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.


Scientism, Evolution and the Basis for Morality

Cut, jab, thrust, confusion! That seems to be the spirit of an ongoing exchange between Michael Ruse and Jason Rosenhouse of Evolutionblog. It started with scientism, the term (often used in the pejorative) applied to the notion that science is the best/only way of knowing the world. It then shifts to a somewhat complex (but useful) discussion of moral knowledge, moral absolutism and the slippery slope into moral subjectivism.

The discussion is useful precisely because it’s complex and irresolute – and that’s precisely where the debate lies at the heart of naturalistic ethics today. In delving to this depth – a more arcane depth than most public commentators would delve – we can get to some of the most pressing and important questions in ethics.

First, a word on scientism: I do firmly believe that science is the best tool in our kit for understanding the natural world. But it’s a limited tool. As they say, science is a wonderful tool, but a terrible master. Let’s not wander into the fallacy of assuming because it can’t do something then therefore that thing doesn’t exist.

Ultimately, I take a pragmatic stance on knowledge, and on the utility of science. We’re confronted with phenomena, we organise and structure that phenomena and posit theories to explain it and make predictions about future phenomena. Science has been very carefully developed and refined to be exceptionally good at this task – and if you care about explaining and predicting phenomena, then science beats all comers, especially any brand of revelation.

But that’s not all there is to knowledge. As Ruse points out, there are questions about this method itself, or about how the world can be such that science even works. Science can’t answer those. And that shouldn’t worry us a jot. That’s what philosophy is for.


Wellbeing > GDP as Metric of National Progress

The Sydney Morning Herald has kicked off an interesting ongoing feature looking at replacing gross domestic product as our default and singular metric for national and social progress. It has even commissioned an external consultancy, Lateral Economics, to develop an alternative metric, which they call the Wellbeing index.

Now, there are many ways to render such an index, and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the SMH’s method, but… I wholeheartedly support the notion that GDP is a terrible metric to reflect how our society is benefiting us as individuals. Of course, quantifying things is useful, and GPD is a nice well-defined metric. But as easy as it is to latch on to, it’s just not measuring the stuff that matters. And that’s wellbeing (whatever that is).

I touched on this in my earlier posts about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The problem, I believe, also runs deeper than just GDP being a convenient quantification of national progress. It’s also tied to the Hayekian brand of free market liberalism that places too much stock in that economist’s Swiss army knife: utility.


The Philosophical Chimera of Conceptual Analysis

Now I firmly believe that “conceptual analysis,” taken as a search for necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of terms, or as a search for criteria for application by reference to which a term has the meaning it has, is a confused program, a philosophical chimera, a squaring of the circle, the misconceived child of a mistaken view of the nature of language and thought.

– Ruth Garrett Millikan, 1989

I’m with Millikan. Disappointing that the chimera still haunts philosophy.

Beyond OWS: The Slow Revolution

In three earlier posts I outlined what I believe to be some of the core underlying problems that have inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement – problems with our current economics, politics and society – even if the Occupy movement itself is yet to identify these problems itself while it rails against the symptoms of inequality and greed. In the next couple of posts I’ll offer some solutions to these three underlying problems.

The good news is they’re fixable. The bad news is that we have to do the fixing by fixing ourselves. And that’ll take time. And discipline. There are no quick fixes. That’s why I refer to my approach to fixing these deep societal problems as the Slow Revolution.


Dichotomies in Metaethics

There are two types of people in this world: those who like dichotomies, and those who don’t. This post is for the former.

Metaethics is riddled with dichotomies. And, unhelpfully, they often cut across each other in unpredictable ways. On top of that, not every metaethicist employs the terms in the same ways, meaning some dichotomies are rendered differently in different texts.

So, here is my understanding of the key dichotomies in metaethics (with my preferred options). I’m not entirely sure I have characterised them all correctly, or that I’m not missing any salient points. Please feel free to criticise or revise this list in the comments:

Realism vs. anti-realism

  • Realism: moral facts exist
    • Often cashed out as objective prescriptive facts
      • “objective, intrinsic, prescriptivity” (Mackie, 1975 – who, by the way, thought these facts didn’t exist)
    • Or facts about a property of goodness in things/actions
    • Example proponents: G.E. Moore, M. Smith, P. Bloomfield, a (disappointing) heap of others
  • Anti-realism: moral properties don’t exist
    • Example proponents: Mackie, Joyce, Greene
  • I fall within this camp as I don’t believe objective, prescriptive moral facts exist, and use evolved moral psychology to show why we might erroneously think the do

Cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism

  • Cognitivism: moral utterances are statements of fact and have truth values
    • Eg: “murder is wrong” is either true or false
    • A descriptive semantic thesis about moral discourse, not a prescriptive or ontological thesis about moral statements
    • Strong cognitivism: as above but the facts are cognitively accessible
  • Non-cognitivism: moral utterances are statements of affect or preference and don’t have truth values
    • Example proponents: Blackburn, Ayer, Stevenson
  • I consider this a spurious distinction as everyday moral discourse is muddled, and most moral utterances have a cognitive and an affective component: moral intuitions (immediate impressions of permissibility/impermissibility of an act) are typically non-cognitivist; while the post-hoc rationalisations of moral norms are typically cognitivist

Naturalism vs. non-naturalism

  • Naturalism: a form of cognitivism and realism that states that moral properties exist and they are natural properties or moral statements are rendered true or false by facts about natural states of affairs
    • Facts about happiness (Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer) or about neurological states (Sam Harris)
  • Non-naturalism: a form of cognitivism and realism that states that moral properties exist and they are non-natural properties
    • Example proponents: G.E. Moore
  • I reject both these formations as they’re dependent on moral realism. Instead I adopt an anti-realist naturalism that says moral phenomena are analysable in purely naturalistic terms, but this alone doesn’t imply any binding normativity, similar to Joshua Greene, Michael Ruse (I think…) and the so-called Duke Naturalists

Internalism vs. externalism

  • Internalism: moral beliefs are intrinsically motivating
    • It’s somehow contradictory to believe that ‘x is good’ and yet have no inclination towards doing ‘x’
    • Example proponents: Michael Smith
  • Externalism: moral beliefs are not intrinsically motivating and require some other impetus to motivate moral behaviour
    • It’s possible to believe ‘x is good’ and not be motivated to do ‘x’
  • This is another dichotomy I reject as I take a softer psychological approach that suggests moral norms are not bindingly prescriptive nor intrinsically motivating, although we are often internally emotionally motivated to act in accordance to the norms to which we subscribe (akrasia not withstanding), and we want people to behave like this, but we often need ‘external’ motivation, such as threat of coercion, to motivate conformity and prevent bouts of akrasia

Absolutism vs. relativism

  • Absolutism: there is one moral standard that is fixed
    • Applies without contingency
    • Can be objective (fixed by facts in the world or God’s will)
    • Can be subjective (fixed by the whim of an authority)
  • Relativism: moral standards are indexed to some value
    • Indexed to culture, group of people, environment etc
    • Can be objective (x group/circumstances always implies y morality)
    • Can be subjective (x group/circumstances can choose y or z morality)
  • I am absolutely not an absolutist, rather more a pluralist along the lines of David Wong, where there I argue there are many ways of solving the problems of social living that morality is constructed to solve, but there are better and worse ways in different environments, and there are clearly some very bad ways

Categorical vs. hypothetical

  • Categorical imperatives: moral norms are binding regardless of an individual’s ends or desires
  • Hypothetical imperatives: moral norms are binding contingent on an individual’s ends or desires
  • I fall into the hypothetical camp, with norms binding hypothetically, contingent on our desire to serve our own interests in a social context, given the assumption (usually true) that acting in accordance with the constructed moral code will advance our own interests better than the alternative of not acting in accordance with a moral code

Not even sure if the last one is strictly metaethical, or more a normative ethical thesis. But hey.

Beyond OWS: Problem #3: The Age of Unreason

What is society? Or, more importantly, what’s it for? And how do we want it to be?

It seems there are precious few asking questions like these. And while the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be rebelling against the way society is structured today, and the direction in which it’s travelling, this rebellion is only the first step. Identifying that there’s a problem is one thing, diagnosing it in detail another. And then there’s the ultimate goal of figuring out how to fix it.

In this post I offer my take on the underlying issues with our conception of society and its function that I believe underlie the Occupy Wall Street movement’s grievances, and in a future post in this series, I’ll offer some suggested alternatives that might take us in a more fruitful direction.


Beyond OWS: Problem #2: The Problem with Politics

This is part two of my series on Beyond Occupy Wall Street. You can find part one, where I put the boot into contemporary economic dogma here.

In this post, I focus on politics. Or, more specifically, on the failure of the 20th century political paradigm to accord with a 21st century world. Basically, the Left-Right political spectrum as we know it is defunct and, as a result, we’re seeing the political parties of the last century struggle in many democracies around the world, not least in Anglophone world.

In the U.S., Obama was supposed to liberate the country from the bitter partisan politics of the Bush Jr. era, where the Left and the Right had become violently polarised and infected by base-appeasing populism, meanwhile lacking the courage to make the tough decisions that are required to set the country straight. But even Obama – with his feel-good “there’s only the United States of America” – failed to bring the warring parties together.

The recent debt crisis is but one of many, many examples of the abject failure of the two major U.S. parties to put their knives down and govern in the interests of the nation. Not to mention the banality of Fox News and the Tea Party, offering hopelessly simplistic solutions to complex problems – some real, and some fictitious.

In the U.K. and Australia the last elections resulted in hung parliaments, largely due to disillusionment with the major parties and the parlous calibre of political debate. Both countries saw a protest vote lobbed against a long-term sitting government that had gone stale, yet the voters proved unenthused at the prospect of the alternative governments on offer. The result is minority government, with uneasy coalitions formed, which are unlikely to survive the next election.


Beyond OWS: Problem #1: The Market Ain’t So Free

This post is one of my series on the Occupy Wall Street movement, on the problems that I believe are underlying the protest and, at the end of the series, some proposed solutions. This post is on the first of the three core problems: that the market makes us miserable:

The Occupy Wall Street movement began as a collective expression of outrage at the current economic conditions in the United States. Crippling public and private debt, high unemployment, gaping income inequality and a recession caused by excessive borrowing and reckless behaviour on Wall Street. Yet, at the same time that many people can’t find a job, there are massive bailouts for those on Wall Street who precipitated this economic disaster.

But these are just the surface problems. While many OWS protesters are championing these issues (among others), they’re but symptoms of a far deeper malaise. If the OWS movement is to go beyond being a protest, it needs to direct its outrage not only at the present economic circumstances, but at the deeper causes of those circumstances. And that’s what this post is about.

Because economics is wonderful tool, but a horrible master. And we let it become our master.

The word “economy” originally meant “efficiency” or “frugal”, particularly in terms of management of resources. It used to be an approach. But now it’s a thing, and it’s a thing that we serve.

This is arse-backwards.

Economics is a science that helps us understand how to manage resources to reach a desired end. If people desire X, the market will often be the most efficient process to produce X to meet that desire.

But sometime around the mid-20th Century (1944, to be precise – the year in which Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published), we let economics stop being the arbiter of the means to achieve some valued end, and opened the door for economics to become the arbiter of the values themselves.

According to this ideology (now often called ‘neoliberal’), if the market deigns not to produce some product, that’s because we, by definition, don’t value that product. Likewise, if the market encourages the production of some product, that’s because, by definition, we value that product.

This is wrong.


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