Norms, Reasons, and Moral Progress

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Tam, Nga Yin (Agnes)
Social Norms , Moral Reasoning , Moral Progress
In the literature of moral progress, there is an ongoing debate over the role of moral reasoning in enabling large-scale behavioural change. On the one hand, rationalists argue that more and better moral reasoning is key to overcoming moral ignorance, which is believed to undergird many problematic social practices. More specifically, many of them claim that monological introspection is the best form of moral reasoning. By abstracting oneself from the reality distorted by biasing emotions and arbitrary conventions, one is best able to identify objective moral truths. On the other hand, skeptics argue that moral reasoning often subverts moral progress by rationalizing and reinforcing the biased status quo. Objectivity, on their view, is an illusion. Moral progress, if it exists, is to be pursued by nonrational means. My thesis makes two contributions to the debate. First, I argue that we need not be skeptical of the progressive force of moral reasoning in reforming moral judgements (and the moral norms that embody them). Drawing on the empirical literature on motivated moral reasoning, I argue that while motivational biases are indeed often resistant to individual introspection, they can be reliably and effectively identified and corrected if we adopt a discursive and accountable form of moral reasoning. Second, I argue that by focusing exclusively on moral reasoning, both rationalists and skeptics miss a more important question, which is the role of social reasoning in reforming social judgements (and the social norms that embody them). This neglect is problematic because (a) social judgments, not moral judgments, guide the majority of social practices; and (b) social judgments can rarely be revised by impartial moral reasoning alone as they have a distinctly group-normative logic. To fill the gap in the literature, I develop a new normative model of social reasoning that guides groups to revise their group norms, using group-rational attitudes such as solidarity, trust, and trustworthiness. The upshot is that to advance moral progress, not only do we need impartial moral reasoning, we also need partial social reasoning.
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