The evolution of moral progress: A biocultural theory

Allen Buchanan, Russell Powell

Research output: Book/ReportBook

99 Scopus citations


The idea of moral progress played a central role in liberal political thought from the Enlightenment through the nineteenth century but is rarely encountered in moral and political philosophical discourse today. One reason for this is that traditional liberal theorists of moral progress, like their conservative detractors, tended to rely on underevidenced assumptions about human psychology and society. For the first time in history, we are developing robust scientific knowledge about human nature, especially through empirical psychological theories of morality and culture that are informed by evolutionary theory. In addition, the social sciences now provide better information about which social arrangements are feasible and sustainable and about how social norms arise, change, and come to shape moral thought and behavior. Accordingly, it is time to revisit the question of moral progress. On the surface, evolutionary accounts of morality paint a pessimistic picture, suggesting that certain types of moral progress are unrealistic or inappropriate for beings like us. In brief, humans are said to be “hard-wired” for rather limited moral capacities. However, such a view overlooks the great plasticity of human morality as evidenced by our history of social and political moral achievements. To account for these changes while giving evolved moral psychology its due, we develop a dynamic, biocultural theory of moral progress that highlights the interaction between adaptive components of moral psychology and the cultural construction of moral norms and beliefs; and we explore how this interaction can advance, impede, and reverse moral progress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages424
ISBN (Electronic)9780190868413
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Biocultural theory
  • Evolution
  • Human rights
  • Inclusivist morality
  • Moral progress
  • Tribalistic moral response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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