Archive of ‘psychology’ category

The Ethical Project: Functionalism and Disagreement

In my first post on Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project I outlined his main argument. In the second post I addressed his account of the evolution of our moral psychology, and filled in a few gaps with my own account that I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis. In this post I look at moral disagreement and functionalism

People disagree about moral issues. There’s probably no other statement in ethics that is as uncontroversial. But what such disagreement means, and how to resolve it – if it’s resolvable at all – is a hotly contested topic.

But if we take the moral functionalist approach – as espoused by Kitcher, and endorsed by myself in my thesis – then we can gain a crucial insight into the origins, and possible resolutions, of moral disagreement.

Let’s start with some typical disagreements. Person A says lying is always wrong. Person B says lying is sometimes right. Then they argue. We wouldn’t be surprised if one appealed to a moral norm they believe in, such as “do not lie”. Another might suggest that lying is against the will of god. Or they might say that lying causes harm to someone’s autonomy. Or that it reduces the overall happiness, and overall happiness is the greatest good. And on they go.

Note that these are all justifications.

Now, comparing justifications is one way of conducting an ethical debate. But I think the evidence suggests that many of our justifications for our moral norms are spurious. If you don’t happen to believe in moral truths or in a divine moral authority (as I don’t), then you can immediately question appeals to them as a defensible justification.

There is also ample moral psychology research that suggests we are easily confused about the justifications of our moral norms. Jon Haidt’s ‘moral dumbfounding’ and the ubiquitous trolley dilemmas show that people offer a range of different justifications seemingly as post-hoc rationalisations for deeply held intuitions about right and wrong. So it’s not the justifications that are doing the heavy lifting, it’s something else.

You can also see this in many contemporary moral debates – such as over abortion or over the moral status of social welfare – where two interlocutors offer their arguments, and then have them torn to shreds by the other side, but no-one changes their mind. Sigh.

Now, I think there are good justifications for certain moral practices. I’m just sceptical whether the justifications that most people cite in everyday moral discourse actually are the right kind of justifications.

So, to understand moral disagreement – and where it really occurs – we need to look elsewhere. And this is where functionalism comes in.

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The Ethical Project: Evolving Moral Minds

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

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.

Why?

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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Finding Moral Motivation

What would you think if you met someone who stated convincingly that they believe stealing was wrong, and yet you knew that they were prone to theft, and did so in an entirely nonchalant manner?

And when asked after stealing something whether they still believe stealing is wrong, they reply emphatically that, indeed, it is. That people shouldn’t steal. Yet they show no inclination to change their stealing behaviour, not any apparent negative attitude towards their own acts of stealing.

What would you think? Maybe that there was something somehow wrong with them? Or perhaps something wrong with their moral conviction?

It certainly seems something is awry in this situation. For it seems intuitive that in order for someone to state that some act is morally wrong, they must feel some compulsion to behave in accordance with that belief. Surely, they can experience weakness of the will, or they can have conflicting moral proclivities, but they must at least feel some motivation to act in accord with the moral norm, even if that motivation is eventually overwhelmed by other desires.

As such, it seems somehow fundamentally inconsistent for them to say X is wrong and yet be either entirely indifferent to X happening, or for them to do X with indifference. Some even think it’s logically inconsistent, or even logically impossible, for them to say they believe X is wrong and feel indifference towards X.

However, if this notion of ‘internalism’ is true – the notion that moral beliefs entail some motivational component – then it raises a hairy pickle. Namely, how it is that a mere belief can carry with it a built-in motivational compulsion? What kind of strange beliefs moral beliefs would be were this the case.

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Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Empathy

The evolution of empathy, and the altruism and cooperation it encourages, is a bit of a curly problem. It’s well known that groups that employ a particular minimal threshold level of altruism can potentially outcompete groups that are less cooperative. The problem is, beneath this threshold level, it’s difficult to see how empathy and altruism can gain a foothold without being drowned out by self-interest.

This is a problem that even Darwin acknowledged, and there have since been proposed a number of possible solutions, including kin selection and reciprocity. Here’s one of my own – although it’s more than likely it’s been proposed before, but I haven’t stumbled across any explicit references to it to date:

Mirror neurons and social learning.

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Scientism, Evolution and the Basis for Morality

Cut, jab, thrust, confusion! That seems to be the spirit of an ongoing exchange between Michael Ruse and Jason Rosenhouse of Evolutionblog. It started with scientism, the term (often used in the pejorative) applied to the notion that science is the best/only way of knowing the world. It then shifts to a somewhat complex (but useful) discussion of moral knowledge, moral absolutism and the slippery slope into moral subjectivism.

The discussion is useful precisely because it’s complex and irresolute – and that’s precisely where the debate lies at the heart of naturalistic ethics today. In delving to this depth – a more arcane depth than most public commentators would delve – we can get to some of the most pressing and important questions in ethics.

First, a word on scientism: I do firmly believe that science is the best tool in our kit for understanding the natural world. But it’s a limited tool. As they say, science is a wonderful tool, but a terrible master. Let’s not wander into the fallacy of assuming because it can’t do something then therefore that thing doesn’t exist.

Ultimately, I take a pragmatic stance on knowledge, and on the utility of science. We’re confronted with phenomena, we organise and structure that phenomena and posit theories to explain it and make predictions about future phenomena. Science has been very carefully developed and refined to be exceptionally good at this task – and if you care about explaining and predicting phenomena, then science beats all comers, especially any brand of revelation.

But that’s not all there is to knowledge. As Ruse points out, there are questions about this method itself, or about how the world can be such that science even works. Science can’t answer those. And that shouldn’t worry us a jot. That’s what philosophy is for.

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Beyond OWS: The Slow Revolution

In three earlier posts I outlined what I believe to be some of the core underlying problems that have inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement – problems with our current economics, politics and society – even if the Occupy movement itself is yet to identify these problems itself while it rails against the symptoms of inequality and greed. In the next couple of posts I’ll offer some solutions to these three underlying problems.

The good news is they’re fixable. The bad news is that we have to do the fixing by fixing ourselves. And that’ll take time. And discipline. There are no quick fixes. That’s why I refer to my approach to fixing these deep societal problems as the Slow Revolution.

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Beyond OWS: Problem #3: The Age of Unreason

What is society? Or, more importantly, what’s it for? And how do we want it to be?

It seems there are precious few asking questions like these. And while the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be rebelling against the way society is structured today, and the direction in which it’s travelling, this rebellion is only the first step. Identifying that there’s a problem is one thing, diagnosing it in detail another. And then there’s the ultimate goal of figuring out how to fix it.

In this post I offer my take on the underlying issues with our conception of society and its function that I believe underlie the Occupy Wall Street movement’s grievances, and in a future post in this series, I’ll offer some suggested alternatives that might take us in a more fruitful direction.

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The Moral Psychology of the London Riots

Many of us have been struggling to comprehend what psychology, what such vicious and destructive behaviour as we’ve seen over the past few days in London. Behaviour that many of us wouldn’t flinch at calling baldly immoral.

Yet much of the discourse has so far struggled to grasp the psychology behind these acts, psychology that looks on the surface to be wild and irrational. But there is a rhyme, and even a reason, to the rioters’ and looters’ behaviour. This is not to excuse the behaviour, but it’s crucial to understand the psychology behind it particularly if we’re to attempt to prevent such behaviour from occurring again in the future.

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Why Cooperate?

There’s every possibility that I’ve missed something utterly obvious, but I’ve been reading up on the fickle nature of cooperation for my thesis, and I’ve found what appears to be a gaping hole in the literature.

There are countless studies that explore the challenges of encouraging cooperation – primarily via the use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a tool. There are also plenty of studies that look at cooperation from a social perspective, at the motivations that individual agents employ and the psychological benefits they receive from group activity.

But I’m yet to find a paper that clearly defines what cooperation really is and, more importantly, it’s benefits.

It seems the existing studies skip the question: why cooperate?, and barrel forth into questions about the difficulty of encouraging cooperation, apparently assuming that cooperation is a universally desirable outcome. Maybe it is, but I want to know precisely what are the benefits of cooperation that makes it so attractive.

So far I’ve come up with six reasons why cooperation is deemed desirable:

1) Force multiplication

Cooperation allows two or more individuals to combine forces to perform a task that would be impossible by one individual alone. A simple example would be lifting a heavy weight (we’ve all asked friends and family to pop around to shift that couch).

In fact, the task could be defined as anything that is beyond the capacities of an individual, whether that capacity is physical (strength), intellectual or spatiotemporal (manipulating two distant objects simultaneously). This doesn’t necessarily imply an improvement to efficiency, just that a previously impossible task is rendered possible.

2) Division of labour

Cooperation enables a large task to be broken up into smaller sub-tasks which are easier to perform than the whole task taken as one. This not only makes one large complex task into smaller simple tasks, but it allows a large serial task to be parallelised, thus improving efficiency.

3) Sepcialisation

Cooperation allows individuals to devote a greater proportion of their finite resources towards improving performance at a particular task. Combined with division of labour this not only improves efficiency but can also enable tasks that were previously impossible without specialisation.

Specialisation also allows individuals to capitalise on their intrinsic strengths and mitigate their intrinsic weaknesses by cooperating with a sympathetic individual.

4) Coordination

Division of labour and specialisation in turn allow greater coordination through devoting finite resources specifically towards directing effort in a way that is more efficient than if it is undertaken on an ad hoc basis. The benefit of coordination would only emerge if the energy expended coordinating is more than made up for by increased efficiency or productivity in the task at hand (a problem for corporations riddled with middle managers today…).

Coordination can also prevent conflicts of interest and potentially costly clashes (see the donkeys in the pic).

5) Trade

Cooperation also allows one individual to ‘trade’ a surplus for a surplus produced by another individual. This trade can be literal, such as trading goods, or it can be figurative, such as trading labour.

6) Risk mitigation

Cooperation enables a task to be unshackled from being dependent on any one individual, such that if that individual is in some way prevented from performing that task, the entire endeavour doesn’t collapse around their ears.

I’m sure there must be more benefits to cooperation. I reckon economics must have studied cooperation extensively, but I’m not as familiar with economic texts, so don’t really know where to dig to find the answers. Most of my research has been in evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology, game theory and ethics, and it seems the benefits of cooperation are largely taken for granted in these fields.

If you think I’ve missed anything, or you have some tips on where I can read up on research on cooperation, please do let me know.

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