Moral Dynamics

Published by timdean on

One of the privileges of being a philosopher is you can create new terms, define them how you please, and damn be to any conventions that would have the term used otherwise. So, I’ve created a few new terms – well, at lease one is new.

Here they are, in conceptual order:

Moral Diversity: the phenomenon I’m interested in understanding and explaining, namely the existence of persistent and intractable differences of opinion over what is considered good and bad, and the norms that promote good behaviour.

A key element of Moral Diversity is moral disagreement which, if it truly is intractable, poses a problem for any realist, objectivist or generally monist approach to ethics. I would suggest that Moral Diversity is a very real phenomenon, although I acknowledge that I could be proven wrong.

Moral Ecology: the notion that moral norms are not hard-and-fast rules but strategies employed to foster in-group cooperation and out-group competition, and these norms emerge in response to the environmental conditions around them, which includes the strategies employed by other individuals and communities.

As there is no one set of norms that best promotes in-group cooperation and out-group competition in all environments, and there is no one set that forms a stable equilibrium within one environment, and because new norms will inevitably emerge and compete with existing norms, there will always be a pluralism of norms that interact in a dynamic way.

I argue that Moral Ecology is the best way to understand morality as a natural phenomenon and to explain the existence of Moral Diversity.

Moral Dynamics: the study of the moral norms within a particular environment, ostensibly with the intention of finding the optimal set of norms that will form the most stable equilibrium and which yields the aggregate outcome closes to the Pareto optimal level, while resisting invasion by new norms and behaviours, particularly ones that are inclined towards defection.

If Moral Ecology is the correct way to understand morality as a natural phenomenon, the Moral Dynamics is a new approach to studying morality, not to find the single best hard-and-fast set of rules that works in every situation, but to find the different and dynamic sets of norms that work in different environments.

OK, rip in to them.


Mark Sloan · 5th July 2011 at 7:16 am

Tim, as you might expect, at least I find very little to rip here.

Moral Diversity, as you have described and as I claim to be empirical fact, is due to the exploitation of different strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups. Further, this diversity in practiced cultural moralities (excluding ‘academic’ moralities which are not culturally enforced) is almost all attributable to 1) different definitions of in-groups, who deserve full moral regard, and out-groups who can be morally exploited, and 2) use of ‘flags’ such as circumcision and prohibitions against eating pork to identify members of the in-group who are likely more reliable cooperators.

HOWEVER, this is saying that moral diversity is only superficial. Properly understood as described, practiced cultural moralities have a necessary underlying commonality. They all can be empirically shown to be ”different strategies for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups”.

I will make a similar point about Moral Dynamics. Sure, “Moral Dynamics is a new approach to studying morality, not to find the single best hard-and-fast set of rules that works in every situation, but to find the different and dynamic sets of norms that work in different environments.”

But again, the diversity in various rules and norms optimized for different environments is superficial. We may still conclude that there is a single best underlying hard-and-fast principle (perhaps my proposed “Unselfish acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral acts?) that we ‘ought’ to follow where this ‘ought’ is justified by something like “the expectation of likely increased personal well being over a lifetime”.

simbel · 5th July 2011 at 8:03 am

I’ll wave my «Morality is not my field» card first and the move on to say that, for me as an embodied cognition theorist, Moral Dynamics is very appealing, and I would even suggest it can also be called Situated Morality.

That said, I don’t think I agree with Mark on the last point about it being entirely superficial. Even though I might be stretching the paradigm too far, when it comes to situated cognition, more than one principle will emerge for describing and explaining the actions of cognitive agents in different environments, and, given multiple realizability, such explanatory heuristics might also apply to moral norms. Maybe not; I have only a vague idea of what I’m talking about.

The Worden Report · 4th August 2011 at 12:04 pm

You might want to read William Frederick’s 1996 text, which, if memory serves (I should look it up), is called Nature and the Corporation. He theorizes ecologizing values, which CAN constrain greed and power-aggrandizing. Ecologizing values function along the lines of an ecosystem (and greed and power, like species in an ecosystem).

Am I Really a Moral Relativist? « Ockham's Beard · 9th August 2012 at 6:48 pm

[…] inclined at this stage to continue talking only about moral ecology, with an inclination towards moral dynamics (the study of the moral systems that best satisfy the function of morality in certain […]

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