The Ethical Project: Measuring Ethical Progress

27 01 2012

In this post, I consider the notion of ethical progress. It follows on from my review of  Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project, then my post looking at the evolution of our moral psychology, and a post on moral functionalism.

One of the core themes of Kitcher’s is to chart, and account for, the notion of ethical progress. If we look back on the changes that have occurred in ethics through history and across cultures, is there any thread that we might declare as representing ‘progress’?

Does the move from a draconinan eye-for-an-eye lex talonis code of punishment to more moderate restitution and rehabilitation represent progress? Was emancipation progress? Was expanding womens’ rights progress? We want to say they were. But on what grounds?

This is ostensibly a problem for a naturalistic anti-realist account of morality – one such as Kitcher’s (and my own) – because there are no immutable moral truths (a priori, non-natural and/or divinely mandated) to which we can peg progress; ethical progress can’t simply be likened to scientific progress, where we gain a deeper understanding of ethical truth and then put it into practice.

Kitcher’s response to this problem is, I believe, the correct one. Once we acknowledge that ethics is a human invention which, according to the functionalist rendering, was created to solve the problems of social living (or “remedy those altruism failures provoking social conflict”, in Kitcher’s version), we can start to make sense of ethical progress.

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The Ethical Project: Functionalism and Disagreement

25 01 2012

In my first post on Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project I outlined his main argument. In the second post I addressed his account of the evolution of our moral psychology, and filled in a few gaps with my own account that I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis. In this post I look at moral disagreement and functionalism

People disagree about moral issues. There’s probably no other statement in ethics that is as uncontroversial. But what such disagreement means, and how to resolve it – if it’s resolvable at all – is a hotly contested topic.

But if we take the moral functionalist approach – as espoused by Kitcher, and endorsed by myself in my thesis – then we can gain a crucial insight into the origins, and possible resolutions, of moral disagreement.

Let’s start with some typical disagreements. Person A says lying is always wrong. Person B says lying is sometimes right. Then they argue. We wouldn’t be surprised if one appealed to a moral norm they believe in, such as “do not lie”. Another might suggest that lying is against the will of god. Or they might say that lying causes harm to someone’s autonomy. Or that it reduces the overall happiness, and overall happiness is the greatest good. And on they go.

Note that these are all justifications.

Now, comparing justifications is one way of conducting an ethical debate. But I think the evidence suggests that many of our justifications for our moral norms are spurious. If you don’t happen to believe in moral truths or in a divine moral authority (as I don’t), then you can immediately question appeals to them as a defensible justification.

There is also ample moral psychology research that suggests we are easily confused about the justifications of our moral norms. Jon Haidt’s ‘moral dumbfounding’ and the ubiquitous trolley dilemmas show that people offer a range of different justifications seemingly as post-hoc rationalisations for deeply held intuitions about right and wrong. So it’s not the justifications that are doing the heavy lifting, it’s something else.

You can also see this in many contemporary moral debates – such as over abortion or over the moral status of social welfare – where two interlocutors offer their arguments, and then have them torn to shreds by the other side, but no-one changes their mind. Sigh.

Now, I think there are good justifications for certain moral practices. I’m just sceptical whether the justifications that most people cite in everyday moral discourse actually are the right kind of justifications.

So, to understand moral disagreement – and where it really occurs – we need to look elsewhere. And this is where functionalism comes in.

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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.


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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Finding Moral Motivation

12 01 2012

What would you think if you met someone who stated convincingly that they believe stealing was wrong, and yet you knew that they were prone to theft, and did so in an entirely nonchalant manner?

And when asked after stealing something whether they still believe stealing is wrong, they reply emphatically that, indeed, it is. That people shouldn’t steal. Yet they show no inclination to change their stealing behaviour, not any apparent negative attitude towards their own acts of stealing.

What would you think? Maybe that there was something somehow wrong with them? Or perhaps something wrong with their moral conviction?

It certainly seems something is awry in this situation. For it seems intuitive that in order for someone to state that some act is morally wrong, they must feel some compulsion to behave in accordance with that belief. Surely, they can experience weakness of the will, or they can have conflicting moral proclivities, but they must at least feel some motivation to act in accord with the moral norm, even if that motivation is eventually overwhelmed by other desires.

As such, it seems somehow fundamentally inconsistent for them to say X is wrong and yet be either entirely indifferent to X happening, or for them to do X with indifference. Some even think it’s logically inconsistent, or even logically impossible, for them to say they believe X is wrong and feel indifference towards X.

However, if this notion of ‘internalism’ is true – the notion that moral beliefs entail some motivational component – then it raises a hairy pickle. Namely, how it is that a mere belief can carry with it a built-in motivational compulsion? What kind of strange beliefs moral beliefs would be were this the case.

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Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Empathy

11 01 2012

The evolution of empathy, and the altruism and cooperation it encourages, is a bit of a curly problem. It’s well known that groups that employ a particular minimal threshold level of altruism can potentially outcompete groups that are less cooperative. The problem is, beneath this threshold level, it’s difficult to see how empathy and altruism can gain a foothold without being drowned out by self-interest.

This is a problem that even Darwin acknowledged, and there have since been proposed a number of possible solutions, including kin selection and reciprocity. Here’s one of my own – although it’s more than likely it’s been proposed before, but I haven’t stumbled across any explicit references to it to date:

Mirror neurons and social learning.

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The Moral Psychology of the London Riots

11 08 2011

Many of us have been struggling to comprehend what psychology, what such vicious and destructive behaviour as we’ve seen over the past few days in London. Behaviour that many of us wouldn’t flinch at calling baldly immoral.

Yet much of the discourse has so far struggled to grasp the psychology behind these acts, psychology that looks on the surface to be wild and irrational. But there is a rhyme, and even a reason, to the rioters’ and looters’ behaviour. This is not to excuse the behaviour, but it’s crucial to understand the psychology behind it particularly if we’re to attempt to prevent such behaviour from occurring again in the future.

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