May 2009 archive

Liberals, Conservatives and Moral Diversity

Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times about the psychology of liberals and conservatives has been getting some attention this past week. Probably because the research on which it’s based resonates so clearly with so many people. It’s research by Jonathan Haidt, whom regular readers of this blog will recognise as being a great influence upon my own research.

However, Haidt’s exploration of the psychology that underpins the political spectrum – fascinating and illuminating though it is – is not the end of the story. For when you combine Haidt’s research with another intriguing finding that our political views are largely influenced by genes (Alford & Funk & Hibbing, 2005), it raises a big fat question: why does our psychology – and biology – vary in the way it does?

I have a theory. It’s called Moral Diversity. It goes a little something like this:


Children Are Evil

Okay, bare with me on this one. It’s a thought in progress, but when it occurred to me (in the middle of a lively philosophical discussion at Socrates Café), I had to stop, go get my notepad and jot it down, lest it go the way of most of my thoughts: into oblivion five minutes hence.

bullyOne of the crucial pieces of evidence that morality is learned rather than somehow innate is the fact that parents work tirelessly to educate their children in moral behaviour. “Don’t hit your sister”; “share”; “say you’re sorry” etc etc. The presumption is that if morality was innate, kids wouldn’t be so downright nasty as to need consistent moral guidance.

However, I do happen to believe that morality is largely innate – not the norms to which we subscribe, but the capacity for moral thinking and the ability to feel moral emotions such as empathy. As such, why would children require so much moral guidance? Here’s why:

Children are evil.

There, I said it. Now, let me elaborate with somewhat less hyperbole.


Ethics of Killer Robots

Would you deploy a new military robot, armed to the teeth and more operationally capable than any human soldier, if it was programmed with a detailed set of ethical rules? This is the intriguing question asked by Russell Blackford over at the IEET.

ed 209These rules would encourage the robot to act within current international laws of war, and enable it to complete its objectives with a minimum of collateral damage and loss of civilian life. In fact, by all measurable accounts, it performs better than human soldiers:

The T-1001 is more effective than human soldiers when it comes to traditional combat responsibilities. It does more damage to legitimate military targets, but causes less innocent suffering/loss of life. Because of its superior pattern-recognition abilities, its immunity to psychological stress, and its perfect “understanding” of the terms of engagement required of it, the T-1001 is better than human in its conformity to the rules of war.

Sounds pretty appealing; a device of any nature that can end wars with a minimum of damage and loss of life sounds pretty appealing. But what if something went wrong?


Nothing is Supernatural

Russell Blackford has a nice discussion of the problem with the natural/supernatural distinction over on his blog (which I recommend), the Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

ghost_clipart1He talks mainly about the difficulty in fielding a definition of ‘supernatural’ as ‘things beyond the powers of science to explain.’ However, as I stated in the comments to that post, I don’t think one needs to define supernatural as such. Instead it’s far easier – and more consistent – to simply state that ‘no supernatural things exist.’

Here is my comment in its entirety, with some more detail on my argument:

This all reminds me of the opening lines to Quine’s On What There Is.

“A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: ‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word – “Everything” – and everyone will accept this answer as true.”

Likewise, when asked ‘what is natural,’ it might be tempting to respond with the same answer: ‘Everything.’

Yet, as Quine points out, we can still argue over cases. Are ghosts natural or supernatural? Is a the cause of a miraculous event natural or supernatural? But even the nature of this disagreement is problematic, as Russell has so ably stated.

However, I don’t think one needs to accept a rigid distinction between natural/supernatural ‘things’ because it seems more sensible to say that there are no supernatural things. Anyone who calls something supernatural is simply mistaken.

A ghost, if agreed to exist, becomes a part of the natural world. Should some characteristics of the ghost contradict accepted knowledge of the natural world, it would serve as evidence that our knowledge of the natural world is incomplete.

Compare this to the alternate: the ghost is agreed to exist, it’s characteristics contradict accepted knowledge of the natural world, but our conception of the natural world doesn’t change and the ghost is added to a new category of things: supernatural.

I suspect the vast majority of scientists – or naturalists – would not be comfortable with this. They’d either show the ghost doesn’t exist, or if they agree it does, they’d integrate it into their naturalistic world view.

Supernatural, as a vernacular term, can still be used for those things that naturalists don’t believe exist, but less informed individuals do, such as spirits, angels, demons etc.

Evolution, Morality and Truth

There’s a widely held – yet mistaken – belief that all cognitive processes are somehow intended to find truth; we think in order to understand the way the world is. And this applies equally for moral cognition: it’s intended to find the moral facts of the matter: is it right or wrong to kill an innocent? Is it right or wrong to lie or cheat?

Makes some intuitive sense – after all, why employ the energy and time consuming cognition if it’s not to improve the accuracy with which we apprehend the world? And surely a more accurate representation will also aid us in decision making, right?

But this rests on two crucial – and oft unexamined – assumptions that are not nearly as robust as they might appear at first glance. But if these assumptions are indeed flimsy, then it could be that morality actually has nothing to do with finding truth, and is instead simply about finding the best course of action in a given circumstance – ‘best’ for the individual at the time by their proximate reckoning, and best for the individual’s genes on an ultimate level.

Rational Agents

spockThe first confounding assumption is that humans are, rational agents. A rational agent “always chooses to perform the action that results in the optimal outcome for itself from among all feasible actions,” according to good ol’ Wikipedia. Basically, a rational agent has beliefs and desires, and draws upon these beliefs in an attempt to satisfy their desires. All very mechanical, very rational, very Mr Spock.

But… we’re so not rational agents. We don’t actually weigh up these options in a balanced, impartial way. We, instead, use short and fast heuristics fuelled by emotional impetus to make decisions. There’s a growing mount of research that undermines the rational agent hypothesis, rational choice theory and exchange theory (Lawler & Thye, 2006; Collins, 1993; Hammond, 2006; amongst others). In their place, it’s better to think of us as emotional-intuitive agents (Haidt, 2008).

Now, that seems an odd way to find the truth of the matter, such as which possible behaviour is better for us to take. But, nevertheless, that’s how we function. Truth isn’t as important as we might think in directing behaviour.

Autonomy Assumption

The second assumption is sometimes called the ‘autonomy assumption’. It goes a little something like this:

People have, to greater or lesser degrees, a capacity for reasoning that follows autonomous standards appropriate to the subjects in question, rather than in slavish service to evolutionarily given instincts merely filtered through cultural forms or applied in novel environments. Such reflection, reasoning, judgment and resulting behavior seem to be autonomous in the sense that they involve exercises of thought that are not themselves significantly shaped by specific evolutionarily given tendencies, but instead follow independent norms appropriate to the pursuits in question (Nagel 1979).
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

What this is saying is that the cause of reasoning is not as important as the reasoning itself, and it formed the foundation of Nagel’s attack against any kind of strong evolutionary ethics. Basically, it doesn’t matter what caused someone to start thinking about a particular thing, but it matters what their reasons are for believing it. Evolution might have endowed us with a disposition to think more about mathematics than music, but the content of the thoughts about maths – such as whether 2 + 2 = 4 – has nothing to do with evolution; evolution can’t make 2 + 2 = 5.

So, too, for ethical thinking, says Nagel. “No one, to my knowledge, has suggested a biological theory of mathematics, yet the biological approach to ethics has aroused a great deal of interest,” says Nagel (1979). But, this argument – and assumption – only holds if the subject matter is truth-seeking. Mathematics is truth-seeking. Physics is truth-seeking. But what if ethics is not?

Going to the definition of the atonomy assumption above, what if ‘reflection’, ‘reasoning’ and ‘judgement’ don’t actually influence behaviour in ethical thinking? What if the ‘excercises of thought’ are themselves shaped by evolutionary processes – such as through unconscious domain-specific modules or moral intuitions? What if behaviour or discourse in the social sphere isn’t about finding the truth of the matter, but is about achieving desirable outcomes for the agents involved quickly and with limited information and energy expenditure? Perhaps over-rationalising the discipline will misrepresent what it’s actually there for in the first place.

Morality isn’t About Truth

If we are comfortable abandoning these assumptions, and the notion that moral thinking and moral discourse is about finding truth, then we can simply wash away many of the most perplexing problems in ethics and metaethics as non-problems. Moral discourse might feel like it’s talking categorically; talking about truths. But if it’s not, then we can just ditch cognitivism and move on.

Of course, such a move raises other issues, such as how to justify moral judgements. But that’s another story.

Don’t Count the Republicans Out Yet

What is it with the cripplingly short memories of commentators when it comes to US politics? Here we have just a couple of the many wailings that the Republican party is down for the count, a party in ruins possibly never to arise again.

What claptrap.

republican_elephantHarken back, oh, five years, and what was the dominant meme doing the pundit circuit? Why, that the Democrats were down for the count, a party in ruins possibly never to arise again. Heck, wander back a little further through the archives, and you hear the same gnashing of teeth as Clinton left office in 2000. The very same rhetoric is being used against the Liberal Party here in Australia.

It’s in the nature of (healthy) democracies to swing like a pendulum, left, right, left, right, perphas passing through the centre long enough for a coalition or centrist govenment to form. But it’s natural, normal and quite healthy for parties to overextend, be punished by the electorate for doing so, fracture, reform and come back fighting again.

So liberals (in the US sense) shouldn’t count the Republicans out. Not yet. The soul searching they’re going through right now, and the reformation that is sure to come, is going to be targetted squarely at the present administration. So Democrats shouldn’t be complacent. They should assume the Republicans will be back some day, and keep careful tabs on how they do it, the leaders they fall behind, and the values they adopt. For not to remain vigilant will only invite disaster, if not at the next election, then at the end of Obama’s term.

Evolution of Man and Woman

I ran across this cute artwork illustrating the evolution of man and woman by Calgary artist, Tom Rhodes, on his blog, Plan to Fail. In his post, he explains that it was a project for his figure illustration class where he was given free reign to pick his subject. He picked evolution. But instead of running off and drawing half-monkey hybrids, he rushed to the University of Calgary’s Archaeology department to seek council from experts, notably Dr. Anne Katzenberg.

The result is more cartoony than most scientific illustrations, but I think it does an appealing job of representing the changes that have taken place over the last million and a half odd years since Homo habilis.

My only concern is the noticable shift from dark skin to light over the course of the piece. Rhodes justifies this by appealing to the fact that our ancestors tended to migrate north, with a corresponding lightening of the skin. However, the earliest Homo sapiens are likely to have sported dark skin, as they required skin pigmentation to protect them from UV radiation in the absence of the hair that covered their forebears.

But hey, this isn’t a scientific illustration, it’s an illustration of something scientific.

The image is below the fold, as it may offend some interminable prudes (it does contain nudity – specifically, nude primates!). In fact, if you are an interminable prude, and you do click to see the picture, I’ve probably offended you twice.


What the Philosopher and Psychopath Have in Common

“If you are able to honestly examine the moral arguments in favour of slavery and genocide (along with the much stronger arguments against them), then you are likely to be either a psychopath or a philosopher.”

– Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund, “Social Intuitionists Answer Six Questions about Moral Psychology”, in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed), Moral Psychology, Volume 2, MIT, 2008, p196.

Can’t argue with that.

Why Happiness Has Nothing To Do With Morality

Let us, today, stop using happiness – or its analogue pleasure – as the end of morality. To think such is to put the cart firmly before the horse. Yet such thinking is rife in moral philosophy today (I’m looking at you utilitarians).

Why is it backwards to seeing happiness as an intrinsic good? Let’s take a quick excursion into the evolutionary psychology of emotion,  care of a recent TED talk by philosopher Daniel Dennett:

[ted id=”485″]

To apply this strange inversion of logic, as Robert Beverly MacKenzie so beautifully put it, to morality:

An act does not make us happy because it is good.

An act is good because it makes us happy.


The Future of Morality

As I struggle and strain, on a daily basis, to make sense of that strangest of human capacities that is morality, and struggle to suggest to my peers that it might not be what they – and two millennia of philosophers – think it might be, I come across a chapter in a book that might well be a manifesto to the New Synthesis in Morality.

colored_pencils_chevre_sIt’s authored by Jonathan Haidt and Selin Kesebir, and it’s to appear in an upcoming edition of The Handbook of Social Psychology, although it’s available for download directly from Haidt’s home page.

Get it. Read it. Because this is it, folks: this is the End of the Beginning of the New Synthesis, the path hacked through the jungle of confusion to a new destination, and the Beginning of the Middle of the actual hard work of mapping the complex terrain of our moral faculty.

Haidt et al’s main thesis is as follows: (more…)