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Philosophic Considerations: Human Nature and Moral Progress


Entry requirements

Second year students of the Honours College FSW programme, Science & Society track.


Some people want to radically transform society in the name of social justice. Some people want everything to remain the same in the name of human nature. The first group typically thinks that many, if not most, human traits are learned and/or socially constructed, and can thus be changed. The second group disagrees with this, and holds instead that there certain are hard-wired differences between individuals and groups which make certain changes, however desirable they may seem in principle, too difficult or costly to bring about. Who’s right? In this course, we will address such questions as: Does moral progress exist? If so, what does it consist in? Are there any limits to how much individuals and/or societies can be changed? To what extent are these constraints set by our evolved psychology and the structure of human cognition? We will take a fresh look at these issues, and develop a sophisticated understanding of the scientific data and philosophical concepts required to understand the relationship between human nature and moral progress in light of cutting edge developments in philosophy, psychology and cognitive science.

In the last part of the course we will focus on more applied questions, like the reasons we have to care about future generations, the role that education can and should play in the formation of cosmopolitan identities, and we will question the desirability of moral bio-enhancement.

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 to bring recent findings from social psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science to bear on issues of moral and social relevance.

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.


Class presentation and essay.


Lectures will take place in Leiden.


Date Time Location Room
19-11-2019 19:00-21:00 Pieter de la Court building 5A47
26-11-2019 19:00-21:00 Pieter de la Court building 5A47
3-12-2019 19:00-21:00 Pieter de la Court building 5A47
10-12-2019 19:00-21:00 Pieter de la Court building 5A47
7-1-2020 19:00-21:00 Pieter de la Court building 5A47
14-1-2020 19:00-21:00 Pieter de la Court building 5A47
4-2-2020 19:00-21:00 Pieter de la Court building 5A47


Registration via uSis, activity code 14353.

Contact information

If you have any questions, please contact Nienke van der Heide.