The Ethical Project: Evolving Moral Minds

24 01 2012

In my last post I offered my initial review of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project, which is a bold attempt to offer a thoroughly naturalistic rendering of ethics, devoid of any divinity or dubious metaphysics. And overall, I’m very pleased with the account – not least because it is largely in sync with my own.

For too long has ethics been dominated by discussions of moral semantics, of naturalistic fallacies, of rational agents and an expectation that once we discover moral truths, people will kick themselves for not having happily obeyed them in the past.

But this is not the only way to talk about morality. Instead of seeing morality as a truth-seeking endeavour, or springing from the will of some deity, we can alternatively look at morality from what Owen Flanagan, Hagop Sarkissian and David Wong (2008) call “human ecology”.

Better than defining morality by what it is – i.e. about truth, about happiness, about god’s will etc – we can define morality by what it does. This, at its heart, is the moral functionalist perspective. It’s central to Kitcher’s account (as it is to mine), and I believe it’s key to understanding morality as a natural phenomenon – i.e. a practice enacted by human beings throughout history through to this day.

And once we understand better what morality does, we might gain some insights into what it is, and even how we ought to behave. Thus, shockingly, this descriptive programme might have normative implications.

In this post I explore some of the themes raised in The Ethical Project and add some elements of my own research to fill in some gaps left by Kitcher. I have more to say than will fit in one post, so I’ll add more after this one.

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Review: The Ethical Project

23 01 2012

Pop back in time roughly five million years to the time of the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and you’d likely spot roving troops of creatures not dissimilar to today’s great apes. Yet, while chimpanzees and the rest of our evolutionary cousins have changed relatively little over the last few million years, our species has undergone remarkable change.

Why?

Arguably the strongest driving force for this incredible evolutionary change is our uniquely social nature – and our uniquely moral proclivities – to the point where today we interact in a global network of billions of individuals, a network of staggering complexity hinging on levels of cooperation unmatched by any other creature.

And the glue that holds our social and cooperative life together is morality.

It’s in charting and explicating this progression from the earliest forms of pre-moral inclinations to our modern day complex moral deliberations that is the ambitious goal of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project.

And Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, does a remarkable job of not only weaving together a coherent picture from many disparate threads, but also lays down a path for potentially fruitful ethical debate in the future. And he does it all in a thoroughly naturalistic, empirically-aware and refreshingly grounded way, with his method strongly influenced by his commitment to “pragmatic naturalism”, which heavily informed particularly by John Dewey and William James.

He also espouses a theory that is startlingly close to my own PhD thesis, much to my joy and chagrin. Even if there are now a few less revelations in my own thesis, it is deeply heartening to see that I’m not the only one charting an evolutionarily-informed naturalistic account of morality.

That said, there are a few gaps in Kitcher’s account, and a few key details that he overlooks either deliberately or unintentionally. In this post, I’ll outline the main thrust of Kitcher’s argument, and in a subsequent post I’ll provide a more critical review, comparing and contrasting it with my own account.

First, an overview of Kitcher’s argument.

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The Burqa is Bad (But Banning it is Worse)

19 10 2011

I oppose the wearing of the burqa – particularly the niqab, or veil – and I believe women shouldn’t wear it, or be made to wear it. I also oppose banning of the burqa or the niqab, and believe the government should not prevent people from wearing it (excepting, of course, circumstances where people need to be identified).

And these two positions aren’t even remotely contradictory.

Unfortunately, many people – particularly many on the Left – think they are contradictory, and in doing so they get themselves stuck between condemning a practice that is often oppressive to women and condemning those who call for a ban on the burqa as being racist.

However, it is quite possible to hold a clear stance against the burqa and the values it represents, and drawing a line that says the government has no right to dictate what we can and can’t wear (beyond very loose modesty requirements). Here’s how:

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Norway, Mental Illness, Ideology and Computer Games

25 07 2011

Tragedy piled upon tragedy. Needless to say, I was shocked and sickened by the news emanating from Norway of the atrocities enacted by Anders Behring Breivik. But I wasn’t only outraged by his actions, but also some of the sadly predictable responses to them. So, first up:

Reality Check

Despite the impression one might get from watching the evening news over the weekend, the world most of us live in today is safer, more tolerant, more pluralist, more just and less violent than at any other period in history.

It’s easy to become despondent at the news coming from Norway (or the double whammy if you’re a fan of Amy Winehouse). But remember that if we had today’s mass media presence 500 years ago, such appalling massacres, and worse, would be documented on an almost daily basis. Today their impact is all the more poignant because of their rarity.

Yet it is in response to such tragedies that the world struggles to improve. It’s in our collective outrage at the inhumanity of individuals like Behring Breivik that we work to make the world more tolerant, more peaceful, more just. We must not let ourselves become despondent. Nor should we let ourselves become filled with retributionist rage. Instead we must use this outrage to drive us towards positive ends.

Extremism Starts with Psychology

It’s natural for us to strive to make sense of such a senseless act. One of the obvious targets is ideology. Behring Breivik was clearly charged with a radical ideology that incorporated elements of nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism. But nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism aren’t the sole cause of his actions.

It’s not extremist views that make people like Behring Breivik. It’s the other way around. It’s unstable psychology that draws people like Behring Breivik to extremist ideologies. These ideologies then reinforce whatever twisted worldview people like this have and act to facilitate and condone their actions.

Ideologies are like catalysts rather than causes. Likewise with terrorism conducted under the banner of Islam.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work tirelessly to combat extremist attitudes and ideologies. But we can’t pretend that by banning all neo-Nazi groups we will rid the world of neo-Nazi views, nor the psychological proclivities that draw some people to those views.

What we also need to target with just as high a priority is understanding the psychological proclivities and how they lead to extremist attitudes, and how to work on preventing people disposed to violence from acting on their dispositions.

What this tragedy really compels us to do is place greater focus on mental health, education, anti-extremism and, of course, tighter gun control.

Games Don’t Make Killers

S0me opportunistic reporters have latched on to a handful of comments made by Behring Breivik is his rambling manifesto to the effect that computer games were a “part of my training-simulation” to suggest that violent video games played a causal role in his horrendous acts.

This, like the above idea that ‘ideology made him do it,’ is a spurious notion that only muddies our understanding of people like Behring Breivik and makes it harder for us get to the real root of his behaviour.

The evidence suggests that games don’t turn normal people into psychopathic killers, but that individuals with a disposition towards violence are drawn to violent video games.

Games, like ideology, may also act as a catalyst, but ridding the world of violent games (or movies, or television shows, or books etc) will likely have a negligible impact on the frequency of such actions.

And comments by some startlingly ignorant commentators only steer the conversation into unfruitful territory. Consider these ruminations from the article linked to above:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games” then the game should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits of the games industry and selfishness of games libertarians to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

Mr Wallace might rethink his position if he applied the same argument to Behring Breivik’s Christian views, which might go something like this:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games religion” then the game religion should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits evangelism of the games industry religion and selfishness dogma of games libertarians the faithful to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition of religion were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

That last sentence is particularly stinging for the likes of Mr Wallace.

A Better Way

We may never rid the world of individuals like Behring Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden, no matter how many of them we imprison or execute. Human psychology is fickle, ignorance and insecurity is the norm, and we now have more power to impact the around us in destructive ways than ever before.

But we also have more power to impact the world in positive ways than ever before too. And the very fact that the entire world has spoken out in horror and condemnation of Behring Breivik’s actions reminds us that, on the whole, we do believe in peace, tolerance and justice.

With continued and determined focus on: comprehensive education; encouraging mental health and treating mental illness; taking deadly weapons out of the hands of citizens; challenging extremist views; understanding extremist psychology; developing stable and sustainable economies; and encouraging healthy rational public discourse, we can and do make the world a better place.

Ultimately the likes of Behring Breivik can never turn the tide of history towards peace, tolerance and justice.





Ends and Means

19 07 2011

I call it “pulling a Cameron,” in reference not to the present British Prime Minister, but to the broadcaster Deborah Cameron who handles the morning slot on Sydney’s ABC Radio 702.

A common refrain a few minutes in to her maddeningly predictable morning routine of following the happenings of the first several pages of the Sydney Morning Herald is to enquire of some expert or other: “what are we doing to prevent X from ever happening again?”

And by “X” I mean whatever undesirable event has appeared on the front pages, whether that’s a case of callous bullying in our schools, a death by accident or some other unsavoury turn of events.

One recent example was the tragic death of a young university student at a rural college after being thrown from an ex-racing horse that was being used to train horse riding skills. The horse was deemed safe for students yet it possessed a fierce distemper that flared on that day, throwing the student

The question posed by Cameron, seemingly predictable and justifiable in the circumstances, was along the lines of: “what are we doing to prevent more deaths of students during riding training?”

The presumption is that the outcome is unacceptable so, clearly, our current process that led to this outcome must be deficient.

Yet that’s a presumption that is unfortunately as fallacious as it is common.

For we chase outcomes on an ad hoc basis at the risk of employing processes that undermine our very intentions to produce better outcomes. In short: we focus myopically on each good or bad outcome at the danger of forgetting that it’s good processes that are of primary importance.

And even a good process – nay, the optimal process – can result in bad outcomes from time to time.

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Religion’s Retreat from Politics and Other Good News

19 04 2011

The current fancy of religion being intertwined with political conservatism in the United States (and here – we have our own Family First party) is a fleeting trend, and one that is entering its final throes. So said Robert Putnam in a wonderful lecture he gave tonight at Sydney University.

I’m inclined to agree – and not only because I want to agree.

Putnam’s argument – also espoused in his new book, American Grace – was that the close relationship between religiosity and Republican partisanship that we see today only started in the early 1990s, and began as a wedge strategy intended to galvanise a conservative base against encroaching liberalism by appealing to the pervasive religiousness of most Americans, tapping in to socially conservative issues such as abortion as the hot buttons.

And it worked. Putnam showed evidence that around the early 1970s there was no correlation between religious attendance (as a proxy for religiosity) and partisan preference. In fact, in the late 1960s, if you were more highly devout, you were more likely to vote Democrat. But that had all changed by the 1980s, and particularly into the 1990s.

Makes sense. Old school Republicanism used to be represented by the north-eastern industrialists – hardly a religious bunch. Too distracted by money and cigars. Conversely, there were the ‘southern Democrats’ who, until the quakes of the civil rights movement rocked their foundations, were deeply religious but were working class and voted for labour and community issues.

But in the 1990s that changed. And it’s already beginning to backfire.

The United States now sports a record number of what Putnam drolly calls “young nones”; the now 18% of the population – and upwards of 30% of youth – who list their religious affiliation as ‘none.’ However, it’s presumptuous to assume they’re atheists; many still profess a belief in God, but they disassociate with organised religion.

Putnam’s thesis is that they see the vitriol of the religious right directed towards progressive social issues, and they identify religion – particularly evangelical Christianity – with homophobia, militant anti-abortionism, bigotry and other socially conservative positions that are thoroughly unsavoury to minds shaped by the liberal 1990s.

So they move on. Both from organised religion and from Republicanism. As the old conservatives – the relics of the pre-1950s world – die off, these ‘young nones’ will start to have a much greater impact on politics.

The upshot: perhaps we can hope for a world where religiously-fuelled extreme social conservatism is divorced from politics. In fact, let’s not hope. Let’s expect it.

Let’s stop giving credence to the extreme religious lobby. When they pop their heads up and spout some ludicrous line, such as that art should pass through a classification board, let’s just chuckle and say “well, extremists would say that” and move on to more important matters, like deficit reduction or mitigating climate change.

Religion isn’t necessarily socially conservative. Certainly, organised religion leans that way – group membership, loyalty, in-group favouritism and out-group vilification etc are how organised religion stays organised. But religions also preach love, charity, forgiveness, peace – all bastions of progressivism.

By crikey, it’ll be nice to look back on all this. To look back on the 2000s and remark at how aberrant this religiosity was. It may not take long before we’re looking back with a wince and a sigh and saying just these things.





Religion’s Odd Relationship with Atheism

26 03 2011

It almost beggars belief that many self-proclaimed so-called moral experts of the modern world – men and women of cloth, such as rabbi Adam Jacobs – exhibit such a shocking ignorance of modern ethical and evolutionary theory.

Jacobs penned a piece for the Huffington Post recently that could serve as a template for the gross misunderstanding of how atheism and morality are related. Quoth Jacobs:

The most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes?

Sigh. He might as well be saying “because there’s no edict from God over the rules of cricket, you can just give yourself a century and refuse to leave if you’re caught out.”

Just because it isn’t written in the bible, doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules to cricket (cricket nihilism). And it doesn’t mean you can play by whatever rules you choose (cricket egoism).

Once you’ve chosen to play, you’re obliged to play by the rules, or you face the consequences. You’re thrown out of the game or, if your transgression wasn’t so obscene, you’re politely censured and threatened that if you do it again, you’re no longer welcome on the pitch.

Morality is a game, not unlike cricket in this respect. The only thing is, playing the game is to everyone’s advantage; playing the game advances our interests, both biological (selfish gene theory) and psychological (preference utilitarianism).

And it’s a matter of empirical fact that virtually everyone already wants to play the game. In fact, the whole point that Dawkins was trying to make with the selfish gene theory is that playing nice is a form of self-interest, and evolution has already primed us to play nice.

The only subjective element is that we’re not bound – logically or by divine will – to play the game. We can rationally choose not to. But if we do, we suffer the consequences and are censured by all those who do play nice.

So it’s actually not in our long-term interests to do “whatever one’s heart desires at any moment” because in such a society, I wouldn’t get much of what I desire at all. Instead, it’s far more in my interests to play nice.

This has all been said before many, many times. It’s disappointing that pontificating individuals like rabbi Jacobs haven’t read or understood it. And it’s even more disappointing that they spread misinformation about atheism and secular morality.

And then he says stuff like this:

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine.

In fact, he has it entirely backwards. He has his philosophy because of the evolved moral proclivities we’re already equipped with. Evolution and moral naturalism can explain everything, even why people might mistakenly believe in moral super- or non-naturalism.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with the details of how morality works, or arguing over the nuances of evolution or anti-realism. But I do mind people getting on their high horse and dismissing those poor deluded atheists based on uninformed and vacuous arguments.