On Moral Relativity and Conformity

9 01 2012

There are many ways of living socially, and many moral systems that foster social and cooperative behaviour – none perfect, but some better than others in certain environments. That’s the crux of moral ecology, a theory I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis.

At its heart, moral ecology stresses that any norm, or system or norms, will enjoy greater or lesser success in fostering social and cooperative behaviour depending on the environment in which it exists, including the external environmental conditions as well as the internal dynamics of the group.

As such, different groups will settle upon different sets of moral norms which are appropriate to their particular environmental conditions, and that’s a good thing. Tribal cultures in hostile environments with limited resources may have norms that encourage hierarchy, honour, stability and group cohesion at the expense of sacrificing some cooperative opportunities with outsiders. Larger liberal societies might have norms that encourage fairness, tolerance, egalitarianism and cooperation, trading-off stability for greater innovation and cooperation internally and externally.

Were we to impose the one system of moral norms universally – say either the tribal or the mass society system, for example – I would suggest it would be an utter catastrophe, at least it would be in many environments. It would also stifle innovation and flexibility, allowing the system of norms to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Thus moral ecology, in a sense, is a form of relativism. I’m arguing that different cultures (or, more accurately, cultures living in different environments) can and should employ different moral systems. The monism at the core, however, is that all these systems serve the same ultimate end: fostering social and cooperative behaviour within that group.

I also endorse a form of relativism when it comes to moral norms within cultures – at least at the level of discourse. This is because there’s unlikely to be a single set of moral norms that is optimal for any one particular environment, especially when information about the state of that environment is murky (as it inevitably always is to some degree), then debate about which normative system is best is healthy, and enables innovation and lets the moral system adapt.

There can also be some arbitrary variation in norms that serve the same ultimate end. Take food taboos, for instance. A food taboo serves as an example of costly signalling that promotes group cohesion and group identification – an individual sacrifices a potentially valuable source of nutrients in order to signal their membership in a particular group, which enables other group members to identify and better predict their behaviour and whether they are trustworthy.

The key thing with food taboos is: the actual food that is prohibited is arbitrary. One might prohibit pork, another might prohibit pumpkins. The food is irrelevant, as long as it’s known by all the people in the group.

So, where choosing the optimal system of norms is largely a game theory problem – solving various problems such as those raised by the Prisoner’s Dilemma – choosing which system of norms to actually adopt is a separate coordination problem.

This is because, despite disagreement over which norms are optimal, at the end of the day morality can only work if everyone in the group broadly adheres to the one set if moral norms. If we can’t predict the behaviour of others, or trust that they will adhere to the norms we adhere to – such as not cheating in exchanges – then the moral system risks breaking down.

It’s like driving on the left hand side or the right hand side of the road. There is no significant benefit in adopting one over the other, and it’s worth debating which is the best to adhere to, but there’s a big problem if some people choose to drive on one side, and others choose to drive on the other side.

So, while I’m a relativist of sorts about moral systems and their fit to environment, and I’m a relativist of sorts about moral discourse, I’m a monist about the function of morality, and I’m a monist about us needing to adopt and conform to a single set of key moral norms within a particular group.

Thus, the end result is flexibility over which moral systems different societies adopt, but conformity to the one system within any particular society, yet allowing free discourse and criticism of the norms employed.

Of course, this raises the problem of societies interacting as well as how to manage multi-cultural societies – which is probably a bigger discussion best left for another post, where I’ll bang on about the merits of secular liberalism and tolerance, but in placing limits on what norms and practices ought to be tolerated, and which can be left to vary. Sneak peak: norms that serve the same functional end in that society while having arbitrary content, such as food taboos, are no big deal. But norms that are maladapted to that particular environment ought to be revised.

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4 responses

10 01 2012
Mark Sloan

Tim, we substantially agree, so I’ll just focus on what I particularly liked or thought it might be possible to improve. In the big picture of moral philosophy, my disagreements may be quibbles. However, I’ll mention them because I think your implied conclusions could be framed in ways that might increase their cultural utility.

I liked your point: “Were we to impose the one system of moral norms universally – say either the tribal or the mass society system, for example – I would suggest it would be an utter catastrophe”. While already agreeing with this idea, you made me see it in terms of real world problems such as the difficulties in the US’s attempts to impose western values concerning rule of law and equality of rights in Afghanistan and Iraq.

You describe the function of morality as “fostering social and cooperative behaviour within that group”. But it is not the “social and cooperative behaviour within that group” that is critical, it is the synergistic benefits of that social and cooperative behavior that is critical. Those synergistic benefits are the selection forces for social moral standards and our biology that motivates altruism such as empathy, loyalty, and guilt.

Further, I understand the portion of ethics (or morality) you are addressing is what I call social morality (a biological and cultural evolutionary adaptation), or even more specifically what cultural norms ought to be enforced in a group. Talking about your subject just as “morality” may cause confusion because some aspects of morality (in the form of answers to the broad question “How should I live?”) may have nothing directly to do with enforced cultural norms.

I think it is also useful to talk about enforced cultural norms, rather than the more vague “morality”, because the “enforced” part is emphasized and it is more clear concerning what you are discussing. For example, your subject is not self-interested acts (that do not require enforcement) that increase the benefits of “social and cooperative behavior”, but acts whose advocacy must be enforced, specifically altruistic acts. Self-interested acts such as participating in a free enterprise capitalist system may be wonderfully effective means of increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups but is most often not done, as Adam Smith pointed out, for morally admirable reasons.

You might consider defining the function of enforced cultural norms (social morality) as something like “increasing the synergistic benefits of cooperation in groups by altruistic acts”.

Largely concurring with you, I suggest disagreements about what is moral should be resolved by something like “whatever, in a given environment, advocates altruistic acts that are most effective at increasing the synergistic benefits of cooperation in groups”. This does not automatically resolve disagreements. Many people would probably be quick to say “Science has confirmed that my culture’s enforced norms are the best, because ours are obviously the best at ‘increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups’”. But at least this understanding of what the function of morality, and specifically enforced cultural norms, ‘is’ focuses arguments on the critical issues concerning what enforced cultural norms (social morality) ‘ought’ to be.

Finally, I expect we agree that what the evolutionary function of social morality ‘is’ also defines what enforced cultural norms ‘ought’ to be from the standpoint of the group’s instrumental ought regarding the summation of the desires of the group’s members. It might be useful to specify why groups should choose to apply this moral principle in defining their enforced cultural norms rather than their alternatives. But perhaps that is beyond the scope of your thesis.

11 01 2012
stonedead

Mark commented: “You describe the function of morality as ‘fostering social and cooperative behaviour within that group’. But it is not the ‘social and cooperative behaviour within that group’ that is critical, it is the synergistic benefits of that social and cooperative behavior that is critical.”

I’ll push just a little harder here. It’s apparent that social behavior isn’t always moral even when it carries some synergistic benefits. People have a tragic tendency to convene into mass movements and armies that foster social and cooperative behavior for majority in-groups while oppressing minority out-groups. You might respond, well, in that case, they’re behaving in a social (a.k.a. moral) manner toward the in-group and in an anti-social (a.k.a. immoral) manner toward the out-group. But I have the feeling it would be hard to break it down so cleanly upon examination. Major ethical decisions do not have only one consequence for only one group. If one profits by the sweat of someone else’s brow, then the choice to employ the slave largely benefits the master while largely harming the slave. So, if you can acknowledge that there are at least some synergistic benefits in economic systems with unequal power distribution, how would you account for the commonsense moral observation that some of these unequal systems are immoral despite whatever benefits they accord to part of the society?

12 01 2012
Mark Sloan

Stonedead, you said “People have a tragic tendency to convene into mass movements and armies that foster social and cooperative behavior for majority in-groups while oppressing minority out-groups.”

You have got it!

Moral progress over the ages can be mostly described as enlarging who is in your in-group and deserves moral concern, and who is in the out-group who is it moral to exploit. Who morally ought to be included in your in-group has gone from family, to band, to tribe, to race, to nation, and in some cases everyone on earth, all conscious animals, and even all ecosystems.

The vague “benefits of cooperation” can be whatever a cooperative group chooses, and certainly includes armies destroying another group. Such an army is exploiting the function of morality (and our evolved biology that motivates such cooperation even to the point of sacrificing our lives) to accomplish what we might call an ‘immoral’ act, but they certainly would not have.

There are two key points about the function of morality as revealed by science to keep in mind. First, the identified function of morality as matter of science describes only what that morality’s function ‘is’, not what morality ‘ought’ to be. People are free to use this knowledge however they choose, just as they may exploit knowledge of physics or mathematics in pursuit of what they desire.

Second, people can logically reason “If we want to fulfill desire X (perhaps increased well-being), then based on facts and logic Y (about the function of morality in groups), we ought (instrumental ought) to choose enforced cultural norms based on the function of morality in groups as revealed by science”. It would be illogical to say “We ought (imperative ought) to choose enforced cultural norms based on the function of morality in groups as revealed by science, because it is ‘natural’, it is revealed by science, or any other such non-sense”.

Science can only tell us what factually is. It is still up to people to decide what ought to be, such as who ought to be in your in-group, and if you ought to have different levels of commitment to the many groups you belong to, family, friends, community, and so forth. (Hint: you should have radically different levels of commitment.)

28 01 2012
The Ethical Project: The Future of Ethics « Ockham's Beard

[…] pluralism is also bounded by the fact that within each community there needs to be some consistency of norms that are obeyed by the group. There might be a highly pluralistic ethical deliberation […]

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