Going on a Moral Diet

26 03 2014

It’s a well established fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch. This is particularly the case when that lunch consists of deep fried chicken followed by a couple of glazed doughnuts and a Coke.

We love sweet and fatty foods (although, as Dan Dennett points out, we don’t desire them because they taste good, they taste good because we desire them). And even though they’re contributing to an epidemic of obesity today, it’s a damn good thing that we do love the sweets and the fats. Because had we not vigorously pursued such energy-rich sources of nutrition throughout our evolutionary past we may not have made it to the point where today’s obesity epidemic was even an option.

hamburgerSimply put, an evolved taste for sweet and fatty stuffs – in the form of a strongly reinforcing sensation of pleasure in response to exposure to sweet and/or fatty foods – was adaptive because our highly active endothermic bodies with their calorie-burning brains required vast amounts of fuel to keep them hunting and gathering and surviving and reproducing, etc.

And up until the last few moments of our evolutionary history, we were far more likely to be undernourished rather than overnourished. That being the case, the cost of getting it wrong and consuming too much energy was lower than the cost of getting it wrong and not consuming enough. Hence a selective pressure in favour of our sweet/fatty tooth.

Yet today we can see all this. We can acknowledge that allowing our evolved sweet-and-fat-seeking psychological impulses take over can lead us to unhealthy ends. The heuristic is now pointing in the wrong direction. We understand that we need to inhibit our evolved impulses and steer our behaviour towards more appropriate ends in today’s environment. We understand that sometimes we need to consciously manage our diet.

Maybe we need to do the same when it comes to some of our evolved moral impulses.

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Morality Inside-out

30 11 2012

Most moral enquiry – particularly metaethical enquiry – is conducted in an arse-backwards way. Most philosophers appear to look at morality from the inside-out. And I’d suggest this inside-out view of morality is hampering our ability to understand the nature of morality in all its glorious messy complexity.

What we need to do is turn this perspective around and look at morality outside-in. This is a crucial step in my overall argument in my thesis, as it explains why I choose to depart from the metaethical canon and draw on a range of empirical tools in an attempt to explain what morality is all about.

So, what do I mean by inside-out?

Most metaethical enquiry takes as its starting point our moral discourse. We talk about good and bad, right and wrong. We engage in moral argumentation. We look for the reasons to certain ways. And we attempt to persuade others of the truth of our position and the falsehood of theirs.

When we reflect on our moral discourse, much of it appears to be implicitly objectivist. We don’t talk about our disapproval of torture in the same way we talk about our disapproval of ABBA or of pistachio ice cream. The latter are subjective attitudes, but we seem to think attitudes concerning torture are not a matter of subjective preference but are grounded in some objective fact. Torture isn’t just distasteful, torture is objectively wrong, and we can prove that to be true.

We talk as if moral assertions are categorical imperatives in the Kantian sense: if torture is wrong, you ought not torture regardless of your beliefs, desires or ends. If morality really was just like our subjective feelings of approval or disapproval, it would lose this categorical nature. Moral imperatives would only hold with the strength of an appeal to your subjective whims or by virtue of your stated ends or desires.

Hence does metaethics typically begin: how can we make sense of our moral discourse? What do we mean by “the good”? How can we establish the foundations for the categorical nature of moral statements? What kinds of facts are these objective moral facts? How could these moral facts motivate our behaviour? And so on for the last century or so.

Inside-out and backwards

This view is inside-out precisely because it starts with our discourse, our attitudes, our reasons, and the implicit objectivity and categorical nature of our discourse, and attempts to establish a firm foundation for morality from there. Only then does it attempt to build upwards and outwards into the world, talking about how morality affects our behaviour and the behaviour of others.

This is the Platonic view, the Kantian view, the Moorean view. It leans on reason, on a search for ethical truth, on the binding authority that morality appears to have according to our ethical discourse. It is often cashed out in terms of moral realism, objectivism, rationalism, non-naturalism and so on. Yet it is a deeply problematic programme.

First of all, our moral discourse is not necessarily that clear or uniform, as Michael Gill and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong have recently argued. We use objectivist language, but we also use expressivist language – as if moral utterances were expressions of emotion rather than just statements of fact.

Moral beliefs appear to be motivating – it seems somehow inconsistent for someone to say sincerely that “torture is wrong” and then have no compunction against torturing someone themselves – yet they also appear to be stating something about the world.

We give reasons for our moral beliefs, yet often those reasons appear to be causally inefficatious, even emerging as dubious post-hoc rationalisations, as Jon Haidt has famously argued.

The brute fact of moral diversity in the world – between cultures, within cultures and throughout history – also challenges the notion that there is ‘one true morality’ that is founded on objective fact.

The inside-out view lends itself to non-naturalism because there doesn’t appear to be anything in our arsenal of natural features of the world that could possibly provide the bindingly prescriptive ‘oomph’ of categorical imperatives.

Yet non-naturalism it not only troublingly incompatible with the broadly naturalistic worldview that is ratified by most other philosophical and scientific disciplines, but it raises problems of its own, such as how we have access to the non-natural facts.

The bizarre and deeply problematic notion of intuitionism, which has been eradicated in many other fields, continues to raise its absurd head in metaethics, from Moore to Shafer-Landau.

Finally, the inside-out view of morality reinforces the spurious notion of the ‘ethical point of view’, as Philip Kitcher puts it. This is the idea that “people give themselves commands – commands that are no external but somehow their own, the ‘moral law within’ – and have regarded this point of view as requiring the subordination, if not the elimination, of emotion” (Kitcher, 2011, p. 80). This, states Kitcher, is a “psychological myth devised by philosophers,” (p. 81), and I tend to agree.

I propose a different perspective on morality. Or, at least, a different starting point for ethical enquiry. I call it the outside-in view.


This view begins not with our moral discourse or an attempt to ratify the ‘ethical point of view’, but instead starts with moral behaviour. This is a broad category of behaviour that emerges when you observe a bunch of organisms wandering around and bumping into each other (literally or figuratively) and then saying sorry.

When an organism acts in a way that contravenes its interests or immediate desires (or its beliefs about what will advance its interests or satisfy its desires), you have an interesting phenomenon. If you were to observe such behaviour – helping, caring, apologising, inhibiting etc – you would very likely say that something moral just happened.

The other aspect of moral behaviour is the creation, spreading an enforcing of behavioural rules. But not just any behavioural rules, but rules that guide behaviour in a social context, often (but not always) attempting to encourage prosocial behaviour and dissuade self-interested or socially disruptive behaviour.

These are moral phenomena. And they’re terribly interesting and worthy of an explanation. And, being observable phenomena, they’re amenable to the tools of the empirical sciences.

Thus the outside-in perspective looks at moral behaviour and attempts to concoct an explanation for why it exists. This view is not mutually exclusive with the inside-out view. In fact, it might turn out they converge on a similar answer (although I find that unlikely), or the outside-in might describe the reasons why we behave why we do and the inside-out might show how those reasons are in error.

More likely, my suspicion is that a completed outside-in view would actually make much of the inside-out view redundant – to twist Laplace, a full explanation of moral behaviour from the outside-in perspective would make the objective moral facts that often spring from an inside-out view a redundant hypothesis.

The outside-in view might not only explain why we behave the way we do, but also why we talk about morality the way we do. It might turn out that moral discourse is not actually a truth-seeking endeavour, but rather a tool for persuasion and spreading of moral norms, as Haidt argues. This would mean that we ought not take moral discourse at face value, but rather look at it as just another facet of our moral behaviour.

Furthermore, the outside-in view does not lean towards any form of non-naturalism. It doesn’t presume or require the existence of any metaphysically dubious moral facts. It doesn’t suffer from any crippling naturalistic fallacies. Because it dispenses with categorical imperatives, and lets everything be hypothetical, there is no metaphysical leap required between the descriptive and the magically normative.

As Joshua Greene might put it, it talks about moral2 (caring about and being nice to other people) rather than moral1 (making statements of fact about what is right and wrong).

My belief is that the outside-in view of morality is drastically underrated and largely overlooked by moral philosophers and metaethicists. It is not, however, overlooked by many other disciplines, including moral psychology, behavioural ecology, game theory and the philosophy of biology.

It is for this reason that I draw on these tools in my thesis to attempt to give the beginnings of an outside-in view of morality that can not only explain why we behave the way we do in social contexts, but how our minds have evolved to encourage such behaviour, why moral norms vary throughout the world and how we can understand all this from a thoroughly naturalistic perspective.

That is morality from the outside-in.

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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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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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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From Genes to Politics: How Biology Influcences the Way You Vote

5 01 2011

It might seem a leap too far, but bear with me, because I’m going to attempt to show that genes influence the way you vote. Let’s start at the end and work our way towards the beginning.

Your adopted political ideology strongly influences the way you vote. Certainly, there might be circumstances in which a liberal might vote for a conservative candidate, such as if the liberal candidate was an obvious dud (or the conservative candidate was a shining star), or if the conservative candidate happened to offer a better policies for the present environment (say, being a hawk in a time of war). But, all things being equal, self-identifying liberals vote for liberal candidates and parties.

However, your political ideology isn’t something you come to adopt from out of the blue. We’re not political blank slates. One of the greatest influences on what ideology you adopt is your worldview, which I loosely define as the implicit framework you use to make sense of the world around you.

Your worldview is both descriptive and prescriptive – it helps understand the way the world is, and it’s value-laden, so it helps you understand good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Many empirical and theoretical studies have shown that underneath our political attitudes lie (often unconscious) beliefs about the way the world is.

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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.