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.

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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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.

Can There Be a Science of Morality?

21 10 2010

Can we have a science of morality? This question has been thrown around quite a bit of late, especially fuelled by the spirited ejaculations of one Sam Harris. Harris firmly believes there are no barriers to a science of human values, but I fear things aren’t that simple, and I’m not alone in this concern.

Sam Harris

While a ‘science of morality’ is a laudable notion in a loose sense, such a science would, by necessity, look nothing like what Harris has in mind. Harris is seeking not only a science of morality, but a science of human values. He wants a “universal conception of human values” that can be checked, verified and proven using the tools of empirical science.

But that’s just not going to work. Science doesn’t do that kind of thing. At least not without assistance from other disciplines, like philosophy. And if we try to force science alone into providing us with values, there is no shortage of traps that will inevitably spring up.

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Values and Moral Pragmatism

22 07 2010

There are values, and there are the values that promote them. This is a distinction that is worth drawing, because it carves values up between intrinsic (whether they are ontologically privileged or just held to be such) and instrumental values.

But what I want to suggest is that it’s the second-order, instrumental, values that actually take priority over the first-order values when push comes to shove. And the real trick in constructing a healthy, functional and robust moral system is navigating the push and pull of the second-order values rather than quibbling over first-order values. This is what I characterise as ‘moral pragmatism’.

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Two Meanings of Moral

29 05 2010

Are there any terms less well defined, less well understood, than “moral”? I’ve already tried to tease out a few different uses of moral terms, but there’s a further critical distinction that I think it’s worth stressing, particularly in light of my recent riff on why morality doesn’t need God over on the ABC’s Drum Unleashed.

In the comments to that piece, between accusations of rampant relativism and lashings of ad hominem, it wasn’t uncommon to see the accusation that if you deny an objective moral absolute – whether from God or from or reason – then you’re left with an unpalatable moral nihilism, the kind of nihilism that makes rape and torture permissible, as suggested in this comment:

Without a defined yardstick morality is nothing but a slippery slope that steadily bends to prevailing ideas, be they correct or incorrect.

If you stand for nothing, you will fall for everything. The notion that morality is relative might soon accept relations with relatives – ridiculous thought now but who knows in what direction this slippery slope declines. Many an accepted idea today was frowned upon in the past.
– Grander view

Despite the fact that the church saw marriage between relatives as permissible in the past, this perspective is only true if you hold a particularly broad conception of morality – a conception that I think it altogether too broad.

Morality is often seen as referring to a code of behaviour, something that directs our actions, particularly when it comes to actions that affect others. But it’s also often seen as being a subject that concerns the facts about what is right and wrong. The two senses are like the difference between saying “don’t steal” and “stealing is wrong”; the first directs your actions, the second suggests there’s a fact about the world regarding stealing and its wrongness. That latter position is typically called moral realism – which says there are moral facts in the world that we can discover to be true, and these facts justify particular moral norms.

But, as Joshua Green argues it in his PhD dissertation, it’s possible to discard the moral realism bit and keep the action-guiding bit – and if you do so, you really don’t lose that much at the end of the day. The way he characterises the distinction is between:

moral1:  of or relating to the facts concerning right and wrong, etc.

moral2:  of or relating to serving (or refraining from undermining) the
interests of others.

So he reckons you can ditch moral1 – and there are good reasons for doing so – and still keep moral2.

You might call Greene’s approach ‘moral nihilism’ because he doubts the existence of objective moral facts in the world – as do other philosophers, such as John Mackie and Richard Joyce. But it’s only ‘nihilistic’ towards moral1, not moral2. Still, it might look like abandoning objective moral facts opens the door to an odious relativism when it comes to moral2; what’s to stop me justifying anything I want as being moral in any way I please?

However, the nihilism needn’t spread that far. All we need to do is find agreement on some very basic premises, and we can build a moral2 that looks just like we’d expect a moral system to look like, yet it’s not dependent on non-existent moral facts or supernatural forces.

One of the things we agree on is what morality is for. I’d suggest that morality springs from the fact that we’re social animals, and that we all have our own interests that we wish to pursue. Yet many of our interests conflict with those of others. So if we’re to effectively pursue our interests, then it’s a good idea to place limits on our behaviour when that behaviour might negatively impact the interests of others – as long as they agree to limit their behaviour when that behaviour might negatively impact our interests. Old school social contract stuff. Morality basically serves to regulate these interactions. It also serves other purposes, such as binding communities together through shared practice, and giving people rituals that cement their identity – but I’d suggest the core function of morality is to regulate social interactions. And I’d suggest that every moral system in the world has this as a core objective.

So, if we can all agree that this is what we want morality to do, then we can start to look at how best to achieve this end. Importantly, we don’t need to agree on particular moral norms or values – just on the function of morality. There might be many ways to effectively regulate social interaction – some better than others in different circumstances – but there are also lots of things that we know disrupt social harmony. Things like rape and torture.

You don’t need objective moral facts that are independent of us in order to show that this is true. So you can build a flourishing moral2 system that abandons the requirement for moral1 to back it up – it’d end up being somewhat pluralistic, at least where there’s more than one way to promote social interaction – but it wouldn’t be rampantly relativist.

As a side note, I think much moral enquiry (at least until G.E. Moore) starts with questions about moral2, but then it’s very easy to assume you need something like moral1 to back it up – so moral enquiry (particularly post-Moore) focuses altogether too much on moral1, and in doing so misses the point of what morality is really about. As such, I reckon moral philosophy could do with a bit of a purge of moral1. And if we can manage that, we might be able to focus more attention on the real problems of morality, i.e. constructing a robust and persuasive moral2 system.

An Evolutionary Theory of Moral Value

8 01 2010
  1. Let’s say there’s no such thing as intrinsic value. (I won’t present an argument to this effect here, although many others have done so.)
  2. As a result, let’s say instead of there being intrinsic values, we project values upon the world. (Again, I won’t present an argument for this here, but let’s run with it for now.)
  3. These values we project on the world can come from any number of sources – such as emotion or reason – but there is no ultimate arbiter of what values are true or best. Call this a kind of value nihilism, if you will.
  4. However, there is a way the world is, and evolution is an important aspect of that world.
  5. As such, certain values will ‘survive’ better than others in certain environments, either by spreading culturally or by lending a selective advantage to their practitioners (or by not lending a selective disadvantage to their practitioners).
  6. One can choose for themselves whatever values they wish and justify them however they wish – basing them on emotion, reason, God, whatever. However, as there is no ultimate arbiter of these values, this constitutes a kind of value relativism.
  7. However, depending on the values adopted, and how they affect behaviour, these values may increase or decrease the fitness of the practitioner. I hasten to add, in light of the above, there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about this fact. It just is.
  8. In fact, the world being what it is, values that survive – or that lend a selective advantage to their practitioners – will tend to out compete values that lend a selective disadvantage to their practitioners. As such, these values will tend to survive and propagate.
  9. If one desires their values to persist (i.e. they value their values), then it would be prudent for them to choose values that will improve fitness and not degrade it, so that their values might propagate. Again, nothing good or bad about this.
  10. If the above gives you the concern that suddenly survival or fitness sneak in to become foundational values, or that self-interest becomes an overriding value, then take heart that, as a matter of empirical fact – being the social creatures we are living on the fragile interconnected planet we do – if you chose values that will survive, you’d do well to choose cooperation, environmental sustainability, peace etc as well as highly conditional ruthlessness when it comes to matters of survival.
  11. There’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about choosing values like this, but there’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about choosing, say, hedonist or Kantian deontology values, except that by choosing the latter two values you might place yourself at a considerable selective disadvantage and, as such, those values might not be likely to last in the long term.
  12. There you have a naturalistic theory of value that is compatible with evolution, that isn’t committed to any metaphysically suspect properties such as intrinsic value, that doesn’t commit the naturalistic fallacy and that promotes things that we intuitively want to promote, like cooperation and environmental sustainability.
  13. Discuss.

The Problem of Cardinal Values

14 06 2009

‘Cardinal values’ are those values that are fundamental to rest of your moral system, the values from which all other values spring. They’re like axiomatic values, the very ground floor of morality.

Some contemporary moral philosophies state their cardinal values as happiness (hedonism), compassion (Buddhism), altruism (many), the Golden Rule, respect for autonomous rational agents or duty (Kant) – although many moral philosophies simply skip over the question of cardinal values and claim that promoting goodness is good enough (I suspect Rawls suffers from this somewhat tautological approach).

What I’m concerned about is what cardinal values spring from an evolutionary ethics point of view. For evolutionary ethics causes us to question many of the other cardinal values. Let’s take happiness as an example. If happiness truly was a cardinal value, it should be irreducible to other values.

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The Future of Morality

2 05 2009

As I struggle and strain, on a daily basis, to make sense of that strangest of human capacities that is morality, and struggle to suggest to my peers that it might not be what they – and two millennia of philosophers – think it might be, I come across a chapter in a book that might well be a manifesto to the New Synthesis in Morality.

colored_pencils_chevre_sIt’s authored by Jonathan Haidt and Selin Kesebir, and it’s to appear in an upcoming edition of The Handbook of Social Psychology, although it’s available for download directly from Haidt’s home page.

Get it. Read it. Because this is it, folks: this is the End of the Beginning of the New Synthesis, the path hacked through the jungle of confusion to a new destination, and the Beginning of the Middle of the actual hard work of mapping the complex terrain of our moral faculty.

Haidt et al’s main thesis is as follows: Read the rest of this entry »

The Case for Secular Morality

30 03 2009

“Is a canonical secular morality necessary?,” asks Mike Treder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. This comes in response to a recent post of mine about science, religion and secular morality. In that post I suggest:

The greatest philosophical endeavour of this century will be to find a workable, rational, scientifically-compatible moral and values system that doesn’t evoke the supernatural and can serve as a replacement for religion in our society. The Great Quest for a secular morality.

But Mike isn’t convinced.

Several readers who have left comments on Tim’s article seem to agree with me that there is no great need to develop a “secular morality” to replace the various religious moral modalities that have governed human civilization for the last seven thousand years or so. Not that we see any particular problem with leaving religion behind—high time for that, in my opinion—but to seek for an equally orthodox substitute seems simply like replacing an old car with a new one, instead of looking for an alternative, sustainable means of transportation.

So, I’d like to outline my full argument for secular morality, why we need it and what it supposed to do. By necessity, I’ll skim over the detail in favour of presenting the entire argument, but I’ll link to supporting material where possible.

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