November 2012 archive

Morality Inside-out

Most moral enquiry – particularly metaethical enquiry – is conducted in an arse-backwards way. Most philosophers appear to look at morality from the inside-out. And I’d suggest this inside-out view of morality is hampering our ability to understand the nature of morality in all its glorious messy complexity.

What we need to do is turn this perspective around and look at morality outside-in. This is a crucial step in my overall argument in my thesis, as it explains why I choose to depart from the metaethical canon and draw on a range of empirical tools in an attempt to explain what morality is all about.

So, what do I mean by inside-out?

Most metaethical enquiry takes as its starting point our moral discourse. We talk about good and bad, right and wrong. We engage in moral argumentation. We look for the reasons to certain ways. And we attempt to persuade others of the truth of our position and the falsehood of theirs.

When we reflect on our moral discourse, much of it appears to be implicitly objectivist. We don’t talk about our disapproval of torture in the same way we talk about our disapproval of ABBA or of pistachio ice cream. The latter are subjective attitudes, but we seem to think attitudes concerning torture are not a matter of subjective preference but are grounded in some objective fact. Torture isn’t just distasteful, torture is objectively wrong, and we can prove that to be true.

We talk as if moral assertions are categorical imperatives in the Kantian sense: if torture is wrong, you ought not torture regardless of your beliefs, desires or ends. If morality really was just like our subjective feelings of approval or disapproval, it would lose this categorical nature. Moral imperatives would only hold with the strength of an appeal to your subjective whims or by virtue of your stated ends or desires.

Hence does metaethics typically begin: how can we make sense of our moral discourse? What do we mean by “the good”? How can we establish the foundations for the categorical nature of moral statements? What kinds of facts are these objective moral facts? How could these moral facts motivate our behaviour? And so on for the last century or so.

Inside-out and backwards

This view is inside-out precisely because it starts with our discourse, our attitudes, our reasons, and the implicit objectivity and categorical nature of our discourse, and attempts to establish a firm foundation for morality from there. Only then does it attempt to build upwards and outwards into the world, talking about how morality affects our behaviour and the behaviour of others.

This is the Platonic view, the Kantian view, the Moorean view. It leans on reason, on a search for ethical truth, on the binding authority that morality appears to have according to our ethical discourse. It is often cashed out in terms of moral realism, objectivism, rationalism, non-naturalism and so on. Yet it is a deeply problematic programme.

First of all, our moral discourse is not necessarily that clear or uniform, as Michael Gill and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong have recently argued. We use objectivist language, but we also use expressivist language – as if moral utterances were expressions of emotion rather than just statements of fact.

Moral beliefs appear to be motivating – it seems somehow inconsistent for someone to say sincerely that “torture is wrong” and then have no compunction against torturing someone themselves – yet they also appear to be stating something about the world.

We give reasons for our moral beliefs, yet often those reasons appear to be causally inefficatious, even emerging as dubious post-hoc rationalisations, as Jon Haidt has famously argued.

The brute fact of moral diversity in the world – between cultures, within cultures and throughout history – also challenges the notion that there is ‘one true morality’ that is founded on objective fact.

The inside-out view lends itself to non-naturalism because there doesn’t appear to be anything in our arsenal of natural features of the world that could possibly provide the bindingly prescriptive ‘oomph’ of categorical imperatives.

Yet non-naturalism it not only troublingly incompatible with the broadly naturalistic worldview that is ratified by most other philosophical and scientific disciplines, but it raises problems of its own, such as how we have access to the non-natural facts.

The bizarre and deeply problematic notion of intuitionism, which has been eradicated in many other fields, continues to raise its absurd head in metaethics, from Moore to Shafer-Landau.

Finally, the inside-out view of morality reinforces the spurious notion of the ‘ethical point of view’, as Philip Kitcher puts it. This is the idea that “people give themselves commands – commands that are no external but somehow their own, the ‘moral law within’ – and have regarded this point of view as requiring the subordination, if not the elimination, of emotion” (Kitcher, 2011, p. 80). This, states Kitcher, is a “psychological myth devised by philosophers,” (p. 81), and I tend to agree.

I propose a different perspective on morality. Or, at least, a different starting point for ethical enquiry. I call it the outside-in view.


This view begins not with our moral discourse or an attempt to ratify the ‘ethical point of view’, but instead starts with moral behaviour. This is a broad category of behaviour that emerges when you observe a bunch of organisms wandering around and bumping into each other (literally or figuratively) and then saying sorry.

When an organism acts in a way that contravenes its interests or immediate desires (or its beliefs about what will advance its interests or satisfy its desires), you have an interesting phenomenon. If you were to observe such behaviour – helping, caring, apologising, inhibiting etc – you would very likely say that something moral just happened.

The other aspect of moral behaviour is the creation, spreading an enforcing of behavioural rules. But not just any behavioural rules, but rules that guide behaviour in a social context, often (but not always) attempting to encourage prosocial behaviour and dissuade self-interested or socially disruptive behaviour.

These are moral phenomena. And they’re terribly interesting and worthy of an explanation. And, being observable phenomena, they’re amenable to the tools of the empirical sciences.

Thus the outside-in perspective looks at moral behaviour and attempts to concoct an explanation for why it exists. This view is not mutually exclusive with the inside-out view. In fact, it might turn out they converge on a similar answer (although I find that unlikely), or the outside-in might describe the reasons why we behave why we do and the inside-out might show how those reasons are in error.

More likely, my suspicion is that a completed outside-in view would actually make much of the inside-out view redundant – to twist Laplace, a full explanation of moral behaviour from the outside-in perspective would make the objective moral facts that often spring from an inside-out view a redundant hypothesis.

The outside-in view might not only explain why we behave the way we do, but also why we talk about morality the way we do. It might turn out that moral discourse is not actually a truth-seeking endeavour, but rather a tool for persuasion and spreading of moral norms, as Haidt argues. This would mean that we ought not take moral discourse at face value, but rather look at it as just another facet of our moral behaviour.

Furthermore, the outside-in view does not lean towards any form of non-naturalism. It doesn’t presume or require the existence of any metaphysically dubious moral facts. It doesn’t suffer from any crippling naturalistic fallacies. Because it dispenses with categorical imperatives, and lets everything be hypothetical, there is no metaphysical leap required between the descriptive and the magically normative.

As Joshua Greene might put it, it talks about moral2 (caring about and being nice to other people) rather than moral1 (making statements of fact about what is right and wrong).

My belief is that the outside-in view of morality is drastically underrated and largely overlooked by moral philosophers and metaethicists. It is not, however, overlooked by many other disciplines, including moral psychology, behavioural ecology, game theory and the philosophy of biology.

It is for this reason that I draw on these tools in my thesis to attempt to give the beginnings of an outside-in view of morality that can not only explain why we behave the way we do in social contexts, but how our minds have evolved to encourage such behaviour, why moral norms vary throughout the world and how we can understand all this from a thoroughly naturalistic perspective.

That is morality from the outside-in.

Politics as Biology: Explaining the Razor Edge of Partisan Politics

Following Obama’s re-election, M.S. at The Economist ponders the startlingly improbable situation in the United States where such a strongly partisan country can keep rolling out elections that are knife edge finishes:

This is what strikes one most strongly looking back at America from across an ocean: the country seems repeatedly embroiled in savage 51-49 electoral campaigns, and it seems to be increasingly paralysed by irresolvable rancour between right and left.

And think about it for a second: this is bizarre. If Americans are in fact divided between two extremely different political ideologies, it would be an extraordinary coincidence if each of those philosophies were to hold the allegiance of nearly equal blocs of support. That situation ought not to be stable. Adherence to these two ideologies ought to shift enough just due to demographics that the 50-50 split should deteriorate. And yet the even split seems to be stable. What’s going on?

Good question. Here’s a speculative answer, using the tools of population biology as a lens to understand politics: