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  • Allen Buchanan (a1) and Russell Powell (a2)


Liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment understood that surplus moral constraints, imposed by invalid moral norms, are a serious limitation on liberty. They also recognized that overcoming surplus moral constraints — what we call proper de-moralization — is an important dimension of moral progress. Contemporary philosophical theorists of liberty have largely neglected the threat that surplus moral constraints pose to liberty and the importance of proper de-moralization for human emancipation. This essay examines the phenomena of surplus moral constraints and proper de-moralization, utilizing insights from biological and cultural evolutionary thinking



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1 The fact that abandoning a moral norm would increase liberty does not, of course, show that this change constitutes moral progress. Abandoning valid moral norms might increase liberty, but would not be progressive. The topic of this essay is proper demoralization — abandonment of invalid moral norms. So far as invalid moral norms constrain liberty, they do so without justification, and removing this constraints counts as moral progress, other things being equal, for two reasons: first, because it is a case of remedying a defective understanding about what morality requires; and second, because (at least from a liberal standpoint), unjustifiable constraints on liberty are to be avoided.

2 Morality constrains liberty in two ways. First, one of the most distinctive and important features of morality is that it constrains the satisfaction of desires and imposes limits on the pursuit of interests, especially, but not exclusively self-interest. Second, “ought” judgments, even positive ones as opposed to prohibitions, entail limitations on liberty: If I ought to do X, then I ought not to refrain from doing X and I ought not to do that which prevents me from doing X.

3 These “social desirability” effects are pronounced and impose substantial biases in moral psychology research paradigms that rely on self-report. For a review of this effect and its implications for ethics research, see Randall, Donna and Fernandes, Maria, “The Social Desirability Response Bias in Ethics Research,” Journal of Business Ethics 10, no. 11 (1991): 805817.

4 Focusing only on external constraints not only obscures the fact that invalid moral norms, if internalized, can unnecessarily limit liberty; it also abets a failure to see that false factual beliefs can limit liberty and at great cost. Buchanan, Allen, “Prisoners of Belief,” Oxford Handbook of Freedom, Schmidtz, David, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

5 Buchanan, Allen and Powell, Russell, “Toward a Naturalized Theory of Moral Progress,” Ethics 126, no. 4 (2016).

6 Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell, “What Is Moral Progress?” unpublished paper.

7 Appiah, K. A., The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Occur (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).

8 It might be said that at least some older conceptions of honor were appropriate, given the circumstances of societies in which there was no developed legal system capable of making fine-grained assessments of responsibility and lacking adequate public enforcement. Even if such conceptions of honor were the best that could be expected under those circumstances, it is nevertheless moral progress to have reached a point where a richer understanding of responsibility could be employed.

9 For a more comprehensive catalog of types of moral progress, see “What is Moral Progress?” supra note 5. Powell and I explore at length a different form of moral progress, what Peter Singer (following William Leckey) terms “expanding the circle” of moral concern in “Toward a Naturalized Theory of Moral Progress,” supra note 4.

10 Kuran, Timur, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

11 Diamond, Jared, Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

12 The role of changing social experience in proper-demoralization is complex and warrants further investigation than we can give it in this essay. Liberal societies allow initially local “experiments of living” that can challenge current norms and also provide conditions of freedom of expression and association that can enable norm change to spread.

13 The Pleistocene is the period lasting from approximately 1.7 million to 10,000 years ago, terminating with the beginning of the Neolithic Period, in which agriculture began to be established.

14 For a review of the theoretical and empirical evolutionary link between human social psychology and parasite stress, see Fincher, Corey and Thornhill, Randy, “Parasite-stress promotes in-group assortative sociality: The cases of strong family ties and heightened religiosity,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 35 (2012): 61119.

15 For a more detailed discussion of the ecological conditions under which “thick” moral considerations toward in-group members and “thin” moral considerations toward out-group members were likely to evolve, see Buchanan and Powell, “Toward a Naturalized Theory of Moral Progress,” supra note 4. See also Buchanan and Powell, The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018).

16 Powell, Russell and Clarke, Steven, “Religion as an Evolutionary Byproduct: A Critique of the Standard Model,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 63, no. 3 (2012): 457–86.

17 Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (New York: Viking, 2011).

18 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Penguin, 2002), 219.

19 Van Vugt, Mark, Hogan, Robert, and Kaiser, Robert B., “Leadership, Followership, and Evolution: Some Lessons from the Past,” American Psychologist 63, no. 3 (2008): 182–96.

20 Although early human societies are generally thought to have been rather egalitarian, subordination to the temporary authority of a powerful male (so-called “Big Men”) in times of armed conflict also seems to have been common. See Van Vugt et al., supra note 19.

21 Mark Van Vugt, Dominic Johnson, and Rick O’Gorman, “Evolution and the Social Psychology of Leadership: The Mismatch Hypothesis,” Social Psychology and Leadership, ed. C. Hoyt, D. Forsyth, and A. Goethals (New York: Praeger Perspectives, 2014).

22 R. E. Nisbett and D. Cohen, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).

23 Linquist, Stefan, “Which Evolutionary Model Best Explains the Culture of Honour?” Biology and Philosophy 31, no. 2 (2016): 213–35.

24 For an extended discussion of different types and causes of generative entrenchment, see Wimsatt, W. C., “Entrenchment and Scaffolding: An Architecture for a Theory of Cultural Change” in Caporael, L., Griesemer, J. and Wimsatt, W., eds., Developing Scaffolding in Evolution, Cognition, and Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

25 A key problem for future cultural evolutionary research is to identify what William Wimsatt, supra not 24, calls “escape mechanisms” that allow for deep modifications of entrenched cultural structures whose alteration would otherwise send devastating ripples across a cultural system.

26 Richard Michod, “Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality,” B. Calcott, K. Sterelny (eds), Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 169–97.

27 Chris Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

28 W. H. McNeil, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Anchor, 1998).

29 It is worth noting that while in the past, socioeconomic and political advantages may have been conducive to reproductive fitness, this is no longer true in many societies, where the better-off tend to have lower rates of reproduction.

30 G. A. Haugen and V. Boutros, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

31 Gerry Mackie, “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account,” American Sociological Review 61, no. 6 (1996): 999–1017.

32 Kim Sterelny, “SNAFUS: An Evolutionary Perspective,” Biological Theory 2 (2007): 317–28.

33 On the unique susceptibility of cultural transmission to deleterious variants, and how cultural copying biases partially overcome these susceptibilities, see Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, “Norms and Bounded Rationality,” in Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox, ed. Gerd Gigerenzer and Reinhard Selten (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 281–96.

34 See, e.g., Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127 (2006): 109–166.

35 Intuitions may also be unreliable if they were formed by processes that are distorted by defective social epistemic practices, including unwarranted epistemic deference to people wrongly thought to be moral experts. Allen Buchanan, “Social Moral Epistemology,” Social Philosophy and Policy 19, no. 2 (2002): 126–52.

36 See Jonathan Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review 108 (2001): 814–34.

37 K. Monkman, R. Miles, and P. Easton, “The Transformatory Potential of a Village Empowerment Program: The Tostan Replication in Mali,” Women’s Studies International Forum 30 (2007): 451–64.

38 Allen Buchanan, “Institutions, Beliefs and Ethics: Eugenics as a Case Study” Journal of Political Philosophy 15, no.1 (2007): 22–45.

39 Allen Buchanan, Better Than Human (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Russell Powell and Allen Buchanan, “Breaking Evolution’s Chains: The Prospect of Deliberate Genetic Modification in Humans,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 36, no. 1 (2011): 6–27.

40 Richard Lewontin, “Adaptation,” Scientific American 239 (1978): 156–69.

41 See Robert Brandon, “Evolutionary Modules: Conceptual Analyses and Empirical Hypotheses,” In Modularity: Understanding the Development and Evolution of Natural Complex Systems, ed. Werner Callebaut, Diego Rasskin-Gutman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2005).

42 Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, “Punishment Allows the Evolution of Cooperation (Or Anything Else) in Sizable Groups,” Ethology and Sociobiology 13 (1992): 171–95.

43 Of course enforcement only works if it is employed. It might be the case that a norm N1 could be abandoned without bad consequences, including the undermining of a valid norm N2, but only if another norm N3 were enforced. Suppose, however, that the fact that the enforcement of N3 is necessary to prevent the abandonment of N1 from causing damage to N2 is not known and a consequence N3 is not enforced. This possibility lends support to a moderately conservative thesis with which the author of this paper agrees, namely, that anyone proposing or welcoming the abandonment of a norm ought to take seriously the risk of unintended bad consequences of doing so. It does not support the assumption of extremely dense interconnections among norms suggested by the seamless web metaphor.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
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