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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Top 10 Books of All Time

9 03 2011

Yeah, all time. I could even say Top 10 Books in All Possible Worlds. They’re that awesome.

People often ask me what are my favourite books, or the books that have most influenced me – in philosophy, science, history etc. So I figured I’d post ‘em here to fuel my laziness; if I’m asked in future, I can just give a URL. Nice.

The Iliad – Homer

Sing, o muse… Not sure what’s more astounding, that it’s one of the first written works in human history, or that it’s still one of the most profoundly moving books, dripping with pathos and turgid prose the likes of which a pitiful writer like myself can only dream. I mean, rosy fingered Dawn, who spread her light across the lands of the deathless gods and mortal men. Sublime.

There’s a also lesson in reading in reading the Iliad, too. It’s the catalogue of ships. It’s almost the peer of all the begetting in Genesis (well, I assume Genesis is worse because I’ve never made it through that whole section). But it’s like you have to earn the rest of the tale. That makes it all the more epic. In fact, every epic has a catalogue of ships. My thesis has its literature review…

Although I still have an unresolved question: who would win in a fight between Achilleus and Arjuna. Man, that’d be an epic bout.

More below the fold…

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What’s the Point (of a Thesis on Evolution and Morality)?

28 01 2011

One of my supervisors asked a singularly curly question when we last met: what’s the point of your thesis?


But he raises an important issue – a couple of important issues, really. One is the fundamental question of: is what I’m trying to say actually important, relevant or new?

And the other is: if it is important, relevant or new, are you making sure this is clear to your reader/marker?

So, anyway, it’s sent me on a navel gazing quest of thesis-introspection. What is the point? Why is telling a story about how evolution has shaped our moral psychology to produce a pluralism of moral strategies interesting? To what is it relevant? Who cares? And how do I make them care?

My initial response – besides being speechless for a rare moment – is to think this thesis is relevant on a few levels. I just need to choose which is the most relevant, and which is worth emphasising, because it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.

The first relevance is simply in providing an accurate genealogy of morality: a purely descriptive endeavour that seeks to understand where morality comes from and how we came to think about morality the way we do. Although, arguably, this is more the purview of anthropologists and moral psychologists rather than a mere philosopher.

The second relevance is in exploring why there appears to be an apparent contradiction between the way we think of morality – i.e. that it’s about finding the correct answers to moral questions – and the fact that we disagree so broadly and intractably about so many moral issues. Is it just that there is a right answer, but that most people are simply wrong?

Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.

A third angle is to tie descriptive evolutionary ethics to contemporary normative ethics. If a normative ethicist wants to advance a normative system, I’d suggest that it needs, at minimum, to be compatible with human psychology.

Advancing a normative system – even one that we can all agree yields the right answer in any particular situation – but which places unreasonable demands on our cognitive faculties is doomed to fail. After all, normative ethics isn’t just an armchair endeavour of speculation about how morality might be (although many moral philosophers and metaethicists might disagree), it’s supposed to be a practical system that can actually guide and encourage moral behaviour.

Perhaps, in light of this, a more robust descriptive account of how we think about morality – and why we vary in the way we think about morality – could be useful for the development of a normative system that has a hope of accommodating our diverse moral psychology. It might also help inform a normative system by having it acknowledge that pluralism and disagreement aren’t a sign of weakness, but a path to a stronger moral system. And it might place practical bounds on what a realistic normative system can achieve.

As it happens, I don’t think I’ve been focusing on any one of these issues exclusively so far. In fact, I’ve found myself in a most interesting diversion talking about the influence of evolved psychology on political attitudes. Well, my supervisor suspects it’s a diversion. So it’s probably prudent of me to lock in one of these (or a different) ‘point’ and focus on that.

After all, a PhD thesis is not one’s last word as an academic. It’s their first. If I want to explore these other issues, there’s ample time to do so after I get my PhD (assuming I do get my PhD, and the even more unlikely prospect that I’ll score a gig in academia afterwards – but still, gotta get the damn thesis done before anything else).

I’m open to any thoughts on what is the most interesting angle of my various rants on this blog, and which aspects of my thesis might yield the ripest (and lowest hanging) fruit. Sometimes I’m far too close to my own research to get any perspective on what’s actually novel or interesting any more…

Evolution and Moral Ecology, Mini PhD Version

24 11 2010

I’ve posted a new static page with an outline of my PhD thesis on evolution and moral ecology. If you’re interested in my overarching theory, it’s worth reading. Hopefully it’ll put a lot of the other missives I write in context. Although I don’t doubt it’ll also raise a lot of questions and objections. Happy to hear them. Any criticism that can steer me in a better direction will improve my thesis. I call it PhD 2.0.

Morality and the Obsession with Harm and Fairness

14 10 2010

Where you can find contemporary moral philosophers talking about the content of morality (instead of their preferred pastime of quibbling over metaethics), you’ll often find them talking about issues concerning harm and fairness. But is this all there is to morality? What of moral prohibitions concerning food, or cleansing rituals, or burial practices? Can you just translate such norms into norms about harm and fairness? Or is the domain of morality larger than many philosophers might readily suggest?

This was one of the questions broached by ANU’s Ben Fraser in a seminar at Sydney University yesterday. Fraser’s paper was about the limits of the moral domain, specifically defending Richard Joyce’s account of morality from criticisms mounted by Stephen Stich. I won’t cover everything said by Fraser (you can read his entire paper here), but I am particularly interested in what it is that we’re really talking about when we’re talking about morality.

And I tend to believe that defining morality in terms of harm/fairness exclusively is a bit narrow – but understandable. Even so, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to issues of harm/fairness if we want to understand the full scope of morality and moral phenomena.

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Liberalism and Value Pluralism

25 09 2010

Does a commitment to normative value pluralism logically entail a commitment to liberalism? Isaiah Berlin is a known proponent of both pluralism and liberalism, and at times he’s appeared to suggest there is a logical connection between the two – although at other times he suggests the connection is only a psychological one; that it’s choice that makes human beings human, that we’re made pluralistic, and liberalism is the best system to enable these two psychological forces to coexist.

Isaiah Berlin, from Steve Pyke's collection.

I had the opportunity last night to attend a debate between two leading Isaiah Berlin scholars on this notion of the link between liberalism and value pluralism, Beata Polanowska-Sygulska from Jagiellonian University in Poland, and George Crowder from Flinders University.

I have to profess a vast ignorance when it comes to Berlin’s work – he doesn’t feature prominently (or at all) in the philosophical texts I’ve been wading through, although his views about pluralism and liberalism appear to be remarkably close to my own. I shall have to read his work more thoroughly before I complete the normative chapter of my own thesis on evolution and moral pluralism.

From the outset, I can pick one stark point of difference between mine and Berlin’s views: he believes in a plurality of incommensurable objective values, such as equality and liberty, whereas I don’t believe any objective values exist. However, that’s not a show stopper, as I think you can extricate the objectivity from Berlin’s values without too much trouble (and call it a fictionalism, if you will) and the crux of his argument will remain largely the same – the only difference is in some distant metaphysical justification for his pluralism.

On the connection between pluralism and liberalism, I have a slightly different take from those advanced last night. Mine is, unsurprisingly, informed by evolution and moral psychology. It goes a little something like this:

Humans have been grappling with the problems of social coordination for hundreds of millennia. These problems are effectively: how do you get large numbers of unrelated individuals to live and work together in a way that advances their interests (biological and psychological) without suffering the ill effects of socially disruptive behaviour, like cheating or ‘defection’ (in game theory terms), and without  succumbing to invasion by outsiders.

Evolutionary forces have worked such that those individuals who were able to solve these problems more effectively were able to leave a greater number of offspring for future generations. Thus, those individuals who evolved the psychological mechanisms that promote prosocial behaviour and censure socially disruptive behaviour, were lent a selective advantage. These psychological mechanisms include the moral emotions, problem solving heuristics and moral reasoning.

However, there is no one solution to the problems of social coordination that works best in every environment, particularly as the environment is also made up of the other ‘strategies’ employed by others, thus is dynamic rather than static. As such, evolution has not settled upon one set of psychological mechanisms or predispositions, for to do so would have been unstable and left that population prone to ‘invasion’ by other strategies – invasion from within, through mutation, or from without by other individuals with different psychological makeups.

The upshot – and Edward Westermark acknowledges this as early as 1906 – is that human psychology varies (genetically as well as a result of environmental influences), and this variation yields a broad spectrum of moral outlooks and values. Westermark’s passage is as follows:

The emotional constitution of man does not present the same uniformity as the human intellect. Certain cognitions inspire fear in nearly every breast; but there are brave men and cowards in the world, independently of the accuracy with which they realise impending danger. Some cases of suffering can hardly fail to awaken compassion in the most pitiless heart; but the sympathetic dispositions of men vary greatly, both in regard to the being which whose sufferings they are ready to sympathise, and with reference to the intensity of the emotion. The same holds good for moral the emotions. The existing diversity of opinion as to the rights of different classes of men, and of the lower animals, which springs from emotional differences, may no doubt be modified by clearer insight into certain facts, but no perfect agreement can be expected as long as the conditions under which the emotional dispositions are formed remain unchanged.

As such, value pluralism is an empirical fact about human psychology. But it’s more than just psychological; just because evolution has primed us with this variation, it doesn’t mean it’s good. There could be one moral value that actually serves our interests better than others. However, I don’t believe this is the case. As I mentioned above, there is no one solution to the problems of social coordination. And if you take solving the problems of social coordination to be important, then you will also find pluralism to be important, as it allows a range of solutions to arise, one of which might be the best in any particular situation.

On to the strengths of political liberalism: I don’t actually think it’s promoting autonomy that is the fundamental justification for liberalism, instead it’s that promoting autonomy allows the pluralism of values (or ‘strategies’) to work in tension with each other, thus preventing any one strategy from dominating and causing the society to become unstable (or to be in disequilibrium). Autonomy is a second-order value, but one that enables first-order values to be promoted most effectively.

Thus liberalism is the most effective political framework (that we know of to date) that allows the various strategies for social coordination to balance each other out, and best enables a society to meet the challenges of social coordination. It’s not without cost; as Berlin states, there will be situations where values conflict and you’ll inevitably get dilemmas with no perfect solution. But that’s the price you pay, and it’s a smaller price than adopting a monist approach and, say, placing egalitarianism or order, above all other values.

I suspect that Berlin would have disagreed with several points in my account of liberalism, but I think they’re largely detail. On the whole, I think my account is very similar in action to Berlin’s, although I’ll have to read a great deal more of his work to know for sure.

Evolution and Moral Ecology

14 09 2010

‘Moral ecology’ is a new term that I have adopted to describe the thrust of my thesis (thanks to John Wilkins for a fruitful conversation at PBDB4 leading to the coining of this term). Basically, I’m claiming that:

If we have an evolved moral sense – and I think there’s ample evidence that we do – then we would not expect it to function in an identical way between individuals. Instead, we would expect a diversity in the function of the moral sense between individuals, and a corresponding diversity of moral intuitions and moral judgements.

This is because there is no one solution to the problems of morality that are best in every environment or circumstance, so evolution has equipped us – individually and as populations – with a variety of strategies that increase the likelihood that we’ll be able to successfully respond to a wide range of situations and environments (and by ‘environment’, this also includes the strategies employed by other individuals).

Thus we get a ‘moral ecology’ – a diverse range of strategies that each perform well in their niche, while it lasts, but no one strategy that pushes out all others.

Many of the terms above need to be qualified and placed in their correct evolutionary/psychological/philosophical contexts, and much argument needs to be made to back it all up, but that’s detail.

Effectively, it’s a broadside against the idea that morality need be monolithic, and if there’s moral disagreement between two individuals, it’s because one (or both) of them is in error in some way. In fact, the diversity and tension between different moral perspectives is healthy and helps to keep the system from snapping over to an extreme.

That’s ‘moral ecology’.


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