Archive of ‘psychology’ category

Liberalism and Value Pluralism

Does a commitment to normative value pluralism logically entail a commitment to liberalism? Isaiah Berlin is a known proponent of both pluralism and liberalism, and at times he’s appeared to suggest there is a logical connection between the two – although at other times he suggests the connection is only a psychological one; that it’s choice that makes human beings human, that we’re made pluralistic, and liberalism is the best system to enable these two psychological forces to coexist.

Isaiah Berlin, from Steve Pyke's collection.

I had the opportunity last night to attend a debate between two leading Isaiah Berlin scholars on this notion of the link between liberalism and value pluralism, Beata Polanowska-Sygulska from Jagiellonian University in Poland, and George Crowder from Flinders University.

I have to profess a vast ignorance when it comes to Berlin’s work – he doesn’t feature prominently (or at all) in the philosophical texts I’ve been wading through, although his views about pluralism and liberalism appear to be remarkably close to my own. I shall have to read his work more thoroughly before I complete the normative chapter of my own thesis on evolution and moral pluralism.

From the outset, I can pick one stark point of difference between mine and Berlin’s views: he believes in a plurality of incommensurable objective values, such as equality and liberty, whereas I don’t believe any objective values exist. However, that’s not a show stopper, as I think you can extricate the objectivity from Berlin’s values without too much trouble (and call it a fictionalism, if you will) and the crux of his argument will remain largely the same – the only difference is in some distant metaphysical justification for his pluralism.

On the connection between pluralism and liberalism, I have a slightly different take from those advanced last night. Mine is, unsurprisingly, informed by evolution and moral psychology. It goes a little something like this:

Humans have been grappling with the problems of social coordination for hundreds of millennia. These problems are effectively: how do you get large numbers of unrelated individuals to live and work together in a way that advances their interests (biological and psychological) without suffering the ill effects of socially disruptive behaviour, like cheating or ‘defection’ (in game theory terms), and without  succumbing to invasion by outsiders.

Evolutionary forces have worked such that those individuals who were able to solve these problems more effectively were able to leave a greater number of offspring for future generations. Thus, those individuals who evolved the psychological mechanisms that promote prosocial behaviour and censure socially disruptive behaviour, were lent a selective advantage. These psychological mechanisms include the moral emotions, problem solving heuristics and moral reasoning.

However, there is no one solution to the problems of social coordination that works best in every environment, particularly as the environment is also made up of the other ‘strategies’ employed by others, thus is dynamic rather than static. As such, evolution has not settled upon one set of psychological mechanisms or predispositions, for to do so would have been unstable and left that population prone to ‘invasion’ by other strategies – invasion from within, through mutation, or from without by other individuals with different psychological makeups.

The upshot – and Edward Westermark acknowledges this as early as 1906 – is that human psychology varies (genetically as well as a result of environmental influences), and this variation yields a broad spectrum of moral outlooks and values. Westermark’s passage is as follows:

The emotional constitution of man does not present the same uniformity as the human intellect. Certain cognitions inspire fear in nearly every breast; but there are brave men and cowards in the world, independently of the accuracy with which they realise impending danger. Some cases of suffering can hardly fail to awaken compassion in the most pitiless heart; but the sympathetic dispositions of men vary greatly, both in regard to the being which whose sufferings they are ready to sympathise, and with reference to the intensity of the emotion. The same holds good for moral the emotions. The existing diversity of opinion as to the rights of different classes of men, and of the lower animals, which springs from emotional differences, may no doubt be modified by clearer insight into certain facts, but no perfect agreement can be expected as long as the conditions under which the emotional dispositions are formed remain unchanged.

As such, value pluralism is an empirical fact about human psychology. But it’s more than just psychological; just because evolution has primed us with this variation, it doesn’t mean it’s good. There could be one moral value that actually serves our interests better than others. However, I don’t believe this is the case. As I mentioned above, there is no one solution to the problems of social coordination. And if you take solving the problems of social coordination to be important, then you will also find pluralism to be important, as it allows a range of solutions to arise, one of which might be the best in any particular situation.

On to the strengths of political liberalism: I don’t actually think it’s promoting autonomy that is the fundamental justification for liberalism, instead it’s that promoting autonomy allows the pluralism of values (or ‘strategies’) to work in tension with each other, thus preventing any one strategy from dominating and causing the society to become unstable (or to be in disequilibrium). Autonomy is a second-order value, but one that enables first-order values to be promoted most effectively.

Thus liberalism is the most effective political framework (that we know of to date) that allows the various strategies for social coordination to balance each other out, and best enables a society to meet the challenges of social coordination. It’s not without cost; as Berlin states, there will be situations where values conflict and you’ll inevitably get dilemmas with no perfect solution. But that’s the price you pay, and it’s a smaller price than adopting a monist approach and, say, placing egalitarianism or order, above all other values.

I suspect that Berlin would have disagreed with several points in my account of liberalism, but I think they’re largely detail. On the whole, I think my account is very similar in action to Berlin’s, although I’ll have to read a great deal more of his work to know for sure.

Evolution and Moral Ecology

‘Moral ecology’ is a new term that I have adopted to describe the thrust of my thesis (thanks to John Wilkins for a fruitful conversation at PBDB4 leading to the coining of this term). Basically, I’m claiming that:

If we have an evolved moral sense – and I think there’s ample evidence that we do – then we would not expect it to function in an identical way between individuals. Instead, we would expect a diversity in the function of the moral sense between individuals, and a corresponding diversity of moral intuitions and moral judgements.

This is because there is no one solution to the problems of morality that are best in every environment or circumstance, so evolution has equipped us – individually and as populations – with a variety of strategies that increase the likelihood that we’ll be able to successfully respond to a wide range of situations and environments (and by ‘environment’, this also includes the strategies employed by other individuals).

Thus we get a ‘moral ecology’ – a diverse range of strategies that each perform well in their niche, while it lasts, but no one strategy that pushes out all others.

Many of the terms above need to be qualified and placed in their correct evolutionary/psychological/philosophical contexts, and much argument needs to be made to back it all up, but that’s detail.

Effectively, it’s a broadside against the idea that morality need be monolithic, and if there’s moral disagreement between two individuals, it’s because one (or both) of them is in error in some way. In fact, the diversity and tension between different moral perspectives is healthy and helps to keep the system from snapping over to an extreme.

That’s ‘moral ecology’.

Evolved Fear of Sharks Prompts Front Page News

Today, roughly*:

  • 133 Australians died of cardiovascular disease
  • 116 died of cancer
  • 30 died from respiratory diseases
  • 24 died from injuries or external trauma, including 6 from suicide, 4 from falls and 2 from road accidents
  • 18 died from behavioural or mental disorders
  • 16 died as a result of nervous system disorders
  • 16 also died of metabolic diseases
  • 14 died of diseases of the digestive tract
  • 9 died from genitourinary diseases, mainly renal failure
  • 5 died from infections or parasites
  • 3 died from other causes
  • And 1 died from a shark attack

Yet, can you guess which made news internationally? Yep, the shark attack.

You're more likely to accidentally drown in the bathtub than be eaten by me.

It made news not because it was a rare occurrence – even though it is – because there were many other deaths that occurred today that could be counted as rare. It didn’t get news because it was common and preventable, because it’s not either of these things.

It got news because there’s something deep down in our monkey brain that finds the idea of being eaten by a predator to be a shocking and outrageous way to die. Individual deaths from modern ailments – from cardiovascular disease, cancer or infection – rarely rate a mention, and certainly don’t get reported worldwide.

A list of common human fears typically includes “heights, storms, large carnivores, darkness, blood, strangers, confinement, deep water, social scrutiny, and leaving home alone” because “these are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger” (Pinker, 1997).

Strikingly absent from this catalog of human fears are the things humans should be afraid of in contemporary environments. The sight of a car or a gun, for example, should strike far more fear into the heart of a modern human than does the sight of a snake, for cars and guns kill far more people than do snake bites. (Buller, 2005)

The moral of this story is that we should remember that we’re not much more than occasionally thoughtful primates – and we’re still more primates than thoughtful.

* Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics document, Causes of Death, Australia, 2008

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

Spake Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

And there you have, in a nutshell, one of Australian opposition-leader, Tony Abbot’s, key strategies in this federal election campaign. In fact, Yoda might well have added “Suffering leads to voting conservative.”

Political insight is strong with this one.

Fear – or more precisely, perception of threat – starts people on a slippery slope towards voting conservative. This is well known from political and moral psychology, where numerous studies have shown that individuals who perceive the world as being a dangerous place – whether it actually is or not – tend to vote conservative.

As they say, “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” (Although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Yoda. He would have said “a liberal mugged, a conservative is.”)


Evolution and Politics, a Cautionary Tale

Does evolution endorse any particular political ideology? Larry Arnhart – he of Darwinian Conservatism – thinks it does (as the title of his blog might suggest). He elaborates on his notion that evolution suggests liberalism (in the traditional sense*) in an essay authored for the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, entitled Darwinian Liberalism.

Larry Arnhart

It’s well worth a read, as it weaves together a slew of interesting elements of evolutionary theory, moral and evolutionary psychology and political ideology – a synthesis that I think is largely underrated in academia.

I’m inclined to largely agree with Arnhart’s conclusion that liberalism is an effective political ideology, but I’m wary of calling upon evolutionary biology to justify this fact, and I disagree with him in some key details of his argument.

My own view is that evolution is important in understanding humans and what makes us the way we are, but that it doesn’t explicitly endorse any particular political ideology. Instead, as I’ve argued before, I believe that evolution is not only agnostic when it comes to favouring one political ideology over another, but that, if anything, it favours a diversity of political ideologies.


Politics is Psychology

Which comes first, psychology or politics? Contrary to popular belief, it’s psychology.

Politics is often talked about as if it’s about ideology first, and that people are drawn to a particular ideological stance because of their life circumstances – i.e. grow up in a working class family and you’ll vote left; grow up in a wealthy family and you’ll vote conservative – or that we are able to detach ourselves from our individual circumstances and reflect on political ideology in an idealised rational way, and we eventually settle on what we think is the ‘correct’ political ideology.

But it’s not like that.

Certainly, circumstance plays a roll, as does reason. But the dominant factor that decides the political ideology we’re likely to identify with is our psychological disposition and accompanying worldview.

This is the sentiment underpinning my recent analysis of a speech given by our new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, published on the ABC’s Drum website today. The analysis isn’t as much about her political views as the implicit worldview that underpins them.


Ockham’s Beard at the Sydney AAP Conference!

Well, I say “Ockham’s Beard”, but the referent is really just me, Tim Dean. Yep, I’ll be giving a paper at the AAP Conference entitled “Evolution and Moral Diversity” on some of my more crackpot ideas about evolution and, well, moral diversity. The abstract ought to give some hints as to the content:

How can we account for the vast diversity of moral attitudes that exist in the world, not only between cultures but between individuals within a single culture? Part of the answer may come from looking at our moral psychology and how it has been influenced by evolution. If we have evolved a moral sense that encourages prosocial and cooperative behaviour, as suggested by Haidt & Joseph (2004) and Haidt & Graham (2007), amongst others, we might actually expect there to be a diversity in the function of this moral sense rather than it being homogenous across all humans. In this paper I argue that the problems of encouraging prosocial behaviour have no single solution that is dominant in all environments, a phenomenon modelled by game theory, particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As such, evolution has primed us with a spectrum of moral inclinations that represent different strategies to solving the problems of cooperation, and these differing inclinations contribute to the observed diversity of moral attitudes.

Basically, I’m arguing that if we have evolved a moral sense that influences the way we make moral judgements, and it evolved to help solve coordination problems that stem from being social animals (because fostering prosocial and cooperative behaviour advanced individual fitness), and these coordination problems don’t have one single dominant solution in every environment, then we’d expect evolution to endow us with a variable and conditional moral faculty that would promote a diversity of ‘solutions’ to the coordination problems. And that’s precisely what we see when we look into the world.

This goes against the idea that if something is based on biology, then it must be universal and fixed – the old ‘genetic determinism’ line. Take height, which is strongly genetic (around 80% of the variation in height is accounted for by genes), but we don’t expect everyone to be the same height. In fact, we expect a variety of heights. Likewise with personality types. Or metabolic rates. Or MHC. Evolution is canny in that it doesn’t put all its eggs in one strategy in many situations. It varies things, and makes them conditional on the environment.

Why is this interesting to philosophers? Not only does it go some way to accounting for observed moral diversity in the world without collapsing into relativism, it also clarifies an important distinction between norms (strategies) and the underlying function that morality plays. We might all agree that morality fosters prosocial behaviour, but we can happily disagree about the best strategies to promote prosocial behaviour.

It also weighs in on the whole moral disagreement issue, particularly as it affects moral realism. Some believe that moral disagreement (usually couched in terms of disagreement over particular norms) would dissolve if suitably situated agents had access to all the relevant facts of the matter. I don’t believe this is true, for a number of reasons, but mainly because there are many ‘moral’ situations where there is no perfect answer – at least in practice.

This is primarily a descriptive thesis – I’m just saying that evolution has confronted these coordination problems and come up with some solutions. I’m not advocating that we abdicate our will to our evolved moral sense absent any critical reflection. But the problems that evolution has faced are largely the same ones we face, i.e. how to get a bunch of unrelated individuals to live and work together without stabbing each other in the back.

If you’re attending the conference, I’ll be giving my paper on Thursday 8th of July at 3pm in Morvern Brown room G4. Please do attend and provide support/critical feedback/biscuits.

What If There *Is* a Gender Difference in Intelligence?

It’s been stated many times before that there might or might not be a gender (or racial) difference when it comes to some kinds of intelligence or aptitude, and this difference might be partially accounted for by biology. I’m not looking to weigh in on this debate. It’s an empirical issue, and as far as I can tell, it’s still unresolved. As such, I’m agnostic.

What I want to do consider is how we should respond if it turns out there is some empirical evidence suggesting there are biological differences across gender or ethnic groups in at least one kind of intelligence or aptitude. Since this isn’t an issue that we can logically dissolve from the armchair, or wish away given the outcome we want to be true, we need to brace ourselves for whatever outcome is supported by the evidence. And I don’t feel that the debate has been at a mature enough level to seriously consider the implications of this kind of result.

Consider the finding regarding the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews having a higher-than-average intelligence. It was controversial, but there wasn’t nearly the magnitude of uproar at this notion as there was to Larry Summers’ infamous 2005 speech. But what if the finding was the other way around, that Ashkenazi jews had lower than average intelligence, and this was put down to biology? Can you imagine?

But such a result – concerning race or gender – could be just around the corner. It’s not up to us to choose, it’s up to the evidence.

What if evidence emerges that supports a biological difference? Let’s say that it’s found that Summers’ hypothesis* is true. Or even that it’s found that there is a gender difference when it comes to interest in pursuing particular careers, rather than an aptitude difference. These factors might not account for the entire observed gender difference in the workforce – clearly socialisation and entrenched cultural biases are potent forces – but it might account for a significant proportion of the difference. What then?

A couple of initial thoughts: one response could be to cite the naturalistic fallacy (or at least one reading of it) to assert that ‘just because something is natural (or biological), that doesn’t mean that it’s good‘. It might be true that there’s a biological difference in capacity x, but that doesn’t mean that we should be happy with this, nor try to do something to change it if it’s within our power to do so.

The second thing is to remember that there are accepted biologically-based differences in other capacities, such as physical strength – and as a result, more men’s sport is televised than women’s sport. But this doesn’t mean that we, as a society, ought to value men more than women. This is because we’re wise enough (or ought to be) to detach performance in sport from an individual’s value as a human being.

The third thing I’d suggest is that no matter how biology shapes capacities or aptitudes, we can choose to work to ensure that any biological differences don’t negatively impact an individuals’ wellbeing. We can make a value decision that no matter how capacities or aptitudes vary, each individual deserves to be valued, and deserves a chance to pursue their own wellbeing without discrimination.

I’m sure there are many more implications and responses should it turn out to be the case that there are real gender or racial differences – and these should be getting more attention. We can’t just wait to see if evidence emerges, and allow the more conservative elements leap on those results before the more progressive voices have a chance to respond in more rational or temperate ways.

So we need to ask, before the evidence emerges, ‘what if there are gender or racial differences?’, and get the dialogue going sooner rather than too late.

*Summers’ hypothesis is that average intelligence is the same between men and women, but that the standard deviation for men is greater, and that since only the top 0.01% in a particular area (such as mathematical ability) tend to seek work in a related area – such as a physics or maths professor – we’d expect a greater proportion of men than women in those extreme roles.

The Meaning of Life

There are lots of ways to answer the question, ‘what is the meaning of life’, but I’ll cut to the chase: there isn’t one. At least, that’s if you take the question from the perspective of ‘what life means’. Unsurprisingly, I found the answer to that not in a philosophy book but in a biology book. Richard Alexander’s thought-provoking The Biology of Moral Systems (1987), as it happens.

Lifetimes have evolved so as to promote survival of the individual’s genetic materials, through individuals producing and aiding offspring and, in some species, aiding other descendents and some nondescendent relatives as well. (p37)

Alexander is Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Curator of Insects at the Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan, although, as a biologist, I think he has a nuanced grasp of the philosophical implications of his field.

What Alexander is saying in the quote above is that life isn’t itself meaningful, in an explanatory sense, beyond its role in propagating genes. It just so happens that a living organism that can ‘work’ to choose a suitable mate and aid in the raising of offspring turns out to be a tidy way of making more copies of genes than other methods.

As Samuel Butler put it: “a hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” Or, to appropriate for us: a human is just a gene’s way of making more copies of itself. Not very glamorous.

So, should we take that as the meaning of life, as our purpose on this wee speck of a planet in a vast and lonely universe? Should we drop everything and breed like mad? What if we find that we can produce a machine better capable of making copies of genes and propagating them throughout the environment? Should we then declare it a job well done and step into the euthanasia booth?

I suspect that many may find this a dissatisfying life pursuit. Although, if so, you should brace yourself for the implications of rejecting the ‘naturalistic’ meaning of life: there is no meaning of life. At least, there is no objective meaning that we can discover from the world, or that can be beamed directly into us by some supernatural being. There’s no revelation that might come from empirical or rational study that might reveal the purpose of life in a way that will intrinsically motivate behaviour.

But just because there’s no objective meaning of life doesn’t mean we can’t create meaning subjectively. In fact, I’d suggest that this is precisely what we do already – even if we believe we’ve found the objective meaning of life. We create our own meaning and project it on to the world. That’s not to say we create meaning randomly or arbitrarily. We are built such that certain things will more likely be given value than others. There’s no intrinsic right or wrong about this. It’s just a fact. But it remains that this projection of value on to the world is dependent on the projector: us. Without any humans – or life – in the universe, there’s no meaning of life to be found. Or projected…

So, no need to get all emo or existentialist. In fact, you might take solace in this nihilist view. If there’s no meaning from outside, all we have is ourselves – and each other – in which to find meaning. So let’s not get complacent. Let’s start reflecting and create that meaning together.

Evolutionary Psychology Myths #1: Human Universals

Evolutionary psychology is a complex and, um, evolving endeavour. And it is often misunderstood, not only by its critics, but also often by its proponents and practitioners. So I present the first in a series of ‘evolutionary psychology myths’, not to debunk EP, but to dissolve some of the myths – some of the straw men – that are hoisted by opponents and assaulted with wasted vigour.

The first fallacy is that evolutionary psychology implies that human nature is somehow universal; that many, if not all, of our evolved characteristics are shared by all humanity.

There are some high profile evolutionary psychologists who have implied just this. Take this excerpt from a paper 2005 by none other than EP’s dynamic duo, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides:

The  long-term scientific goal toward which evolutionary psychologists are working is the mapping of our universal human nature. By this, we mean the construction of a set of empirically validated, high-resolution models of the evolved mechanisms that collectively constitute universal human nature.

Cosmides and Tooby have stated a similar position several times – that their research is not interested in human differences, but human universals. That’s all good and well, but it doesn’t mean Cosmides and Tooby – and many other evolutionary psychologists – don’t believe there are evolved differences in human nature. It’s just that the focus of their study is human universals.

However, sadly, this position can give a misleading impression that evolutionary psychology is only concerned with human universals – or even more extreme, that the only aspects of our psychology that have evolved are shared by all humans. That’s not the case.

In fact, if evolution has influenced our minds – and I’m inclined to agree with evolutionary psychologists that it has – then we would not expect evolution to furnish us all with the same psychology – the same personalities, intuitions, heuristics etc. In fact – and in keeping with our understanding of evolution and its impact on biology at large – we would expect it to lend us a diversity of psychological features.

This is for the simple reason that many of the problems that evolution has sought to solve don’t have one single answer, whether it’s the best way to find food or a mate, or how to interact with other members of your species. An individual organism’s strategy is dependent on their environment, which can fluctuate wildly, and even more important, on the strategies employed by other organisms.

As such – especially given our complex social nature and the convoluted problems that emerge from that – we would fully expect that evolution would endow us with a range of strategies for solving these problems. As such, evolution suggest psychological diversity, not psychological uniformity.

This manifests in two main ways: the first is in our problem solving modules (although I’m wary of that term ‘module’ – it may not be a discrete unit unto itself), such as a facial recognition module or our moral emotions; the other is that other evolved faculty for abstract reasoning.

This notion of evolved psychological diversity is central to my own thesis on evolution and morality. Far from evolution advocating any one particular value system or political ideology, it equips us to develop a vast plurality of values and thus ideologies to give us a wide range of responses and solutions to the problems we’ve faced in our evolutionary past. This is the idea I call Moral Diversity – a kind of moral semi-pluralism.

At the base level is the problem trying to be solved, which in the case of morality is: ‘how do you get a bunch of unrelated individuals to live and cooperate together for mutual benefit without them defecting on each other and ruining the whole venture?’

There is no one solution to this problem; there are many. And some solutions are better than others in different circumstances. Sometimes it pays to be open, trusting and highly cooperative. Sometimes that strategy leaves you open to defection. Sometimes it pays to be closed, suspicious and only cooperative with your immediate family or local community. Sometimes that approach means you miss out on potentially lucrative cooperative ventures with outsiders.

As such, evolution has furnished us with faculties, heuristics, intuitions etc that respond in different ways to the environment to produce a diversity of responses.

So, far from an evolutionary perspective on morality suggesting that ‘if it’s evolved, it’s universal’, it suggests that ‘if it’s evolved, it’s diverse’. That’s one straw man down – many left to go…

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