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Philosophic Considerations: Human Nature and Moral Progress



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 looking at the way our species and psychological traits evolved. Others are skeptical about the very idea of one moral system being better from a 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, 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. We will 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?

Course objectives

Through this course, we strive to achieve that students:

  • have developed 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;

  • have learned how insights from social and life sciences about how moral progress comes about challenges – or not – the idea of moral progress.

Course material

Selected readings from recent publications in this area. These will be made accessible through Brightspace.

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.

This course is worth 4 ECTS, which means the total course load equals 112 hours:

  • Seminars: 7 seminars of 2 hours (=14 hours) (participation is mandatory)

  • Literature reading: 4 hours/ week (=28 hours)

  • Practical work: 4 hours/ week (=28 hours)

  • Assignments & final programme: 42 hours

Asssessment methods

The assessment methods will look as follows:

  • 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.

  • Get a pass on a final paper (1500 words).


During the plenary and subgroup sessions, the English language is used.


The skills predominantly covered in this course are shown in bold:

Researching Collaborating Reflecting
Analysing Oral communication Independent learning
Generating solutions Written communication Resilience
Project-based working Presenting
Digital skills Societal awareness

Other skills covered in this course

  • Constructing valid arguments.


Date Time Location Tentative program
7-2-2024 18:00-20:00 The Hague, Wijnhaven Evolution and Morality: explaining away moral progress?
28-2-2024 18:00-20:00 The Hague, Wijnhaven Morality and Reason: explaining moral progress?
27-3-2024 18:00-20:00 The Hague, Wijnhaven Recognizing Progress: improving moral understanding?
10-4-2024 18:00-20:00 The Hague, Wijnhaven Realizing Progress: social movements
1-5-2024 18:00-20:00 The Hague, Wijnhaven Restricting inclusion: boundaries and special obligations?
22-5-2024 18:00-20:00 The Hague, Wijnhaven Improving Humanity: a flawed species in a changing world?

Admission requirements

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


You can register for the Honours Modules via MyStudyMap until five days before the start of the course. Courses starting in semester 2: registration opens December 12th (13:00 hrs), but students can start planning in MyStudyMap from November 15th (13:00 hrs) onwards.

Contact information

If you have any questions, please contact:
Dr. T. Meijers