Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

The Meaning of ‘Moral’

One of the things I’ve notice while looking at evolution and morality is the vast and unbridled equivocation that goes on when the word ‘moral’ is evoked. Some, such as Franz de Waal, observe cooperation, punishment and concern amongst non-human primates and thus calls them ‘moral’. Others, such as Jonathan Haidt, speak of surges of feeling concerning permissibility or impermissibility and call these intuitions ‘moral’. Others still stress that it takes a special kind of reasoned deliberation about rightness and wrongness to call a judgement truly ‘moral’.

But are they all talking about the same thing? I think not.

In fact, I think the general lack of clarity over what we mean by ‘moral’ is unnecessarily muddying discussion of evolutionary ethics. It’s for this reason that I propose the following basic taxonomy of moral terms:

1) Moral behaviour

Behaviour of an organism that appears to involve concern for the welfare of others besides the acting agent, including cooperation, sharing, helping, punishment, reciprocal exchange etc is ‘moral behaviour’. This behaviour may or may not  be intentional or the result of conscious deliberation. As such, this covers behaviour of  organisms that engage in altruistic behaviour – such as improving the evolutionary fitness of another organism at a cost to one’s own – as well as directed human behaviour driven by moral principles. It’s all moral behaviour.

2) Moral emotion/sentiment

Any emotion that serves to encourage moral behaviour, including empathy, sympathy, gratitude, guilt, outrage etc. These emotions serve as heuristics – rough and ready shortcuts – that direct behaviour without necessarily requiring reasoned deliberation. Humans and non-human primates – and quite likely many other animals as well – possess emotions of this kind, although it appears as though humans possess a particularly broad range of these moral emotions.

3) Moral intuitions

The immediate feeling of permissibility or impermissibility of an action. Moral intuitions, as described by Jonathan Haidt, spring forth rapidly and without conscious deliberation, fuelled by moral emotions, to yield a ‘preliminary’ moral judgement. Arguably, non-human primates can experience moral intuitions, even if they lack the capacity for moral reasoning.

4) Moral reasoning

The conscious process by which abstract moral principles (below) are deliberated upon and applied to a particular situation. Moral reasoning appears to be unique to humans, and involves abstract reasoning, conscious deliberation, imagination and an ability to predict future outcomes of potential behaviours.

5) Moral principles

The abstract propositions – often couched in categorical or universal terms – that concern permissibility and impermissibility (and obligatoriness etc) of actions.

6) Moral judgement/justification

The last term I reserve for ‘considered’ moral judgements, in contrast to the ‘preliminary’ moral judgements yielded by moral intuitions (above). A moral judgement may direct behaviour, if deliberated upon before acting (although the empirical evidence suggests this is rare, or at least only occurs in cases of moral dilemmas where there’s conflict between a moral intuition and an abstract moral principle), or it can be used post hoc as a means of justifying an action via moral reasoning and the weighing up of moral principles.

Why would such a taxonomy as this be helpful? It allows us to talk more clearly about things such as primate morality – i.e. some primates are capable of moral behaviour, even if they don’t engage in moral reasoning using moral principles – as well as provide a more nuanced account of our moral decision making process – i.e. moral emotions lead to moral intuitions, and these sometimes directly lead to behaviour, but at other times we engage in moral reasoning using moral principles to arrive at a moral judgement. Yes, lots of usage of the “moral”, but they all have slightly different meanings. You get the point.

Reconciling Continental and Analytical Philosophy

There are two types of people in this world: cat people and dog people; Beatles or Elvis; tissues or hankie. And there are analytic and continental philosophers.

Why is this? And why do continental and analytic philosophers have such foucault08difficulty understanding, let alone appreciating, each others’ work? And why the latent (and sometimes not so latent) animosity between adherents of both traditions?

I’d suggest it’s because the two approaches represent fundamentally opposite approaches to philosophy. However, when taken together, they actually turn out to be complementary, much like Niels Bohr’s motto: “Contraria non contradictoria sed complementa sunt,” (“opposites are not contradictory but complementary”).

See, the world of experience is a strange and chaotic one, and it’s the job of philosophy to make sense of it. The question is: how?

For the continental philosopher, the starting point is the world of experience itself. Continental philosophy takes as its task the mapping of the phenomenal world. It involves itself with perception, language, culture, emotion, history etc. It seeks to make sense of the phenomenal by determining its very contours.

Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, takes as its starting point the desire to describe the smallest number of moving parts – the very cogs that underlie the phenomenal world – that, when working together, produce the seemingly chaotic phenomena of every day life. The analytic philosopher is less interested in the dozens of ways a word might be used than in what all usages of the word have in common. They wish to abstract away the individual phenomena to get at the underlying eddies and currents that reinforce and annhiliate each other to produce the contours of experience.

DavidLewisYet the continental philosopher is wary of this approach, for it is suspicious of reductionism and the notion of objectivity, and is sceptical about our ability to know when we have actually discovered the underlying moving parts. The analytic philosopher, on the other hand, is irritated by the slippery nature of continental discourse; to them it’s like trying to herd cats.

One thing I’ve noticed is that most philosophers don’t strictly choose which side of the fence they’ll pitch their tent; the discover one day their tent already pitched and simply make home, realising later the fence some way distant.

Personally, I find myself firmly in the analytic camp. I’m interested in systems, although this not not so much from choice as a consequence of my psychology; I’m a high systemiser – to the point of being close to the ASD range. (In fact, I think a fascinating experiment would be to test a sample of analytic and continental philosophers to see where they fall on this scale – I predict they’ll all be higher than average on the systemising scale, but analytic philosophers will top out the systemising scale, while the continental philosophers will be higher on the empathising scale.)

The take home message from this whim and speculation? Continental and analytic philosophy are just two sides of the same coin. And the very fact that they diverged at all is perhaps a sign that both sides have taken their approach to extreme. Regular readers will remember that I’m critical of both sides. As philosophy has been shrunk and become overshadowed by its offspring, it has retreated to the extremes and become less relevant to the real world. As a matter of priority philosophy – of all persuasions – needs to make itself relevant again. And philosophers going head to head at cross purposes doesn’t do anybody any favours.

The Difference Between Animal and Human Morality

Tom Heneghan, the religion editor at Reuters and author of the FaithWorld blog, has posted an insightful review of the recently released book, Wild Justice.

The book, which looks like a worthwhile read, is written by evolutionary biologist and animal behaviourist, Marc Bekoff, and bioethicist, Jessica Pierce, and explores the fascinating evidence for moral behaviour in the animal kingdom. It’s a subject I’ve long been intrigued by – I even commissioned an article on the topic from primate researcher and science writer Vanessa Woods for Cosmos magazine a couple of years ago.

wild-justice-2The publisher’s synopsis of Wild Justice suggests that:

Ultimately, Bekoff and Pierce draw the astonishing conclusion that there is no moral gap between humans and other species: morality is an evolved trait that we unquestionably share with other social mammals.

That’s a bold claim. And as Heneghan correctly points out, there’s a big difference between moral behaviour and morality as humans employ it.

To suggest there’s no ‘gap’ between humans and animals in the moral realm is like saying there’s no ‘gap’ between humans and animals in the language realm. After all, animals make utterances that serve to communicate concepts – such as ‘danger’ or ‘I’m here’ – to other animals. The difference with human language is only a difference in degree, not in kind.

But that’s just plain wrong. Human language has the property of recursion, which animal languages lack. And this makes human language not only different in degree, but wholly different in kind. In a similar vein, there’s reason to think of human morality in a similar light.

While I’m sympathetic to the notion that we share a great deal of our moral sentiments and faculties with many animals, particularly other primates, we humans have an additional faculty that is crucial to understanding our moral behaviour: reason. And by this I mean conscious reflection, deliberation, imagination and weighing of various facts and moral beliefs against each other.

We abstract moral principles from past experience and from reflection alone. We then employ these principles when we are confronted with a dilemma or intuition that conflicts with them. We share these moral principles, encouraging others to adopt them. If we didn’t do this, we’d confront every situation wielding only our moral intuitions and emotions – as other animals do.

As Heneghan states:

It’s hard to imagine any of this [debate over public moral standards] would have happened if humans only dealt with moral challenges confronting them directly and couldn’t analyse and debate them abstractly.

I don’t want to overstate the role of reason in moral judgement, but I also don’t think it should be understated. Moral philosophy might have had all its eggs in the reason basket for too long, but let’s not overshoot on our way to a correction.

Liberals, Conservatives and Moral Diversity

Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times about the psychology of liberals and conservatives has been getting some attention this past week. Probably because the research on which it’s based resonates so clearly with so many people. It’s research by Jonathan Haidt, whom regular readers of this blog will recognise as being a great influence upon my own research.

However, Haidt’s exploration of the psychology that underpins the political spectrum – fascinating and illuminating though it is – is not the end of the story. For when you combine Haidt’s research with another intriguing finding that our political views are largely influenced by genes (Alford & Funk & Hibbing, 2005), it raises a big fat question: why does our psychology – and biology – vary in the way it does?

I have a theory. It’s called Moral Diversity. It goes a little something like this:


Children Are Evil

Okay, bare with me on this one. It’s a thought in progress, but when it occurred to me (in the middle of a lively philosophical discussion at Socrates Café), I had to stop, go get my notepad and jot it down, lest it go the way of most of my thoughts: into oblivion five minutes hence.

bullyOne of the crucial pieces of evidence that morality is learned rather than somehow innate is the fact that parents work tirelessly to educate their children in moral behaviour. “Don’t hit your sister”; “share”; “say you’re sorry” etc etc. The presumption is that if morality was innate, kids wouldn’t be so downright nasty as to need consistent moral guidance.

However, I do happen to believe that morality is largely innate – not the norms to which we subscribe, but the capacity for moral thinking and the ability to feel moral emotions such as empathy. As such, why would children require so much moral guidance? Here’s why:

Children are evil.

There, I said it. Now, let me elaborate with somewhat less hyperbole.


Evolution, Morality and Truth

There’s a widely held – yet mistaken – belief that all cognitive processes are somehow intended to find truth; we think in order to understand the way the world is. And this applies equally for moral cognition: it’s intended to find the moral facts of the matter: is it right or wrong to kill an innocent? Is it right or wrong to lie or cheat?

Makes some intuitive sense – after all, why employ the energy and time consuming cognition if it’s not to improve the accuracy with which we apprehend the world? And surely a more accurate representation will also aid us in decision making, right?

But this rests on two crucial – and oft unexamined – assumptions that are not nearly as robust as they might appear at first glance. But if these assumptions are indeed flimsy, then it could be that morality actually has nothing to do with finding truth, and is instead simply about finding the best course of action in a given circumstance – ‘best’ for the individual at the time by their proximate reckoning, and best for the individual’s genes on an ultimate level.

Rational Agents

spockThe first confounding assumption is that humans are, rational agents. A rational agent “always chooses to perform the action that results in the optimal outcome for itself from among all feasible actions,” according to good ol’ Wikipedia. Basically, a rational agent has beliefs and desires, and draws upon these beliefs in an attempt to satisfy their desires. All very mechanical, very rational, very Mr Spock.

But… we’re so not rational agents. We don’t actually weigh up these options in a balanced, impartial way. We, instead, use short and fast heuristics fuelled by emotional impetus to make decisions. There’s a growing mount of research that undermines the rational agent hypothesis, rational choice theory and exchange theory (Lawler & Thye, 2006; Collins, 1993; Hammond, 2006; amongst others). In their place, it’s better to think of us as emotional-intuitive agents (Haidt, 2008).

Now, that seems an odd way to find the truth of the matter, such as which possible behaviour is better for us to take. But, nevertheless, that’s how we function. Truth isn’t as important as we might think in directing behaviour.

Autonomy Assumption

The second assumption is sometimes called the ‘autonomy assumption’. It goes a little something like this:

People have, to greater or lesser degrees, a capacity for reasoning that follows autonomous standards appropriate to the subjects in question, rather than in slavish service to evolutionarily given instincts merely filtered through cultural forms or applied in novel environments. Such reflection, reasoning, judgment and resulting behavior seem to be autonomous in the sense that they involve exercises of thought that are not themselves significantly shaped by specific evolutionarily given tendencies, but instead follow independent norms appropriate to the pursuits in question (Nagel 1979).
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

What this is saying is that the cause of reasoning is not as important as the reasoning itself, and it formed the foundation of Nagel’s attack against any kind of strong evolutionary ethics. Basically, it doesn’t matter what caused someone to start thinking about a particular thing, but it matters what their reasons are for believing it. Evolution might have endowed us with a disposition to think more about mathematics than music, but the content of the thoughts about maths – such as whether 2 + 2 = 4 – has nothing to do with evolution; evolution can’t make 2 + 2 = 5.

So, too, for ethical thinking, says Nagel. “No one, to my knowledge, has suggested a biological theory of mathematics, yet the biological approach to ethics has aroused a great deal of interest,” says Nagel (1979). But, this argument – and assumption – only holds if the subject matter is truth-seeking. Mathematics is truth-seeking. Physics is truth-seeking. But what if ethics is not?

Going to the definition of the atonomy assumption above, what if ‘reflection’, ‘reasoning’ and ‘judgement’ don’t actually influence behaviour in ethical thinking? What if the ‘excercises of thought’ are themselves shaped by evolutionary processes – such as through unconscious domain-specific modules or moral intuitions? What if behaviour or discourse in the social sphere isn’t about finding the truth of the matter, but is about achieving desirable outcomes for the agents involved quickly and with limited information and energy expenditure? Perhaps over-rationalising the discipline will misrepresent what it’s actually there for in the first place.

Morality isn’t About Truth

If we are comfortable abandoning these assumptions, and the notion that moral thinking and moral discourse is about finding truth, then we can simply wash away many of the most perplexing problems in ethics and metaethics as non-problems. Moral discourse might feel like it’s talking categorically; talking about truths. But if it’s not, then we can just ditch cognitivism and move on.

Of course, such a move raises other issues, such as how to justify moral judgements. But that’s another story.

What the Philosopher and Psychopath Have in Common

“If you are able to honestly examine the moral arguments in favour of slavery and genocide (along with the much stronger arguments against them), then you are likely to be either a psychopath or a philosopher.”

– Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund, “Social Intuitionists Answer Six Questions about Moral Psychology”, in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed), Moral Psychology, Volume 2, MIT, 2008, p196.

Can’t argue with that.

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