Morality and the Obsession with Harm and Fairness

Where you can find contemporary moral philosophers talking about the content of morality (instead of their preferred pastime of quibbling over metaethics), you’ll often find them talking about issues concerning harm and fairness. But is this all there is to morality? What of moral prohibitions concerning food, or cleansing rituals, or burial practices? Can you just translate such norms into norms about harm and fairness? Or is the domain of morality larger than many philosophers might readily suggest?

This was one of the questions broached by ANU’s Ben Fraser in a seminar at Sydney University yesterday. Fraser’s paper was about the limits of the moral domain, specifically defending Richard Joyce’s account of morality from criticisms mounted by Stephen Stich. I won’t cover everything said by Fraser (you can read his entire paper here), but I am particularly interested in what it is that we’re really talking about when we’re talking about morality.

And I tend to believe that defining morality in terms of harm/fairness exclusively is a bit narrow – but understandable. Even so, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to issues of harm/fairness if we want to understand the full scope of morality and moral phenomena.

For Joyce, harm and fairness are central to what it means for something to be ‘moral’. But not everyone agrees. Famously, Jon Haidt has his Moral Foundations Theory where harm (and care) and fairness (and reciprocity) only form two of the five (maybe six+) pillars of morality, including in-group/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity.

Yet most Western moral philosophy almost exclusively deals with issues of harm and fairness, and has done so for centuries. So are these other so-called foundations mistaken? Is morality really about harm and fairness and the other foundations are either somehow non-moral, or can be translated into norms of harm and fairness?

I don’t think they can – at least, not without some serious philosophical gymnastics. Ultimately, I also think any attempt to find an essentialist definition of morality – what morality is with a hard line separating it from what it’s not – is bound to be contentious, and risks either excluding too many things, or becoming detached from the messy world of our moral beliefs and behaviours. I prefer to take a functional definition of morality – not what it is, but what it’s for. In that case, it’s a device for encouraging prosocial behaviour and tempering self-interested behaviour that might hamper the interests of others.

Many of the problems morality is there to solve concern harm and fairness: harm because harming another often directly impacts their interests; and fairness because reciprocal exchanges are ripe for defection and free-riding, both of which impact the interests of individuals, and disrupt further cooperative interaction.

But many of the problems of morality – the problems that moral norms emerge to solve – are not directly concerning harm and fairness. Fostering group cohesion is one. Regulating sexual behaviour so as not to destabilise the population is another. Encouraging conformity to the will of a leader or group is another. Many of the norms within the three other Moral Foundations serve these ends.

The thing is, while these foundations may have been more important in tribal times, they’re less relevant in today’s mass society. Instead, harm and fairness come to the fore. Why?

Because in small tribal groups it was easier to keep track of reputations amongst the group – particularly if the size of the group was below Dunbar’s number. However, once society expanded, and we started interacting with more strangers, our evolved mechanisms for reputation management were insufficient to the task. At this point top-down norms and laws became more important in regulating social interaction and preventing harm.

We know that in one-off Prisoner’s Dilemma games the best payoff is gained by defecting. Indirect reciprocity can mitigate this effect to some degree and increase levels of mutual cooperation: if A defects on B, but C sees this and tells D, then A will have less of a chance to repeat their defection should they engage in a one-off Prisoner’s Dilemma with D in the future. But even indirect reciprocity has its limits, particularly when you have many thousands, or millions, of potential individuals with whom you can engage in social exchange.

The same applies for harm. Reputation management in small tribal cultures might allow people to be aware of others who might be likely to cause them harm, but it’s harder to keep track of this when the society reaches a certain threshold number.

As such, I’d suggest that once societies got to a certain size, the problems they faced changed, leaning towards issues of harm and fairness. Particularly in the modern world, where hygiene is not such an issue, and the mass state means allegiance to leaders is less significant in determining your survival, these moral foundations have waned.

Yet the problems of harm and fairness in a massive society are tricky – and demand a lot of thought and attention. Hence, moral, political and legal philosophers spend most of their time focused on these issues, virtually ignoring the others.

However, this doesn’t mean morality is only about harm and fairness. Particularly if we want to understand not just the trait we have for making moral judgements, but the psychology that leads to such judgements, then we need to acknowledge that the other moral foundations are there – deep within our psyche, and as Jon Haidt reminds us, they still influence our behaviour and judgements, even if they’re not as relevant in today’s world.

This represents a classic disconnect of philosophers from the actual concerns of the people they’re trying to understand. While moral philosophers might dismiss purity/sanctity, in-group/loyalty and authority/respect as being trivially moral, if moral at all, these foundations are hugely influential to a lot of people.

That’s why I believe a functional definition of morality is more helpful – as well as an emphasis on moral psychology. Certainly, it might turn out that some of our moral psychology is maladaptive or irrelevant to the moral problems we have to solve today – much like our sweet tooth is maladaptive given the problems of finding nutrition in today’s world – but we can’t ignore these aspects of morality, or our moral psychology, if we want to give a thorough account of how we got to where we are, or where we go from here.

5 Comments on Morality and the Obsession with Harm and Fairness

  1. Paul
    15th October 2010 at 3:57 am

    Mr. Dean- are there any professional philosophers out there who argue that our inherited moral psychology contains a lot of things that are maladaptive? I know that Will Wilkinson, an American political pundit, has argued that the liberal obsession with harm and fairness is vastly superior to the conservative approach, as the liberal approach is much more amenable to human flourishing. Yet human beings often find “meaning” due to their membership in communities. Is there a particular reason why our existence as social animals with certain needs that can only be fulfilled by group membership gets such short shrift by anglophone philosophers? I have a vague sense that both European and Asian thinkers have given much more priority to this issue, such that perhaps it has more to do with the extreme individualism of anglophone cultures.

  2. James Gray
    15th October 2010 at 4:14 am


    How does all this fit into your approach to morality? You seem to reduce morality to group cooperation and survival. If so, then group loyalty, obedience, and purity might be instrumentally valuable as part of that. Right now it sounds like you are suggesting that these “values” are always “intrinsic interests.”

    I think that even money can be an intrinsic interest of a person, but there is something wrong with treating money that way. I worry that the same issue can prop up with these values.

    I also think that fairness and harm (and benefit and respect) are discussed for two reasons you don’t mention:

    One, they are good candidates for “intrinsic interests,” which is why they are discussed so often. If a person secretly tortures others in her basement, then that is an evil person. If a person is secretly not obedient to our leader, that might still be a good person. It’s not clear that anything horrible is committed there unless it ends up hurting people.

    Two, they seem to have “greater importance” than the other values mentioned. In group loyalty seems very important for survival and well being, but in group loyalty cut off from any harm or benefit seems pretty meaningless. What about the rebellious spirit of philosophy? Whistle blowers and those who are against their countries wars seem courageous and good. The fact that they aren’t as “loyal” as the average Joe is a good thing.

    I think that there are a lot of elements of morality worth discussing other than fairness, harm, and respect: What about virtue? What about the motivation to be moral? These seem to be very important topics even in a very large society.

  3. Tim Dean
    15th October 2010 at 10:24 am

    Hi Paul.

    There are certainly evolutionary psychologists who argue we have maladaptive psychological traits – but, you know, I can’t think of any philosophers who stress that point. Probably because most contemporary philosophers are interested in metaethics or normative ethics, so are talking about what morality should or must be rather than what it is.

    I have argued before that we need to go on a ‘moral diet’ – some aspects of our evolved moral faculty lead to harmful or maladaptive beliefs and behaviours in today’s world, in the same way our sweet tooth is maladaptive today. So we need to acknowledge these aspects of our psychology – such as our readiness to label others as in-group/out-group members, and treat them differently accordingly – and actively work to mitigate them.

    So I’d agree that, given the problems we’re tying to solve in modern society, liberal tendencies often offer better solutions than conservative tendencies. That said, the reverse would probably be true for Afghanistan – which is why we can’t just inject liberal democracy into a world living under tribal/feudal conditions.

    Hi James.

    I do see morality as a device to promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour and censure behaviour that can disrupt that. And we have morality because promoting prosocial behaviour etc advances our interests. But, I should stress, there are other things that also advance our interests that aren’t morality – hunger and eating food for one, or even self-interested tendencies. So morality is ultimately about advancing interests, but not everything that advances interests is moral.

    On intrinsic interests – I should clarify. I don’t mean intrinsic values in the sense I think you’re using. I mean it in the sense that, if I’m a square hole, a square peg satisfies my intrinsic interests – those interests I have by virtue of my properties. However, it’s an open question as to whether I ought to pursue my intrinsic interests. Hence I’m an anti-realist.

    But I think that, as a matter of empirical fact, people will tend to pursue their intrinsic interests – by eating, for example – but these interests often clash. So we need morality.

    On the example of someone who tortures in private, I think that says something about that person’s character that rings alarm bells. Not only is that person impinging on someone else’s interests, but they’re demonstrating that they’re a nasty character who is likely to do other things that are immoral. I would expect a moral society to want to censure that person.

    And I agree that there are many values that work together to make a good life – i.e. one that satisfies intrinsic interests. And some of those values clash as well. It’s for that reason I’m also a pluralist – while the problem to be solved is universal, the solutions are manifold, and often in tension. Healthy moral deliberation isn’t about finding the truth of the matter, but negotiating the various solutions to find the best outcome given our limited cognitive resources. Hope that explains some of my position.

  4. Mike Magee
    16th October 2010 at 3:32 am

    One’s definition of morality depends on what you want to do with it. If you are trying to prescribe how we ought to live in vast modern societies, you will come up with different morals from someone living in a small group as the first humans did. Evolutionists are interested in how morality evolved, and so they are interested initially in small primeval human groups, because morals can only apply to animals that live in groups. Solitary animals have no need of morality, and their behavior is closer to the idea of individual competition between living entities being the source of evolution. There has to be an overwhelming personal interest that each individual has in group living for it to be adapted by them. The obvious interests are the security of protection from predators, and the security of food supply that group living offers. If it remains ‘everyone for themselves’ within the group, the advantage is dissipated. That is why fairness and proscriptions on harming others are the basic morals of the basic group. Group loyalty is another aspect of security, and respect for authority is a closely related adaptation, if not the same one, while purity could well be the same, rather as the Jews traditionally were against all mixing (eg wool and cotton fibers) because mixing of groups was considered undesirable. Joyce is right and one suspects Haidt is pandering to Templeton. You are right about big society. The simple small group morality is undermined, but people still join small groups (around the Dunbar number) to mimic the old situation, from church congregations to local bars. In wider society laws to prevent harm and to implement fairness are essential, yet our very economic system promotes interpersonal competition as the ideal, and rewards the greediest. When the law gets too unfair, the people will become ungovernable.

  5. Mark Sloan
    16th October 2010 at 7:50 am


    Contemporary moral philosophers talk about the content of morality being issues of harm and fairness because they believe that is what morality ‘ought’ to be about. As you point out, morality ‘is’ about a lot more. I see this conflict as an example of the dangers of talking about what morality ‘ought’ to be before really understanding what morality ‘is’.

    I am happy to argue (as perhaps you could also) that science can shed a lot of light on this apparent conflict. Specifically, 1) science can tell us what morality ‘is’ in the sense of identifying any underlying common characteristics of past and present moral norms and 2) there is a growing consensus in the field of evolutionary morality that past and present moral norms are heuristics for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups. (However, it is also the case that science can provide no source of justificatory force, beyond rational choice, for accepting the burdens of any morality; so science irrevocably leaves undone that important task.)

    The as yet unsettled science indicates that contemporary moral philosophers are right that moral norms are about “harm” but they are missing that morality is only about a particular kind of harm (or lack of benefits). This particular type is the harm (or lack of benefits) of not cooperating in groups (where those benefits can be material goods, emotional goods, or reproductive fitness goods). Further, in saying moral norms are about harm and fairness, some contemporary moral philosophers may be confusing two heuristics for acting morally, “act fairly” and “don’t harm other people”, with the ‘true’ ultimate function of what moral behavior ‘is’: “to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”.

    Jon Haidt in his Moral Foundations Theory where harm (and care) and fairness (and reciprocity) only form two of his five pillars of morality, including in-group/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity may be causing some people to similarly confuse heuristics for the ultimate function of what morality ‘is’. (It is not clear to me what Haidt himself thinks the ultimate function of morality ‘is’.)

    Tim, your discussion of the importance of moral reputations in small tribal groups (where increased material benefits from cooperation could determine life or death) and the relative unimportance of moral reputation in advanced societies (where moral behavior may have little connection to increased material goods and reproductive fitness) is right on IMO.

    I can further argue this change has caused a radical shift in the dominant ultimate functions of morality from the time we lived in hunter-gatherer groups to present societies with rule of law and money economies. Specifically, that shift has been from the function of morality in hunter gatherer groups being increasing material goods, emotional goods, and reproductive fitness to the dominant function of morality in modern societies being increasing emotional goods. These emotional goods connect with the perceptions of contemporary moral philosophers in that these emotional goods are significantly dependent on perceptions of being treated fairly and not being harmed by others. The moral focus of non-philosophers (and non-liberal) people on purity, loyalty, and ritual are additional examples of confusing cultural heuristics for behaving morally with the ‘true’ ultimate purpose of moral behavior.

    Tim, I expect the above goes beyond what you will consider justifiable, but thought you might find it interesting. And, of course, I post here in part to try to clarify my own thinking. Thanks for providing a space where that is possible.



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