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: The Future of Ethics

28 01 2012

This is the last in my series in response to Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project. You can read my initial review, my look at our evolving moral psychology, on moral functionalism, and my last post on ethical progress. In this post I want to sum up my thoughts on Kitcher’s naturalistic programme and make some comments on where to from here.

As is probably apparent from the other posts in this series, I’m very sympathetic with Kitcher’s broad approach to ethics. He calls is naturalistic pragmatism – naturalistic because it doesn’t lean on any non-natural or a priori truths, but on the gritty reality of life in the natural world; pragmatist because of his commitment to a Deweyan picture of philosophy being “reconnected with human life”, and “ethics as growing out of the human social situation”, as well as a Jamesian pragmatic approach to truth (p3).

If I had to give my approach to ethics a label, I’d be quite content to call it pragmatic naturalism.

I thoroughly endorse the notion that ethics is a human invention, a cultural innovation that served the function of solving the problems of social living, thus facilitating greater levels of cooperation. That individual moral norms are best understood as strategies for solving these problems and encouraging prosocial behaviour.

I also dismiss notions of there being moral facts – in the sense of a unique domain of facts that are knowable a priori, and/or non-natural, and/or intrinsically normative, and/or the expressions of a divine will. There is only us, our interests, the dynamics of social living, and the mundane fact that if we want to live socially, and reap the benefits of cooperation, we need to abide by some rules of behaviour lest it all spiral down into mutual defection.

And, as I don’t believe that morality is a special domain, I dismiss the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy as barking up the wrong tree. The kind of special ‘ought’ that is apparently separated from ‘is’ simply doesn’t exist. The simple undefinable moral property of ‘the good’ also doesn’t exist. The fallacies are, well, a fallacy.

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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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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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Cartography, Pragmatism and the Liberation of Metaphysics

14 06 2010

All maps are lies. That’s one of the first lessons of cartography, particularly when it comes to the problematic task of representing our 3-D world on a 2-D plane. It just can’t be done. At least, not without some distortion. Yet, even in the face of this necessary distortion, and in the absence of the ‘perfect’ map projection, cartography lives on. Why? Because maps are useful.

I think this is a notion that could lead to a ‘liberation’ of metaphysics, and its daughter disciplines of epistemology and ontology.

To explain why, we need to venture briefly into the world of map projections. Our planet is a globe. Or an oblate spheroid, if you want to be more precise. A world map is typically a 2-D plane. There is, as a matter of fact, no way to represent an oblate spheroid on a 2-D plane in such a way that it doesn’t distort some feature of the original globe.

Mercator projection

This is where map projections come in. The one you may be most familiar with is the Mercator projection. It was developed by Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the mid-16th century, and (obscenely) is still used in schools and travel agencies – not to mention popular representations of the world – to this day.

This is despite the fact that the Mercator projection made a monumental sacrifice – i.e. correctly representing the true relative sizes of continents – in order to preserve ‘constant bearing’. This means that you can draw a straight line between any two points on a Mercator map and derive a bearing that will allow you to easily navigate to that destination – a useful feature for ships exploring the world during the Age of Discovery – but the picture of the world that it offers is grossly distorted as a result.

This is further hampered by the tendency to ‘trim’ Antarctica from the bottom, nudging the equator two-thirds of the way down the map (it runs just under the western ‘bump’ in Africa). The result is that Greenland looks absurdly huge, while ‘diminutive’ Australia is tucked into the bottom corner. In reality, Australia has an area three and a half times that of Greenland, and Sydney, for example, is actually at a similar latitude to Morocco rather than Reykjavík, as it appears.

This makes it great for navigating, but dreadful as a tool for giving us an appreciation for the size and shape of continents. (As such, I strongly recommend that you dispose of all Mercators in your possession – unless used for historical reference – and protest at its use as the default representation of the world. I do in public, frequently, much to my friends’ distress. But some things are more important than dignified behaviour.)

Goode Homolosine

Thankfully, cartographers are well aware of the shortcomings of the Mercator as a general representation of the globe, and there is a flourishing industry in producing new projections of the world that are less obtuse. There are hundreds of alternative projections, from the Peter’s projection (equal area, but distorts shape and bearing), Goode homolosine (equal area, but interrupted), to the Robinson projection (an appealing compromise developed by National Geographic in the 1960s), to the spectacularly named Winkel Tripel (another compromise projection currently endorsed by National Geographic) and many, many more.

You can play around with them, or roll your own, with a brilliant piece of freeware called Flex Projector. My favourite (this week) is a synthesis of the rectangular Equidistant Cylindrical (Plate Carrée) and Sinusoidal (Sanson-Flamsteed). While fiddling with the various knobs and sliders, you’ll soon notice that no matter how hard you try, it’s just not possible to create a projection that doesn’t harbour some compromise somewhere. That’s to be expected.

In fact, one the the main jobs of cartographers is to pick the most suitable projection for your purpose. Need to sail from point A to point B (without GPS)? Perhaps a constant bearing map, like a Mercator, is the most appropriate. Want to see the correct relative sizes of continents? An equal-area projection is what you need. Maybe you need something that simply shows all continents in a reasonably realistic and aesthetically pleasing way. Go for a projection with gently curving meridians, like the Robinson. And so on. But remember, there is no ‘perfect’ map projection of our world.

Now, on to metaphysics.

The world-as-it-is – the ‘objective’, ‘noumenal’, ‘concrete’ world, whatever you want to call it – is our 3-D globe. The world-as-it-appears – the ‘subjective’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘abstract’ world etc – is the map projection.

As such, the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ systematised, abstract, propositional representation of the world is folly. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of understanding, or representing, the world-as-it-is.

Robinson projection

Making the concrete world intelligible inevitably requires us to enforce distinctions, to carve things up into x and not-x, to abstract away particulars, leaving us with generalisations. Doing so inevitably results in us shedding some of the unique detail that is fundamental to the concrete world. It flattens the spheroid.

Yet metaphysics and epistemology still strive to find the abstraction that best represents the world – or that is the ‘perfect’ representation of the world. The failure of metaphysics and epistemology to achieve this goal lends evidence to the notion that, like making the ‘perfect’ map projection, it just can’t be done.

However, this doesn’t necessarily lead us to a skeptical conclusion. This is because there’s a difference between ‘distortion’ and ‘error’. An erroneous map projection would seek to represent some aspect of the world in some way, and fail to do so. Placing Australia in the northern hemisphere, for example, would be an error. But ‘distorting’ Australia’s shape in order to preserve constant bearing is different. Providing supernatural explanations of natural phenomena is an error. Employing the empirical method to infer laws of nature that can be used to predict future phenomena is a distortion.

While we may never have an intelligible metaphysics without distortion, that doesn’t mean all metaphysical systems will be in error.

And we choose which distortion we’ll live with depending on the purpose we have on hand, like in cartography; the Mercator is good for navigating, bad for representing the relative size of continents.

I take this to be my (roundabout) definition of metaphysical pragmatism. It’s an approach that is non-skeptical, but acknowledges our inability to perfectly represent the world in an abstract system. Yet it also acknowledges the use of skilfully applied distortions – such as by carving the world into forms, or x and not-x – in order to achieve some practical end.

Moreover, it rejects the claim that the world-as-it-is, the ‘objective’ world, is somehow fundamentally separated from the world-as-it-appears, the ‘subjective’ world. Instead it sees the subjective as being a part of the objective. We are in-and-of, the world, not external observers to it. The subjective is just one projection, but it’s a projection of the objective world.

That is what I call the pragmatic liberation of metaphysics through cartography.