January 2011 archive

What’s the Point (of a Thesis on Evolution and Morality)?

One of my supervisors asked a singularly curly question when we last met: what’s the point of your thesis?


But he raises an important issue – a couple of important issues, really. One is the fundamental question of: is what I’m trying to say actually important, relevant or new?

And the other is: if it is important, relevant or new, are you making sure this is clear to your reader/marker?

So, anyway, it’s sent me on a navel gazing quest of thesis-introspection. What is the point? Why is telling a story about how evolution has shaped our moral psychology to produce a pluralism of moral strategies interesting? To what is it relevant? Who cares? And how do I make them care?

My initial response – besides being speechless for a rare moment – is to think this thesis is relevant on a few levels. I just need to choose which is the most relevant, and which is worth emphasising, because it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.

The first relevance is simply in providing an accurate genealogy of morality: a purely descriptive endeavour that seeks to understand where morality comes from and how we came to think about morality the way we do. Although, arguably, this is more the purview of anthropologists and moral psychologists rather than a mere philosopher.

The second relevance is in exploring why there appears to be an apparent contradiction between the way we think of morality – i.e. that it’s about finding the correct answers to moral questions – and the fact that we disagree so broadly and intractably about so many moral issues. Is it just that there is a right answer, but that most people are simply wrong?

Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.

A third angle is to tie descriptive evolutionary ethics to contemporary normative ethics. If a normative ethicist wants to advance a normative system, I’d suggest that it needs, at minimum, to be compatible with human psychology.

Advancing a normative system – even one that we can all agree yields the right answer in any particular situation – but which places unreasonable demands on our cognitive faculties is doomed to fail. After all, normative ethics isn’t just an armchair endeavour of speculation about how morality might be (although many moral philosophers and metaethicists might disagree), it’s supposed to be a practical system that can actually guide and encourage moral behaviour.

Perhaps, in light of this, a more robust descriptive account of how we think about morality – and why we vary in the way we think about morality – could be useful for the development of a normative system that has a hope of accommodating our diverse moral psychology. It might also help inform a normative system by having it acknowledge that pluralism and disagreement aren’t a sign of weakness, but a path to a stronger moral system. And it might place practical bounds on what a realistic normative system can achieve.

As it happens, I don’t think I’ve been focusing on any one of these issues exclusively so far. In fact, I’ve found myself in a most interesting diversion talking about the influence of evolved psychology on political attitudes. Well, my supervisor suspects it’s a diversion. So it’s probably prudent of me to lock in one of these (or a different) ‘point’ and focus on that.

After all, a PhD thesis is not one’s last word as an academic. It’s their first. If I want to explore these other issues, there’s ample time to do so after I get my PhD (assuming I do get my PhD, and the even more unlikely prospect that I’ll score a gig in academia afterwards – but still, gotta get the damn thesis done before anything else).

I’m open to any thoughts on what is the most interesting angle of my various rants on this blog, and which aspects of my thesis might yield the ripest (and lowest hanging) fruit. Sometimes I’m far too close to my own research to get any perspective on what’s actually novel or interesting any more…

Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.1)

A slight revision of my recent redefinition of the political spectrum along psychological lines. I’ve replaced the Beautiful-Safe World axis with the simpler Safe-Dangerous World. The safe-dangerous spectrum is already talked about quite a bit in the literature, particularly concerning Bob Altermeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, so I should stick with that.

So here’s the updated chart:

The x axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as a safe or dangerous place (which can scale to the world-at-large, their society or even their local community – with political attitudes possibly varying for each).

The y axis represents the extent to which an individual perceives the world as being just, such that someone gets what they deserve, either good or bad. If reward/punishment are perceived to be the product of luck or randomness, that’s an unjust world. If you live and breathe (and see the world through) the Protestant work ethic, you see a just world.

The ideologies located on the diagram are those that appeal to individuals at that location. Each ideology might be defined in terms different from safe/just world, but ultimately, I’d suggest they’re responding to the concerns of people that hold that particular worldview at that location in the chart.

Note, I also added a couple of new entries:

Utopianism (high Safe world; high Unjust world): by “utopianism” I mean the view that we can become a society where everything works perfectly, and everyone will cooperate for mutual benefit without defection. This isn’t strictly a political ideology, just an example of extremist thinking, in this case optimistic about the world around us and optimistic about human nature to a fault. You see flashes of it when people say “why can’t everyone just get along” and when people sign off with “peace.”

Honour culture (high Dangerous world; mid Unjust world): those who adhere to an honour culture view, particularly when they aren’t required to, see the world as a dangerous place and other people as potentially untrustworthy. As such, reputation management is crucial. To earn a good reputation is hard when there are many who would fake a good reputation in order to exploit others. Being slapped with a bad rep effectively makes one an outsider in their own community, almost an ostracism. Yet it’s a system and mentality that emphasises community standards that ought to be followed, even to the letter at the cost of the spirit.

Also, talking about Right-Wing Authoritarianism, I’d say high RWAs reside in large bubble on the far right of the chart, centred on Authoritarianism. High Social Dominance Orientation (Sidanius, Pratto et al.) would be in a bubble in the top right-hand corner of the chart. I’ll add them to the chart – when I can figure out how to do so in an aesthetically non-disruptive way…

Redefining the Political Spectrum (Version 2.0)

I was wrong. I recently wrote that the liberal-conservative political spectrum could be most parsimoniously described along a single axis representing whether the world was considered a safe or dangerous place. I no longer think that’s correct.

Instead, I’ve elaborated on that theme a little, adding a second dimension which, along with safe-dangerous world, I believe accurately characterises the political spectrum – at least psychologically.


The Fall of the Tea Party

Hit prediction: the Tea Party is not long for this world.

I’ve implied as much before on this blog. But amidst the spirited hand waving and foot stomping we’re seeing by Tea Partiers these days, and the conservative victories in Congress in recent memory, it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party is just another populist movement, big on rhetoric, short on actual solutions.

Such movements can strike a chord with the people, get swept into power, and then they run up against real world problems to which their fantasy worldview has no answers. The very fact that the lynchpin of Tea Party doctrine is ‘no compromise’ makes them heartily unsuited to being players of any significance in the game of politics. No compromise might make a nice campaign slogan and sound bite for Fox News, but it doesn’t wash well when you need over 50%  on your side (or more in the Senate) to get things done.

And their gut wrenchingly unsophisticated attitude towards politics, and the world at large, make them weak, not strong. Take this little missive from Tea Party Nation (reprinted by The Economist’s Democracy In America blog) that came out in response to John McCain’s bipartisan response to Obama’s bipartisan message following the Arizona shootings:

John McCain represents everything that is wrong with the Republican Party.  He acts more like a liberal democrat than a Republican….Barack Obama a patriot?  Yes, and I am the Pope.

Obama is intent on using his time in office to advance our country’s cause?   When?  When he assaulted the rights of Americans? When his regime tried brand patriotic Americans as extremists?  When his regime tried to take over the Internet?   When they tried to impose a “fairness doctrine” on the only media conservatives dominate?   When they tried to shove a socialist agenda down the throats of Americans, despite overwhelming proof that Americans did not want this?  How about when he went out apologizing to every third world tyrant for America?  How about when he bowed to foreign leaders?

…What we see from Obama is not an incompetent fool.  He knows exactly what he is doing.   From being raised by a mother who hated America, to associating with America hating communists in his youth, he gravitated to communist, America hating professors in College and associated with America hating political groups until it looked like he might actually go somewhere in his political career…

Obama hates America and that is obvious.

It could easily be mistaken for the babblings of immature, cognitively feeble and emotionally unstable extremists.

I’ve stated before on this blog that I appreciate the strength that comes from having opposing views work in tension in a pluralistic liberal society. But one fundamental hurdle these views must overcome before they’re taken seriously is they must correspond to reality. They must respect facts and reason. Pluralism in values is a good thing. Pluralism in methods to advance the nation’s and people’s good is a good thing. Pluralism in facts – i.e. misrepresentation, falsehood and lies – don’t get you anywhere in the long run.

The test will be when the Tea Party is faced with real policy decisions to make, where they will be required to employ their worldview to find solutions. And they’ll fail. Probably quite spectacularly. And their support will plummet.

So don’t fear the Tea Party. The rebound towards the middle, and possibly the left, when they expire dramatically will be worth then pain of listening to their inane ravings now.

Sam Harris Doesn’t Get Morality

It’s all in Russell Blackford’s illuminating and comprehensive review of Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape.

Harris’ big mistake is his utter contempt for metaethics. Now, I’m on record as stating that doing metaethics is a dreadful way to spend one’s time. And so is doing your tax. But, sadly, there are few metaethicists who bill by the hour to whom one can outsource one’s metaethical labours.

Harris’ broader project – one to which I’m sympathetic – is done a disservice by his refusal to engage with moral philosophy and metaethics, at least beyond engaging to the point of skimming the surface and dismissing it out of hand (although one could claim I’m doing the same with Harris’ work – but hey, if I’m wrong, someone’ll tell me – it’s the internet, after all).

Metaethics has a propensity to get bogged down in minutia, and to argue around in circles about questions of arguable import. But the very difficulty of meteathics is suggestive that morality is a more complicated phenomenon to understand that it appears at first blush. Harris would do well to pause to listen to philosophers before disagreeing with them. In fact, some philosophers, such as Blackford, are trying to help advance Harris’ programme.

Ultimately, as Russell says, Harris’ book will be a Good Thing because it’ll advance the discussion about morality. Even if Harris’ work is flawed, he makes some good points, particularly about encouraging a productive engagement between philosophy and science when it comes to morality. Hear hear.

Hopefully, The Moral Landscape, will inspire a second generation of books that respond and build on Harris’ ideas. Blackford has suggested he might pen one himself (go for it man!). What does seem clear is that we’re emerging, slowly, from the miasma of 20th century metaethical debate, and we’re gaining momentum towards developing a robust, functional and empirically-aware secular moral framework. And that is possibly one of the most important things humans can work on right now.

On Political Rhetoric, Mental Illness and Guns

In the wake of the horrific events in Arizona, a predictable storm has brewed over who, or what, is responsible. Is it the vitriolic political rhetoric that has reached new heights of bile in recent years? Is it mental illness and signs of the unpredictable outburst of a sick man? Or is it the profusion of guns in the general community, one that happened to legally fall into the hands of an unstable and ultimately murderous individual?

It is likely all these things.

While both the Left and the Right leapt to brand their political nemeses as the catalysts for this shocking act, naturally both have reacted with indignation and utterly rejected the notion that their words or creeds were in any way responsible.

Even if it turns out that Loughner’s motives were remote from rhetoric, what is worth noting is the readiness which which politicians and commentators have speculated as to the influence of rhetoric on the Tuscan shooting.

This suggests that there is already an awareness of the distemper overtaking American political discourse today. This suggests that even if Loughner wasn’t motivated by contemporary rhetoric, it seems plausible to many that he could have been; or that someone else, at another juncture, could also be.

This, alone, reflects something about the state of US politics, and should give reason for pause and reflection on how commentators, politicians and pseudo-politicians, like Sarah Palin, conduct themselves.

Regarding mental illness, it’s unlikely to not be a causal factor; Loughner appears to have held obscure and extreme political views that someone of a stable mind would be unlikely to endorse. Even as some warn us from explaining everything away as mental illness*, it was likely a pivotal causal factor, and one that reflects poorly not only on America’s failing treatment of serious mental illness (a failing shared by Australia and other developed countries, I might add), but also on the cultural forces that serve to isolate troubled individuals, that shun expressions of vulnerability in favour of those that tout competitiveness, happiness and success (even if disingenuous), and that allows someone who is showing fairly clear signs of trouble being allowed to buy a gun.

Which brings me to gun control. I’ve heard all the arguments for and against. I’m sure you have too. The thing is, the arguments against gun control are typically banal, incoherent, choose selectively from the evidence and are fuelled by an emotional attachment that identifies guns with freedom – a long leap in itself, were not freedom itself a problematic concept in its own right, particularly when adhered to dogmatically.

The vicious political rhetoric, mental illness and the ready availability of guns to those who would misuse them are all deep and seemingly intractable problems for the United States, and the negative effects of all are reflected in the shooting of Gifford.

Perhaps the tragedy of Gifford’s shooting will serve as a wakeup call and see Americans reflect on themselves, which is an important first step for change to take place. Let’s hope that, amidst the horror, some good might come from this.

*The Slate article is right to point out that mental illness isn’t an exhaustive explanation of any particular act, but it is precisely wrong in its argument. Saying that the presence of mental illness doesn’t imply an increased risk of that person committing a violent act is one thing. But such a generalisation is irrelevant when considering the proximate causes of a particular event. If Loughner has some kind of mental illness, and that mental illness contributed in some way to the decision making process that led him to pull the trigger on Gifford and the 20 others, then mental illness is a causal factor. True, we shouldn’t generalise about that, and we certainly can’t generalise from Loughner’s actions to those of others who happen to have a mental illness. But reverse-generalisation – the denial that because there’s no connection between x and y at a population level implies there’s no connection between x and y in an individual – is also false.

Redefining the Liberal-Conservative Spectrum

Yeah, there are already dozens of ways of painting the political ideological spectrum. Many are interesting, but most also raise further questions, such as why does it look such, and how can they resolve apparent contractions within each polar ideology.

And contradictions there are, as flagged by Jost et al. (2003):

We now take it for granted in the United States that political conservatives tend to be for law and order but not gun control, against welfare but generous to corporations, protective of cultural traditions but antagonistic toward contemporary art and music, and wary of government but eager to weaken the separation of church and state. They are committed to freedom and individualism but perennially opposed to extending rights and liberties to disadvantaged minorities, especially gay men and lesbians and others who blur traditional boundaries. There is no obvious political thread that runs through these diverse positions (or through their liberal counterparts) and no logical principle that renders them all consistent.

The popular Nolan chart. Not wrong, but just not simple enough.I’d like to suggest that none of these existing approaches is the most parsimonious nor the most powerfully explanatory when it comes to defining the key variable in political ideology. And many have trouble with the contradictions mentioned above.

I’ve already mentioned my fondness (with reservations) of George Lakoff’s nation-as-a-family metaphor account of liberalism and conservatism – with liberals adopting a nurturant parent metaphor and conservatives a strict father metaphor. But even if that account contains a nugget of truth, it doesn’t explain why these two metaphors consistently emerge to characterise the ideological poles.

So, I’d like to propose a new one-dimensional spectrum simply based around a difference in worldview concerning whether the world is a safe or dangerous place.


From Genes to Politics: How Biology Influcences the Way You Vote

It might seem a leap too far, but bear with me, because I’m going to attempt to show that genes influence the way you vote. Let’s start at the end and work our way towards the beginning.

Your adopted political ideology strongly influences the way you vote. Certainly, there might be circumstances in which a liberal might vote for a conservative candidate, such as if the liberal candidate was an obvious dud (or the conservative candidate was a shining star), or if the conservative candidate happened to offer a better policies for the present environment (say, being a hawk in a time of war). But, all things being equal, self-identifying liberals vote for liberal candidates and parties.

However, your political ideology isn’t something you come to adopt from out of the blue. We’re not political blank slates. One of the greatest influences on what ideology you adopt is your worldview, which I loosely define as the implicit framework you use to make sense of the world around you.

Your worldview is both descriptive and prescriptive – it helps understand the way the world is, and it’s value-laden, so it helps you understand good and bad, desirable and undesirable. Many empirical and theoretical studies have shown that underneath our political attitudes lie (often unconscious) beliefs about the way the world is.


Cultivating Virtue: How to Encourage Moral Behaviour

It seems a crucial but oft overlooked step in discussions of morality: how to actually encourage moral behaviour?

Most moral philosophy is obsessed with either understanding the nature of moral judgement, or in developing a system that reliably produces the correct moral judgements. Good on it, but that’s not the end of the story. Even if we did have a system that produces judgements on which we can all agree, what then? How to we translate that theoretical triumph into the actual end goal of moral enquiry: encouraging moral behaviour? Seems little ink has been spilled by moral philosophers on this issue.

The exception to the above is virtue ethicists, who do emphasise the role of personality and character in producing moral behaviour, although much virtue ethics is also related to justifying particular judgements or actions rather than talking about how to shape personality or character such as to promote particular judgements or actions.

Moral psychology fares little better. Certainly it provides crucial insights into how we form the moral judgements we do although, like moral philosophy, most studies stop at the point of forming a moral judgement, and don’t investigate how people behave once they form that judgement.

The psychology of action is undoubtedly complex, and even in moral psychology the path between judgement and behaviour is poorly understood. But I think there are a few things we can say with some confidence as to how to encourage moral behaviour in the majority of people in the real – rather than theoretical – world.