Archive of ‘evolution’ category

Going on a Moral Diet

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.


Morality Inside-out

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.

Politics as Biology: Explaining the Razor Edge of Partisan Politics

Following Obama’s re-election, M.S. at The Economist ponders the startlingly improbable situation in the United States where such a strongly partisan country can keep rolling out elections that are knife edge finishes:

This is what strikes one most strongly looking back at America from across an ocean: the country seems repeatedly embroiled in savage 51-49 electoral campaigns, and it seems to be increasingly paralysed by irresolvable rancour between right and left.

And think about it for a second: this is bizarre. If Americans are in fact divided between two extremely different political ideologies, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if each of those philosophies were to hold the allegiance of nearly equal blocs of support. That situation ought not to be stable. Adherence to these two ideologies ought to shift enough just due to demographics that the 50-50 split should deteriorate. And yet the even split seems to be stable. What’s going on?

Good question. Here’s a speculative answer, using the tools of population biology as a lens to understand politics:


The Nature of Morality: A Thesis Primer

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:


Am I Really a Moral Relativist?

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.


Which Comes First: The Moral, Or The Ecology?

There are chicken and egg problems. And there are tail and dog problems. The thing is, I’m not sure which of these problems I’m facing at the moment in regards to defining moral ecology.

I recently had a very fruitful, if highly critical, experience at the Philosophy of Biology at Dolphin Beach workshop. Amidst the splendour of the New South Wales south coast, and between midnight bonfires on the beach, I gave a paper on evolution and moral ecology.

The thesis was this:

The highly variegated hominin social environment of the last few million years shaped our psychology to produce a polymorphism of psychological traits that promote a range of behavioural strategies when it comes to social living.

For example, the inherent difficulties in identifying trustworthy partners for potentially risky cooperative ventures has made some people naturally more predisposed towards being trusting and others towards being suspicious.

Another example might be that some people are predisposed to be quick to anger, particularly in the face of perceived disloyalty or defection in cooperative ventures, and others are predisposed towards being more forgiving.

These predispositions promote behaviours that follow fairly predictable patterns – more trusting people engage in more cooperative ventures but expose themselves to greater risk of defection; more forgiving people maintain more social bonds by punishing less but make norm enforcement more difficult.


Moral Ecology Defined (At Last)

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.

Evolution and Moral Ecology Seminar at UNSW

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.


Evolution and Moral Ecology Abstract

There’s a conference coming up later this year in Sicily on the evolution of morality, appropriately called: The Evolution of Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience. Looks like a cracker. Speakers include Frans de Waal, Phillip Kitcher, Patricia Churchland, Richard Joyce, Owen Flanagan and Simon Blackburn, among others.

I plan to go. And I plan to give a paper – although they’re only guaranteeing spots for posters, which is odd. There are some short 15 min(!) talks on offer, so I’ll also try to score one of them, if I can, and cut loose with my riff on evolution and moral ecology.

Before I submit the abstract, I thought I’d post it here for comments and criticism. I’ve never done a poster before (not including my year 4 project on scorpions, which was pretty cool, come to think of it). So not sure how much can be crammed in. Also I don’t think I can order a coffee, let alone talk about evolution and morality, in less than 15 mins, so a talk might be tricky. On the other hand, I can talk fast if need be.

Happy to hear feedback on the abstract, on things like whether the first paragraph lending context is necessary, or the last paragraph offering implications, or whether it generally makes sense etc:

Many philosophers have regarded moral diversity – and its concomitant moral disagreement – as an anomaly to be explained away en route to detailing a single correct system of moral norms. In this paper I take an alternate view, looking at moral diversity as a phenomenon worthy of a more detailed explanation, and central to understanding the nature of our evolved moral psychology.

I argue that moral diversity and moral disagreement are, at least in part, a product of evolved psychological variation. I suggest this is because the adaptive social environment faced by our distant ancestors was highly heterogeneous, both in terms of physical environment, such as local resource availability, and social environment, including the behavioural strategies employed by others within the group.

As a result, there was no one psychological type that reliably produced adaptive strategies in these complex and heterogeneous environments, a phenomenon that can be modelled using game theory. Thus humans evolved a stable polymorphism of psychological types, with some proving more adaptive in certain environments and less adaptive in others, but no one type reaching fixation in any population. This is a phenomenon I call ‘moral ecology.’

The upshot of this notion is that moral diversity may not always have been such a bad thing. It suggests that instead of moral diversity being indicative of some error in thinking on behalf of moral agents, in fact the diversity of approaches to social living enabled our ancestors to adapt to a wide variety of environments, both physical and social. It also suggests that philosophers might place greater emphasis on the diverse dynamics of social living and whether it’s even possible to have one system of norms that promotes behaviour that is beneficial to its adherents in every social environment.

Criticise away!

The Ethical Project: The Future of Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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


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