: I expected this work to be quite bad, since it has been quite widely criticized. But I was very pleasantly surprised. The case that Pinker makes is more nuanced than critics admit. In fact, he's critical of many things in the history of humanity, and admits of our flaws. It is less "clearly triumphalist" than its critics say. I believe Pinker is roughly correct in his broad picture of how violence might have declined by one or two orders of magnitude since we became nation-states. But his argument is not just about the nation-state, but about other processes as well such as gentle commerce and globalization, feminization (violence/machismo reduction), literacy, etc. Check out the summary of the book on Wikipedia. Also, it's a very famous book, so it ends up being unavoidable.

Cons: The book goes back and forth between data and anecdotal evidence or quotes from important historical figures, which makes me feel a bit uneasy from cherry-picking. But that also makes the book more readable because it's less boring.

However, as a result of everything, it is very long (800 pages!), so my first readthrough was using the audiobook. I'll go to the PDF for my actual writing phase.

There are articles written against it. I haven't yet read them, but there's this entire book that argues against Pinker, it's called "The Darker Angels of our Nature: Refuting the Pinker Theory of History and Violence", edited by Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale (2021). There's also a criticism of the statistics by Nassim Taleb. And about the narrative of old societies being extremely violent by Brian Ferguson. My opinion of Pinker's book might change after reading them.

Another issue is that it doesn't talk at all about our massive violence inflicted on animals through factory farming. It also doesn't talk about how catastrophic or existential risks (global nuclear war, climate change, AI risk...) can endanger his narrative about progress and violence. These caveats are important to keep in mind. (Thanks to @GhostCoase on Twitter for highlighting some of these flaws of Pinker's book.)

Hanno Sauer - Moral Teleology: A Theory of Progress (2023) - Genre: Moral Philosophy - No Audiobook

Pros: Hanno Sauer is correct in pretty much all the points in which he deviates from Buchanan and Powell, Peter Singer, and Kumar and Campbell. His main claims is that Moral Progress is not mainly inclusivist, not limited to moral circle expansion. I came to the same conclusions independently, so I believe we're on the right track. Very underrated book.

Cons: I don't love the way it's written. Maybe it's personal preference, but I found it hard to read and a bit all over the place. I think it could have been organized better. Still, a super important reading. Out of all the authors, my own conception of Moral Progress shares the most with Sauer's. We independently came to similar points.

Pros: I was introduced to this book at the 10th Oxford Workshop for Global Priorities Research in a talk by the author himself. I was very impressed by the talk, and bought the book the next day. I was also very impressed by the book. In a relatively slim book, Galor presents a good overview of how technology has made humans get out of the Malthusian "subsistence trap". If you only want to read one book on the topic of technology and the broad picture of humanity, I think this one is a good pick.

Cons: None that immediately come to mind. Could be more detailed, but it would be longer. I thought it was very solid, even if it's not the most groundbreaking. But I'm no economist. Economists might be able to find more flaws.

Joseph Henrich's - The Secret of Our Success (2016) - Genre: Cultural Evolution, Pre-History - Audiobook Available

Pros: Masterful work on how humans transmit, learn, and accumulate information over time, which is what made humans successful, rather than intelligence alone (imagine having to reinvent fire or the wheel by yourself everytime!). Basically, humanity can be visualized as a big networked brain, and stuff like cultural globalization that communicates faster and faster keeps making us smarter, both individually and collectively. A good primer on cultural evolution.

Cons: Ironically, I am quite confused about what "cultural evolution" exactly is under Henrich's conception. Some stuff he mentions seems like a very straightforward "transmission of culture or information", without any evolutionary component. He uses the term very liberally.

Pros: After the 2010 article also named "The WEIRDest People in the World" took the psychology world by storm, claiming that findings in American undergraduates don't replicate across other non-urban non-western societies due to different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, I long awaited this book. I am very impressed by the end result, but it is extremely long. (As a result, I've only listened to the audiobook. It took me several months to go through it. I still fondly remember going on long walks near my house during the Covid-19 pandemic while listening to this!)

Henrich pulls off a massive interdisciplinary range to answer a simple question: "why did modernization happen, and why did it happen in Europe?" Like a good cultural evolutionist (he basically says it's a sequel to The Secret of Our Sucess), he's going to claim it was a change in culture. 

Henrich follows in the footsteps of Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism". To simplify, Weber thought that religion, particularly Calvinism, led to a strong focus on work, because if your business was successful, it was confirmation that you were among the predestined ones by God to attain salvation. This change in culture brought capitalism, particularly in the United States, which had lots of Calvinists. Henrich wants to do something similar to Weber. I really liked discussions about the role of religion and big moralizing gods. 

There's also a substantial part about how markets promote impartial moral views. For example, there's stuff about how different cultures react to ultimatum games. Apparently, cultures that are better integrated with markets, like Americans or Europeans, are more egalitarian when distributing money. Cultures that don't deal in big impersonal markets as often, like the indigenous communities of Peru, will accept much lower amounts in ultimatum games (adjusted for purchasing parity). This purportedly means that markets lead to higher moral universalism. This contradicts the claim that markets make people greedy or self-centred, which might be surprising to many leftists.

Cons: Henrich's main emphasis is... weird (no pun intended!). He puts a really big emphasis on the fact that the church prohibited incest led to modernization. Step by step, this breaks down into: incest prohibitions led to families having to mix more, which led to greater social mobility, which led to greater development of markets, which led to greater moral impartiality and universalism. While I think incest prohibitions plausibly played a role, I'm skeptical that it was the main driver behind modernity. So I think he overemphasizes this core claim. Still, a great book with many insights.

Great books (4/5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐ - Read them)

Victor Kumar and Richmond Campbell - A Better Ape: The Evolution of the Moral Mind and How it Made Us Human (2022) - Genre: Moral Psychology, Moral Philosophy - Audiobook Available

Pros: Like Sauer, brings in some cultural evolution to the debate on moral progress.

Cons: In general, I found the book a bit shallow. Each of the three big sections could have been a standalone book. As a result, it doesn't reach the heights of Frans de Waal or Sterelny on apes, of Henrich on cultural evolution, or of Buchanan and Powell or Hanno Sauer on moral progress. It's nice if you want a broad overview, bad if you want depth.

Philip Kitcher - Moral Progress (2021) - Genre: Moral Philosophy, Social Movements - No Audiobook

Pros: It's a series of talks compiled into a book, so it's readable. It's also not too long (200 pages). He argues for a pragmatist-constructivist-proceduralist version of moral progress, which to me seems the right move. The idea is to argue that we don't need to find final moral truth out there (called "The Discovery View" by Kitcher), but rather, the process of moral inquiry for moral circle expansion proceeds by including people who used to be ignored due to dominant ideologies and altruism failures in the moral dialogue. In this way, moral progress is more like the headlights of a car. We can see a bit further, even if we can't see the final destination. Good move in order to talk about moral improvements even if you're a moral anti-realist (which means that you don't believe in mind-independent, "platonic" moral truths).

Philip Kitcher is also a great philosopher of science, so he knows what he's talking about when criticizing the Discovery View and proposing an alternative methodology for ethics. (On the science part, his book The Advancement of Science is still an important reference, and the way I discovered him in undergrad).

Furthermore, if you enjoy it and want to read more Kitcher, The Ethical Project (2011) is also a great book that expands on this one. He also has work on philosophical pragmatism inspired by Dewey, and the relationship between science and democracy.

Cons: Only talks about the paradigmatic cases of the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and LGBT rights. Plays it safe and covers an already treaded area by this point (done better by Buchanan and Powell 2018). 

But more importantly, this is moral circle expansion or moral inclusion, rather than the entire broader phenomenon of moral progress. He's still trapped in the Peter Singer / Buchanan and Powell framework of empathy and psychological processes, rather than social changes. All the commentators (Rahel Jaeggi, Susan Neiman, and Amia Srinivasan, all of whom are great philosophers in their own right) push him on this, but he doesn't offer a very compelling answer. So read Hanno Sauer (his article 2021 or his book 2022) after this for the way out of this framework.

Still, worth reading for the criticism of the "Discovery View" of ethics, his alternative proposal of a pragmatist-constructivist-proceduralist approach, and his talk about "altruism failures" and "dominant ideologies that lead to false consciousness".

Hans Rosling - Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2018) - Genre: Post-Industrial Historical Trends. - Audiobook Available

Pros: If you ever wanted the website Our World in Data (well, actually Gapminder) in book form, here it is, basically. Good extension of Steven Pinker's Better Angels and Enlightenment Now.  It also outlines the cognitive biases we suffer from that make us so pessimistic about the state of the world.  Really good at shattering myths and misconceptions for people who might think that the world has got economically, socially, or morally worse.

Also, he has many TED Talks summarizing his research in entertaining ways.

Cons: Not technically about progress in the moral sense, but changes in material conditions, so I can't rate it higher. But it's a really good book to convince pessimist that the world is improving.

Michael Tomasello - Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (2018)- Genre: Cognitive Human Development - No Audiobook

Pros: Tomasello theorizes about how humans develop morality, internalize moral rules, etc. particularly between 9 months and 5 years of age. He draws insights from Lev Vygotsky and Lawrence Kohlberg, combined with his own experiments. It's really enlightening if you care about how humans learn norms and behaviors, developing joint collective intentionality through cognitive revolutions that take place in these years. It highlights ways in which humans are different from other mammals in terms of structured norms of morality. For a summary, I particularly recommend the last chapter where he compares his theory with Vygotsky and Kohlberg.

Cons: Not directly relevant to the topic of progress.

Jose Antonio Marina - Biography of Inhumanity (2021) - Genre: Moral Values, Cultural Evolution - Audiobook in Spanish only

Pros: Mixes cultural evolution with good observations about dehumanization of others and human history. Learnt a lot from it.

Cons: Sadly I believe the book is only available in Spanish. Which is too bad because I think it's really good.

Kim Sterelny's - The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique (2009) - Genre: Human Pre-History - Audiobook Available

Pros: Solid overview work on the Pleistocene era humans. Takes the framework outlined by Joseph Henrich and other cultural evolutionists (with minor disagreements), and combines it with archeological evidence to provide a compelling picture. Lots of discussion about how events like collaborative hunting, the discovery of fire, etc. led to human development and cooperation.

Cons: Sterelny is a philosopher, not a scientist. As a result, he doesn't really put any evidence into question, he mostly focuses on sketching a broad picture from other narrow papers that have been written on Pleistocene humans. Checking the bibliography might be good if you're an anthropologist or archaeologist.

Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind (2011) - Genre: Political Psychology - Audiobook Available

Pros: Insightful picture of how, to link it with Henrich, most pre-industrial societies and rural areas have stronger links to the values of sanctity, honor, and authority. Meanwhile, urban liberals have lost their sensitivity to these values. At the very least, I think everybody should check a summary of his Moral Foundations Theory. Even if some evidence has been put into question, it's well worth reading to understand another dimension of politics. At the very least, it provides a useful framework to think about and use.

Cons: I got the impression that Haidt carelessly slides from empirical observations to normative recommendations. I read this several years ago, but pulling from memory, in the first chapters he basically goes from how his experience of sexism in India was, to how, eventually, he came to enjoy this sort of casual sexism and hierarchical structure.

What, exactly, is the lesson here? Towards the end of the book, Haidt seems to want to say that liberals should get closer to conservatives by understanding or recovering these Moral Foundations of sanctity, honor, and authority. 

But we could make the opposite case that conservatives should aim to lose theirs! So the book is worth reading, but read Sauer's (2015) criticism along these lines for a palate cleanser.

Okay books (3/5 ⭐⭐⭐ - Skim them)

Peter Singer - The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (1979 [2011]) - Genre: Moral Philosophy - No Audiobook

Pros: Basically revived the debate on moral progress, which I'd say had mostly been dead since the World Wars (to my knowledge). The metaphor of the expanding circle is beautiful and often useful. 

Core insights such as the fact that we are biological beings doesn't mean we are blind slaves to our biology still stand, and are somewhat updated by Buchanan and Powell. 

If you read it, make sure to read the 2011 version, just because it's a bit updated and has a nice new prologue.

Cons: You might be surprised that this is so far down! Well, I think the book has some big issues. Some of the sociobiology stuff is... well, quite outdated now. We now have an entire field of evolutionary psychology that has generally superseded sociobiology. 

And perhaps the biggest negative is that, surprisingly, most of the book is NOT about the expanding circle or moral progress at all. It is primarily a philosophical examination of E. O. Wilson's sociobiology. If you want a refined discussion of moral circle expansion, read Buchanan and Powell instead, which I believe has superseded this book.

Frans de Waal - Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (2006) - Genre: Ape Proto-Morality - No Audiobook

Pros: Brief discussion between a leading primatologist and leading philosophers as Peter Singer, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and journalist Robert Wright. Attempts to refute what he calls the veneer theory of human nature, a view espoused by Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Huxley which basically says we are apes with a thin cultural coat of paint.

Cons: I read it a long time ago, but I felt it was a bit introductory and not very detailed. Might have to skim it again at some point though.

Robert Wright - Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000) - Genre: Cultural Evolution - Audiobook Available

Pros: I broadly agree with the key premise that society has broadly improved due to in great part due to cultural evolution (or memetics, if you're a fan of Dawkins and Dennett). Our interconnected world has created a metaphorical interconnected giant brain, where each of us is a neuron. There more information is connected, the faster we develop new technologies, skills, and social arrangements.

Cons: Robert Wright is a journalist, not a scientist. This makes me prima facie a bit more skeptical of his claims. The sweeping claims at the end of the book are quite bad, and I recommend skipping the last couple of chapters. The rest is mostly fine. 

Joshua Greene - Moral Tribes. Emotion, Reason, and the gap between Us and Them (2013) - Genre: Moral Psychology - Audiobook Available

Pros: I'm gonna be controversial and, mixed with my other knowledge of moral psychology, say that Greene and Singer are broadly correct that many deontological judgments are gut reactions, panic reactions from the amygdala of "don't kill!", "don't push!", "don't punch!" while utilitarian calculations are more rational. But I might be biased because I like utilitarianism. 

Cons: I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit, but it's not the most relevant for moral progress, so I cannot rate it higher.

Also, the relevance of neuroscience to his overall argument has been questioned, particularly by Selim Berker's (2009) article. I believe Berker can be replied to, but he does point in the direction that a lot of the neuroscience is not central to the argument.

Derek Parfit - On What Matters (2011) (just the section on the Triple Theory) - Genre: Moral Philosophy - No Audiobook

Pros: Cool idea. What if a version of rule utilitarianism, a version of Scanlon's contractualism, and a version of Kantianism were all true?

Cons: Bad execution, I believe, and many moral philosophers seem to agree (e.g. Simon Blackburn and many of the other reviews of the book you can find online). Kinda unreadable without reading the whole book, to be honest. And "the whole book" is several volumes. I only took what I needed from this.

Steven Pinker - Enlightenment Now. The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018) - Genre: Social Values / Enlightenment Values - Audiobook Available

Pros: While the subtitle mentions reason, science and humanism, about 3/4ths of the book is on progress. Again, I think Pinker is mostly correct in broad strokes. A good read.

Cons: I consider it inferior to The Better Angels of Our Nature. If you've read Better Angels, this is a cherry on top, but feels like a smaller addition. If you haven't, it's a bit odd, because the book is perhaps more accessible than it, but often references and sometimes attempts to defend what was said in Better Angels.

Benedict Anderson - Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983) - Genre: Modernity - No Audiobook

Pros: Outlines how countries are "Imagined Communities". They're not fully real yet not fully false. Basically, outlines how technologies such as the printing press and books created the modern state in the 16-17th centuries, which really didn't exist as a community of solidarity before this. Probably a good pairing is McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy, which shares the same core theory, and he cites.

There are cool random nuggets of historical information throughout the book, but while modernization and the rise of the modern state were very important historical events, most of it has nothing particularly having to do with progress by itself.

Cons: It's a rather messy and uneven book with random facts. It feels like a very random collection of essays. I recommend skimming and just taking away from it whatever you want.

Other authors on the birth of the nation-state have other opinions. Check out Ernest Gellner and Anthony Smith for some other approaches.

William MacAskill, Krister Bykvist, and Toby Ord - Moral Uncertainty (2020) - Genre: Moral Philosophy - No Audiobook

Pros: Pretty much the only real book (setting some PhD dissertations aside) on the topic of Moral Uncertainty, which has to do with the question of "How should agents act if they don't know the right theory, but they have credences distributed across different moral theories?" It's a great general overviews of the field of moral uncertainty. And basically the required reading if you're getting into that topic for the first time. So it's 5/5 stars if you're interested in that particular topic. Probably the best introductory point for this debate.

Theories of moral progress often want to be morally uncontroversial, so the idea about finding common ground when you are not sure what moral theory is right can spark interesting ideas.

Cons: Not really on progress per-se, so I cannot rate it higher as part of a literature on moral progress.

Daniel Dennett - Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995) - Genre: Evolution - Audiobook Available

Pros: Explains how Darwin's theory of evolution is a "universal acid" that is hard or impossible to contain, changing our view of humanity in fields usually covered by the humanities irreversibly. Talks a lot about gradualism and memes (in Dawkins sense!), which you might either enjoy or dislike.

Cons: Very broad and long. I find the details hard to recall, but for example the chapter on morality seemed a very superficial first-approach to me, given the massive literature we have now on the relationship between evolution and morality. Spends a lot of the discussion on refuting Stephen Jay Gould, who is an anti-gradualist with regards to evolution.

Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu - Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement (2012) - Genre: Transhumanism, Human Nature - No Audiobook

Pros: Makes the argument that we need transhumanism to overcome human nature in order to avoid the great dangers of our times, including climate change and existential risks.

Cons: Very slim book and not fully convincing. See the replies on Buchanan and Powell (2018) and by other authors.

Isaiah Berlin - The Roots of Romanticism (1965) - Genre: Romantic Values, Nationalism - No Audiobook

Pros: In this and other books, Berlin outlines the dangers of the romantic movement, framing it as a reactionary, regressive movement against the Enlightenment. Berlin is a great philosopher and I found the book engaging throughout.

Cons: I think his other book "Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty" might be more politically oriented, rather than analyzing the movement of romanticism as a whole (which includes romanticism in literature and other arts), and thus the better book for this particular topic.

Mediocre books (2/5 ⭐⭐ - Skip to the relevant sections)

Kwame Anthony Appiah - The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2010) - Genre: Moral Philosophy, Social Movements - Audiobook Available

Pros: The chapter on dueling and the one on foot binding were good because I knew next to nothing about these topics. Now I'm a bit more informed. Perhaps skim-read those chapters and skip the rest.

From those chapters, I particularly liked Appiah's idea of how mockery was used to undermine practices like dueling and foot binding. When a practice becomes embarrassing by peer pressure, the practice can be eliminated within a short period of time. I feel it could be applied to other phenomena such as toxic masculinity or other contemporary moral issues. I'm definitely borrowing that insight.

Cons: I had great hopes because of the subtitle of the book, but I and other people were left pretty underwhelmed. It's far too anecdotal, full of quotes but lacks data.

Furthermore, one of Appiah's core claims is that the evil of slavery, foot binding, etc. was obvious all along. That the moral argument was uncontroversial. Something like: "suffering is bad, so we should stop doing it". I think this is much less obvious than Appiah claims. As outlined by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, most moral codes throughout history have had components such as respect to elders, traditions, and authority figures, which are often respected as the right thing to do, and more important than suffering. So unless those Moral Foundations are weakened, the importance of suffering can be overridden.

I also think he's wrong about honor having positive moral value, or his section on it failed to convince me. I felt he spent so many chapters bashing cultures of honor, just to defend it at the end in a rushed way. I'm more convinced by Pinker that the process of "feminization" or reduction of machismo and violence has been a good thing, and perhaps we could replace honor with a rough equivalent that releases our psychologically abusive tendencies in ways that aren't harmful.

Steven Pinker - The Blank Slate (2000) - Genre: General Psychology - Audiobook Available

Pros: Having taken classes in the Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Cognitive Science, I thought that Pinker offers a good introduction to a very broad variety of issues competently enough. It presents stuff like the view of the mind as a computer, with debates like the Language of Thought, connectionism, and human nature. Pinker is more accessible than "textbooks" like Tim Crane's "The Mechanical Mind", which are more rigorous but technical and harder to read.

Pinker also presents his opinionated side of things, siding with the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides on analyzing humans as biological animals which inherit a lot of instincts. So he wants to argue that we are instinctually hard-wired towards certain behavior, which explains stuff like our capacity for language.

It served as a great refresher on some concepts. It's not very related to moral progress, though, so I cannot rate it higher for this purpose.

Cons: He definitely overextends when he wants to bring his theory of human nature into politics. For example, I seem to remember him arguing against the Soviet Union because human nature cannot make us morally impartial. As people like Buchanan and Powell and people working on culture (e.g. social scientists) have pointed out, moral emotions, beliefs and propensities are quite flexible depending on upbringing, social conditions, social rules, etcetera.

I take a bit of a middle position between Pinker and the "leftist that wants to deny human nature" that he's criticising. I think the evolutionary psychology standpoint is definitely worth taking into consideration, but that point of view might be more straightforward to apply with regards to stuff like language learning, which happens in an individual mind, than to politics and societies, which is less straightforward since there are new phenomena that happens when you're dealing with interactions of large groups of people. I think more recently Pinker would even agree with that, since in his later books like Better Angels and Enlightenment Now, Pinker is a defender of enlightenment values to overcome our "pre-wired" tribalism.

Cecilia Heyes - Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking (2018) - Genre: Cultural Evolution, Psychology - Audiobook Available

Pros: Seems like a good book for the psychology of cultural evolution, in fact, it might be the only one out there on this intersection.

Cons: I had high expectations for this book, yet I felt that only a couple of chapters towards the middle have actual content? The beginning is a recap of what cultural evolution is, and the end talks about stuff like Chomsky's "poverty of the stimulus" argument. And even the core chapters I didn't feel were particularly illuminating.

Also, um, what the heck is a gadget? I think I got lost or forgot the definition at some point because she kept insisting that "it's not an instinct, it's a gadget" like a catchphrase but I felt she never defined it. Anyway, I didn't find it particularly useful for my research so I won't be delving deeper into this direction.

Cass Sunstein - How Change Happens (2019) - Genre: Social Change, Policy - Audiobook Available

Pros: Starts off pretty strong in the introduction, but the initial questions get sidelined for most of the book, which he spends talking about nudges.

Cons: My interest really dropped off towards the second half. It's particularly interesting if you want to make successful policy interventions through nudges, but doesn't really answer much about the initial questions outlined in the introduction.

Pros: There's a lot here from an expert on economics and health.

Cons: I find Amartya Sen (e.g. Development as Freedom) who works in the same framework to be far more interesting.

Johan Norberg - Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016) - Genre: Post-Industrial Historical Trends - Audiobook Available

Pros: Solid, similar to Rosling's Factfulness, so a worthy continuation after that.

Cons: Not super deep? I barely took notes, which suggests I didn't learn much new beyond Rosling and Pinker. Read Rosling first, it's probably the better book.

David Livingstone Smith - On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It (2020) - Genre: - Audiobook Available

Pros: Outlines process of regress, from essentialism, to racism, to dehumanization.

Cons: Honestly, I didn't read this mainly for the PhD project, but a side presentation having to do with violence, conflict and dehumanization. I find Marina's book on inhumanity better, but that one is only available in Spanish. Also, there's a lot of analytic philosophizing in this book that I didn't find particularly helpful or illuminating.

Bad books (1/5 ⭐ - Skip)

Michael Shermer - The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People (2015) - Genre: Enlightenment Values - Audiobook Available

Pros: Expands a tiny little bit on Pinker's Better Angels by providing more examples and perhaps being more accessible.

Cons: Basically everything said in this book is said by Pinker in a much better way. Read Pinker instead and feel free to skip this one.

Michele Moody-Adams - Genre: Social Movements, Moral Philosophy - Making Space for Justice (2023) - Audiobook Available

Pros: The book aims to expand on her 1999 article on Moral Progress. It brings some nice examples, particularly from recent episodes of racial injustice.

Cons: Just read her 1999 article instead. Much more succinct and most of the insights are in the original article already.

Pros: Read the introduction. I thought it was really good.

Cons: I don't think the rest of the book was all that great? I didn't get much from the rest. Skip.

Article collection.

Alright, that's it for books. How about articles? Here's a breakdown into three different tiers, again from best to worst.

(Consider this section unfinished, since I don't remember the details of all of these articles. I will rearrange and update this post with my review/description of each article and links as I reread them.)

Worthwhile articles (Read them).

Alright ones (Skim them).

  • Buchanan, A., & Powell, R. (2017). De-moralization as emancipation: Liberty, progress, and the evolution of invalid moral norms. - On how the "demoralization" of certain practices (e.g. interracial marriage) can be an instance of moral progress.
  • Musschenga, Albert W.; Meynen, Gerben (2017-02-01). "Moral Progress: an Introduction". Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 20 (1): 3–15.
  • Branwen, Gwern (2012). "The Narrowing Circle"Gwern.net. - Argues that "Other suggested groups that have left the moral circle or gone farther from the center of the moral circle are gods, prisoners, ancestors, while infants and fetus have had different moral standings in different societies." Worth grappling with and a challenge to defenders of the expanding circle.
  • Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In The evolution of morality (pp. 27–51). Springer International Publishing. 
  • Feinberg, M., Kovacheff, C., Teper, R., & Inbar, Y. (2019). Understanding the process of moralization: How eating meat becomes a moral issue. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(1), 50.
  • Anomaly, J. (2017). Trust, trade, and moral progress: How market exchange promotes trustworthiness. Social Philosophy and Policy, 34(2), 89–107.
  • Arruda, C. T. (2017). The varieties of moral improvement, or why Metaethical constructivism must explain moral Progress. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20(1), 17–38.
  • Evans, J. S. B. (2017). A working definition of moral progress. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20(1), 75–92.
  • Waytz, Adam; Iyer, Ravi; Young, Liane; Haidt, Jonathan; Graham, Jesse (29 September 2019). "Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle"
  • Kasperbauer, T. J. (2017). "Animals and the Expanding Moral Circle". Subhuman: The Moral Psychology of Human Attitudes to Animals. New York
  • Tomasello, M. (2018a). How children come to understand false beliefs: A shared intentionality account. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115, 8491–8498.
  • Tomasello, M. (2018b). The normative turn in early moral development. Special Issue of Human Development, 61, 248–263.
  • Sterelny, K. (2019). Evolutionary foundations for a theory of moral progress? Analyse & Kritik, 41(2), 205–216.
  • Frank, L. E. (2020). What do we have to lose? Offloading through moral technologies: Moral struggle and progress. Science and Engineering Ethics, 26(1), 369–385.
  • Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029. - Maybe read this if you think reading the book The Righteous Mind is too long.
  • Hare, B. (2017). Survival of the friendliest: Homo sapiens evolved via selection for prosociality. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 155–186.
  • Hermann, J. (2017). Possibilities of moral progress in the face of evolution. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20(1), 39–54.
  • Hermann, J. (2019). The dynamics of moral progress. Ratio, 32(4), 300–311.
  • Huemer, M. (2016). A liberal realist answer to debunking skeptics: The empirical case for realism. Philosophical Studies, 173(7), 1983–2010.
  • Hopster, J. (2020). Explaining historical moral convergence: The empirical case against realist intuitionism. Philosophical Studies, 177(5), 1255–1273. - Read this after Huemer for an anti-realist reply.
  • Huemer, M. (2008). Revisionary intuitionism. Social Philosophy and Policy, 25(1), 368–392. - Outlines the case for revising our moral intuitions in the face of reflective equilibrium. 
  • Jamieson, D. (2017). Slavery, carbon, and moral progress. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20(1), 169–183.
  • Macklin, R. (1977). Moral progress. Ethics, 87(4), 370–382.
  • Makkreel, R. A. (1992). Purposiveness in history: Its status after Kant, Hegel, Dilthey, and Habermas. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 18(3–4), 221–234.
  • Kitcher, P. (2017). Social progress. Social Philosophy & Policy, 34(2), 46.
  • Persson, I., & Savulescu, J. (2019). The evolution of moral progress and biomedical moral enhancement. Bioethics, 33(7), 814–819.
  • Rodrik, D., Subramanian, A., & Trebbi, F. (2004). Institutions rule: The primacy of institutions over geography and integration in economic development. Journal of Economic Growth, 9(2), 131–165.
  • Rønnow-Rasmussen, T. (2017). On locating value in making moral Progress. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20(1), 137–152.
  • Sauer, H. (2015). Can’t we all disagree more constructively? Moral foundations, moral reasoning, and political disagreement. Neuroethics, 8(2), 153–169.
  • Scheidel, W. (2018). The great leveler: Violence and the history of inequality from the stone age to the twenty-first century. Princeton University Press.
  • Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the structure and contents of human values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19–45.
  • Summers, J. S. (2017). Rationalizing our way into moral progress. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 19(5), 93–104.
  • Waytz, A., Iyer, R., Young, L., Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2019). Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle. Nature Communications, 10(1), 1–12.
  • Widerquist, K., & McCall, G. (2015). Myths about the state of nature and the reality of stateless societies. Analyse & Kritik, 37(1–2), 233–258.
  • Williams, E. G. (2015). The possibility of an ongoing moral catastrophe. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 18(5), 971–982.
  • Wilson, C. (2010). Moral progress without moral realism. Philosophical Papers, 39(1), 97–116.
  • Boesch, C. (2005). Joint cooperative hunting among wild chimpanzees: Taking natural observations seriously. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 692–693.
  • Eriksen, C. 2019. The dynamics of moral revolutions: prelude to future investigations and interventions. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 22: 779–92.
  • Hermann, J. (2019). The dynamics of moral progress (pp. 1–12). Ratio.
  • Kohlberg, Lawrence (1976): Moral Stages and Moralization: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach. In Thomas LICKONA (ed.): Moral Development and Behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 31–53
  • Klenk, M. 2019. Moral philosophy and the ‘ethical turn’ in anthropology. Zeitschrift fur Ethik und Moralphilosophie 2: 331–53.
  • Lowe, D. 2019. The study of moral revolutions as naturalized moral epistemology. Feminist Philosophy Quarterly 5: 1–15.
  • Roth, A. (2012). Ethical Progress as Problem-Resolving. Journal of Political Philosophy, 20, 384–406

Bad ones (Skip them).

  • Hopster, J. 2021. What are socially disruptive technologies?. Technology in Society 67: 101750. - Focused on trying to find the definition of what a socially disruptive technology is, rather than being illuminating. Even if you want to read it, read only from Section 5 onwards.

Haven't read them yet or don't remember enough to classify them.

  • Kumar, V. and R. Campbell. 2016. Honor and moral revolution. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 19: 147–59
  • New Perspectives on Moral Change, eds. C. Eriksen and N. Hamaleinen. Berghahn. New York: Berghahn.
  • Beatty, J. 1976. Radical change and rational argument. Ethics 87: 66–74.
  • Veenhoven, R., & Vergunst, F. (2014). The Easterlin illusion: Economic growth does go with greater happiness. International Journal of Happiness and Development, 1(4), 311–343.
  • Feldmann, H. (2004). Political implications of cultural evolution. International Journal of Social Economics, 31(11/12), 1089–1108. doi:10.1108/
  • FitzPatrick, W. J. (2019). Moral progress for evolved rational creatures. Analyse & Kritik, 41(2), 217–238.
  • Campbell, R., & Kumar, V. (2012). Moral reasoning on the ground. Ethics, 122(2), 273–312. - I believe many things in here eventually became part of their book A Better Ape (2022).
  • Moody-Adams, M. (2009). Fieldwork in familiar places: Morality, culture, and philosophy. Harvard University Press.
  • Elizabeth Anderson (2014). Social Movements, Experiments in Living, and Moral Progress: Case Studies from Britain’s Abolition of Slavery (Thanks to Victor Kumar for the reminder!)

Books I haven't read yet, and my reasoning for why I want to read them.

Important books or articles I haven't read yet.

  • Allen Buchanan - Our Moral Fate: Evolution and the Escape from Tribalism. (2020) - Probably a good companion and continuation to The Evolution of Moral Progress, written by one of the same authors (the philosopher).
  • Cecilie Eriksen - Moral Change: Dynamics, Structure, and Normativity. (2020) - Seems relevant just by the title alone.
  • Jose Antonio Marina - Biography of Humanity (2018). I've found his Biography of Inhumanity to be insightful, and I expect the same from this one.
  • Jeff Sebo - The Moral Circle (to be published soon, 2024?). I talked to Jeff Sebo at a GPI conference and then read his article on "Moral Circle Explosion", which was solid, this seems like a further development on that.
  • Robert Baker - The Structure of Moral Revolutions (2019). I've read a review of this book and it sounded really good.
  • Elizabeth Anderson - The Imperative of Integration (2010). (Thanks to Victor Kumar for reminding me of this book!)
  • Amy Allen - The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016). Will probably skim it and then decide. The way I heard it promoted is as making Critical Theory go from its Habermas and Axel Honneth phase, which revived aspects from Kant and Hegel, respectively, into its revival of Foucault and other French thinkers.
  • Rahel Jaeggi - Progress and Regression (2024?). Not yet published in English.

Books or articles I haven't read yet. I might read them but I consider "less directly relevant" or "less pressing".

  • Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd - Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (2005). I want to go further back than Henrich on the topic of cultural evolution. They also have their 1985 book which is more technical, so I'll probably read this first.
  • Michael Tomasello - A Natural History of Human Morality. (2017) I've read like half of this and it was good. Might finish it.
  • Graeber and Weingrow - The Dawn of Everything (2022). Seems to perhaps contradict the Pinker narrative on early societies, which supposedly were very varied and had different configurations and "experiments of living"? Unsure. Need to check it out to confirm.
  • Christina Bicchieri - Norms in the Wild and Grammar of Society. I've had her work referenced by several people with regards to mine. 
  • Ara Norenzayan - Big Gods.  - Big collaborator with Joseph Henrich on the role of religion in shaping moral norms.
  • Jared Diamond (1998). Guns, germs, and steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.
  • Jared Diamond (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. - Might consider just listening to the audiobook since his works are quite long.
  • Paul Bloom - Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. (2017)
  • Paul Bloom - Just Babies.
  • Alan Page Fiske - Virtuous Violence. (Thanks Stefan Schubert for the recommendation!)
  • Inglehart, R. (2018). Cultural evolution: People’s motivations are changing, and reshaping the world.
  • Inglehart, R., & Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence. Cambridge University Press.
  • Jamieson, D. (2002). Morality’s progress: Essays on humans, other animals, and the rest of nature.
  • Morris, I. (2015). Foragers, farmers, and fossil fuels: How human values evolve. 
  • Jonathan Glover. Humanity. A Moral History of the 20th Century.
  • Scott, J. C. (2017). Against the grain: A deep history of the earliest states.

Minor readings I might do when I have free time (e.g. over the summer just to corroborate if I'm missing anything important in my own work):

  • Robert Wright - A short history of progress.
  • Robert Nisbet - History of the idea of progress. 
  • Johan Norberg - Open. The story of human progress. 
  • Joseph Heath - Enlightenment 2.0.
  • Deirdre McCloskey - The Bourgeois Virtues. 
  • Simon Johnson and Daron Acemoglu - Power and Progress.
  • Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson - Why Nations Fail.
  • Gregory Clark - A farewell to alms: A brief economic history of the world. 
  • Bradford DeLong - Slouching Towards Utopia. An Economic History of the 20th Century.

If you have any other reading recommendations that you think are extremely relevant or very relevant to my work that I might have missed, please do let me know!

Potentially interesting extensions but probably beyond the scope of my work.

  • Rahel Jaeggi - Critique of Forms of Life. I've read Jaeggi before. She's a philosopher that tries to make Critical Theory and typically Marxist concepts such as Ideology and Alienation accessible to an audience that might be not immersed in that kind of Critical Theory literature. She has a book on Alienation and a paper on Rethinking Ideology which I thought were good. But this might be too off topic right now.
  • Hayek on information signals, etc. I've read Hayek's "Use of Knowledge in Society" and his book on socialism (The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism), which is not really about socialism but about free information signals in society. Interesting ideas but better developed by later authors as cultural evolution. I'm not sure which economists have focused on the flow of information after Hayek, and I'd love to know more about that.
  • Popper on the Open Society, and/or on the evolutionary development of science. I've read some of this in undergrad as well as more recently, particularly being at LSE, the department that housed Popper for his academic life. But I think more recent authors perhaps flesh out the ideas more carefully.
  • Joel Moykr on the Industrial Revolution. One of the key economic historians. Apparently outlines the independent breakthroughs of the telegraph, color photography, telephone... Same technology at different places.
  • David Livingstone Smith (2011). Less than human: Why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others. - I read his other book on dehumanization and didn't get much from it.
  • Frans de Waal - Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996). I've read other works by Frans de Waal, but this one seems the most cited by philosophers.
  • Christopher Boehm - Hierarchy in the Forest (2001). I've read a bit of Boehm. Basically, his core claim is that we went from dominance hierarchies, where an alpha ape dominates the group, to a reverse dominance hierarchy of a group dominates and overtakes the alpha. Could potentially offer important insights on the early development of morality.

EA work on Moral Progress and related topics.

Here are some examples of EAs that have worked on the topic of moral progress that I think are worth reading. The list is far from exhaustive, but I believe useful as initial guidance.

(I'm not a big podcast listener, so if you have more EA-aligned podcasts discussing these topics, please leave a comment.)

Moral Circle Expansion.

Economic Growth and Moral Progress.

  • Economic Growth tag on the EA Forum. If people like Robert Wright (2000) are correct, greater absolute levels of wealth reduces zero-sum games and competition for resources, which might explain some of the improvements in moral behavior.

Progress Studies.

  • Progress Studies tag on the EA Forum. Progress studies has been more about economic and technological growth and I don't think they have said enough about value improvement. However, given the connections between material levels of wealth and moral codes, some stuff in here might be worth checking out. (Collection)
  • Daniel May - Progress book recommendations - More empirical or "Progress Studies" list than mine, focused on the broad topic of progress, rather than normative, moral, or social progress in particular.
  • Jason Crawford - Progress Studies Bibliography - Reading list by the main leading figure of Progress Studies. Again, more tech, econ and history than values, but good reference point for that. I can't say I've read much of it, though.

Social and Intellectual Movements.

Historical Processes.

Cultural Evolution and Value Drift.

  • Cultural Evolution tag on the EA Forum.
  • Will MacAskill - What We Owe The Future, Chapters 3 and 4.
  • Jaime Sevilla - Can We Influence the Value of Our Descendants? - To simplify the story, I believe Will MacAskill commissioned this research for a section of What We Owe The Future, but the results were deemed probably not solid enough to talk about it at further length in the book. Sevilla is skeptical that we can substantially influence the value of our descendants. This puts pressure on the picture of the cultural evolutionists like Henrich above, because there would be less cultural inheritance and more random drift. It also goes against my view and Hanno Sauer's (2023) view, because we think that basically inertia and value replication have been the standard with regards to moral values (at least until the Industrial Revolution, where change accelerated), with very minor but accelerating improvements each generation. Probably deserves further research, but the broad academic debate probably won't be settled soon.
  • Zach Freitas Groff - How Long Do Policy Changes Matter? 
  • Value drift tag on the EA Forum.
  • Michael Aird - Collection of work on value drift that isn't on the EA Forum

Longtermist Institutional Reform.

Conclusion.

Allright, that's all for now. I hope you said "Wow, that's a lot!", because it took me a lot of time to write things down! If you have any thoughts, please do leave a comment, I'll try to reply. 

I'll upload Part II with my preliminary takes and opinions very soon. Give me a couple of weeks to finish it, since it's another long post. (Update: Now available here!)

In some about a year I'll probably do another post with further updates of where I'm at.

Acknowledgements.

I want to thank my supervisors at LSE for comments on my drafts, as well as my peers at LSE Philosophy for insightful discussions. Also thanks to many EAs I've discussed my work with at EA Globals, GPI Workshops at Oxford, and other EA events.

Contact Information.

If you work within this area within EA, moral philosophy, or just wanna chat, please get in touch with me. Feel free to DM me through the Forum. Also follow me on Twitter for fun EA memes and chitchat.

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Interesting work and this type of work is what originally brought me into EA. Just a word of caution and you probably know this already: I think perhaps moral progress in the past (like >50-100 years ago) was associated with colonization etc. So it might be wise to acknowledge other cultures of morality outside of the West. I am quite familiar with cultivating compassion within Tibetan Buddhism and other "moral work" by non-Westerners that comes to mind is the concept of Ubuntu. I think taking into account the historical and geographical diversity of moral projects might make your analysis more powerful as well, as it might show that many cultures in the past have undertaken projects of moral progress but perhaps not succeeded and learning from their mistakes might make for more robust outcomes. I like that you included Amartya Sen as a more contemporary, non-Western reference - maybe there is even more out there to broaden your analysis spatially and temporally. 

Hi Ulrik! I'm definitely aware of this issue, and it's a very ugly side of this debate, which is why some people might have moved away from the topic in the past.

The dangers of using moral progress to justify colonialism and imperialism will be one key point in my next post, and it's also a brief section in the first chapter of my thesis. It's definitely worth cautioning against imposing progress to other cultures. And political intervention is much more complicated than "my culture is more progressed, so we should enforce it upon the rest". It deals with difficult issues of epistemic biases, lack of political legitimacy, and political paternalism. Aside from being a convenient excuse for the powerful to come to other countries and exploit others. It's probably not enough, but at least the explicit warning and section is there.

I try not to adhere or rely on particularly "western" values in my view of progress. But there's controversy as whether values such as moral impartiality and individual human rights are western. Amartya Sen for example wants to claim that they aren't, and he finds examples of such values in nonwestern contexts (in Development as Freedom Chapter 10). But I am not fully convinced either way. It's probably a tricky issue that deserves its own book-length treatment by itself.

If you know any other authors, academics or philosophers that bring in the non-western perspective with regards to values and progress, I'd love to take a look!

Excellent, I am happy you are on top of this. I will have a think and see if I can come up with some. Anthropology might have things to offer. One that comes to mind is a book I think called "The Gift" or something similar - perhaps not directly relevant. And as I said I am more versed in Tibetan Buddhism with a lot of focus on cultivating compassion and of ~empowering oneself to release all beings (not just humans) from suffering for ever - that is a pretty wide moral circle!

What a great resource, thanks for putting it together!

Opinionated lists like this feel significantly more useful than comprehensive but unordered lists of relevant resources, because: (i) for most literatures, you're likely to get most of all the good insights from reading a small standout minority of everything written; and (ii) it's typically often not obvious to an outsider which resources are best in this respect. I hadn't heard of many of the books you rate highly.

Incidentally: consider reformatting the papers to not be headers? It makes the navigation bar feel cluttered to me.

Thanks for the support, Fin! I definitely agree with you, and I hope this way people can get most of the bang for their buck and save their research time. This topic is greatly time-inefficient, just because it's very broad and interdisciplinary, and there was no clear initial indication of what's good and what's not. So I think reading from either the "TL;DR / Recommended Reading Order", or some of the "Five Star" or "Four Star" books, or the "Worthwhile Articles" should be more than enough for the interest of EAs. The rest are more for completeness' sake.

Hopefully I was able to highlight some hidden gems. For example, Hanno Sauer's "Moral Teleology", Victor Kumar's "A Better Ape" and Philip Kitcher "Moral Progress" have flown under people's radar, but they're really good recent contributions. It's a literature that has grown a bit in the past five years.

Sorry for the headers thing. That was never my intention, I just didn't know putting something in Bold made it a header. I've fixed it now.

Nice work!

Re: the unreadability of Parfit's Triple Theory, my overview here might provide some helpful background.

Hey, thanks for this list! I was wondering if you have come across Benjamin Friedman's Moral Consequences of Economic Growth and, if so, what you thought. I thought I might see it on this list.

I hadn't! Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I will take a look in the coming months.

Please do! I'm fascinated by the idea that we can accelerate moral progress by focusing on economic growth.

Same! Seems like a fascinating, although complicated topic. You might enjoy Oded Galor's "The Journey of Humanity", if you haven't read it. :)

I’m curating this post. I love the idea of an openly opinionated literature review, and I found this a really interesting read (as opposed to a normal literature review, which I might bookmark for use in a likely non-existent future time). The author, Rafael Ruiz, was clearly thinking about how to make their research useful and accessible to a Forum audience. This is evident in the descriptive headings, the organisation (most useful content first), and the clear prose. 

If you are an early career researcher thinking about sharing your research with the Forum, this post is a great example of how to go about it. For a very different example of communicating your research in a way that is useful for the community, see this recent post from zdgroff

Executive summary: The post provides an extensive bibliography review and commentary on the literature regarding moral progress, covering key books, articles, and perspectives from effective altruists.

Key points:

  1. Buchanan and Powell's The Evolution of Moral Progress (2018) and Hanno Sauer's Moral Teleology (2023) offer compelling theories, but have limitations regarding mechanisms and scope of moral progress.
  2. Historical declines in violence per Pinker and rises in standards of living per Galor provide empirical backing for progress, albeit with caveats around risks.
  3. Cultural evolutionists like Henrich shed light on how information flows enable moral norms and cooperation, but overemphasize some factors.
  4. Evaluations are given on dozens of other relevant books and articles, categorized by quality and relevance.
  5. An account is provided of writing by effective altruists on progress, including moral circle expansion, economic growth, social movements, and institutional reform.
  6. Guiding questions are laid out regarding defining moral progress, locating it within philosophy, developing a substantive conception of progress, predicting and securing progress, and more.
  7. Justification is given for the author's personal fit and motivation for researching moral progress.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

Looking forward to the sequel!

I'd be particularly interested in any takes on the probability that civilization will be better equipped to deal with the alignment problem in, say, 100 years. My impression is that there's an important and not well-examined balance between:

  1. Decreasing runaway AI risk & systemic risks by slowing down AI
  2. Increasing the time of perils
    • Possibly increasing its intensity by giving malicious actors more time to catch up in destructive capabilities
    • But also possibly increasing the time for reflection on defense before a worse time of perils.
  3. Possibly decreasing the risk of an aligned AI with bad moral values (conditional on this risk being lower in year 2123)
  4. Possibly increasing the risk of astronomic waste (conditional on this risk being higher if AI is significantly slowed down)

I agree with you this is very important, and I'd like to see more work on it. Sadly I don't have much concrete to say on this topic. The following is my opinion as a layman on AI:

I've found Toby Ord's framework here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jb7BoXYTWYI to be useful for thinking about these issues. I guess I'm an advocate for differential progress, like Ord. That is, prioritizing safety advancements relative to technical advancements. Not stopping work on AI capabilities, but right now shifting the current balance from capabilities work to safety work. And then in some years/decades once we have figured out alignment, shift the focus on capabilities again.

My very rough take on things is that as long as we manage to develop advanced LLMs (e.g. GPT5, 6, 7... and Copilots) slowly and carefully before dangerous AGI, we should use those LLMs to help us with technical alignment work. I think technical alignment work is the current bottleneck of the whole situation. There are either not enough people or we're not smart enough to figure it out on our own (but maybe computers could help!).

So, to your points, I think right now (1) Runaway AI Risk is higher than (2) Malicious actors catching up. I don't know by how much, since I don't know how well Chinese labs are doing regarding AI, and if they could come to big breakthroughs on their own. (And I don't know how to compare those points (1) and (2) to (3) and (4).)

Perhaps somebody could do a BOTEC calculation or a rough model with some very rough numbers to see what's a good tradeoff, and put it up for discussion. I'd like to see some work on this.

Sounds reasonable! I think the empirical side to the question "Will society be better equipped to set AI values in 2123?" is more lacking. For this purpose, I think "better equipped" can be nicely operationalized in a very value-uncertain way as "making decisions based on more reflection & evidence and higher-order considerations".

This kind of exploration may include issues like:

  1. Populism. Has it significantly decreased the amount of rationality that goes into gov. decision-making, in favor of following incentives & intuitions? And what will be faster - new manipulative technologies or the rate at which new generations get immune to them?
  2. Demographics. Given that fundamentalists tend to have more children, should we expect there will be more of them in 2123?
  3. Cultural evolution. Is Ian Morris or Christopher Brown more right, i.e. should we expect that as we get richer, we'll be less prone to decide based on what gives us more power, and in turn attain values better calibrated with the most honest interpretation of reality?

Thank you for this post! I will make sure to read the 5/5 books that I haven't read yet, especially excited about Joseph Heinrich's book from 2020, had read The Secret of Our Success before but not that one. 

I actually come from an AI Safety interest when it comes to moral progress. The question is to some extent for me on how we can set up AI systems so that they continuously improve "moral progress" as we don't want to leave our fingerprints on the future

In my opinion, the larger AI Safety dangers come from "big data hell" like the ones described in Yuah Noah Harari's Homo Deus or Paul Christiano's slow take-off scenarios. 

Therefore we want to figure out how to set up AIs in such a way that automatically improves moral progress in the structure of their use. I'm also a believer that AI will most likely in the future go through a similar process to the one described in The Secret of Our Success and that we should prepare appropriate optimisation functions for it. 

So, if you ever feel like we might die from AI, I would love to see some work in that direction! 
(happy to talk more about it if you're up for it.)

Hi Jonas! Henrich's 2020 book is very ambitious, but I thought it was really interesting. It has lots of insights from various disciplines, attempting to explain why Europe became the dominant superpower from the middle ages (starting to take off around the 13th century) to modernity.

Regarding AI, I think it's currently beyond the scope of this project. Although I mention AI at some points regarding the future of progress, I don't develop anything in-depth. So sadly I don't have any new insights regarding AI alignment.

I do think theories of cultural evolution and processes of mutations and selection of ideas could play a key role in predicting and shaping the long-term future, whether it's for humans or AI. So I'm excited for some social scientists or computer modellers to try to take this kind of work in a direction applied to making AI values dynamic and evolving (rather than static). But again, it's currently outside of the scope of my work and area of expertise.

Thanks. This is excellent and it will affect my reading (at least by getting my hands on the Buchanan and Powell book).  

For some of the reviews (e.g. Moral Uncertainty, The Blank Slate) you note that you downgrade them for not closely addressing the "moral progress" topic. Would be good if you noted how you rate them for what they are trying to address.

Hi Scott, glad I could motivate you to get Buchanan and Powell. It's a great book! It might feel a bit long if you're not a philosopher, but it's definitely a standout solid reading with many insights on this topic.

On The Blank Slate and Moral Uncertainty, sure, let me add the following to my reviews in order to add to that: 

Those two books I think are really good with regards to their subject matter. They're both general overviews of their respective fields. Moral Uncertainty is much more technical, but basically the required reading if you're getting into that topic for the first time. So it's 5/5 stars if you're interested in the topic, probably the best starting point.

The Blank Slate is more replaceable with any other introduction to cognitive science. It presents stuff like the view of the mind as a computer, with debates like the Language of Thought, connectionism, and human nature. Pinker is more accessible than "textbooks" like Tim Crane's "The Mechanical Mind", which are more rigorous but technical and harder to read.

Pinker also presents his opinionated side of things, siding with the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides on analyzing humans as biological animals which inherit a lot of instincts. So he wants to argue that we are instinctually hard-wired towards certain behavior, which explains stuff like our capacity for language. 

At some points he rambles against "leftists" in academia which want to deny instinctual human nature. He wants to detach ethics and human rights from any particular conception of human nature.

I take a bit of a middle position between Pinker and the "leftist that wants to deny human nature". I think the evolutionary psychology standpoint is definitely worth taking into consideration, but it might be more straightforward to apply with regards to stuff like language learning, which happens in an individual mind, than to politics and societies, which is less straightforward since there are new phenomena that happens when you're dealing with interactions of large groups of people. (I think more recently Pinker would even agree with that, since in his later books like Better Angels and Enlightenment Now, Pinker is a defender of enlightenment values to overcome our "pre-wired" tribalism.) I'd say it's like a 4/5 stars reading.

I'll also edit the post to reflect this.

On further reflection, you might want to try Who Gets What and Why by Alvin Roth. Audiobook available. Don't recall how much of an explicit stress he places on information flow but he does give a good sense of market organization, and how it promotes or inhibits market functioning. The key importance of information flow is at least implicit in this.

Phishing for Phools by Ackerlof and Shiller can be read as counterargument and is a nice read. Slightly heterodox, not fully developed. Audiobook is available.

Economics for the Common Good By Jean Tirole is not bad as a an overview of various aspects about the debate of the moral value of economics written by one of the major figures in academic economics.

Slouching towards utopia which you mention is not very well written in terms of style, at least to my tastes, but makes several interesting points and provides a solid economic history, well informed by (the left wing of) mainstream economics

Thanks a lot for the further reading recommendations, I will take a look!

Wonderful resource and a great read. A few responses:

  1. Information flow is a key feature of a lot of mainstream economics and I've done some work in this area, so maybe I could point you in the right direction given a more particular question.
  2. Seems from your characterization of his argument that Robert Wright gets the relationship between wealth and zero sum games backwards. Plus sum games trivially increase wealth but higher wealth may promote conspicuous consumption which is a negative sum games in terms of wealth, so this direction seems dubious.
  3. Very curious about the apparent paucity of writing on the relationship of moral progress and personality psychology.

Thanks for your comments!

Regarding (1), I'll get in touch with you if I have a specific question.

(2) I'll rewrite my characterization of Robert Wright's work. I think his main line of argument is that cultural evolutionary processes lead to bigger networks of cooperation, which foster positive sum games, which in turn foster further cooperation in a positive feedback loop. (Though certainly not everything fosters further growth or cooperation, conspicuous consumption being one exception)

(3) Could you say more? Do you mean differences between people's personalities (as in the OCEAN Big 5 Personalities)? Or more like character traits such as obedience to authority? Whatever the case, I definitely haven't seen much of this work. Might be my personal ignorance or lack of search in psychology journals, but I think there's general lack of work. Perhaps something that partly explains it are the controversies that surrounded the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram's Experiment, which set back psychological research on morality quite a bit for several decades. Hopefully some moral psychologists pick up the topic of moral progress.

This is a really interesting resource; inspired me to take Kitcher off the bookshelf. Looking forward to part 2.

(Btw, small typo: word missing in ZFG's thesis title)

I hope you find it Kitcher's book worthwhile read! I always learn something from him.

(Typo fixed!)

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