Am I Really a Moral Relativist?

9 08 2012

Relativism is one of those terms more often used in the pejorative than in any serious philosophical sense. It’s like a cautionary sign at the edge of a cliff pronouncing “Caution! Precipice ahead!” Any argument in ethics that steers towards relativism – or even any argument that steers away from objectivity and absoluteness – sets off the usual slew of anti-relativism klaxons.

Yet as I delve deeper into writing my thesis, I can already hear the klaxons blaring.

Now, those who have read my previous posts on moral ecology might be surprised to hear that I’m beginning to see it as a form of relativism. After all, I suggest that the problems that morality is trying to solve have no single solution, and often it requires multiple approaches working in concert (or in tension) to get the best outcomes.

That sounds relativist. And while I’m becoming more aware of that link, I hasten to highlight the differences between any Moral Ecology Brand Relativism from the more No-Name Brands that gather dust on the back shelf in the moral supermarket.

Read the rest of this entry »





Which Comes First: The Moral, Or The Ecology?

30 07 2012

There are chicken and egg problems. And there are tail and dog problems. The thing is, I’m not sure which of these problems I’m facing at the moment in regards to defining moral ecology.

I recently had a very fruitful, if highly critical, experience at the Philosophy of Biology at Dolphin Beach workshop. Amidst the splendour of the New South Wales south coast, and between midnight bonfires on the beach, I gave a paper on evolution and moral ecology.

The thesis was this:

The highly variegated hominin social environment of the last few million years shaped our psychology to produce a polymorphism of psychological traits that promote a range of behavioural strategies when it comes to social living.

For example, the inherent difficulties in identifying trustworthy partners for potentially risky cooperative ventures has made some people naturally more predisposed towards being trusting and others towards being suspicious.

Another example might be that some people are predisposed to be quick to anger, particularly in the face of perceived disloyalty or defection in cooperative ventures, and others are predisposed towards being more forgiving.

These predispositions promote behaviours that follow fairly predictable patterns – more trusting people engage in more cooperative ventures but expose themselves to greater risk of defection; more forgiving people maintain more social bonds by punishing less but make norm enforcement more difficult.

Read the rest of this entry »





Moral Ecology Defined (At Last)

6 05 2012

I recently found myself confused about the meaning of the term ‘moral ecology.’ This proved to be an unsettling experience, namely because I’m the one who coined the term (with a little help from John S. Wilkins).

Given that moral ecology features centrally in my thesis, it’s probably important that I come to grips with what it means. And I think I have.

My confusion was over precisely what the term referred to. Was it describing the dynamics of the moral diversity we see in the world today? Was it explaining why the Left-Right political spectrum unfolds the way it does? Was it in reference to the diversity we see in moral sentiments? Or the diversity in psychological types?

I wanted the term to carry a heavy load and handle all these things. But it just couldn’t. So I’ve narrowed it down in an attempt to give it a more transparent and robust meaning, and linked it to these other phenomena without stuffing them all under the same term.

Here’s how it goes:

Moral ecology describes the phenomenon whereby it takes a pluralism of behavioural strategies to promote high levels of cooperation within groups, and the complex dynamics of the interactions between these strategies over time.

It refers to the fact that each behavioural strategy – which is often manifest in the form of a moral norm – enjoys differential levels of success in terms of promoting cooperation depending on the environment in which it exists, i.e. the other strategies in play around it.

That’s moral ecology. It’s an abstraction notion demonstrated using the tools of game theory.

Moral ecology then forms the backdrop for the evolutionary pressures that shaped human social and moral psychology, which can help explain the evolution of the highly polymorphic and plastic minds we have today.

Moral ecology also helps to explain the existence of psychological diversity, basically because it shows that there was no one psychological type that evolution could have gravitated towards that would prove successful in every social environment.

And, finally, moral ecology can help explain the existence of moral diversity in the world. Because there is this psychological diversity, we see a corresponding diversity of moral attitudes in the world, and this diversity exhibits the complex dynamics described by moral ecology.

So, in sum, moral ecology is the abstract notion that it takes many behavioural strategies to promote high stable levels of cooperation, which helps explain evolved psychological diversity, which helps explain moral diversity.

Unless there are any gaping holes in this definition, then that’s what I’m going to run with in my thesis, appropriately entitled Evolution and Moral Ecology.





Religion for Atheists Review

19 04 2012

ABC Religion and Ethics has posted a review I penned of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists.

Despite the negative press de Botton has received from some quarters of the New Atheist movement, his book is a worthwhile contribution to moving the discourse about god, atheism and religion forward.

In the wake of the atheist convention here in Australia, there’s renewed discussion about religion, but sadly, most of it is the same old to-and-fro that we’ve seen for decades. This kind of debating is mostly fruitless and, for the most part, a tremendous waste of time and energy.

What we need right now is for some of the very smart people behind the current atheism push to shift emphasis towards building secular culture, whether that be underpinned by Humanism or another system of values. And in creating secular culture, there’s a lot we can learn from religion.

de Botton’s particular approach and his specific prescriptive suggestions might not be the best ones, but at least he’s engaging with positive atheism rather than wallowing in negative atheism. I’d like to see more atheist thinkers to do the same.





Evolution and Moral Ecology Seminar at UNSW

17 04 2012

Picture this: a philosopher giving a seminar on evolution and moral ecology to a bunch of evolutionary biologists and ecologists. It’s bonkers. But I’m going to give it a shot. I mean, what could go wrong?

Actually, I’m hoping the audience will teach me a thing or two. I’m going to use the opportunity to hurl at them the most ribald version of my moral ecology thesis and see if the analogy sticks.

And I’m going to flop out the full length of my evolutionary story for how our highly polymorphic psychology came to be as it is and see if anyone chops it off.

I’m not sure on the attendance rules, but it’s at the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales at 3pm in the Biomed C theatre on Friday 27th April. Do come!

Here’s the abstract:

In this talk I introduce the notion of ‘moral ecology.’ This is the thesis that there is no one way to promote optimal levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in a population. Instead, certain behavioural strategies will be more or less successful depending on the environment in which they’re situated. The environment includes both the physical environment, such as resources and climate, and the social environment, which includes the behavioural strategies employed by other members of the group. What emerges is a pluralism of strategies that are able to sustain high levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in their particular environment, forming a meta-stable equilibrium. I suggest that human social and moral psychology evolved in light of this phenomenon and, as such, we evolved a polymorphism of psychological types that promote a pluralism of behavioural strategies while retaining sufficient plasticity to adapt to changing environments. This polymorphism is maintained primarily through negative frequency-dependent selection. I argue that moral ecology can help explain the existence of human psychological diversity, and the existence of moral diversity in the world.

 





Linking Psychology, Politics and Climate Scepticism

3 04 2012

Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus. So says Chris Mooney in his new book, The Republican Brain.

I tend to agree. I’ve written as much on this blog back in 2010, and on the ABC’s Drum website again in 2011.

The thesis is that liberals and conservatives tend towards very different psychological make-ups. Political psychology studies have shown that liberals and conservatives are measurably different along a number of different axes.

For example, liberals tend to have higher scores than conservatives in Openness in personality tests. This means liberals tend to be more curious, inquisitive and exploratory when it comes to information and opinions. Conversely, conservatives tend to be less experimental, more rigid in their thinking and more dogmatic.

Liberals also tend to exhibit greater integrative complexity – which is a metric that measures the tendency to incorporate many different pieces of information into forming an attitude or making a judgement. It’s kinda ‘shades of grey’ thinking. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend towards more black and white thinking.

None of these things are rock solid. There’s no determinism at the root of this. But there are clear leanings amongst those who self-identify or vote one way or the other.

Do these psychological differences contribute to the differences of opinion among liberals and conservatives? Could they help explain why a majority of conservatives reject anthropogenic climate change, for example?

Read the rest of this entry »





Evolution and Moral Ecology Abstract

27 03 2012

There’s a conference coming up later this year in Sicily on the evolution of morality, appropriately called: The Evolution of Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience. Looks like a cracker. Speakers include Frans de Waal, Phillip Kitcher, Patricia Churchland, Richard Joyce, Owen Flanagan and Simon Blackburn, among others.

I plan to go. And I plan to give a paper – although they’re only guaranteeing spots for posters, which is odd. There are some short 15 min(!) talks on offer, so I’ll also try to score one of them, if I can, and cut loose with my riff on evolution and moral ecology.

Before I submit the abstract, I thought I’d post it here for comments and criticism. I’ve never done a poster before (not including my year 4 project on scorpions, which was pretty cool, come to think of it). So not sure how much can be crammed in. Also I don’t think I can order a coffee, let alone talk about evolution and morality, in less than 15 mins, so a talk might be tricky. On the other hand, I can talk fast if need be.

Happy to hear feedback on the abstract, on things like whether the first paragraph lending context is necessary, or the last paragraph offering implications, or whether it generally makes sense etc:

Many philosophers have regarded moral diversity – and its concomitant moral disagreement – as an anomaly to be explained away en route to detailing a single correct system of moral norms. In this paper I take an alternate view, looking at moral diversity as a phenomenon worthy of a more detailed explanation, and central to understanding the nature of our evolved moral psychology.

I argue that moral diversity and moral disagreement are, at least in part, a product of evolved psychological variation. I suggest this is because the adaptive social environment faced by our distant ancestors was highly heterogeneous, both in terms of physical environment, such as local resource availability, and social environment, including the behavioural strategies employed by others within the group.

As a result, there was no one psychological type that reliably produced adaptive strategies in these complex and heterogeneous environments, a phenomenon that can be modelled using game theory. Thus humans evolved a stable polymorphism of psychological types, with some proving more adaptive in certain environments and less adaptive in others, but no one type reaching fixation in any population. This is a phenomenon I call ‘moral ecology.’

The upshot of this notion is that moral diversity may not always have been such a bad thing. It suggests that instead of moral diversity being indicative of some error in thinking on behalf of moral agents, in fact the diversity of approaches to social living enabled our ancestors to adapt to a wide variety of environments, both physical and social. It also suggests that philosophers might place greater emphasis on the diverse dynamics of social living and whether it’s even possible to have one system of norms that promotes behaviour that is beneficial to its adherents in every social environment.

Criticise away!





In Defence of Alain de Botton

18 03 2012

My oh my, atheists can be a sensitive bunch. The furore that has erupted over the opening lines of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists, has put not a few noses out of joint amongst the more arm-waving ranks of non-believers. But many of them have just served to reinforce de Botton’s point, which starts like this:

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.

This line inspired some bile-laden posts from a cadre of vocal atheist bloggers, seemingly intent to denigrate de Botton rather than engage with his argument. PZ Myers retorted with a “fuck you very much”, Martin Wagner related de Botton to a Nazi accommodationist, JT Eberhard dismissed most of de Botton’s CNN article as “bullshit”. Others, like Dan Fincke, have made more of an effort to at least understand what de Botton is saying, before getting all defensive about their approach in the face of criticism from de Botton directed towards “fanatical atheists”.

It’s pathetic.

If the so-called ‘new atheists’ want to know why so many people are dismissing them as “fanatical,” one need only peruse these posts. They’re aggressive, mocking, self-righteous and many represent an almost wilful misinterpretation of de Botton in order to thump another table in the name of anti-religion, like that’s the only argument in town, and all others are beneath contempt.

They’re effectively saying to the world of thinkers on religion: “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

Read the rest of this entry »





Moral Disagreement

23 02 2012

If there’s one uncontested fact in ethics, it’s that just about everybody disagrees with just about everybody else on at least one moral issue, probably many more. That’s moral disagreement for you, and it’s a topic of great concern to many moral philosophers and metaethicists.

Except that moral philosophy somewhat bizarrely construes moral disagreement in an excruciatingly narrow sense, and thus entirely skips an extremely interesting and important aspect of the phenomenon.

See, most moral philosophers look at moral disagreement through the lens of wondering whether moral realism is true or not. If (a popular rendering of) moral realism is true, then moral disagreement ought not exist, at least in an ideal situation. After all, there’d presumably be some moral fact that would settle the disagreement one way or another.

However, the stubborn persistence of moral disagreement could be evidence that such moral facts don’t exist. And we’ve all been to a dinner party where there’s been an overly lengthy conversation about capital punishment, abortion, gay marriage or whatever, and no matter how long the argument goes, both sides stomp away unmoved.

“Whoa! Hold up there,” says the moral realist. “Maybe the disagreement isn’t real disagreement. Maybe it’s only apparent disagreement.”

Maybe individuals on both sides don’t disagree over the pertinent moral facts, but they disagree about the non-moral facts or the details of the circumstances surrounding the issue. Or maybe at least one side is biased in some way. Or perhaps one or both sides suffer from some cognitive impairment that prevents them from appreciating the blunt truth of the moral facts. Etc.

In order for moral disagreement to be a problem for moral realism, it can’t be susceptible to these “defusing explanations”, as they’re called by John Doris and Alexandra Plakias (2008). Moral disagreement is only a problem for moral realism if it’s fundamental moral disagreement. It’s only really disagreement if the respective sides are ideally situated, ideally rational and have access to all the salient non-moral facts.

Yawn.

This whole palava is just another chimera offered by contemporary metaethics. I suggest it misses the point of moral disagreement and its relevance to ethical enquiry.

Now, I’m not terribly interested in debating the existence of moral facts, mainly because I don’t think they do exist. But even if they did exist, just restricting discussion of moral disagreement to fundamental moral disagreement ignores the fact that just about everybody disagrees with just about everybody else on at least one moral issue.

And that seems to me to be something worth explaining. Just saying everyone in recorded history who has disagreed with someone else is ignorant, biased or stupid doesn’t seem to be a very satisfactory answer.

So, in my thesis I draw a distinction between two types of moral disagreement. The first is strong disagreement. It’s basically the fundamental moral disagreement mentioned above. It’s the disagreement that two individuals would have if they happen to be ideally situated.

However, since I find such a scenario utterly implausible except in abstracto, and I can’t even imagine what two individuals in such a situation would be like or would argue about, then I’m happy to largely ignore it.

The other type is weak moral disagreement. This is the type of moral disagreement that we see in the world every day, splayed across the media, fought out in pubs and across the table at dinner parties. Weak moral disagreement doesn’t require that the respective individuals in the argument are anything special, only that they’re not pathologically impaired such that any kind of argument is a struggle.

And weak moral disagreement is also compatible with moral realism being true (i.e. one or both individuals are ignorant of the relevant moral facts etc), as well as with moral realism being false (i.e. the individuals disagree for some other reason).

We know weak moral disagreement exists, even if we can’t be 100% sure that strong moral disagreement exists. And just because weak moral disagreement tells us nothing about moral realism, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

I, for one, want to know why people disagree about moral issues in the real world. And because I happen to not believe in moral facts, I want to know all those other reasons people might disagree, such as ignorance of non-moral facts, bias, emotional predilections, cognitive impairment, environmental contingencies etc. Or maybe that there isn’t one universal objective moral code that applies for everyone at all times and in all places.

And I suspect that a thorough account of why people disagree might tell us a heck of a lot about ethics, ethical discourse and, lo, moral agreement.

It baffles me that so many words are spilt in journals and books about the dubious strong moral disagreement, while the far more tangible weak moral disagreement is overlooked.





Religion Without God

31 01 2012

Seems everyone is talking about Alain de Botton’s new book. Good. It looks like a worthy tome. I’ve yet to read it (my PhD reading list puts leisure philosophy on the backburner for now), but I intend to soon.

The book, Religion for Atheists, argues that while the supernaturalist claims of religion are false, religion still offers many things that we discard only to our detriment. Happily, it’s a subject about which I have strong and sympathetic feelings. Sadly it’s also the topic of a book I was going to pen post-PhD, but he’s beaten me to it (and likely to have done a far superior job to me anyway).

But it seems not everyone has quite understood de Botton’s core point, as suggested by this quote lifted from the Guardian review by Terry Eagleton:

One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked.

What Eagleton has failed to understand is that de Botton is separating the functions of religion from their supernaturalist justifications. And it’s only the latter that he’s calling “bunkum”.

Should free speech and civil rights be justified according to some supernaturalist tradition that suggested they were imperatives thrust upon us by the Man in the Moon, de Botton would likely happily reject the justification, but argue on rational grounds that free speech and civil rights are well worth keeping – for the function they serve in social life. It’s their very “social uses” that makes them not “bunkum”.

This is the core twist of de Botton’s approach, and one to which I subscribe wholeheartedly. We absolutely must separate the function of institutions from their supposed justifications. We must then examine what justifications they might have rationally, and only keep them if they pass rational muster.

Religion’s truck has been to foist many beneficial practices on us, but to justify them with a false metaphysics, assuming it’s the metaphysics rather than the function that is important. Then they overextend and issue more edicts justified by the same bunkum metaphysics, except these ones are harmful to human wellbeing and society. But because religion’s justificatory system is resistant to scrutiny and self-correction (unlike reason and the scientific method, for example), they resist moves to correct their errors.

It’s no surprise, then, that atheists seek to tear down the supernaturalist edifice that causes these social ills. But the militant atheist also doesn’t discriminate between the function and the justification, and so seeks to eliminate the entire system – the good functions with the bad justifications.

Both are wrong.

It’s precisely the approach of de Botton that seeks to investigate those things that are genuinely beneficial to humans wellbeing and to society on rational grounds, and instantiate them, that is the right approach. And it turns out many (but not all) things created by religion can do just that. Why not learn from that in the pursuit of wellbeing and social harmony?

Eagleton fails to understand this argument, and that’s why his criticism is, sadly, little more than a straw man.