The Incoherence of Moral Progress

Liberal secular progressives (including humanists, atheists, reformists, etc.) think there is nothing wrong with morality changing over time and view it as a natural, inevitable process that we should all embrace. Unfortunately for them, they are deeply confused about the very nature of morality.
These individuals have no problem with religious morality being discarded over time because they do not view religious norms as morally compelling in the first place. They say things like, “Well, in the past, due to religious sentiment, sex outside of marriage, for example, was considered wrong, but times have changed and we don’t find it so bad anymore because we have progressed.”
It is very easy to show how muddled this thinking is. Simply consider a value that these people do find morally compelling, e.g., racial equality. Ask them, would they be OK with white supremacy being considered morally acceptable one day? Would it make sense to say that morality could evolve such that, one day, white supremacy is the ethical norm that all are expected to aspire to? Why not? What if there really isn’t anything wrong with white supremacy but we just don’t realize it yet and only future people will be able to realize it, similar to how at one point, fornication was considered wrong, but future people discovered that it’s not so bad? What’s the difference? Why couldn’t morality evolve in that way?
Now the response to this might be: “Morality does not evolve haphazardly. It evolves in a specific direction. Our morality becomes increasingly accurate as it sheds superstitions and identifies harms. The only truly immoral act is to harm another person and this is called the “Harm Principle.””
Those indoctrinated by liberal secularism tend to have this view: The only true moral principle is the Harm Principle. Using this logic, they claim (despite plenty of countervailing evidence) that we have discovered that fornication doesn’t really harm people, so it should not be considered immoral. Furthermore, we have discovered that white supremacy is harmful, therefore it should be considered immoral.
But let’s step back for a moment. First of all, if the Harm Principle is the keystone of all morality as liberal secularists claim, then would they concede that it could also evolve? If morality evolves and progresses, then could we one day discover that it is morally permissible to harm people and that the Harm Principle is an obsolete fragment of the past? If liberal secular progressives maintain that this is not possible and the Harm Principle will always remain normatively compelling, then they are not really progressive when it comes to morality. They believe that there are moral absolutes. So how could they fault devout Muslims for also believing in moral absolutes that are invariant with time?
Now, refuting the Harm Principle is easy enough to do (simply question what truly constitutes harm and who gets to decide that and, additionally, point out the harm itself is a value-laden concept that depends on your broader moral and ontological commitments, etc.). But I want to focus on the idea of evolving morality. Those who are dedicated to the Harm Principle as a moral absolute explain changing moral attitudes through time as a function of discovering what is or is not truly harmful. But what is this discovery process?
Epistemologically speaking, is discovering harms akin to discovering new planets or new chemicals? Is it an empirical thing? Where can you see harm? And, more importantly, how does our ability to see it progress as a function of time? We can understand how discovering planets in the universe has become easier with improved telescope technology. But what is allowing us to discover new harms over time?
Clearly, the liberal secular progressive is not going to have a non-ridiculous, non-grasping-at-straws answer to this, so he will resort to this line: “Harms were always known but powerful, evil, self-serving people prevented moral sentiments from changing in order to address those harms.”
So couple of notes on this. First, where is the proof that certain harms were always known? If we survey world history, much of what is considered seriously “harmful” by present standards was unheard of historically. Homophobia is one example. Transphobia is another. Cultural appropriation is another. Oppression through pronoun selection is another. In fact, just attend a liberal arts class, preferably in the Gender Studies department at your nearest university, and virtually everything that is taught as oppression, disenfranchisement, sexism, etc., was historically unheard of. The very concepts upon which these “wrongs” are based were not coined prior to one or two generations ago. So how plausible is this view that many of the serious “harms” recognized by liberal secular progressives today were known historically?
Secondly, again this response undermines the whole idea of moral progress. If the Harm Principle is an un-evolving absolute and what is or is not harmful is an un-evolving absolute and people’s knowledge of what is or is not harmful is an un-evolving absolute, then where exactly is all the moral progress we keep hearing so much about? Our interlocutor could say that the progress happens when the bad guys get beat and true justice triumphs. But that is a very weak idea of moral progress. Everyone believes in this kind of moral progress! The fight between good and evil is perpetual and sometimes, the good guys win. Other times they lose. Even non-liberal, non-secular theists believe this! This is hardly the notion of continuous moral progress over the course of human history that liberal secularists like to appeal to.
Ultimately, when this idea of moral progress is critically examined, it does not withstand the most minimal amount of scrutiny. The notion suffers from serious epistemological problems and this is partly due to the conceptual deficiencies within the Harm Principle itself. When liberal secular progressives invoke moral progress, Muslims who maintain the universal, unchanging applicability of Islamic moral principles from the time of revelation to present, should push back. Muslims should point out these problems and demand that their ideological opponents address the gaping holes in their thought.
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