What’s the Point (of a Thesis on Evolution and Morality)?

Published by timdean on

One of my supervisors asked a singularly curly question when we last met: what’s the point of your thesis?


But he raises an important issue – a couple of important issues, really. One is the fundamental question of: is what I’m trying to say actually important, relevant or new?

And the other is: if it is important, relevant or new, are you making sure this is clear to your reader/marker?

So, anyway, it’s sent me on a navel gazing quest of thesis-introspection. What is the point? Why is telling a story about how evolution has shaped our moral psychology to produce a pluralism of moral strategies interesting? To what is it relevant? Who cares? And how do I make them care?

My initial response – besides being speechless for a rare moment – is to think this thesis is relevant on a few levels. I just need to choose which is the most relevant, and which is worth emphasising, because it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.

The first relevance is simply in providing an accurate genealogy of morality: a purely descriptive endeavour that seeks to understand where morality comes from and how we came to think about morality the way we do. Although, arguably, this is more the purview of anthropologists and moral psychologists rather than a mere philosopher.

The second relevance is in exploring why there appears to be an apparent contradiction between the way we think of morality – i.e. that it’s about finding the correct answers to moral questions – and the fact that we disagree so broadly and intractably about so many moral issues. Is it just that there is a right answer, but that most people are simply wrong?

Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.

A third angle is to tie descriptive evolutionary ethics to contemporary normative ethics. If a normative ethicist wants to advance a normative system, I’d suggest that it needs, at minimum, to be compatible with human psychology.

Advancing a normative system – even one that we can all agree yields the right answer in any particular situation – but which places unreasonable demands on our cognitive faculties is doomed to fail. After all, normative ethics isn’t just an armchair endeavour of speculation about how morality might be (although many moral philosophers and metaethicists might disagree), it’s supposed to be a practical system that can actually guide and encourage moral behaviour.

Perhaps, in light of this, a more robust descriptive account of how we think about morality – and why we vary in the way we think about morality – could be useful for the development of a normative system that has a hope of accommodating our diverse moral psychology. It might also help inform a normative system by having it acknowledge that pluralism and disagreement aren’t a sign of weakness, but a path to a stronger moral system. And it might place practical bounds on what a realistic normative system can achieve.

As it happens, I don’t think I’ve been focusing on any one of these issues exclusively so far. In fact, I’ve found myself in a most interesting diversion talking about the influence of evolved psychology on political attitudes. Well, my supervisor suspects it’s a diversion. So it’s probably prudent of me to lock in one of these (or a different) ‘point’ and focus on that.

After all, a PhD thesis is not one’s last word as an academic. It’s their first. If I want to explore these other issues, there’s ample time to do so after I get my PhD (assuming I do get my PhD, and the even more unlikely prospect that I’ll score a gig in academia afterwards – but still, gotta get the damn thesis done before anything else).

I’m open to any thoughts on what is the most interesting angle of my various rants on this blog, and which aspects of my thesis might yield the ripest (and lowest hanging) fruit. Sometimes I’m far too close to my own research to get any perspective on what’s actually novel or interesting any more…


GTChristie · 28th January 2011 at 11:05 pm

it’s unlikely I can hammer them all home in one thesis.

So what you need is a threesis, then.

Sorry. Can’t resist. It’s congenital.

GTChristie · 29th January 2011 at 12:00 am

Now, to respond to your actual question. Your main thrust, as I understand it, is to begin from an anthropological view of ethics. That, in itself, is a major step in the right direction. It contrasts with 2500 years of moral philosophy, most of which is dedicated to finding Ultimate Moral Principles (resembling what we now call “moral realism”), as if there are real, natural moral imperatives discoverable by reason. Disagreement comes from the fact (a word used with trepidation) that no such natural imperatives exist to discover, despite every culture’s illusions that they do. Yet we think, we act, and we judge — that is a universal trait of human beings (and societies).

I have been trying to develop for years a “cultural view” of ethics, intending to recommend it to philosophers as the proper core of moral theory. And you are on that path. (Some people think “cultural view” implies “relativism” — and I struggle with all the unintended freight of that — because anthropologists have established firmly and correctly that “culture is relative.”) Well? My eventual solution is that ethics is relative to culture. But that does not preclude the possibility that a culture could be immoral (such as a nazi system, let’s say). And we still need a way to make that evaluation. (Enough digression …)

Your path is clear: find out what natural configuration of the human animal makes us judge each other “morally,” I say it is the same thing that makes us cultural in the first place. We are first (as primates) social animals. But we are social animals with a cultural adaptation to the environment. We are marked by not just a social, but a cultural form of cooperation. Dogs cooperate socially. We cooperate culturally. And everything we think, do and judge is formed in the cultural crucible.

We want everyone around us to act like us, think like us, judge like us for social cohesion, essentially. Our cultures are the knowledge-conditions we build around us to survive, some of which is the maintenance and transmission of “behaviors that enhance cohesion). The actual content of these knowledge conditions is unique, from culture to culture: we are bowhunters, you are fishermen, others are farmers. Ethics is cultural in the universal sense, but local in specifics. Viola! Disagreement, if you get my drift.

How you focus that is up to you, but I think it needs development in this way for moral philosophy: recognizing that we are dealing with a cultural animal is step one. Recognizing that this being has evolved cultural responses (cultural group behavior) in the cultural parts of the brain is step two. Recognizing that specific moral systems depend upon a culture’s unique features is the next step (features being unique cosmology, myth structure and myth content (both), community self-definition, family/kin patterns, and definition/relationship of individual to group all affect the “moral climate” and therefore judgments made). It’s always a system but its content varies from system to system. Recognizing the implications for philosophic moral theory is the last step.

Well, anyway … you are in this same ballpark, from what I see, and maybe this two cents worth will jog a few thoughts (or something). I can explain this stuff in blog comments better than I can in my own essays.

Hopefully you can improve on that. More power to you.

Paul · 29th January 2011 at 4:13 am

“Or is moral disagreement suggestive of something else – perhaps something more interesting – such that morality isn’t about the right and wrong answer, but is a pursuit that seeks to tackle problems that admit of multiple answers? Perhaps understanding how our moral proclivities evolved can reveal something illuminating about the kinds of problems morality evolved to solve. And this insight can change the way we think and talk about morality today.”

I think that I would simply stick with this point, and defend it, as all of the other points that you might like to make are predicated on the truth of this claim. Also, professional philosophers are intelligent people, right? If they are, and if you are able to convince them of this claim, in a short time others will be publishing journal articles about the significance this claim has on normative ethics, etc. That isn’t work that you need to do, as it is a very short step from the point that our moral psychology was selected on the basis of its ability to promote pro-social behavior in small groups to most of the other points that you want to make.

Mark Sloan · 29th January 2011 at 1:29 pm

Tim, we have previously both seen similarities in our approaches to producing a culturally useful secular moral system. We are more or less together, except my views may be a bit more radical. However, if you adopted the following cluster of low hanging fruit to emphasize in your thesis, I expect you would never again be asked if you were addressing ideas that were actually important, relevant, or new.

I expect the lowest hanging fruit, as well as the most nutritious and sweetest, is the following:

To answer the question: “What are the normative implications if, as a matter of science, the primary reason that cultural moralities exist could be determined?”

As an unproven example of what might be the primary reason that cultural moral standards exit, you might use: “The primary reason that cultural moral standards exist is that, by advocating unselfish behaviors, they increase the benefits of cooperation in groups.” I expect you would not have too much trouble arguing this is at least plausible and suitable for your purpose. You might even be able to argue that whatever is finally determined to be the primary reason that cultural moralities exist of necessity must 1) advocate unselfish behaviors and 2) produce benefits. Also, because you are assuming it is only the primary reason, you leave room for secondary reasons that cultural moral standards such as virtue ethics exist, which do not always advocate unselfishness.

The above claimed primary reason implies a moral principle; “Unselfish behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral behaviors”. This odd sentence order leaves room for other than just unselfish behaviors to be morally admirable, for example virtue ethics.

Applying the question to this straw horse primary reason, we get the following. “What are the normative implications of a moral principle that defines morality in terms of benefits to the cooperative group, can be expected to be more consistent with existing moral intuitions and cultural moral standards such as the Golden Rule than any available secular alternative, and is universal?”

The normative implications are that it is arguably a more prudent choice to adopt and practice this secular moral principle than any available alternative. Here, prudent choice is the choice expected to be more likely to meet the individual’s needs and preferences (where needs and preferences prominently include perhaps irrational emotional needs and preferences) than any available alternative.

Note that you have the basis here of a culturally useful moral system that has NO requirement for mysterious sources of justification that bind us to behave morally regardless of our values, needs, and preferences. To me, that is a big deal.

Obviously, the above short version leaves unanswered a lot of loose ends. But, so far as I know, all the loose ends are answerable. For example, “Why should I act according to this moral principle when, in the moment of decision, I expect doing so will not be in my best interests?” I am ready to argue that acting according to it will be, almost always, your prudent choice even when you expect it will not be.

Ok, so maybe the above is not the lowest hanging fruit, but I’ll bet it is the sweetest. If you get it accepted, you might make a name for yourself.

Nick · 29th January 2011 at 2:23 pm

For what it is (or isn’t) worth, I have always thought your thesis is important. You do a much better job of explaining why than I ever would. I am glad that you were forced to think about it and articulate it. It could make a good dust jacket blurb for the day this makes it to print… 😉

GTChristie · 30th January 2011 at 10:18 pm

I’ve thought some more on this question, “What’s the point of a thesis on evolution and morality?” I’ve read the post several times, walked away and done some deliberate sleeping on it (LOL). Now I apologize for coming in here and grinding my axe (though it could prove useful to you).

But now I have a more direct response to “what’s the point” (or the question of emphasis or focus). It’s not “the answer” (only you can work that out), Call it an outsider’s remark that may clarify, like a child’s naive but potent question.

If the object of the exercise is to discuss, broadly, “how morality evolved,” and that might have “implications” for either moral theory or practical ethics, it might not be possible to work out all the implications per se, but it should be possible to figure out what counts as an implication.

Or to put it in my old school fuddy-duddy terms: if we find evolutionary influences on either moral behavior directly or how we think about moral questions, once we’ve identified what they are, what are the possible impacts on moral theory: what questions can an evolutionary perspective actually solve?

Mark Sloan · 31st January 2011 at 8:01 am

Tim, I want to expand on GTChristie’s suggestion concerning focusing on possible impacts of an evolutionary understanding of moral behavior.

Morality as a product of evolutionary processes has three necessary characteristics. First, this morality has been selected for, in the normal sense of evolution, based on benefits it has produced. I argue cultural moralities have been selected for by the benefits of cooperation in groups (families, friends, communities, and so forth) sustained by unselfish acts. Second, morality as a product of evolutionary processes should be consistent with normal moral intuitions in a way that moralities such as Utilitarianism and Kantianism can never be. Third, it should be a unitary and universal definition of morality in the normal way that facts from science are unitary and universal.

These three necessary characteristics arguably make a morality as a product of evolution a more attractive moral system than any available secular alternative. Further, it is arguable that following such a morality could be, almost always, the prudent choice (the choice most likely to meet the individual’s needs and preferences in the long term) even when the individual expects, in the moment of decision, that following it will not be.

So the biggest problem that a morality as the product of evolutionary processes might solve is to answer the old question: “Why should I act morally when, in the moment of decision, I expect doing so will not be in my best interests?” The answer for a morality as the product of evolutionary processes might be: “You should act morally because, almost always, that will be your prudent choice, even when, in the moment of decision, you expect it will not be”.

JR · 31st January 2011 at 3:12 pm

Seems to me that the point is to improve things.

The better we understand something, the more readily we can improve & change it. The thesis aims at improving our understanding, (hopefully) with the eventual point of improving our view of morality.

Tim Dean · 31st January 2011 at 8:48 pm

Thank you, each of you, for your thoughts. It’s interesting to read an outsider’s perspective on my research, and see what peaks different people’s interest. Although there does seem to be a broad consensus that ‘rethinking’ morality by looking at it through the lens of evolution is something of value.

I think I got overly distracted by moral psychology and individual difference and lost sight of the bigger picture; that of the ‘moral ecology’ idea – that morality is a device to solve problems incumbent in being social animals, but there is no one solution to that problem. I might refocus my efforts around this core.

Means restructuring my chapter list. But hey. It wouldn’t be a PhD thesis if it wasn’t written backwards before being written forwards, or so I’m told.

Warm thanks again folks!

Mark Sloan · 1st February 2011 at 8:58 am

Tim, I fully sympathize with wanting to limit the changes in your thesis and just get the thing done. Certainly, “morality is a device to solve problems incumbent in being social animals, but there is no one solution to that problem” and I encourage the idea you “might refocus my efforts around this core”.

Perhaps your advisors would see the above as quite challenging enough and it is only from my limited perspective that it risks being too boring.

I just think you can go much further to something like “Past and present cultural moral standards advocating unselfish behaviors are heuristics for a universal strategy for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups (families, friends, communities, and so forth) which is the primary reason that cultural moralities exist and have existed”.

This leaves open secondary reasons that cultural moralities exist that do not advocate unselfish behaviors, for example, some aspects of virtue ethics and other self directed behaviors, which some people call moral obligations, but to me are only prudent actions.

GTChristie · 3rd February 2011 at 11:33 pm

Wow, what a nice little think-tank this thread turned out to be. If you can digest all this food for thought, you’ll be phat.

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