Raising the Bar

To argue or not to argue. That is the question that underpins my latest missive on The Drum about the state of political and public discourse in Australia (and translatable to most other modern liberal democracies), as motivated by Malcolm Turbull’s latest speech.

And when it comes to those who spout sophistry or invective in the guise of a genuine argument, then the best strategy is simply to sideline them. Let’s not waste our energy attempting to battle head on those who have no intention of engaging in rational discourse.

Let’s raise the bar from the rock bottom, and set it at least to the level of demanding reasoned arguments, supported by evidence and devoid of fallacies or spin. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

And if someone doesn’t conform to these basic standards, they disqualify themselves from the conversation. They’re only welcome back in when they decide to clear the bar.

What I’m talking about is like issuing a kind of social contract over how we’re going to conduct ourselves as a society. If we’re not happy with the emotional, irrational, biased and deadlocked discourse we have today, we agree that we’re all going to conform to a basic minimal set of rules about how to argue. If someone breaks those rules, they’ve broken the contract and don’t deserve to participate.

All this does mean we need to be better at argument. It might be too late for many of us, but one of the best things we can do to improve the world of the future is to ensure our children don’t fall into the same blather trap that we have today.

As such, the best long term solution is really quite a simple one: we should teach reasoning and critical thinking in school.

Like we all agree that no-one should leave school without being able to read, write and do maths, we should also add the ability to spot logical and argumentative fallacies to that list.

This ought to be core curriculum stuff, because reasoning and critical thinking make everything else easier – and lack thereof makes everything else harder.

Reasoning is hard, we’re not naturally good at it, but we can’t afford to live without it. So let’s teach everyone how to do it better.

Am I Really a Moral Relativist?

Relativism is one of those terms more often used in the pejorative than in any serious philosophical sense. It’s like a cautionary sign at the edge of a cliff pronouncing “Caution! Precipice ahead!” Any argument in ethics that steers towards relativism – or even any argument that steers away from objectivity and absoluteness – sets off the usual slew of anti-relativism klaxons.

Yet as I delve deeper into writing my thesis, I can already hear the klaxons blaring.

Now, those who have read my previous posts on moral ecology might be surprised to hear that I’m beginning to see it as a form of relativism. After all, I suggest that the problems that morality is trying to solve have no single solution, and often it requires multiple approaches working in concert (or in tension) to get the best outcomes.

That sounds relativist. And while I’m becoming more aware of that link, I hasten to highlight the differences between any Moral Ecology Brand Relativism from the more No-Name Brands that gather dust on the back shelf in the moral supermarket.


Which Comes First: The Moral, Or The Ecology?

There are chicken and egg problems. And there are tail and dog problems. The thing is, I’m not sure which of these problems I’m facing at the moment in regards to defining moral ecology.

I recently had a very fruitful, if highly critical, experience at the Philosophy of Biology at Dolphin Beach workshop. Amidst the splendour of the New South Wales south coast, and between midnight bonfires on the beach, I gave a paper on evolution and moral ecology.

The thesis was this:

The highly variegated hominin social environment of the last few million years shaped our psychology to produce a polymorphism of psychological traits that promote a range of behavioural strategies when it comes to social living.

For example, the inherent difficulties in identifying trustworthy partners for potentially risky cooperative ventures has made some people naturally more predisposed towards being trusting and others towards being suspicious.

Another example might be that some people are predisposed to be quick to anger, particularly in the face of perceived disloyalty or defection in cooperative ventures, and others are predisposed towards being more forgiving.

These predispositions promote behaviours that follow fairly predictable patterns – more trusting people engage in more cooperative ventures but expose themselves to greater risk of defection; more forgiving people maintain more social bonds by punishing less but make norm enforcement more difficult.


Moral Ecology Defined (At Last)

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.

The Old as a Barrier to the New

Techdirt has an interesting piece on the follies of the publishing industry in shifting its business model over to ebooks and digital publishing, focusing on the utter and infuriating pointlessness of DRM, or digital rights management.

It makes the salient point that DRM fails because it makes a legitimate product less useful, and therefore less valuable, than a pirated one, which can be acquired easier and cheaper than the legitimate product.

However, the piece also raises a bigger point about the impact of change on existing industries. And there’s a little psychology and decision theory to explain why almost all industries almost always screw up the transition phase, largely motivated by their desire not to go extinct, and then go extinct anyway. This is particularly true of publishing and the media.

Here’s the story:

Company A has an existing product, X,  which sells for a high price and achieves a good margin.

A new disruptive technology emerges which, like most disruptive technologies, make things less expensive to produce and/or disseminate.

This results in a cheaper product Y that competes with the more expensive old technology product X.

Company A now has a number of choices – and it’ll always choose the wrong one:

1) Lower the price of X to compete with Y, thus crippling its margins and forcing it to lower the quality of X to appalling levels. This is what most newspaper publishers have done in response to the internet. Now their print editions and online editions are scraping the bottom of the barrel, while online outlets, like the Huffington Post, boom.

2) Sell both X and Y. However, now they’re competing with themselves, and Y will win, putting the long-established X department out of business. But X makes a good margin and the company doesn’t want to lose that, or change its business model. So the company raises the price of Y well above its cost to make X competitive against it. However, now Y is unreasonably overpriced in the eyes of consumers, who can probably easily get Y free illegally. This is what book publishers are doing by pricing ebooks at only a fraction lower than print books, and television and movie studios with DVDs vs. downloads. Then company B comes along, unhindered by the old technology, and it only produces product Y, and puts company A out of business anyway, like iTunes did to the music industry.

3) Transition from product X to Y, and either phase out X entirely, or find an equilibrium between the two. Y will rarely entirely replace X, and X will likely have to change, such as bestseller fiction moving to ebooks while quality hardbacks remain in print, or top 10 music going digital while vinyl lives on. Y will be priced such that it’s competitive, and it’ll supplant X fairly rapidly, with the business model adapting and departments probably closing. Businesses almost never take this option, even though it’s the most rational.

Basically, management, when faced with the decision of competing with themselves or continuing business as usual, will almost always continue business as usual. And, in doing so, they effectively let other companies compete with them and put them out of business anyway.

This is because most management are intrinsically conservative, they seek to protect the business model they know (and thus their own jobs), even at the expense of the business at large. Few managers have the courage to actively destroy part of their company in order to compete in a new environment, and thus passively destroy the entire company.

I’ve seen this phenomenon unfold a dozen times in my career, and I expect it’ll continue as long as new disruptive technologies emerge.

The upshot is we’re currently living in a transition time where many industries are busy making their mistakes, but they haven’t gone out of business quite yet. When they do, and new business emerge that embrace the new technology, then things will settle into a new equilibrium – and BitTorrent will suddenly decline in popularity, as did music filesharing systems once iTunes emerged.

I look forward to that day.

Religion for Atheists Review

ABC Religion and Ethics has posted a review I penned of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists.

Despite the negative press de Botton has received from some quarters of the New Atheist movement, his book is a worthwhile contribution to moving the discourse about god, atheism and religion forward.

In the wake of the atheist convention here in Australia, there’s renewed discussion about religion, but sadly, most of it is the same old to-and-fro that we’ve seen for decades. This kind of debating is mostly fruitless and, for the most part, a tremendous waste of time and energy.

What we need right now is for some of the very smart people behind the current atheism push to shift emphasis towards building secular culture, whether that be underpinned by Humanism or another system of values. And in creating secular culture, there’s a lot we can learn from religion.

de Botton’s particular approach and his specific prescriptive suggestions might not be the best ones, but at least he’s engaging with positive atheism rather than wallowing in negative atheism. I’d like to see more atheist thinkers to do the same.

Evolution and Moral Ecology Seminar at UNSW

Picture this: a philosopher giving a seminar on evolution and moral ecology to a bunch of evolutionary biologists and ecologists. It’s bonkers. But I’m going to give it a shot. I mean, what could go wrong?

Actually, I’m hoping the audience will teach me a thing or two. I’m going to use the opportunity to hurl at them the most ribald version of my moral ecology thesis and see if the analogy sticks.

And I’m going to flop out the full length of my evolutionary story for how our highly polymorphic psychology came to be as it is and see if anyone chops it off.

I’m not sure on the attendance rules, but it’s at the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales at 3pm in the Biomed C theatre on Friday 27th April. Do come!

Here’s the abstract:

In this talk I introduce the notion of ‘moral ecology.’ This is the thesis that there is no one way to promote optimal levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in a population. Instead, certain behavioural strategies will be more or less successful depending on the environment in which they’re situated. The environment includes both the physical environment, such as resources and climate, and the social environment, which includes the behavioural strategies employed by other members of the group. What emerges is a pluralism of strategies that are able to sustain high levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in their particular environment, forming a meta-stable equilibrium. I suggest that human social and moral psychology evolved in light of this phenomenon and, as such, we evolved a polymorphism of psychological types that promote a pluralism of behavioural strategies while retaining sufficient plasticity to adapt to changing environments. This polymorphism is maintained primarily through negative frequency-dependent selection. I argue that moral ecology can help explain the existence of human psychological diversity, and the existence of moral diversity in the world.


Linking Psychology, Politics and Climate Scepticism

Conservatives are from Mars, Liberals are from Venus. So says Chris Mooney in his new book, The Republican Brain.

I tend to agree. I’ve written as much on this blog back in 2010, and on the ABC’s Drum website again in 2011.

The thesis is that liberals and conservatives tend towards very different psychological make-ups. Political psychology studies have shown that liberals and conservatives are measurably different along a number of different axes.

For example, liberals tend to have higher scores than conservatives in Openness in personality tests. This means liberals tend to be more curious, inquisitive and exploratory when it comes to information and opinions. Conversely, conservatives tend to be less experimental, more rigid in their thinking and more dogmatic.

Liberals also tend to exhibit greater integrative complexity – which is a metric that measures the tendency to incorporate many different pieces of information into forming an attitude or making a judgement. It’s kinda ‘shades of grey’ thinking. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend towards more black and white thinking.

None of these things are rock solid. There’s no determinism at the root of this. But there are clear leanings amongst those who self-identify or vote one way or the other.

Do these psychological differences contribute to the differences of opinion among liberals and conservatives? Could they help explain why a majority of conservatives reject anthropogenic climate change, for example?


Evolution and Moral Ecology Abstract

There’s a conference coming up later this year in Sicily on the evolution of morality, appropriately called: The Evolution of Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience. Looks like a cracker. Speakers include Frans de Waal, Phillip Kitcher, Patricia Churchland, Richard Joyce, Owen Flanagan and Simon Blackburn, among others.

I plan to go. And I plan to give a paper – although they’re only guaranteeing spots for posters, which is odd. There are some short 15 min(!) talks on offer, so I’ll also try to score one of them, if I can, and cut loose with my riff on evolution and moral ecology.

Before I submit the abstract, I thought I’d post it here for comments and criticism. I’ve never done a poster before (not including my year 4 project on scorpions, which was pretty cool, come to think of it). So not sure how much can be crammed in. Also I don’t think I can order a coffee, let alone talk about evolution and morality, in less than 15 mins, so a talk might be tricky. On the other hand, I can talk fast if need be.

Happy to hear feedback on the abstract, on things like whether the first paragraph lending context is necessary, or the last paragraph offering implications, or whether it generally makes sense etc:

Many philosophers have regarded moral diversity – and its concomitant moral disagreement – as an anomaly to be explained away en route to detailing a single correct system of moral norms. In this paper I take an alternate view, looking at moral diversity as a phenomenon worthy of a more detailed explanation, and central to understanding the nature of our evolved moral psychology.

I argue that moral diversity and moral disagreement are, at least in part, a product of evolved psychological variation. I suggest this is because the adaptive social environment faced by our distant ancestors was highly heterogeneous, both in terms of physical environment, such as local resource availability, and social environment, including the behavioural strategies employed by others within the group.

As a result, there was no one psychological type that reliably produced adaptive strategies in these complex and heterogeneous environments, a phenomenon that can be modelled using game theory. Thus humans evolved a stable polymorphism of psychological types, with some proving more adaptive in certain environments and less adaptive in others, but no one type reaching fixation in any population. This is a phenomenon I call ‘moral ecology.’

The upshot of this notion is that moral diversity may not always have been such a bad thing. It suggests that instead of moral diversity being indicative of some error in thinking on behalf of moral agents, in fact the diversity of approaches to social living enabled our ancestors to adapt to a wide variety of environments, both physical and social. It also suggests that philosophers might place greater emphasis on the diverse dynamics of social living and whether it’s even possible to have one system of norms that promotes behaviour that is beneficial to its adherents in every social environment.

Criticise away!

In Defence of Alain de Botton

My oh my, atheists can be a sensitive bunch. The furore that has erupted over the opening lines of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists, has put not a few noses out of joint amongst the more arm-waving ranks of non-believers. But many of them have just served to reinforce de Botton’s point, which starts like this:

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.

This line inspired some bile-laden posts from a cadre of vocal atheist bloggers, seemingly intent to denigrate de Botton rather than engage with his argument. PZ Myers retorted with a “fuck you very much”, Martin Wagner related de Botton to a Nazi accommodationist, JT Eberhard dismissed most of de Botton’s CNN article as “bullshit”. Others, like Dan Fincke, have made more of an effort to at least understand what de Botton is saying, before getting all defensive about their approach in the face of criticism from de Botton directed towards “fanatical atheists”.

It’s pathetic.

If the so-called ‘new atheists’ want to know why so many people are dismissing them as “fanatical,” one need only peruse these posts. They’re aggressive, mocking, self-righteous and many represent an almost wilful misinterpretation of de Botton in order to thump another table in the name of anti-religion, like that’s the only argument in town, and all others are beneath contempt.

They’re effectively saying to the world of thinkers on religion: “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”


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