Ockham’s Beard at the Sydney AAP Conference!

28 06 2010

Well, I say “Ockham’s Beard”, but the referent is really just me, Tim Dean. Yep, I’ll be giving a paper at the AAP Conference entitled “Evolution and Moral Diversity” on some of my more crackpot ideas about evolution and, well, moral diversity. The abstract ought to give some hints as to the content:

How can we account for the vast diversity of moral attitudes that exist in the world, not only between cultures but between individuals within a single culture? Part of the answer may come from looking at our moral psychology and how it has been influenced by evolution. If we have evolved a moral sense that encourages prosocial and cooperative behaviour, as suggested by Haidt & Joseph (2004) and Haidt & Graham (2007), amongst others, we might actually expect there to be a diversity in the function of this moral sense rather than it being homogenous across all humans. In this paper I argue that the problems of encouraging prosocial behaviour have no single solution that is dominant in all environments, a phenomenon modelled by game theory, particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As such, evolution has primed us with a spectrum of moral inclinations that represent different strategies to solving the problems of cooperation, and these differing inclinations contribute to the observed diversity of moral attitudes.

Basically, I’m arguing that if we have evolved a moral sense that influences the way we make moral judgements, and it evolved to help solve coordination problems that stem from being social animals (because fostering prosocial and cooperative behaviour advanced individual fitness), and these coordination problems don’t have one single dominant solution in every environment, then we’d expect evolution to endow us with a variable and conditional moral faculty that would promote a diversity of ‘solutions’ to the coordination problems. And that’s precisely what we see when we look into the world.

This goes against the idea that if something is based on biology, then it must be universal and fixed – the old ‘genetic determinism’ line. Take height, which is strongly genetic (around 80% of the variation in height is accounted for by genes), but we don’t expect everyone to be the same height. In fact, we expect a variety of heights. Likewise with personality types. Or metabolic rates. Or MHC. Evolution is canny in that it doesn’t put all its eggs in one strategy in many situations. It varies things, and makes them conditional on the environment.

Why is this interesting to philosophers? Not only does it go some way to accounting for observed moral diversity in the world without collapsing into relativism, it also clarifies an important distinction between norms (strategies) and the underlying function that morality plays. We might all agree that morality fosters prosocial behaviour, but we can happily disagree about the best strategies to promote prosocial behaviour.

It also weighs in on the whole moral disagreement issue, particularly as it affects moral realism. Some believe that moral disagreement (usually couched in terms of disagreement over particular norms) would dissolve if suitably situated agents had access to all the relevant facts of the matter. I don’t believe this is true, for a number of reasons, but mainly because there are many ‘moral’ situations where there is no perfect answer – at least in practice.

This is primarily a descriptive thesis – I’m just saying that evolution has confronted these coordination problems and come up with some solutions. I’m not advocating that we abdicate our will to our evolved moral sense absent any critical reflection. But the problems that evolution has faced are largely the same ones we face, i.e. how to get a bunch of unrelated individuals to live and work together without stabbing each other in the back.

If you’re attending the conference, I’ll be giving my paper on Thursday 8th of July at 3pm in Morvern Brown room G4. Please do attend and provide support/critical feedback/biscuits.

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21 responses

28 06 2010
Mark Sloan

Tim, I would be happy to “attend and provide support/critical feedback/biscuits” but am several thousand mile away and have other obligations.

Second best would be if I could read your paper on line. Then I might be able to provide support/critical feedback, but you will have to give me an address if I am to provide any biscuits.

29 06 2010
James Gray

How do you make sure it doesn’t collapse into relativism and how close can it get to being a sort of relativism?

6 07 2010
Nick

Best of wishes in your presentation!

James: Can you explain how this might collapse into relativism?

Tim’s thesis seems, to me, in it’s theoretical form at least, to be quite objective. If by relative, you mean to point out that the moral faculty of social creatures can ‘evolve,’ then, well, that is not the common use of ‘relative’ (relative to what?) An evolving faculty does not erase the (possibly objective) variables of social coordination problems; it merely states that the ability to coordinate has improved from one generation to another, and that such improvement represents a trajectory towards greater ‘fitness.’

I guess I see a distinction between the (evolving, changing, etc.) moral faculty and the variables (in coordination problems) that it considers. Which do you perceive to be a relative matter?

7 07 2010
James Gray

My question was in regards to it collapsing into relativism, but I don’t know for sure if it does. Tim said that each person’s sense of morality can be different based on their genes. In that case morality is “relative” to genes and can be different for different people.

7 07 2010
Mark Sloan

James,

I understand that when Tim is talking about genes, he is talking about those that produce the biological structures responsible for our moral emotions and intuitions and that are common to all mentally normal people.

In turn, our moral intuitions are shaped by adopted cultural standards that are really just imperfect heuristics for, in my view, the purpose of exploiting the benefits of cooperation in groups. Which heuristics (cultural standards) are chosen in a society can be just due to historical accident.

Assume we can agree, as a matter of science, what the purpose of virtually all cultural moral standards ‘is’, (perhaps exploiting the benefits of cooperation in groups). It then becomes relatively easy to sort out which cultural standards are going to be the most rational choices, the choices expected to best meet the needs and preferences of the individuals in the group.

So no, Tim’s thesis, as I understand it, does not collapse into relativism. If anything, it describes a path to a potentially objective morality.

7 07 2010
James Gray

Mark,

I don’t see any room for moral differences in what you just described. If moral differences can be significant, then the cooperation each person wants society to agree to can be quite different. They might still be coerced to agree with the majority in the long run, but that doesn’t make morality objective in my view.

7 07 2010
Mark Sloan

James, I should have been clearer that the common purpose of cultural moral standards ‘is’ becomes objective when it is generally recognized as a part of science.

Sure, people can then disagree about which moral standards they ‘ought’ to choose as a rational choice. But note we are talking about making a rational choice between alternate heuristics for accomplishing a defined purpose. That is far, far from a position of moral relativism. If you want to say moral standards chosen as rational choice by a group (the choice expected to best meet needs and preferences objective) is not objective, that is OK with me.

But I expect cross group examination of which heuristics actually work best over time would eventually lead to general agreement on what secular cultural moral standards ‘ought’ to be from the standpoint of rational choice. That is, these secular cultural moral standards can be chosen on an objective basis.

7 07 2010
Mark Sloan

Whoops, I meant to write: “If you want to say moral standards chosen as a rational choice by a group (the choice expected to best meet needs and preferences) is not objective, that is OK with me.”

7 07 2010
Nick

Thanks for clarifying your point James. I wish I could attend the conference to hear Tim hash these details out.

Tim/Mark: Perhaps this is another discussion for another time, but I am genuinely curious: how does this thesis, at least theoretically, class things like compassion, altruism, and self-denial? Would these be considered interests that develop during the evolutionary progression towards improved prosocial cooperation?

7 07 2010
James Gray

Mark,

A science can study what people think about morality without saying that morality itself is objective. If a group of people force someone into agreeing to certain moral standards, that doesn’t imply that they are “right” and their moral standards are “true.”

“If you want to say moral standards chosen as a rational choice by a group (the choice expected to best meet needs and preferences) is not objective, that is OK with me.”

If morality is based on evolution, then “needs” and “preferences” of some people could be ignored if they disagree about what “needs” and “preferences” are. Again, it isn’t clear how relativistic Tim wants morality to be based on his above claim that moral differences can be genetic.

7 07 2010
Tim Dean

Cripes. I’d better weigh in on this. Just running about like a madman today. I’ll stick something up in response to James when I get a minute. But it’ll say something like the naturalistic fallacy says that my descriptive thesis doesn’t tell us how we ought to make moral judgements, and also that the norms (which are ‘strategies’) are pluralistic, but the end of morality – which is to promote prosocial behaviour and cooperation because that, on aggregate, promotes our own interests – is common to all moral systems, and is not relative. But one could argue that latter point, but I think it’ll be a matter of fact that people will seek that end. Gotta run!

7 07 2010
James Gray

But I expect cross group examination of which heuristics actually work best over time would eventually lead to general agreement on what secular cultural moral standards ‘ought’ to be from the standpoint of rational choice. That is, these secular cultural moral standards can be chosen on an objective basis.

I don’t understand what exactly you want to say about “heuristics.” Tim has suggested that different social contracts might be equally good. (Perhaps both Capitalism and Communism could work.) Do you also want to say that moral disagreement will end up being irrelevant to developing a social contract? That is far from clear to me.

7 07 2010
James Gray

Cripes. I’d better weigh in on this. Just running about like a madman today. I’ll stick something up in response to James when I get a minute. But it’ll say something like the naturalistic fallacy says that my descriptive thesis doesn’t tell us how we ought to make moral judgements, and also that the norms (which are ‘strategies’) are pluralistic, but the end of morality – which is to promote prosocial behaviour and cooperation because that, on aggregate, promotes our own interests – is common to all moral systems, and is not relative. But one could argue that latter point, but I think it’ll be a matter of fact that people will seek that end. Gotta run!

In that case I don’t see how real moral differences exist in the first place. Sure, people have different interests, but I wouldn’t call that a “vast diversity of moral attitudes.”

7 07 2010
Mark Sloan

Nick, I am happy to tell you what I think.

The emotions that motivate compassion, altruism, and self-denial are generated by biological structures. They arguably exist because they increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors. (In what circumstances and with what intensity these emotions are generated is of course highly dependent on adopted cultural standards, but the emotions themselves are biological.)

Let’s assume the purpose of virtually all practiced cultural moral standards actually is something like “To increase the benefits of cooperating in groups”. Then we know that one of these benefits has been, at least in the past, reproductive fitness.

But after the emergence of culture, people were free to select cultural moral standards for any purpose they wished. In the most general terms, they could select them based on expected emotional goods and material goods as well as increased reproductive fitness.

So the particular benefits of cooperation that have been the ‘goal’ of moral behavior may have shifted quite a bit through history. In countries with rule of law and money economies, I can argue the main benefit of moral behavior has become emotional goods, not material goods, and certainly not reproductive fitness.

These shifts in which benefit of cooperation is the most important (from reproductive fitness to material goods and then to emotional goods) are, in my opinion, largely responsible for why morality has been so difficult to understand since the time of the classical Greek philosophers (who enjoyed the rule of law and a money economy).

7 07 2010
Tim Dean

In that case I don’t see how real moral differences exist in the first place. Sure, people have different interests, but I wouldn’t call that a “vast diversity of moral attitudes.”

You’re right, in the sense that my descriptive thesis here doesn’t toe the ‘moral disagreement as counter argument to moral realism’ line. In fact, I suggest that moral norms are better understood as different ‘strategies’ that all seek to promote a common underlying end, which is to promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour.

One could argue (although I wouldn’t) that the end of morality – the cardinal value(s) – are objectively true and form the foundation of moral realism, but that norms are pluralistic.

For my thesis, I’d need to add other arguments to undermine moral realism (which I do do elsewhere, but not as a part of the moral diversity thesis).

Thus the norms are pluralistic, but the end of morality is monist. That said, as I don’t believe in intrinsic value or objective moral truth (of the moral1 variety), I admit there can be disagreement over the end of morality.

But I take it as a matter of fact that people seek to pursue their interests, and that social and cooperative interactions are better than anti-social or non-cooperative interactions in promoting those interests. As such, it’s prudent to build a moral2 system that encourages prosocial behaviour and cooperation. Probably some form of social contract. And in such a system, we’d also expect to see a diversity of strategies/norms.

8 07 2010
Nick

Mark,

Thank you for your input. This topic continues to be interesting to me. I must admit, that moral interests are the result of [an in interest in the benefits of group cooperation] is rather foreign to my thinking; thus, I am quite curious about this thesis and Mr. Dean’s other work–I am glad that I have access to it. It seems that I still have much to learn and think about.

I wish you, Tim, and James the best. Cheers.

8 07 2010
Mark Sloan

Tim, you might enjoy reading Robert Axelrod’s book the Evolution of Cooperation. It is an easy introduction to game theory and the requirement for even purely self interested agents to act unselfishly, at least in the short term, in order to exploit the benefits of cooperation. That is, game theory provides the mathematical basis for the spontaneous emergence of what is commonly called moral behavior.

8 07 2010
Mark Sloan

Whoops, I meant Nick, you might enjoy …..

8 07 2010
Mark Sloan

James,

It is generally accepted that good science is objective in the sense that it is independent of culture. Then a provisionally true hypothesis about morality that defines morality as a part of that hypothesis provides an objective definition of morality.

Human morality certainly got started based on increases in reproductive fitness as part of our evolution. But saying “morality is based on evolution” can be confusing when we address cultural standards like the Golden Rule which have been selected, perhaps largely, because of other reasons than reproductive fitness.

A more useful way to describe morality is that it is based in strategies from game theory for exploiting the benefits of cooperation. Then it is easy to understand that first evolution exploited these strategies by increasing biological reproductive fitness and second people have exploited these same strategies when they invented cultural standards like the Golden Rule.

As part of science, these strategies from game theory rely only on the nature of reality. They are independent of the existence of human beings.

8 07 2010
Mark Sloan

Tim,

I hope you are enjoying the conference.

A minor quibble: I prefer calling moral norms heuristics because the word captures their “rule of thumb”, imperfect nature better than the word ‘strategies’ which to me implies more complexity. Specifically, I refer to kin altruism, direct reciprocity, and indirect reciprocity as strategies and versions of the Golden Rule as heuristics.

I don’t know what you mean by moral1 and moral2 systems.

10 07 2010
tomess

Dear Tim

Hi. You state that “I’m not advocating that we abdicate our will to our evolved moral sense absent any critical reflection.”

I’m curious as to what basis you suggest for “critical reflection”, as if you’re independent of what you’re reflecting upon.

You’ve elsewhere stated that “reason allows us to understand the underlying regularities of the world that transcend contingent individual circumstances by observing patterns and linking them together.”

On what basis do you presume that our ability to observe patterns and link them is itself not a feature of those patterns? How can you claim to observe them and so “understand” them if you can’t discount the possibility that your observation itself is part of them?

Cheers,

t

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