September 2010 archive

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’.