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Philosophic Considerations: Human Nature and Moral Progress


Admission requirements

This is an Honours Elective module meant for second and if places available third year students of the Honours College FSW programme, Science & Society track. You have to participate in at least one Honours Elective module in your second year.


One may claim that ‘the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ (ML King). Although there may be setbacks – terrible things do still happen - one may think the world is getting better. Almost all of us agree about things that were controversial at some point in history. Slavery is wrong. Men and women are equal. Racism is wrong. States should be organized democratically. Perhaps in a few decades’ time our relative indifference about the suffering of animals, or our disregard for nature, will be similarly frowned upon. Perhaps you think there is moral progress.

Others think this claim is silly. Our moral views change, but that doesn’t mean they become better. Maybe you think that we can explain the idea of moral progress away, by look at the way our species and psychological treats evolved. Others are skeptical about the very idea of one moral system being better from some kind of universal, impartial, point of view.

Is moral progress possible? Does it exist? And, if so, how do we recognize it? Are there ways in which we can contribute to progress, or speed it up otherwise?

This course will look at these challenging questions. In the first half of the course, we’ll focus on the big theoretical questions. We’ll have discussions about evolution and morality and reason as the source of moral progress. We’ll also ask how we can recognize progress. In the second half of the course, we turn to more practical issues. We’ll talk about how social movements can play a role in realizing progress, and we’ll have a critical look at whether widening the moral circle is always progress. Finally, we ask whether human beings – as they are now – are fit to deal with the challenges we face. Perhaps we should aim to make human beings morally better by enhancing them?


The 'shared transferable skills’ predominantly covered in this course are shown in bold:

(Meta-)cognitive (Researching) Interpersonal (Collaborating) Intrapersonal (Reflecting)
Analysing Oral communication Independent learning
Generating solutions Written communication Resilience
Project-based working Presenting
Digital skills Societal awareness

Course objectives

Students will develop a nuanced understanding of recent debates regarding the ethical and political implications of human nature, the feasibility of moral progress, and the prospects of social change. They will learn how insights from social and life sciences about how moral progress comes about challenges – or not – the idea of moral progress.

Mode of instruction

This course will be taught in the form of seminars. Students read and actively participate in the discussion of an important recent contribution to the scientific and/or philosophical literature on the theme of the course.


  • Grade is based on a final paper (1500 words)

  • In order to pass the course you need to:
    A) attend 5 out of 6 classes and B) get a pass on 5 (out of 6) weekly assignments.


Date Time Location Room
8-2-2023 18:00-20:00 Pieter de la Courtgebouw 1B01
22-2-2023 18:00-20:00 Pieter de la Courtgebouw 1B01
8-3-2023 18:00-20:00 Pieter de la Courtgebouw 1B01
22-3-2022 18:00-20:00 Pieter de la Courtgebouw 1B01
25-4-2023 (Tuesday) 18:00-20:00 Pieter de la Courtgebouw 1A07
10-5-2023 18:00-20:00 Pieter de la Courtgebouw 1B09


Registration via uSis with the catalogue number: 6402HCPHCW.

You can register for the Elective Honours Modules via uSis until five days before the start of the course.

Courses starting in semester 2: registration opens December 13th.

Contact information

If you have any questions, please contact Honours College FSW