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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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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Wellbeing > GDP as Metric of National Progress

8 12 2011

The Sydney Morning Herald has kicked off an interesting ongoing feature looking at replacing gross domestic product as our default and singular metric for national and social progress. It has even commissioned an external consultancy, Lateral Economics, to develop an alternative metric, which they call the Wellbeing index.

Now, there are many ways to render such an index, and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the SMH’s method, but… I wholeheartedly support the notion that GDP is a terrible metric to reflect how our society is benefiting us as individuals. Of course, quantifying things is useful, and GPD is a nice well-defined metric. But as easy as it is to latch on to, it’s just not measuring the stuff that matters. And that’s wellbeing (whatever that is).

I touched on this in my earlier posts about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The problem, I believe, also runs deeper than just GDP being a convenient quantification of national progress. It’s also tied to the Hayekian brand of free market liberalism that places too much stock in that economist’s Swiss army knife: utility.

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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.

Morality Without God

10 03 2011

It keeps being said that without God, there can be no morality. It keeps being said that if we’re evolved from selfish genes, there can be no altruism. It keeps being said that a universe without a divine creator is a universe without meaning.

It keeps being said.

And it’s flat out wrong.

I’m sympathetic to religious sentiments, even if I think the accompanying metaphysical interpretation of those sympathies is in error. But I’m entirely unsympathetic to those of a religious persuasion spreading untruths and fallacious arguments about secular morality.

It’d be like me saying that there is a God, and He is malevolent.

Disagreement over the existence of God is one thing, but to misrepresent the religious view is not acceptable. Not for anyone. Likewise, misrepresentation of the secular view by the religious is ignorant at best, malicious (and immoral) at worst.

So, in the interests of providing a clear and unambiguous exposition of the secular moral position, I’ve compiled a list of false claims made by some in the religious community and the reasons why they’re in error.

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On the Importance of Rational Wonder

8 03 2011

When you read about secularism and Humanism, you read a lot about reason, compassion, anti-dogma, tolerance, free thought and free speech – and lots of other wonderful things.

But one thing you don’t read much about is wonder itself.

All those specs are galaxies. Tell me that doesn't blow your mind.

I’ve said before that Humanism and secular morality still have a long way to go to challenge the established religious ideologies in the world. And one reason is they’re still couched largely in dry, rational language.

That’s understandable – not only is Humanism a movement that is founded on the principles of reason, but the early adopters are typically those who have embraced reason of their own accord and only then found their way to Humanism.

This means they’re not normal. Most folk live their lives, happily believing what they believe. Few people voluntarily shrug off the warm embrace of their cultural and ideological norms to follow the rocky path of reason to unknown lands. It can be a harrowing journey, and it can lead to not insubstantial angst.

Yet Humanism is couched in its own kind of revelationary language – that of reason. It appeals to the people who have already made the emotional leap to give sovereignty to reason. And it doesn’t appeal to those who find reason emotionally unappealing, who believe elevation is a religious experience. It’s not.

This is why I think wonder is central to any future secular morality, Humanism included.

Wonder is tool already employed by supernaturalist religions, but it doesn’t belong only to them. Anyone who has gazed into the night sky, peered through a microscope, lingered over a sunset or pondered the nature of DNA or prime numbers has experienced wonder. And it’s natural wonder. Rational wonder.

It’s this kind of wonder that inspires reverence towards the natural world, and that humbles us into seeing that we’re just a bit piece in this cosmic puzzle. It’s that kind of wonder that we can share with others and which brings us closer together. It’s that kind of wonder that can inspire an entirely naturalistic religious experience.

Wonder is also crucially important because it reminds us that we don’t have all the answers. Our best reckoning and scientific enquiry can’t tell us how the universe began, or what exactly life is, or why the universe is just the way it is, or why strawberries taste like strawberries. Yet, just because we don’t have the answers, doesn’t mean the answer must come down to some supernatural being.

Conversely, wonder also erodes our complacency in taking our existing knowledge for granted. Knowing that all elements on Earth heavier than carbon – including the iron in your blood – were formed in the cataclysmic death throes of a giant star doesn’t make that fact any less astounding. We should revel in this knowledge, share the wonder of this knowledge, not just chalk it up on the board and move on.

Humanism needs to be participatory, not just couched in words. It needs to be something people can experience, something they can do. And something they can share. A Humanist ritual could be as simple as going to the observatory. There is nothing a cathedral can offer in terms of wonder that an observatory can’t.

Let’s think beyond just reason, and beyond just our opposition to dogma and the supernatural. Let’s think about what we want to engender. And besides reason, we need wonder.

God is Dead. Now What?

1 02 2011

Atheism is a negative thesis: it only asserts that there is no God or gods. It doesn’t, however, put forward a positive thesis on how to live life. Yet the religion that atheism challenges does provide a positive thesis on how to live life (flawed though it might be in many cases).

Abandoning religion because of accepting an atheist argument often means divorcing oneself from the practice of religion, and that can have negative consequences, such as eroding community bonds, making us feel isolated, encouraging a turn towards empty hedonistic individualism and leaving a void in our lives.

As atheism is only a negative thesis, it cannot fill that void. The fact I’m an atheist does little to determine my positive beliefs about how to live a good life. We need a positive thesis on top of atheism – something that isn’t stressed by the ‘New Atheists’ or gets discussed much in atheist circles.

Even secular morality, while centrally important, is often couched in the language of dry reason and abstract philosophy. Humanism and other secular worldviews tend to be something you believe in rather than participate in.

In a column of mine that ABC Religion posted today, I argue that one possible way forward is to appropriate the tropes of religion to build a secular institution (or institutions) that gives a positive vision of how to live a good life and actually helps people to live that good life by participating in a secular culture. It’s religion sans God.

Already the comments are flowing – and, not unexpectedly, there’s criticism coming from both sides. I’m interested, though, to see whether this idea resonates with many people, particularly those who are quietly atheists yet are not quite ready to turn their back on their religion. I’ve already received a couple of messages from readers of the column that have expressed as much.

I’ve also set up a dedicated email address – secular dot morality at gmail dot com – if anyone wants to share their thoughts with me about secular religion. I’ve been talking to a few people locally about starting a small group to discuss secular religion and start practising what it preaches (if that’s the right term…). If you happen to be in Sydney, perhaps you can join in.

Cultivating Virtue: How to Encourage Moral Behaviour

3 01 2011

It seems a crucial but oft overlooked step in discussions of morality: how to actually encourage moral behaviour?

Most moral philosophy is obsessed with either understanding the nature of moral judgement, or in developing a system that reliably produces the correct moral judgements. Good on it, but that’s not the end of the story. Even if we did have a system that produces judgements on which we can all agree, what then? How to we translate that theoretical triumph into the actual end goal of moral enquiry: encouraging moral behaviour? Seems little ink has been spilled by moral philosophers on this issue.

The exception to the above is virtue ethicists, who do emphasise the role of personality and character in producing moral behaviour, although much virtue ethics is also related to justifying particular judgements or actions rather than talking about how to shape personality or character such as to promote particular judgements or actions.

Moral psychology fares little better. Certainly it provides crucial insights into how we form the moral judgements we do although, like moral philosophy, most studies stop at the point of forming a moral judgement, and don’t investigate how people behave once they form that judgement.

The psychology of action is undoubtedly complex, and even in moral psychology the path between judgement and behaviour is poorly understood. But I think there are a few things we can say with some confidence as to how to encourage moral behaviour in the majority of people in the real – rather than theoretical – world.

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Why I am Not a Humanist (Yet)

30 10 2010

I was recently contacted, much to my surprise, by a representative of the new US-based Humanist organisation, the Institute for Science and Human Values (ISHV), founded by none other than Paul Kurtz. Apparently, they had come across a missive I’d posted in the past about the Great Adventure of building a workable secular moral system that can, one day, displace supernaturalist religion as a moral compass in today’s society. Evidently, the ISHV shares a similar vision, and they invited me to contribute some suitably spirited language to their upcoming journal, The Human Prospect.

Yet, since this unexpected exchange, I’ve been wondering: why am I not already a Humanist?

After reading the ISHV’s Neo Humanist statement of secular principles and values, it was readily apparent that I share virtually all the same values as Humanism (at least of the ‘Neo’ variety), and yet I have never found myself identifying with the Humanism movement. Why?

It’s not that I wouldn’t want to belong to a movement that shares my values, and explicitly seeks to spread those values (not that I can even imagine what it would be like to be amongst a group of people who all agree with me on most things). But I presume it would be a buoying experience.

It’s also not that I disagree on any particular points of value or principle. Certainly, I have slightly different views on the origins of morality and the meaning of terms such as ‘wellbeing’, but they’re hardly showstoppers.

So, why am I not a Humanist?

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