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Moral Revolution, Moral Reform and Moral Drift

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Once upon a time, people believed that it was immoral to anatomise dead bodies, for women to pee in public, for a gentleman not to defend his honour through duelling, and for homosexuals to actively express their sexualities. Over time, public attitudes towards each of these practices has changed. Although there are some lingering moral conservatives, the majority of people in Western societies seem willing to at least tolerate these practices. To the outsider, it looks like we have undergone a series of moral revolutions.Each of these examples is taken from Robert Baker’s book The Structure of Moral Revolutions. In the book, Baker presents a fascinating and provocative theory about how moral systems change over time and then applies it to several historical case studies of moral revolution. The historical details of the revolutions is the main focus of the book and for people who are not yet convinced that the past is a foreign country (and that they do things differently there), I highly recommend reading it. But since I’m more of a theoretician than a historian, I want to focus my attention in this post on the main features of Baker’s theory.Baker’s main theoretical innovation is to apply Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory about scientific revolutions to moral revolutions. Others have attempted this in the past, but have reached the conclusion that there are too many differences between scientific theories and moral theories for the analogy to bear fruit. Baker differs in thinking that the analogy is quite illuminating. Furthermore, in the process of applying Kuhn’s theory, he draws distinctions between moral revolutions and moral reforms, as well as the related phenomenon of moral drift (or, as I prefer, moral evolution).In what follows, I want to critically analyse Baker’s theory, paying particular attention to the conceptual distinctions he draws between moral revolution, reform and drift. Are these useful distinctions? Can we make sense of them? I have my doubts.1.. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

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