A commenter in my last post gave a very nice summary of the current state of thinking about moral progress among matrialists. Obviously, by definition, materialists cannot point to a transcendent moral code by which to measure moral progress. Indeed, it is difficult for them to account for moral progress at all because if materialism is correct, the “is” in a society defines the “ought.” The commenter took a stab at it nevertheless and came up with this:
In terms of progress: I would say that progress is measured by the increase or decrease of the sphere of human recognition. We today recognize the humanity of African-Americans — a recognition that was denied to their ancestors. It is the contrast between the present and the past, not between the present and an imagined future, that indicates whether or not progress has occurred. Although such recognition still has some ways to go, as measures go, it’s not a bad one.
In response I would like to pose two questions:
1. On what basis do you say that the recognition of the humanity of African-Americans is “progress” unless you have held up the previous nonrecognition and the present recognition to a code and deterermined the former was bad (i.e., did not meet the code) and the latter is good (i.e., does meet the code)? In other words, when you say we have “progressed” it is just another way of saying that the previous state of affairs was bad and the present state of affairs is good. But how can you know this unless there is a code that transcends time and place by which both states of affairs can be measured. Certainly to say that things were previously one way and now they are another is not the same as saying there has been progress. Change is not the same as progress.
2. Increasingly in our society pornography is viewed as an affirmatively good thing. Perhaps that is even the majority view today, so let us assume for the sake of argument that the majority of people in America think pornography is a good thing. Does the fact that the majority of people believe pornography is a good thing in fact make the exploitation and objectification of women for the sexual gratification of men good? Would you say that there has been moral progress because now our society recognizes that the exploitation and objectification of women for the sexual gratification of men is good wheras before we believed that was bad?