The Nature of Morality: A Thesis Primer

7 10 2012

Below is a short preface to my thesis on evolution and moral ecology that gives the broad brush outline of my argument and how it’ll likely flow from chapter to chapter. Much is in flux, even at this stage (when is it supposed to settle down, I wonder), but I thought this might be a useful primer for those who have expressed interest in my work.

It also introduces the notion of morality ‘inside-out’ and morality ‘outside-in’. This one way I characterise my approach to looking at morality and doing ethics, and one I’ll elaborate in more detail with a full post soon. In fact, I’m considering turning the chapter on moral naturalism, where I talk about morality inside-out, into a paper suggesting an outside-in approach to ethics is complementary to the conventional metaethical approach, and is something philosophers should take more seriously.

But, for now, here’s the preface:

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Christianity versus Homosexuality

28 09 2012

I’ve often wondered why there’s such an obsessive focus on – and moral revulsion towards – homosexuality in Christianity. And I think I may have discovered an answer in a book by famed anthropologist Edward Westermarck.

The thing is, many other cultures and religions – and many moral systems – don’t have the same negative attitude towards homosexuality as you find in Christianity. In many cultures throughout history, including many that were around when Christianity emerged, homosexuality was far from immoral.

In fact, it was often praised or elevated above heterosexual sex: Plato’s Symposium celebrates homosexual love as being transcendent to heterosexual love, for example.

It’s also, arguably, a pretty odd crime – mutual love between two people, and consensual physical acts that occur in private, none of which appears to harm or negatively impact others.

Now, certainly, sexual morality is a big deal for many religions, but many of the social and sexual taboos and strictures have relaxed over the years – such as divorce, sex before marriage, and acceptable clothing on Sundays. So why is it that homosexuality, and other assorted issues like gay marriage, are still such a hot button issue for many Christians?

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Should Voters Pass a Test Before Voting?

12 09 2012

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So (allegedly) said Winston Churchill. And who’s to disagree?

Exhibit A: the comments to my recent column on the ABC’s Drum, which bemoans that “we have stopped discriminating between argument and sophistry.” Seems few in the comments – even those who appear to agree – attempted to do just that in the spirit of elevating the debate. Instead, it wallowed in the usual name calling and obtuse table thumping. Irony died a little that day.

But what I want to do now is go beyond the call to arms for reasonable people and wonder what to do about the unreasonable ones, given the votes of both are weighted the same.

Often raised in this context is the debate between compulsory versus voluntary voting, such that the disengaged or apathetic are less likely to vote than the engaged and informed.

But I want to sideline that debate for now and get to a more fundamental question of electoral reform: should voters have to pass some kind of test before they qualify to vote?

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Raising the Bar

10 09 2012

To argue or not to argue. That is the question that underpins my latest missive on The Drum about the state of political and public discourse in Australia (and translatable to most other modern liberal democracies), as motivated by Malcolm Turbull’s latest speech.

And when it comes to those who spout sophistry or invective in the guise of a genuine argument, then the best strategy is simply to sideline them. Let’s not waste our energy attempting to battle head on those who have no intention of engaging in rational discourse.

Let’s raise the bar from the rock bottom, and set it at least to the level of demanding reasoned arguments, supported by evidence and devoid of fallacies or spin. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

And if someone doesn’t conform to these basic standards, they disqualify themselves from the conversation. They’re only welcome back in when they decide to clear the bar.

What I’m talking about is like issuing a kind of social contract over how we’re going to conduct ourselves as a society. If we’re not happy with the emotional, irrational, biased and deadlocked discourse we have today, we agree that we’re all going to conform to a basic minimal set of rules about how to argue. If someone breaks those rules, they’ve broken the contract and don’t deserve to participate.

All this does mean we need to be better at argument. It might be too late for many of us, but one of the best things we can do to improve the world of the future is to ensure our children don’t fall into the same blather trap that we have today.

As such, the best long term solution is really quite a simple one: we should teach reasoning and critical thinking in school.

Like we all agree that no-one should leave school without being able to read, write and do maths, we should also add the ability to spot logical and argumentative fallacies to that list.

This ought to be core curriculum stuff, because reasoning and critical thinking make everything else easier – and lack thereof makes everything else harder.

Reasoning is hard, we’re not naturally good at it, but we can’t afford to live without it. So let’s teach everyone how to do it better.

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.

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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.

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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.