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John Woolman and Ethical Progress in Kitcher's Pragmatic Naturalism

John Woolman and Ethical Progress in Kitcher's Pragmatic Naturalism

Journal of Psychohistory 44(3): 200-220

The development of John Woolman’s views on slavery plays an important evidentiary role in Philip Kitcher’s recent book, The ethical project (Kitcher 2011). In this work Kitcher takes what he calls a “pragmatic naturalist” approach to ethics and claims that the discovery of ethical truth plays no role in the emergence of ethical progress. To support his view, he argues that Woolman’s contribution was not due to his discovery of an ethical truth about slavery, not previously known, but due to his sensitivity to slavery and his influence on others, which contributed to collective progressive change in moral norms involving slavery. While not disputing Kitcher’s ethical theory, I argue that personal discoveries of a moral psychological nature made by Woolman served both as insights and motivations for his contribution. Thus, even if there are no such things as independent ethical truths that can be discovered by individuals, a fully naturalistic approach to ethical progress requires that we make room not only for group-level progressive evolution of norms, but also for individual discoveries of a moral psychological nature that can sometimes cause an individual to play a significant initiating role in progressive ethical transitions that occur at a group level.

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