January 2012 archive

Religion Without God

Seems everyone is talking about Alain de Botton’s new book. Good. It looks like a worthy tome. I’ve yet to read it (my PhD reading list puts leisure philosophy on the backburner for now), but I intend to soon.

The book, Religion for Atheists, argues that while the supernaturalist claims of religion are false, religion still offers many things that we discard only to our detriment. Happily, it’s a subject about which I have strong and sympathetic feelings. Sadly it’s also the topic of a book I was going to pen post-PhD, but he’s beaten me to it (and likely to have done a far superior job to me anyway).

But it seems not everyone has quite understood de Botton’s core point, as suggested by this quote lifted from the Guardian review by Terry Eagleton:

One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked.

What Eagleton has failed to understand is that de Botton is separating the functions of religion from their supernaturalist justifications. And it’s only the latter that he’s calling “bunkum”.

Should free speech and civil rights be justified according to some supernaturalist tradition that suggested they were imperatives thrust upon us by the Man in the Moon, de Botton would likely happily reject the justification, but argue on rational grounds that free speech and civil rights are well worth keeping – for the function they serve in social life. It’s their very “social uses” that makes them not “bunkum”.

This is the core twist of de Botton’s approach, and one to which I subscribe wholeheartedly. We absolutely must separate the function of institutions from their supposed justifications. We must then examine what justifications they might have rationally, and only keep them if they pass rational muster.

Religion’s truck has been to foist many beneficial practices on us, but to justify them with a false metaphysics, assuming it’s the metaphysics rather than the function that is important. Then they overextend and issue more edicts justified by the same bunkum metaphysics, except these ones are harmful to human wellbeing and society. But because religion’s justificatory system is resistant to scrutiny and self-correction (unlike reason and the scientific method, for example), they resist moves to correct their errors.

It’s no surprise, then, that atheists seek to tear down the supernaturalist edifice that causes these social ills. But the militant atheist also doesn’t discriminate between the function and the justification, and so seeks to eliminate the entire system – the good functions with the bad justifications.

Both are wrong.

It’s precisely the approach of de Botton that seeks to investigate those things that are genuinely beneficial to humans wellbeing and to society on rational grounds, and instantiate them, that is the right approach. And it turns out many (but not all) things created by religion can do just that. Why not learn from that in the pursuit of wellbeing and social harmony?

Eagleton fails to understand this argument, and that’s why his criticism is, sadly, little more than a straw man.

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.


The Ethical Project: Measuring Ethical Progress

In this post, I consider the notion of ethical progress. It follows on from my review of  Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project, then my post looking at the evolution of our moral psychology, and a post on moral functionalism.

One of the core themes of Kitcher’s is to chart, and account for, the notion of ethical progress. If we look back on the changes that have occurred in ethics through history and across cultures, is there any thread that we might declare as representing ‘progress’?

Does the move from a draconinan eye-for-an-eye lex talonis code of punishment to more moderate restitution and rehabilitation represent progress? Was emancipation progress? Was expanding womens’ rights progress? We want to say they were. But on what grounds?

This is ostensibly a problem for a naturalistic anti-realist account of morality – one such as Kitcher’s (and my own) – because there are no immutable moral truths (a priori, non-natural and/or divinely mandated) to which we can peg progress; ethical progress can’t simply be likened to scientific progress, where we gain a deeper understanding of ethical truth and then put it into practice.

Kitcher’s response to this problem is, I believe, the correct one. Once we acknowledge that ethics is a human invention which, according to the functionalist rendering, was created to solve the problems of social living (or “remedy those altruism failures provoking social conflict”, in Kitcher’s version), we can start to make sense of ethical progress.


The Ethical Project: Functionalism and Disagreement

In my first post on Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project I outlined his main argument. In the second post I addressed his account of the evolution of our moral psychology, and filled in a few gaps with my own account that I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis. In this post I look at moral disagreement and functionalism

People disagree about moral issues. There’s probably no other statement in ethics that is as uncontroversial. But what such disagreement means, and how to resolve it – if it’s resolvable at all – is a hotly contested topic.

But if we take the moral functionalist approach – as espoused by Kitcher, and endorsed by myself in my thesis – then we can gain a crucial insight into the origins, and possible resolutions, of moral disagreement.

Let’s start with some typical disagreements. Person A says lying is always wrong. Person B says lying is sometimes right. Then they argue. We wouldn’t be surprised if one appealed to a moral norm they believe in, such as “do not lie”. Another might suggest that lying is against the will of god. Or they might say that lying causes harm to someone’s autonomy. Or that it reduces the overall happiness, and overall happiness is the greatest good. And on they go.

Note that these are all justifications.

Now, comparing justifications is one way of conducting an ethical debate. But I think the evidence suggests that many of our justifications for our moral norms are spurious. If you don’t happen to believe in moral truths or in a divine moral authority (as I don’t), then you can immediately question appeals to them as a defensible justification.

There is also ample moral psychology research that suggests we are easily confused about the justifications of our moral norms. Jon Haidt’s ‘moral dumbfounding’ and the ubiquitous trolley dilemmas show that people offer a range of different justifications seemingly as post-hoc rationalisations for deeply held intuitions about right and wrong. So it’s not the justifications that are doing the heavy lifting, it’s something else.

You can also see this in many contemporary moral debates – such as over abortion or over the moral status of social welfare – where two interlocutors offer their arguments, and then have them torn to shreds by the other side, but no-one changes their mind. Sigh.

Now, I think there are good justifications for certain moral practices. I’m just sceptical whether the justifications that most people cite in everyday moral discourse actually are the right kind of justifications.

So, to understand moral disagreement – and where it really occurs – we need to look elsewhere. And this is where functionalism comes in.


The Ethical Project: Evolving Moral Minds

In my last post I offered my initial review of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project, which is a bold attempt to offer a thoroughly naturalistic rendering of ethics, devoid of any divinity or dubious metaphysics. And overall, I’m very pleased with the account – not least because it is largely in sync with my own.

For too long has ethics been dominated by discussions of moral semantics, of naturalistic fallacies, of rational agents and an expectation that once we discover moral truths, people will kick themselves for not having happily obeyed them in the past.

But this is not the only way to talk about morality. Instead of seeing morality as a truth-seeking endeavour, or springing from the will of some deity, we can alternatively look at morality from what Owen Flanagan, Hagop Sarkissian and David Wong (2008) call “human ecology”.

Better than defining morality by what it is – i.e. about truth, about happiness, about god’s will etc – we can define morality by what it does. This, at its heart, is the moral functionalist perspective. It’s central to Kitcher’s account (as it is to mine), and I believe it’s key to understanding morality as a natural phenomenon – i.e. a practice enacted by human beings throughout history through to this day.

And once we understand better what morality does, we might gain some insights into what it is, and even how we ought to behave. Thus, shockingly, this descriptive programme might have normative implications.

In this post I explore some of the themes raised in The Ethical Project and add some elements of my own research to fill in some gaps left by Kitcher. I have more to say than will fit in one post, so I’ll add more after this one.


Review: The Ethical Project

Pop back in time roughly five million years to the time of the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and you’d likely spot roving troops of creatures not dissimilar to today’s great apes. Yet, while chimpanzees and the rest of our evolutionary cousins have changed relatively little over the last few million years, our species has undergone remarkable change.


Arguably the strongest driving force for this incredible evolutionary change is our uniquely social nature – and our uniquely moral proclivities – to the point where today we interact in a global network of billions of individuals, a network of staggering complexity hinging on levels of cooperation unmatched by any other creature.

And the glue that holds our social and cooperative life together is morality.

It’s in charting and explicating this progression from the earliest forms of pre-moral inclinations to our modern day complex moral deliberations that is the ambitious goal of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project.

And Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, does a remarkable job of not only weaving together a coherent picture from many disparate threads, but also lays down a path for potentially fruitful ethical debate in the future. And he does it all in a thoroughly naturalistic, empirically-aware and refreshingly grounded way, with his method strongly influenced by his commitment to “pragmatic naturalism”, which heavily informed particularly by John Dewey and William James.

He also espouses a theory that is startlingly close to my own PhD thesis, much to my joy and chagrin. Even if there are now a few less revelations in my own thesis, it is deeply heartening to see that I’m not the only one charting an evolutionarily-informed naturalistic account of morality.

That said, there are a few gaps in Kitcher’s account, and a few key details that he overlooks either deliberately or unintentionally. In this post, I’ll outline the main thrust of Kitcher’s argument, and in a subsequent post I’ll provide a more critical review, comparing and contrasting it with my own account.

First, an overview of Kitcher’s argument.


Science Outreach: Plucking the Low Hanging Fruit

To its credit, the Australian Government is making a concerted push into science outreach through the tritely-named Inspiring Australia programme, including $5 million in funding through the equally tritely-named Unlocking Australia’s Potential grant scheme.

Now, I’m all about science outreach. (In fact, I’m also all about philosophy outreach too. You might call it reason outreach, all up. But let’s stick to science for now.)

I firmly believe the greatest existential challenge faced by humanity is the spread of unreason, for unreason makes every other problem harder to solve. And a crucial foil in the fight against unreason is the genius of the scientific method. After all, anyone who doesn’t recognise the scientific method as the best tool we have in our epistemological arsenal for understanding the natural world around us doesn’t understand the scientific method.

I’ve said before that I don’t believe anyone should leave school without proficiency in literacy, numeracy, history etc – but also not without being fully versed in the spirit of the scientific method. In fact, I’m an advocate of two broad streams of science education, depending on each individual’s skill and interest, with the former an elective and the latter compulsory for all students:

1) Science for aspiring scientists – including in-depth knowledge of the scientific method, the details of state-of-the-art results of science, and science practice, including maths, experimental design etc. This is how science is taught currently from high school onwards. It’s hard, and it’s focused on doing science, hence a lot of disinterest and drop outs from those not intending to be scientists.

2) Science for aspiring citizens – including understanding of the scientific method in comparison with other approaches (intuition, revelation, authority, emotion, etc) for understanding the natural world, the limits of science, the problem with pseudo-science, the history of science and the process involved in solving long standing problems, and knowledge of the state-of-the-art results of science. This is a course intended to equip everyone to live in a scientifically-informed society, even those who don’t intend to pursue a career in science.

However, even if the education system were to enjoy a radical overhaul today (sadly unlikely…), there are still a great many people who already lack an appreciation of science, and of reason in general. How to bring them into the fold? Science outreach! This is one of my primary motivations in becoming a science journalist (and philosopher) myself: my belief in the importance of getting science and reason out to the masses.

So, you’d think I’d be excited about the government’s grants. To a degree I am. But I’m a little wary about the approach the grant scheme is taking, as I’ve mentioned to Dr Bronwyn Hemsley and Dr Krystal on Twitter.


Finding Moral Motivation

What would you think if you met someone who stated convincingly that they believe stealing was wrong, and yet you knew that they were prone to theft, and did so in an entirely nonchalant manner?

And when asked after stealing something whether they still believe stealing is wrong, they reply emphatically that, indeed, it is. That people shouldn’t steal. Yet they show no inclination to change their stealing behaviour, not any apparent negative attitude towards their own acts of stealing.

What would you think? Maybe that there was something somehow wrong with them? Or perhaps something wrong with their moral conviction?

It certainly seems something is awry in this situation. For it seems intuitive that in order for someone to state that some act is morally wrong, they must feel some compulsion to behave in accordance with that belief. Surely, they can experience weakness of the will, or they can have conflicting moral proclivities, but they must at least feel some motivation to act in accord with the moral norm, even if that motivation is eventually overwhelmed by other desires.

As such, it seems somehow fundamentally inconsistent for them to say X is wrong and yet be either entirely indifferent to X happening, or for them to do X with indifference. Some even think it’s logically inconsistent, or even logically impossible, for them to say they believe X is wrong and feel indifference towards X.

However, if this notion of ‘internalism’ is true – the notion that moral beliefs entail some motivational component – then it raises a hairy pickle. Namely, how it is that a mere belief can carry with it a built-in motivational compulsion? What kind of strange beliefs moral beliefs would be were this the case.


Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Empathy

The evolution of empathy, and the altruism and cooperation it encourages, is a bit of a curly problem. It’s well known that groups that employ a particular minimal threshold level of altruism can potentially outcompete groups that are less cooperative. The problem is, beneath this threshold level, it’s difficult to see how empathy and altruism can gain a foothold without being drowned out by self-interest.

This is a problem that even Darwin acknowledged, and there have since been proposed a number of possible solutions, including kin selection and reciprocity. Here’s one of my own – although it’s more than likely it’s been proposed before, but I haven’t stumbled across any explicit references to it to date:

Mirror neurons and social learning.


On Moral Relativity and Conformity

There are many ways of living socially, and many moral systems that foster social and cooperative behaviour – none perfect, but some better than others in certain environments. That’s the crux of moral ecology, a theory I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis.

At its heart, moral ecology stresses that any norm, or system or norms, will enjoy greater or lesser success in fostering social and cooperative behaviour depending on the environment in which it exists, including the external environmental conditions as well as the internal dynamics of the group.

As such, different groups will settle upon different sets of moral norms which are appropriate to their particular environmental conditions, and that’s a good thing. Tribal cultures in hostile environments with limited resources may have norms that encourage hierarchy, honour, stability and group cohesion at the expense of sacrificing some cooperative opportunities with outsiders. Larger liberal societies might have norms that encourage fairness, tolerance, egalitarianism and cooperation, trading-off stability for greater innovation and cooperation internally and externally.

Were we to impose the one system of moral norms universally – say either the tribal or the mass society system, for example – I would suggest it would be an utter catastrophe, at least it would be in many environments. It would also stifle innovation and flexibility, allowing the system of norms to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Thus moral ecology, in a sense, is a form of relativism. I’m arguing that different cultures (or, more accurately, cultures living in different environments) can and should employ different moral systems. The monism at the core, however, is that all these systems serve the same ultimate end: fostering social and cooperative behaviour within that group.