Where you can find contemporary moral philosophers talking about the content of morality (instead of their preferred pastime of quibbling over metaethics), you’ll often find them talking about issues concerning harm and fairness. But is this all there is to morality? What of moral prohibitions concerning food, or cleansing rituals, or burial practices? Can you just translate such norms into norms about harm and fairness? Or is the domain of morality larger than many philosophers might readily suggest?
This was one of the questions broached by ANU’s Ben Fraser in a seminar at Sydney University yesterday. Fraser’s paper was about the limits of the moral domain, specifically defending Richard Joyce’s account of morality from criticisms mounted by Stephen Stich. I won’t cover everything said by Fraser (you can read his entire paper here), but I am particularly interested in what it is that we’re really talking about when we’re talking about morality.
And I tend to believe that defining morality in terms of harm/fairness exclusively is a bit narrow – but understandable. Even so, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to issues of harm/fairness if we want to understand the full scope of morality and moral phenomena.
For Joyce, harm and fairness are central to what it means for something to be ‘moral’. But not everyone agrees. Famously, Jon Haidt has his Moral Foundations Theory where harm (and care) and fairness (and reciprocity) only form two of the five (maybe six+) pillars of morality, including in-group/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity.
Yet most Western moral philosophy almost exclusively deals with issues of harm and fairness, and has done so for centuries. So are these other so-called foundations mistaken? Is morality really about harm and fairness and the other foundations are either somehow non-moral, or can be translated into norms of harm and fairness?
I don’t think they can – at least, not without some serious philosophical gymnastics. Ultimately, I also think any attempt to find an essentialist definition of morality – what morality is with a hard line separating it from what it’s not – is bound to be contentious, and risks either excluding too many things, or becoming detached from the messy world of our moral beliefs and behaviours. I prefer to take a functional definition of morality – not what it is, but what it’s for. In that case, it’s a device for encouraging prosocial behaviour and tempering self-interested behaviour that might hamper the interests of others.
Many of the problems morality is there to solve concern harm and fairness: harm because harming another often directly impacts their interests; and fairness because reciprocal exchanges are ripe for defection and free-riding, both of which impact the interests of individuals, and disrupt further cooperative interaction.
But many of the problems of morality – the problems that moral norms emerge to solve – are not directly concerning harm and fairness. Fostering group cohesion is one. Regulating sexual behaviour so as not to destabilise the population is another. Encouraging conformity to the will of a leader or group is another. Many of the norms within the three other Moral Foundations serve these ends.
The thing is, while these foundations may have been more important in tribal times, they’re less relevant in today’s mass society. Instead, harm and fairness come to the fore. Why?
Because in small tribal groups it was easier to keep track of reputations amongst the group – particularly if the size of the group was below Dunbar’s number. However, once society expanded, and we started interacting with more strangers, our evolved mechanisms for reputation management were insufficient to the task. At this point top-down norms and laws became more important in regulating social interaction and preventing harm.
We know that in one-off Prisoner’s Dilemma games the best payoff is gained by defecting. Indirect reciprocity can mitigate this effect to some degree and increase levels of mutual cooperation: if A defects on B, but C sees this and tells D, then A will have less of a chance to repeat their defection should they engage in a one-off Prisoner’s Dilemma with D in the future. But even indirect reciprocity has its limits, particularly when you have many thousands, or millions, of potential individuals with whom you can engage in social exchange.
The same applies for harm. Reputation management in small tribal cultures might allow people to be aware of others who might be likely to cause them harm, but it’s harder to keep track of this when the society reaches a certain threshold number.
As such, I’d suggest that once societies got to a certain size, the problems they faced changed, leaning towards issues of harm and fairness. Particularly in the modern world, where hygiene is not such an issue, and the mass state means allegiance to leaders is less significant in determining your survival, these moral foundations have waned.
Yet the problems of harm and fairness in a massive society are tricky – and demand a lot of thought and attention. Hence, moral, political and legal philosophers spend most of their time focused on these issues, virtually ignoring the others.
However, this doesn’t mean morality is only about harm and fairness. Particularly if we want to understand not just the trait we have for making moral judgements, but the psychology that leads to such judgements, then we need to acknowledge that the other moral foundations are there – deep within our psyche, and as Jon Haidt reminds us, they still influence our behaviour and judgements, even if they’re not as relevant in today’s world.
This represents a classic disconnect of philosophers from the actual concerns of the people they’re trying to understand. While moral philosophers might dismiss purity/sanctity, in-group/loyalty and authority/respect as being trivially moral, if moral at all, these foundations are hugely influential to a lot of people.
That’s why I believe a functional definition of morality is more helpful – as well as an emphasis on moral psychology. Certainly, it might turn out that some of our moral psychology is maladaptive or irrelevant to the moral problems we have to solve today – much like our sweet tooth is maladaptive given the problems of finding nutrition in today’s world – but we can’t ignore these aspects of morality, or our moral psychology, if we want to give a thorough account of how we got to where we are, or where we go from here.