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.