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.
Solving social problems
According to Kitcher, the earliest ventures into ethical experimentation, made millennia ago by our ancestors discussion altruism failures around the campfire, likely consisted of peacemaking, conflict resolution and issuing new rules of behaviour that can prevent future transgressions.
Thus, they responded to the symptoms of socially disruptive and harmful behaviour. While the function of ethics was already galvanising around the notion of facilitating prosocial and cooperative behaviour, our ancestors didn’t explicitly acknowledge it in such explicit terms. All they had to go by were the proximate issues of the day, and all they could do was innovate new techniques to solve them.
This sparked a campaign of cultural experimentation and innovation of new behavioural rules, some of which worked, and some of which didn’t. Some rules created new problems, which in turn required more peacemaking. Some rules were probably unenforceable or overly disruptive in themselves. And some rules made the group more harmonious and more cooperative, thus enabling them out-compete other groups that were more fractious.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that the ethical systems that were innovated in our deeper (and, possibly our shallower) past might not look all that ‘ethical’ to us. There were many cultures that endorsed practices that we could consider abhorrent. Many endorsed slavery. Many summarily slaughtered their defeated foes after a battle. Some endorsed cannibalism. Some actively encouraged a culture of violent raiding against their neighbours.
However, according to the functionalist account, these do qualify as ‘ethical’ in the sense that they served the function of facilitating prosocial and cooperative behaviour within the group, making it more robust and competitive.
Going to the root of the matter
So where’s the progress? According to Kitcher, the progress comes largely in shifting from innovating new ethical rules in response to the symptoms of social conflict, but come from understanding the deeper nature of social conflict itself, and innovating rules that target those problems more directly.
Thus, instead of issuing a punitive retributionist system of punishment to prevent defection (whether that’s stealing, cheating etc), which might work to reduce such defection, but cause its own problems, you look at the causes of defection and issue methods that seek to prevent it without causing disruptive side-effects. You might find that punishment metered out by an impartial third party, or rehabilitation instead of retribution, or restitution instead of violent retaliation are superior ethical innovations.
In so far as an innovation is more effective at solving the underlying problems of social conflict, that innovation counts as progress.
The Dark Ages of ethics
I think Kitcher’s account is very plausible. However, there are some complications that need to be dealt with. One is making sense of the grand sweep of ethical progress, and accounting for many ethical systems that seem to us to be neither progressive, nor terribly ethical.
Many systems that would have been accepted as ethical at the time appear to been more geared towards protecting the interests of a privileged minority to the detriment of the majority. Or even the interests of one sex to the detriment of the other. How can we call these ethical progress compared to earlier, more egalitarian times?
I think a comprehensive account of the history of ethics must include a story about the forces that shape and maintain ethical rules within a particular culture or civilisation – a story that will likely require the combined efforts of philosophers, anthropologists, historians, sociologists and many others.
This is because of the profound shift that occurred in power structures as humans moved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled civilised lifestyle. Hunter-gatherers had physical limits to how much power could be accrued by any one individual or minority group. Resources were hard to come by, and were often transient. Wealth was difficult to accumulate and entrench. Weapons were lethal and ubiquitous (thanks to the prevalence of hunting), such that any petty tyrant could be easily ousted in his sleep by a coalition of the unsatisfied.
This meant the ‘problem background’ of solving the problems of social living were already inclined to more easily allow egalitarianism – simply because vast inequalities in wealth or power were very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
However, once we got civilised, there were radical changes in wealth and power dynamics. The blessing and curse of civilisation is surplus: suddenly it doesn’t take 100 people’s toil to provide for 100 people; it now takes 99 people’s toil to provide for 100. And the lucky 1 enters a new realm of privilege, and now has the time and resources to concentrate power.
Property, stored food, livestock, material goods and, eventually, money, enabled wealth to concentrate in ways that were impossible in hunter-gatherer times. More effective weapons technology, and better trained and equipped thugs, enabled a minority to dominate a majority.
I think it’s a natural inclination of power to tend towards self-interest. So those who have greater power in the new civilised world are able to disproportionately influence the culture – including the ethics – of their society, often through the tool of religion. They thus tilt their culture’s ethical system to entrench their privilege, to coerce a society, willing or otherwise, to serve their interests even to disadvantage of the interests of the masses.
We can see this phenomenon with all manner of social, political and ethical systems throughout history. Rarely in the last 5,000+ years of recorded history have there been truly egalitarian cultures without some privileged class that had control over the ethical system binding it to their advantage.
Interestingly, these Machiavellian machinations may have actually served these societies, enforcing rigid social structures, and siphoning wealth towards violent expansionism – or, at least, defending against the violent expansionist inclinations of neighbours.
The question is: do these oppressive systems count as ethical?
I think, in a sense, they do. But I’d call them examples of corrupted morality. They use the tools of ethics not primarily to solve the problems of social living, but primarily to serve the interests of a privileged minority. They may have also helped solve some problems of social living to some degree, but the acid test would be to suggest an innovation that was better at solving problems of social living but diminished the power of the elite. If that innovation would be consistently resisted, then that is suggestive of a corrupted morality.
It’s in this way that we can account for some of those pesky counter-examples that are thrown at naturalists from time to time, such as accounting for so-called ‘Nazi morality’. Nazism certainly had a kind of ethics – it had rules of conduct geared towards facilitating social living. But it was a corrupted ethics, in the sense I outline above.
Expansionist societies are another potential problem. How do we account for cultures that endorse out-group discrimination, racism and aggressive or violent expansion? Again, in some important sense, these tendencies are built in to the ethical system of that culture.
However, I’d suggest they’re best considered as more ‘primitive,’ and non-expansionist systems are more ‘advanced.’ This is because of the ‘expanding circle’ effect. Greater harmony can be generated by cooperating with out-groups than by conflict with out-groups. That doesn’t deny that there were times in history where it was likely either conquer-or-be-conquered. But that’s not today – and I’d suggest that qualifies as progress.
The core of ethical progress
I want to finish by offering a hypothesis concerning whether there is a single thread that underlies all ethical progress throughout history. Several have been suggested, including greater egalitarianism or ‘expanding the circle’.
I want to propose another: trust.
If you look at the changes in ethical rules that have occurred over time, there appears to be a trend such that more progressive moral codes are predicated on a greater level of trust amongst those who conform to the code.
If, for example, you have a community with zero trust – such that any individual would fully expected to the defected against – a moral code will likely have to be highly strict, punitive and would probably only allow a minimal increase in cooperation.
This could be represented by an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma where everyone plays either Always Defect or a Suspicious strategy, where they defect first to prevent counter-defection. Even if they’re willing to Cooperate, the initial suspicious defection makes it very hard to elevate the system from mutual Defection.
One way to break out of this spiral is to raise the cost of Defection to be greater than the benefit of Temptation. That’s what punishment does. But punishment isn’t always exacted optimally, and the threat or cost of punishment might dissuade some from engaging in cooperative endeavours altogether.
However, once that code yields tangible benefits that members of the society can perceive – it enables some instances of Cooperation that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred – there might be a increase in trust, such that they appreciate that others are less likely to Defect against them.
You start to see more Nice strategies emerging: if I think I’m less likely to be Defected against in the first round – whether because of the moral code or an increase in genuine ‘Niceness’ – I’ll take a gamble and Cooperate myself.
Progress it far enough, and you can start to strip away some of the punitive and oppressive rules and punishments, enabling greater flexibility of behaviour, greater chances for interaction and greater levels of cooperation.
Then you get to modern day liberal society. In Australia, for example, there are a little over 200 police officers per 100,000 citizens. That’s some ratio: 1 police officer per 500 people, to be exact. Should those 100,000 citizens spontaneously decide to begin ‘defecting’ (lying, cheating, robbing, harming etc), there’s little the 200 police officers could do – a phenomenon observed recently during the London riots.
Yet, excepting such rare outbreaks of disorder, most people don’t ‘defect’. Why? I’d suggest because there’s an implicit level of trust that others are not going to defect, and there’s no need for me to defect (even if it would be to my advantage to do so). As such, the moral rules and the law of the land can afford to be more lenient, more liberal.
That said, I think there’s an argument for ratcheting up the strictness of the rules in cases of eroding trust, as long as they can be ratecheted back once trust returns.
Trust is also crucial to enable a liberal democracy to even work in the first place. Consider tribal or highly sectarian cultures where there are scarce resources, such as regions of Africa or Afghanistan. In such an environment, keeping your circle of trust limited to your immediate tribe or cultural group is prudent. Trusting out-group members can rapidly lead to ruin.
In such an environment is it any surprise that democracy fails? If I can’t trust the ‘other side’s’ political party not to discriminate against me, or to favour its own tribal or sectarian members over me, or even not to kill me, then I’m hardly going to vote in good faith and allow them to take power without a fight, or some hefty vote rigging.
One of the main forces influencing trust is available resources. If resources are scarce, and the best strategy for gaining and maintaining them is to form small trusted close-knit coalitions, then trust is unlikely to expand outside that coalition.
Corruption also erodes trust in a vicious circle. With scarce resources, corruption can enable you to gain some windfall that would otherwise be missed. Yet corruption erodes trust, and it drives wealth and power up towards the top (it’s ‘trickle-up’ rather than ‘trickle-down’), so it enables the powerful to further entrench their power.
If this is true, then I’d suggest that breaking the corruption cycle, promoting fair and just institutions, and building trust with the government and eroding tribal and sectarian barriers is an important part of ethical progress. Once the level of trust increases, the ethical system can afford to be more progressive.
In my final post on The Ethical Project, I’ll wrap up, and offer some thoughts on how to integrate my own theory of moral ecology into the broad naturalistic programme outlined in Kitcher. Stay tuned!