Review: The Ethical Project

Published by timdean on

Pop back in time roughly five million years to the time of the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and you’d likely spot roving troops of creatures not dissimilar to today’s great apes. Yet, while chimpanzees and the rest of our evolutionary cousins have changed relatively little over the last few million years, our species has undergone remarkable change.


Arguably the strongest driving force for this incredible evolutionary change is our uniquely social nature – and our uniquely moral proclivities – to the point where today we interact in a global network of billions of individuals, a network of staggering complexity hinging on levels of cooperation unmatched by any other creature.

And the glue that holds our social and cooperative life together is morality.

It’s in charting and explicating this progression from the earliest forms of pre-moral inclinations to our modern day complex moral deliberations that is the ambitious goal of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project.

And Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, does a remarkable job of not only weaving together a coherent picture from many disparate threads, but also lays down a path for potentially fruitful ethical debate in the future. And he does it all in a thoroughly naturalistic, empirically-aware and refreshingly grounded way, with his method strongly influenced by his commitment to “pragmatic naturalism”, which heavily informed particularly by John Dewey and William James.

He also espouses a theory that is startlingly close to my own PhD thesis, much to my joy and chagrin. Even if there are now a few less revelations in my own thesis, it is deeply heartening to see that I’m not the only one charting an evolutionarily-informed naturalistic account of morality.

That said, there are a few gaps in Kitcher’s account, and a few key details that he overlooks either deliberately or unintentionally. In this post, I’ll outline the main thrust of Kitcher’s argument, and in a subsequent post I’ll provide a more critical review, comparing and contrasting it with my own account.

First, an overview of Kitcher’s argument.

Altruism and its limits

Social living has its advantages, not least of which is cooperation. But cooperation isn’t without its problems, namely the risk of defection. Kitcher doesn’t go into a lot of detail here, besides the obligatory nod towards the Prisoner’s Dilemma and reference to the usual developments of reciprocity and conditional cooperation that are well articulated in the literature. (I’ll have more to say about the interesting dynamics of cooperative interactions that Kitcher doesn’t talk about in my next post.)

He then offers a “how possibly” account of how altruistic sentiments might have evolved, one where our ancestors began forming primitive coalitions that lent a competitive advantage, but also required basic levels of cooperation. At a certain size, the coalitions become unstable, requiring more sophisticated mechanisms to prevent cooperation from breaking down.

In steps altruism, and Kitcher helpfully distinguishes between three senses of the term. The first biological altruism, which is where one organism suffers a fitness penalty in order to lend another a fitness benefit. The second is altruistic behaviour, where one organism behaves in a way that advances the desires of another organism at the expense of its own, whether it intends to or not, or whether they’re motivated by Machiavellian self-interest or not.

The third, and pivotal definition, is psychological altruism, which Kitcher defines as one individual being influenced by the perceived desires and interests of another individual, and they adjust their behaviour accordingly. A useful distinction.

Kitcher shows it’s entirely possible that we could have evolved a propensity to engage in psychological altruism, and this would have fostered the kind of coalitional and cooperative behaviour that kick-started the rapid evolutionary change of homo sapiens. (Uncited are accounts offered by the likes of Kim Sterelny and Peter Godfrey-Smith of how the increasingly complex social environment offered a strong selection pressure for greater social intelligence and language skills.)

However, psychological altruism has its limits, particularly because the temptation to defect in cooperative endeavours is always present. And a few too many defections can see cooperation spiral into bellum omnium contra omnes.

Inventing right and wrong

This is where normative guidance comes in. While psychological altruism can get you part of the way, explicit rules of behaviour that are sanctioned by the group and invite punishment when defied can drive cooperation to new highs.

Kitcher sees the desire to solve “altruism failures” as being the origins of early hominins’ dabbling in ethics. They effectively invented ethics to help foster greater social and cooperative behaviour, and they reaped the rewards of that cooperation when it worked.

With greater cognitive sophistication, and particularly the emergence of language, it became possible for our ancestors to resolve disputes over the campfire and develop new behavioural rules to guide the group.

This deliberation – and a liberal dose of experimentation – would have seen ethical codes evolve according to cultural evolution, with the codes that were more successful at fostering stable levels of cooperation, and lending the groups that adopted them a selective advantage over groups that were less stably cooperative.

He then cites some ancient and modern examples of what he thinks constitute genuine ethical progress, including: the move away from lex talonis, or eye-for-an-eye retribution; the movement towards greater rights for women; the abolition of chattel slavery; and increasingly liberal attitudes towards sex.

The question then becomes: how to account for this notion of progress in a naturalistic way without recourse to firm ethical truths or the edicts of some divine will?

The ethical view from nowhere

Before diving into his account of progress, Kitcher also offers a brief but pointed criticism of much conventional moral philosophy, particularly the traditions that seek to internalise morality as a system of rules that a suitably reflective individual will naturally obey. He calls this the “ethical point of view”, citing the likes of moral realists, rationalists and, of course, Immanuel Kant.

He suggests that “the entire conception of the ‘ethical point of view’ is a psychological myth devised by philosophers” (p81), and I’m inclined to agree. While it’d be nice if there did exist some ethical truths which, once appreciated, simply motivated moral behaviour without recourse to external compulsion. But they don’t exist.

We invented ethics, we invented the norms that guide social behaviour, and we are responsible for finding the requisite motivation – from within, by encouraging greater altruism; or from without through coercion – that will see people conform with those rules.

But if we can’t pin ethical progress on a greater appreciation of ethical truths, then what can we pin it on?

The function of morality

At this point Kitcher takes a turn that, until recently, I had worried I was alone in making: defining morality in terms of its function by drawing on the functionalism of Larry Wright, Ruth Millikan and Robert Cummins. (I touch on cultural functionalism in this post, but I’ve also just written an unpublished chapter tying morality to these expositions of biological function.)

The functional view is pivotal. Think of the function of a toaster: it’s to turn bread into toast. Now think of all the different inventions and innovations that can serve this function. And think of the improvements we’ve seen in recent decades and years (my last toaster had a “a little bit more” button – pure genius). These improvements are measured not against some abstract absolute standard, but against the function we wish the toaster to serve. Likewise morality.

And what is that function? Kitcher defines morality as “socially embedded normative guidance is a social technology responding to the problem background confronting our first full human ancestors” (p221).

One of the key terms is “problem background”, which was originally how to solve altruism failures in our ancestral environments. But the problem background itself can change over time, particularly as the size of groups increase and the challenges of maintaining cooperation themselves change.

Now we can start to understand the ethical progress mentioned above. Early ethical experimentation was relatively unsophisticated and had only a rudimentary grasp of the complexities of the problem background. Instead it responded to the symptoms of altruism failures, and developed norms that appeared to improve cooperation, even if those norms weren’t optimal.

Lex talonis might have proven better than softer forms of punishment in preventing altruism failures, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to prevent altruism failures or encourage conformity with the moral rules today.

Some innovations might also solve one problem but create another. Some might even lead us down an ethical innovation dead end. Kitcher believes this to be the case with the notion of an “unseen enforcer” (p231), which may have been quite effective at encouraging conformity with moral norms in times when individuals thought they were unwatched and could get away with defection without punishment.

However, the postulation of an unseen enforcer has other side-effects, such as leading people to think that ethics is about conformity with a divine will rather than about promoting social and cooperative behaviour. As a result, new ethical innovations may lead down a dead-end path by trying to further conform with the unseen enforcer’s will, even if such innovations are detrimental to advancing the function of ethics – a situation we see today in the many debates between secular and religious thinkers over issues like sexual morality, abortion, blasphemy versus freedom of speech etc.

Over time, as we gain a better understanding of the problem background, we can address it more directly, and propose new ethical solutions that may offer genuinely better solutions.

Kitcher ultimately offers a constructivist notion of ethical truth, not truth in the conventional realist sense, but suggesting ethical truth is arrived at by any reliable process, in true pragmatist fashion (p246). Although, thankfully, he doesn’t peg too much on these truths, more so on the functionalist notion of progress.

Getting normative

In the final section of the book, Kitcher switches to a normative stance, and offers some suggestions on how we can continue the ethical project. Given that ethics isn’t static – in that it’s not tied to abstract ethical truths or the will of some divine being – it’s up to us to decide where we go from here, and this decision making process requires ethical deliberation.

Kitcher first suggests some of the problems that ethics is trying to solve today – i.e. which functions are the right ones to focus on – which in itself is a normative question. His chosen approach he calls “dynamic consequentialism” (p288), by which he suggests “Conceptions of the good evolve…some of the transitions among those conceptions are progressive…and that later conceptions of the good are (sometimes) superior to their predecessors, even though none can claim the last word” (p289).

He then discusses some of the issues he considers worth of engagement, such as ‘expanding the circle’ from smaller groups to the global community, identifying what constitutes a ‘good life’ and issues around population size.

The following chapter deals with method: how mutual engagement and deliberation over these issues ought to proceed. In this he’s influenced by well known notions of reflective equilibrium and rational deliberation in ideal circumstances – which is the yardstick against which we should assess our real-world deliberation.

Finally, he offers some of his own normative suggestions, not in the spirit of asserting moral truths, but in proposing solutions to the problems that he considers worth solving, things like population control and expanding equality for a greater number.

These normative chapters are valuable in that they extend from his earlier descriptive chapters, but they are weaker in the sense that they only offer some fairly broad suggestions as to where to go next, which is why I haven’t dwelt on them in detail. It seems such ruminations could fill an entire volume of books, and there treatment is relatively sparse, but they do serve as useful examples of how Kitcher envisages the ethical project progressing.

Back to nature

The ultimate strength of Kitcher’s account of ethics is that it is entirely and unapologetically naturalistic. It is refreshingly empirically- and evolutionarily-informed, and thoroughly down-to-earth. It’s precisely what an account of ethics ought to look like.

Particularly important are the distinction between pre-moral altruism and moral normative guidance – a distinction that has confounded other very valuable contributions to ethical discussion, such as those by Frans de Waal and other’s investigating so-called ‘animal morality’.

Also crucial is the emphasis on a functional account of morality. Instead of looking at justifications – such as it being about moral truths, or the will of god, or about happiness for the greatest number – it defines morality in terms of what it does. I’ll have more to say about this in my critical post next.

This approach stresses that morality is a human invention, and this elevates the practice of ethical deliberation. After all, it’s up to us to work together to figure out the best set of norms that can help solve the problems of social living that we face today.

There are gaps in his account. I find the treatment of the problem background a little thin. I think game theory can play a substantially greater role here – as I’ll outline in my critical response.

Evolution also didn’t just endow us with the psychological mechanisms that enable ethical deliberation, it also endowed us with our most basic interests. And I think a reflection on what our biological interests are, and how they inform our psychological interests, is an important step. My fear is that if we simply pursue desires, we’ll end up chasing the evolved heuristics that serve to satisfy our evolved biological interests – a close evolutionary ethics, if you will. More on this in the next post.

I also think there’s something to be said about moral issues as trade-offs – that there are very few norms that aren’t trade-offs in some respect. This is a huge source of moral disagreement, but we can actually benefit from understanding the dynamics of this disagreement.

Ultimately, I think Kitcher’s approach is very close to mine, although his emphasis is more on the norms, whereas mine tries to articulate the dynamic interaction between our evolved psychology and the problem background to explain why there’s moral diversity in the world – and why such diversity isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.

I will mention a couple of small quibbles with the format of the book. Kitcher should be applauded for using footnotes – which he uses extensively – rather than endnotes. Endnotes are bad book UI and ought to be abandoned. However, all his references reside in the aforementioned footnotes. The book could sorely do with a reference section at the back. The index is also woefully brief. A good index is more important than ever today, especially given the ease and familiarity of searching digital text. The only thing books have that can compete with this is a hefty index, particularly one you’re likely to return to frequently.

Still, I strongly recommend The Ethical Project for anyone looking for a lucid and coherent account of ethics that departs from the traditional abstract ruminations of metaethicists or the convoluted arguments of normative philosophers.

I expect this is only the beginning of what I consider a substantial shift in the way we talk about ethics and the problems of social living, and I look forward to seeing more people embrace this naturalistic tradition.


MindExpanding · 23rd January 2012 at 5:12 pm

Reblogged this on Mind Expanding.

GTChristie · 23rd January 2012 at 7:03 pm

Thanks for the exposition. You’re right, it’s an important book and a must-have for philosophers who see the merits of and want to accommodate the naturalistic roots of morality. What interests me in this essay, in your work generally (as I understand it so far) and in Kitcher’s account is the effort to explain and bridge the divide between moral sentiments and moral ideas. I have always thought that moral sentiments, although observable and “real,” do not sufficiently explain the variety and elaborate detail found in moral systems devised by human beings. “Moral sentiments” such as altruism are too weak to sustain higher-order moral practices (such as observing a “rule of law” or defining “civic virtue”) that human groups actually have invented. In other words, ethical emotivism as a theory is insufficient to explain the moral systems of human beings because the emotions usually identified (primarily self-interest and altruism) don’t clearly/cleanly scale up to the extent of the systems. I think most of the explanation for that theoretical shortfall is that the higher-order (ie more complex) systems we actually live by are ideational systems, not emotional ones. Kitcher (and you) are helping us see how the human animal makes the jump from moral emotions to moral ideas. The picture is not quite complete, but you, Tim, especially, are on the right track to think “culture” is the key ingredient. Homo sapiens is a cultural animal; that is our adaptation to nature; to understand ethics (and how it grows), understand culture. This is making you into a leading philosopher, you know. =)

JW Gray · 23rd January 2012 at 7:30 pm

Before diving into his account of progress, Kitcher also offers a brief but pointed criticism of much conventional moral philosophy, particularly the traditions that seek to internalise morality as a system of rules that a suitably reflective individual will naturally obey. He calls this the “ethical point of view”, citing the likes of moral realists, rationalists and, of course, Immanuel Kant.

I don’t understand what you are saying here. Where did Kant say reflective individuals “naturally obey” certain rules? Where does any moral realist say that? Does “natural” here mean that it happens a lot or what?

Tim Dean · 23rd January 2012 at 9:07 pm

I mean “naturally” in the non-technical sense here. Kitcher is criticising the tradition that seeks to find some internally motivating core to morality, such that appreciation of it is sufficient to motivate moral behaviour. That could be knowledge of moral facts, or knowledge of God’s will, or it could be understanding the obligations one has by virtue of being a rational agent. He’s criticising the tradition that starts with conscience or internal reflection and neglects the role of deliberation, culture and external coercion to behave morally. Hope that clarifies things.

Mark Sloan · 24th January 2012 at 6:15 am

Tim, thanks for this first look review of “The Ethical Project”. I look forward to updates.

I also am encouraged to see a prominent philosopher embrace a naturalistic understanding of morality.

Unfortunately, a very brief skim of the book (I just got it today) leaves me disappointed. Yes, what he says (that I have read) is mostly correct. However, in my estimation he still does not get the big picture. The thunderbolt realization of what morality really is has yet to strike him.

For example, he talks about the “functions of ethics” being

“A function for ethics is anything resulting from the original function (the remedying of altruism failures) by a finite number of steps of functional generation, that is, from a finite number of iterations of the sequence I-4.21 The narrative of the last paragraph identifies responding to the endorsed (elementary) desires of all group members as a function of ethics, introducing and elaborating the division of labor as a function of ethics, specifying roles as a function of ethics, and ultimately endorsing an expanded set of desires as a function of ethics.”

I see three problems in this paragraph. First, he is too vague in saying “the remedying of altruism failures” is the original function of ethics. Why not more specifically, and more correctly, say something like “The universal function of enforced cultural norms is to advocate altruism that increases the benefits of cooperation in groups”?

Second, he does not distinguish between the subcategory of ethics defined by enforced cultural norms (which has a firm foundation in evolution and game theory and seems to me to be the topic of his book) and ethics regarding activities that have nothing directly to do with cooperation in groups, but are part of answers to the big questions “What is good?” and “How should I live?”.

Third, he talks about the function of ethics as if it is species specific. The universal function of enforced cultural norms is species, and even biology, independent. There is nothing that would prevent a hypothetical society of intelligent computers from understanding the game theory strategy indirect reciprocity. The computers would then be free to exploit that strategy as people do, by enforcing a cultural norm in a form of the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” plus punishment for computers who violate it.

Also, I did not find what I thought was a sensible discussion about rational justification for accepting the burdens of acting ethically (altruistically to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups). Why couldn’t he just say something like “A group’s choice of norms to enforce are rationally justified as an instrumental choice based on what is expected to most increase the benefits of cooperation for the group. An individual’s acceptance of the burdens of morality is, almost always, rationally justified as an instrumental choice based on fulfilling approved common needs and desires such as the experience of durable well-being.”

A word search showed zero cases of mention of: indirect reciprocity, direct reciprocity, Golden Rule, Circumcision, “flagging” or “markers” in the game theory sense. I don’t understand how you could have an insightful discussion of enforced cultural norms without mentioning at least most of these.

Finally, Kitcher doesn’t appear to appreciate the power of showing that assertions about the universal function of enforced cultural norms can be shown to be provisionally ‘true’ by the normal relevant criteria of science such as:

1) No contradiction with known facts,
2) Explanatory power for myriad known facts and puzzles about morality, and
3) Well integrated with the rest of science, specifically evolutionary theory and game theory.

I hope you find more gems of wisdom than I have seen so far. But at least he is defending a naturalistic understanding of morality, just not the most correct naturalistic understanding of morality.

Tim Dean · 24th January 2012 at 10:56 am

Hi Mark. Once you’ve read the book, I think you’ll find Kitcher does respond to a lot of your concerns, although perhaps not to the level of detail you’re looking for in some areas. His treatment of game theory is fairly thin, for example, although his entire project is ‘game theory-aware’ at least. And he treats truth in a pragmatic way, which is worth looking at.

Mark Sloan · 24th January 2012 at 12:47 pm

“And he treats truth in a pragmatic way, which is worth looking at”.

Tim, treating truth in a pragmatic way may be more impressive for you than me. As a retired engineer who started off in physics, treating truth in any other than a pragmatic way indicates a misunderstanding of reality.

JW Gray · 24th January 2012 at 7:51 pm

Are all motivations “dubious” unless they are egoistic? Or is empathy a naturalistic non-egoistic motivation? Anyone who understands “moral facts” will think it legitimizes empathy, and nothing new needs to be discussed concerning “motivation.”

Traherne · 12th February 2012 at 12:36 am

Good lord, warmed over utilitarianism. What a joke. This fabricated “morality” is hardly a morality at all. This is amoralism lacking the courage to call itself such.

Tim Dean · 12th February 2012 at 8:32 am

Hi Traherne, would you care to provide an argument for why you think Kitcher’s version of utilitarianism is unsatisfactory? And in what way could it possibly be considered amoralism?

johannes · 21st July 2012 at 8:48 am

Had Kitcher wrote this book back in 1985 or so, he would have been a pioneer philosopher leading the way of “biolocizing” ethics. Instead, he wrote Valuting Ambition. Now in 2012, his book is too little, too late. Another words, he’s a follower, not a leader.

Mark Sloan · 21st July 2012 at 11:17 am


Yes, Kitcher’s book is too little. I was fortunate enough to have a perhaps ten minute conversation with him in which I very briefly described my concerns (see my above post). After patiently listening, he said four words that explained his book to me: “it is philosophy, not science”.

I had thought the book was philosophy based in science, a naturalized moral philosophy in my way of thinking. It is not. The way the book talks about morality as based on the function of morality in culture may be useful, but I wish he had worked harder to 1) actually base his definition of morality’s function in science, and 2) be more clear where he left off talking about science and started talking about moral philosophy in the traditional sense.

Philip · 4th November 2012 at 1:12 pm

If I recall correctly, there’s really not a whole lot of original or useful things in the philosophy part of Kitcher. See, for example, Peter’s Singer’s Expanding Circle for similarity in Kitcher’s thinking in the philosophy part.

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