I recently found myself confused about the meaning of the term ‘moral ecology.’ This proved to be an unsettling experience, namely because I’m the one who coined the term (with a little help from John S. Wilkins).
Given that moral ecology features centrally in my thesis, it’s probably important that I come to grips with what it means. And I think I have.
My confusion was over precisely what the term referred to. Was it describing the dynamics of the moral diversity we see in the world today? Was it explaining why the Left-Right political spectrum unfolds the way it does? Was it in reference to the diversity we see in moral sentiments? Or the diversity in psychological types?
I wanted the term to carry a heavy load and handle all these things. But it just couldn’t. So I’ve narrowed it down in an attempt to give it a more transparent and robust meaning, and linked it to these other phenomena without stuffing them all under the same term.
Here’s how it goes:
Moral ecology describes the phenomenon whereby it takes a pluralism of behavioural strategies to promote high levels of cooperation within groups, and the complex dynamics of the interactions between these strategies over time.
It refers to the fact that each behavioural strategy – which is often manifest in the form of a moral norm – enjoys differential levels of success in terms of promoting cooperation depending on the environment in which it exists, i.e. the other strategies in play around it.
That’s moral ecology. It’s an abstraction notion demonstrated using the tools of game theory.
Moral ecology then forms the backdrop for the evolutionary pressures that shaped human social and moral psychology, which can help explain the evolution of the highly polymorphic and plastic minds we have today.
Moral ecology also helps to explain the existence of psychological diversity, basically because it shows that there was no one psychological type that evolution could have gravitated towards that would prove successful in every social environment.
And, finally, moral ecology can help explain the existence of moral diversity in the world. Because there is this psychological diversity, we see a corresponding diversity of moral attitudes in the world, and this diversity exhibits the complex dynamics described by moral ecology.
So, in sum, moral ecology is the abstract notion that it takes many behavioural strategies to promote high stable levels of cooperation, which helps explain evolved psychological diversity, which helps explain moral diversity.
Unless there are any gaping holes in this definition, then that’s what I’m going to run with in my thesis, appropriately entitled Evolution and Moral Ecology.