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.