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.

Outside-in

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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Raising the Bar

10 09 2012

To argue or not to argue. That is the question that underpins my latest missive on The Drum about the state of political and public discourse in Australia (and translatable to most other modern liberal democracies), as motivated by Malcolm Turbull’s latest speech.

And when it comes to those who spout sophistry or invective in the guise of a genuine argument, then the best strategy is simply to sideline them. Let’s not waste our energy attempting to battle head on those who have no intention of engaging in rational discourse.

Let’s raise the bar from the rock bottom, and set it at least to the level of demanding reasoned arguments, supported by evidence and devoid of fallacies or spin. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

And if someone doesn’t conform to these basic standards, they disqualify themselves from the conversation. They’re only welcome back in when they decide to clear the bar.

What I’m talking about is like issuing a kind of social contract over how we’re going to conduct ourselves as a society. If we’re not happy with the emotional, irrational, biased and deadlocked discourse we have today, we agree that we’re all going to conform to a basic minimal set of rules about how to argue. If someone breaks those rules, they’ve broken the contract and don’t deserve to participate.

All this does mean we need to be better at argument. It might be too late for many of us, but one of the best things we can do to improve the world of the future is to ensure our children don’t fall into the same blather trap that we have today.

As such, the best long term solution is really quite a simple one: we should teach reasoning and critical thinking in school.

Like we all agree that no-one should leave school without being able to read, write and do maths, we should also add the ability to spot logical and argumentative fallacies to that list.

This ought to be core curriculum stuff, because reasoning and critical thinking make everything else easier – and lack thereof makes everything else harder.

Reasoning is hard, we’re not naturally good at it, but we can’t afford to live without it. So let’s teach everyone how to do it better.





Moral Ecology Defined (At Last)

6 05 2012

I recently found myself confused about the meaning of the term ‘moral ecology.’ This proved to be an unsettling experience, namely because I’m the one who coined the term (with a little help from John S. Wilkins).

Given that moral ecology features centrally in my thesis, it’s probably important that I come to grips with what it means. And I think I have.

My confusion was over precisely what the term referred to. Was it describing the dynamics of the moral diversity we see in the world today? Was it explaining why the Left-Right political spectrum unfolds the way it does? Was it in reference to the diversity we see in moral sentiments? Or the diversity in psychological types?

I wanted the term to carry a heavy load and handle all these things. But it just couldn’t. So I’ve narrowed it down in an attempt to give it a more transparent and robust meaning, and linked it to these other phenomena without stuffing them all under the same term.

Here’s how it goes:

Moral ecology describes the phenomenon whereby it takes a pluralism of behavioural strategies to promote high levels of cooperation within groups, and the complex dynamics of the interactions between these strategies over time.

It refers to the fact that each behavioural strategy – which is often manifest in the form of a moral norm – enjoys differential levels of success in terms of promoting cooperation depending on the environment in which it exists, i.e. the other strategies in play around it.

That’s moral ecology. It’s an abstraction notion demonstrated using the tools of game theory.

Moral ecology then forms the backdrop for the evolutionary pressures that shaped human social and moral psychology, which can help explain the evolution of the highly polymorphic and plastic minds we have today.

Moral ecology also helps to explain the existence of psychological diversity, basically because it shows that there was no one psychological type that evolution could have gravitated towards that would prove successful in every social environment.

And, finally, moral ecology can help explain the existence of moral diversity in the world. Because there is this psychological diversity, we see a corresponding diversity of moral attitudes in the world, and this diversity exhibits the complex dynamics described by moral ecology.

So, in sum, moral ecology is the abstract notion that it takes many behavioural strategies to promote high stable levels of cooperation, which helps explain evolved psychological diversity, which helps explain moral diversity.

Unless there are any gaping holes in this definition, then that’s what I’m going to run with in my thesis, appropriately entitled Evolution and Moral Ecology.





The Old as a Barrier to the New

19 04 2012

Techdirt has an interesting piece on the follies of the publishing industry in shifting its business model over to ebooks and digital publishing, focusing on the utter and infuriating pointlessness of DRM, or digital rights management.

It makes the salient point that DRM fails because it makes a legitimate product less useful, and therefore less valuable, than a pirated one, which can be acquired easier and cheaper than the legitimate product.

However, the piece also raises a bigger point about the impact of change on existing industries. And there’s a little psychology and decision theory to explain why almost all industries almost always screw up the transition phase, largely motivated by their desire not to go extinct, and then go extinct anyway. This is particularly true of publishing and the media.

Here’s the story:

Company A has an existing product, X,  which sells for a high price and achieves a good margin.

A new disruptive technology emerges which, like most disruptive technologies, make things less expensive to produce and/or disseminate.

This results in a cheaper product Y that competes with the more expensive old technology product X.

Company A now has a number of choices – and it’ll always choose the wrong one:

1) Lower the price of X to compete with Y, thus crippling its margins and forcing it to lower the quality of X to appalling levels. This is what most newspaper publishers have done in response to the internet. Now their print editions and online editions are scraping the bottom of the barrel, while online outlets, like the Huffington Post, boom.

2) Sell both X and Y. However, now they’re competing with themselves, and Y will win, putting the long-established X department out of business. But X makes a good margin and the company doesn’t want to lose that, or change its business model. So the company raises the price of Y well above its cost to make X competitive against it. However, now Y is unreasonably overpriced in the eyes of consumers, who can probably easily get Y free illegally. This is what book publishers are doing by pricing ebooks at only a fraction lower than print books, and television and movie studios with DVDs vs. downloads. Then company B comes along, unhindered by the old technology, and it only produces product Y, and puts company A out of business anyway, like iTunes did to the music industry.

3) Transition from product X to Y, and either phase out X entirely, or find an equilibrium between the two. Y will rarely entirely replace X, and X will likely have to change, such as bestseller fiction moving to ebooks while quality hardbacks remain in print, or top 10 music going digital while vinyl lives on. Y will be priced such that it’s competitive, and it’ll supplant X fairly rapidly, with the business model adapting and departments probably closing. Businesses almost never take this option, even though it’s the most rational.

Basically, management, when faced with the decision of competing with themselves or continuing business as usual, will almost always continue business as usual. And, in doing so, they effectively let other companies compete with them and put them out of business anyway.

This is because most management are intrinsically conservative, they seek to protect the business model they know (and thus their own jobs), even at the expense of the business at large. Few managers have the courage to actively destroy part of their company in order to compete in a new environment, and thus passively destroy the entire company.

I’ve seen this phenomenon unfold a dozen times in my career, and I expect it’ll continue as long as new disruptive technologies emerge.

The upshot is we’re currently living in a transition time where many industries are busy making their mistakes, but they haven’t gone out of business quite yet. When they do, and new business emerge that embrace the new technology, then things will settle into a new equilibrium – and BitTorrent will suddenly decline in popularity, as did music filesharing systems once iTunes emerged.

I look forward to that day.





Evolution and Moral Ecology Seminar at UNSW

17 04 2012

Picture this: a philosopher giving a seminar on evolution and moral ecology to a bunch of evolutionary biologists and ecologists. It’s bonkers. But I’m going to give it a shot. I mean, what could go wrong?

Actually, I’m hoping the audience will teach me a thing or two. I’m going to use the opportunity to hurl at them the most ribald version of my moral ecology thesis and see if the analogy sticks.

And I’m going to flop out the full length of my evolutionary story for how our highly polymorphic psychology came to be as it is and see if anyone chops it off.

I’m not sure on the attendance rules, but it’s at the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales at 3pm in the Biomed C theatre on Friday 27th April. Do come!

Here’s the abstract:

In this talk I introduce the notion of ‘moral ecology.’ This is the thesis that there is no one way to promote optimal levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in a population. Instead, certain behavioural strategies will be more or less successful depending on the environment in which they’re situated. The environment includes both the physical environment, such as resources and climate, and the social environment, which includes the behavioural strategies employed by other members of the group. What emerges is a pluralism of strategies that are able to sustain high levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in their particular environment, forming a meta-stable equilibrium. I suggest that human social and moral psychology evolved in light of this phenomenon and, as such, we evolved a polymorphism of psychological types that promote a pluralism of behavioural strategies while retaining sufficient plasticity to adapt to changing environments. This polymorphism is maintained primarily through negative frequency-dependent selection. I argue that moral ecology can help explain the existence of human psychological diversity, and the existence of moral diversity in the world.