The Structure of Moral Revolutions

From Basic Bioethics

The Structure of Moral Revolutions

Studies of Changes in the Morality of Abortion, Death, and the Bioethics Revolution

By Robert Baker

A theoretical account of moral revolutions, illustrated by historical cases that include the criminalization and decriminalization of abortion and the patient rebellion against medical paternalism.





A theoretical account of moral revolutions, illustrated by historical cases that include the criminalization and decriminalization of abortion and the patient rebellion against medical paternalism.

We live in an age of moral revolutions in which the once morally outrageous has become morally acceptable, and the formerly acceptable is now regarded as reprehensible. Attitudes toward same-sex love, for example, and the proper role of women, have undergone paradigm shifts over the last several decades. In this book, Robert Baker argues that these inversions are the product of moral revolutions that follow a pattern similar to that of the scientific revolutions analyzed by Thomas Kuhn in his influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

After laying out the theoretical terrain, Baker develops his argument with examples of moral reversals from the recent and distant past. He describes the revolution, led by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, that transformed the postmortem dissection of human bodies from punitive desecration to civic virtue; the criminalization of abortion in the nineteenth century and its decriminalization in the twentieth century; and the invention of a new bioethics paradigm in the 1970s and 1980s, supporting a patient-led rebellion against medical paternalism. Finally, Baker reflects on moral relativism, arguing that the acceptance of “absolute” moral truths denies us the diversity of moral perspectives that permit us to alter our morality in response to changing environments.


$45.00 X ISBN: 9780262043083 336 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 1 b&w illus.


  • "Robert Baker brings to this remarkable book his training in the history and philosophy of science in synergy with decades of experience as a philosopher in the clinical setting and a pioneering scholar in the history of medical ethics. Baker's book makes an outstanding addition to the Basic Bioethics series edited by Arthur Caplan for the MIT Press."

    Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

  • "Baker ends by stressing that there is no such thing as a universal moral standard and that judgements about right or wrong are informed by culture and change over time. Whatever their misgivings with aspects of the book, historians will surely endorse this premise and Baker's conclusion that readers should 'become students of history' if they wish to understand moral change."

    Social History of Medicine


  • “A fascinating exploration of moral change through a series of historical case studies. This book makes the case for an original picture of moral revolutions that is both theoretically exciting and worth the serious practical attention of those who want to make our world a better place.”

    Kwame Anthony Appiah

    Professor of Philosophy and Law, NYU

  • “This book contains a treasure trove of historical information, much of it suggesting that influential writers in bioethics would do well to do their homework more diligently, next time they belabor the Hippocratic Oath and Aristotle and Co. in their arguments! Robert Baker, the pre-eminent American historian of medical ethics, does a superb job showing us philosophers the frustrating limits of rational argument in effecting societal change. The Structure of Moral Revolutions deserves a large audience; it certainly makes you reconsider many normative assumptions you likely take as evidently true.”

    Udo Schuklenk

    Queen's University, Joint Editor-in-Chief, Bioethics

  • “This remarkable book is, in itself, a proof of its main hypothesis – it is a revolutionary argument for how moral revolutions arise. This is an especially astonishing feat because the prevalent belief today is that the core of human morality has remained unchanged for centuries, if not forever. Baker shows us how wrong that is, with compelling examples both ancient and contemporary. I dare you to read this book and remain unchanged in your thinking about how human morality continues to evolve.”

    Matthew Wynia

    Professor of Medicine and Director, Center for Bioethics and Humanities, University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus