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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Am I Really a Moral Relativist?

9 08 2012

Relativism is one of those terms more often used in the pejorative than in any serious philosophical sense. It’s like a cautionary sign at the edge of a cliff pronouncing “Caution! Precipice ahead!” Any argument in ethics that steers towards relativism – or even any argument that steers away from objectivity and absoluteness – sets off the usual slew of anti-relativism klaxons.

Yet as I delve deeper into writing my thesis, I can already hear the klaxons blaring.

Now, those who have read my previous posts on moral ecology might be surprised to hear that I’m beginning to see it as a form of relativism. After all, I suggest that the problems that morality is trying to solve have no single solution, and often it requires multiple approaches working in concert (or in tension) to get the best outcomes.

That sounds relativist. And while I’m becoming more aware of that link, I hasten to highlight the differences between any Moral Ecology Brand Relativism from the more No-Name Brands that gather dust on the back shelf in the moral supermarket.

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Religion for Atheists Review

19 04 2012

ABC Religion and Ethics has posted a review I penned of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists.

Despite the negative press de Botton has received from some quarters of the New Atheist movement, his book is a worthwhile contribution to moving the discourse about god, atheism and religion forward.

In the wake of the atheist convention here in Australia, there’s renewed discussion about religion, but sadly, most of it is the same old to-and-fro that we’ve seen for decades. This kind of debating is mostly fruitless and, for the most part, a tremendous waste of time and energy.

What we need right now is for some of the very smart people behind the current atheism push to shift emphasis towards building secular culture, whether that be underpinned by Humanism or another system of values. And in creating secular culture, there’s a lot we can learn from religion.

de Botton’s particular approach and his specific prescriptive suggestions might not be the best ones, but at least he’s engaging with positive atheism rather than wallowing in negative atheism. I’d like to see more atheist thinkers to do the same.

In Defence of Alain de Botton

18 03 2012

My oh my, atheists can be a sensitive bunch. The furore that has erupted over the opening lines of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists, has put not a few noses out of joint amongst the more arm-waving ranks of non-believers. But many of them have just served to reinforce de Botton’s point, which starts like this:

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.

This line inspired some bile-laden posts from a cadre of vocal atheist bloggers, seemingly intent to denigrate de Botton rather than engage with his argument. PZ Myers retorted with a “fuck you very much”, Martin Wagner related de Botton to a Nazi accommodationist, JT Eberhard dismissed most of de Botton’s CNN article as “bullshit”. Others, like Dan Fincke, have made more of an effort to at least understand what de Botton is saying, before getting all defensive about their approach in the face of criticism from de Botton directed towards “fanatical atheists”.

It’s pathetic.

If the so-called ‘new atheists’ want to know why so many people are dismissing them as “fanatical,” one need only peruse these posts. They’re aggressive, mocking, self-righteous and many represent an almost wilful misinterpretation of de Botton in order to thump another table in the name of anti-religion, like that’s the only argument in town, and all others are beneath contempt.

They’re effectively saying to the world of thinkers on religion: “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

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Moral Disagreement

23 02 2012

If there’s one uncontested fact in ethics, it’s that just about everybody disagrees with just about everybody else on at least one moral issue, probably many more. That’s moral disagreement for you, and it’s a topic of great concern to many moral philosophers and metaethicists.

Except that moral philosophy somewhat bizarrely construes moral disagreement in an excruciatingly narrow sense, and thus entirely skips an extremely interesting and important aspect of the phenomenon.

See, most moral philosophers look at moral disagreement through the lens of wondering whether moral realism is true or not. If (a popular rendering of) moral realism is true, then moral disagreement ought not exist, at least in an ideal situation. After all, there’d presumably be some moral fact that would settle the disagreement one way or another.

However, the stubborn persistence of moral disagreement could be evidence that such moral facts don’t exist. And we’ve all been to a dinner party where there’s been an overly lengthy conversation about capital punishment, abortion, gay marriage or whatever, and no matter how long the argument goes, both sides stomp away unmoved.

“Whoa! Hold up there,” says the moral realist. “Maybe the disagreement isn’t real disagreement. Maybe it’s only apparent disagreement.”

Maybe individuals on both sides don’t disagree over the pertinent moral facts, but they disagree about the non-moral facts or the details of the circumstances surrounding the issue. Or maybe at least one side is biased in some way. Or perhaps one or both sides suffer from some cognitive impairment that prevents them from appreciating the blunt truth of the moral facts. Etc.

In order for moral disagreement to be a problem for moral realism, it can’t be susceptible to these “defusing explanations”, as they’re called by John Doris and Alexandra Plakias (2008). Moral disagreement is only a problem for moral realism if it’s fundamental moral disagreement. It’s only really disagreement if the respective sides are ideally situated, ideally rational and have access to all the salient non-moral facts.


This whole palava is just another chimera offered by contemporary metaethics. I suggest it misses the point of moral disagreement and its relevance to ethical enquiry.

Now, I’m not terribly interested in debating the existence of moral facts, mainly because I don’t think they do exist. But even if they did exist, just restricting discussion of moral disagreement to fundamental moral disagreement ignores the fact that just about everybody disagrees with just about everybody else on at least one moral issue.

And that seems to me to be something worth explaining. Just saying everyone in recorded history who has disagreed with someone else is ignorant, biased or stupid doesn’t seem to be a very satisfactory answer.

So, in my thesis I draw a distinction between two types of moral disagreement. The first is strong disagreement. It’s basically the fundamental moral disagreement mentioned above. It’s the disagreement that two individuals would have if they happen to be ideally situated.

However, since I find such a scenario utterly implausible except in abstracto, and I can’t even imagine what two individuals in such a situation would be like or would argue about, then I’m happy to largely ignore it.

The other type is weak moral disagreement. This is the type of moral disagreement that we see in the world every day, splayed across the media, fought out in pubs and across the table at dinner parties. Weak moral disagreement doesn’t require that the respective individuals in the argument are anything special, only that they’re not pathologically impaired such that any kind of argument is a struggle.

And weak moral disagreement is also compatible with moral realism being true (i.e. one or both individuals are ignorant of the relevant moral facts etc), as well as with moral realism being false (i.e. the individuals disagree for some other reason).

We know weak moral disagreement exists, even if we can’t be 100% sure that strong moral disagreement exists. And just because weak moral disagreement tells us nothing about moral realism, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

I, for one, want to know why people disagree about moral issues in the real world. And because I happen to not believe in moral facts, I want to know all those other reasons people might disagree, such as ignorance of non-moral facts, bias, emotional predilections, cognitive impairment, environmental contingencies etc. Or maybe that there isn’t one universal objective moral code that applies for everyone at all times and in all places.

And I suspect that a thorough account of why people disagree might tell us a heck of a lot about ethics, ethical discourse and, lo, moral agreement.

It baffles me that so many words are spilt in journals and books about the dubious strong moral disagreement, while the far more tangible weak moral disagreement is overlooked.

Religion Without God

31 01 2012

Seems everyone is talking about Alain de Botton’s new book. Good. It looks like a worthy tome. I’ve yet to read it (my PhD reading list puts leisure philosophy on the backburner for now), but I intend to soon.

The book, Religion for Atheists, argues that while the supernaturalist claims of religion are false, religion still offers many things that we discard only to our detriment. Happily, it’s a subject about which I have strong and sympathetic feelings. Sadly it’s also the topic of a book I was going to pen post-PhD, but he’s beaten me to it (and likely to have done a far superior job to me anyway).

But it seems not everyone has quite understood de Botton’s core point, as suggested by this quote lifted from the Guardian review by Terry Eagleton:

One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked.

What Eagleton has failed to understand is that de Botton is separating the functions of religion from their supernaturalist justifications. And it’s only the latter that he’s calling “bunkum”.

Should free speech and civil rights be justified according to some supernaturalist tradition that suggested they were imperatives thrust upon us by the Man in the Moon, de Botton would likely happily reject the justification, but argue on rational grounds that free speech and civil rights are well worth keeping – for the function they serve in social life. It’s their very “social uses” that makes them not “bunkum”.

This is the core twist of de Botton’s approach, and one to which I subscribe wholeheartedly. We absolutely must separate the function of institutions from their supposed justifications. We must then examine what justifications they might have rationally, and only keep them if they pass rational muster.

Religion’s truck has been to foist many beneficial practices on us, but to justify them with a false metaphysics, assuming it’s the metaphysics rather than the function that is important. Then they overextend and issue more edicts justified by the same bunkum metaphysics, except these ones are harmful to human wellbeing and society. But because religion’s justificatory system is resistant to scrutiny and self-correction (unlike reason and the scientific method, for example), they resist moves to correct their errors.

It’s no surprise, then, that atheists seek to tear down the supernaturalist edifice that causes these social ills. But the militant atheist also doesn’t discriminate between the function and the justification, and so seeks to eliminate the entire system – the good functions with the bad justifications.

Both are wrong.

It’s precisely the approach of de Botton that seeks to investigate those things that are genuinely beneficial to humans wellbeing and to society on rational grounds, and instantiate them, that is the right approach. And it turns out many (but not all) things created by religion can do just that. Why not learn from that in the pursuit of wellbeing and social harmony?

Eagleton fails to understand this argument, and that’s why his criticism is, sadly, little more than a straw man.