The Ethical Project: Evolving Moral Minds
In my last post I offered my initial review of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project, which is a bold attempt to offer a thoroughly naturalistic rendering of ethics, devoid of any divinity or dubious metaphysics. And overall, I’m very pleased with the account – not least because it is largely in sync with my own.
For too long has ethics been dominated by discussions of moral semantics, of naturalistic fallacies, of rational agents and an expectation that once we discover moral truths, people will kick themselves for not having happily obeyed them in the past.
But this is not the only way to talk about morality. Instead of seeing morality as a truth-seeking endeavour, or springing from the will of some deity, we can alternatively look at morality from what Owen Flanagan, Hagop Sarkissian and David Wong (2008) call “human ecology”.
Better than defining morality by what it is – i.e. about truth, about happiness, about god’s will etc – we can define morality by what it does. This, at its heart, is the moral functionalist perspective. It’s central to Kitcher’s account (as it is to mine), and I believe it’s key to understanding morality as a natural phenomenon – i.e. a practice enacted by human beings throughout history through to this day.
And once we understand better what morality does, we might gain some insights into what it is, and even how we ought to behave. Thus, shockingly, this descriptive programme might have normative implications.
In this post I explore some of the themes raised in The Ethical Project and add some elements of my own research to fill in some gaps left by Kitcher. I have more to say than will fit in one post, so I’ll add more after this one.
I largely agree with Kitcher’s “how possibly” account for how altruistic sentiments might have emerged in early hominin populations, lending them a selective advantage by reducing conflict, increasing cooperation and enhancing the ability to form stable coalitions that could compete against other individuals and groups.
From this seed morality grew.
However, Kitcher’s account does leave out some important elements that are crucial to understanding our moral psychology today. The earliest vestiges of our moral psychology may have been emotions encouraging behavioural and psychological altruism, such as a propensity for empathy (encouraging cooperation), outrage (punishing defection), friendship (building trust enabling direct reciprocity), gossip (facilitating indirect reciprocity) etc.
But there’s a big leap from these to an “ability to apprehend and obey commands” (p74) that needs to be explained. Kitcher does mention things like language in passing, but that’s not enough for a thorough account of how our moral psychology developed.
It appears as though our species’ dramatic cognitive explosion was precipitated by increased social living itself. The trigger for this runaway change is still speculative, but it seems that once we began engaging more socially and cooperatively, the selection pressure for greater cognitive and communicative abilities was intense. After all, someone who was adroit at navigating the social landscape could easily have outcompeted a less social individual who’s main strength was navigating the physical landscape.
In this environment, social learning becomes an incredibly powerful force. Instead of innovating new behavioural strategies over the space of generations through mutation, or even over the space of a lifetime through trial and error learning, we can adopt new behavioural strategies by learning them from others. This would have been one of the many selection pressures for greater language skills, along with the ability to abstract, imagine, predict, generalise etc.
And once things got social, it payed to learn how to play socially. The thing is, unlike the relatively static physical environment in which our ancestors lived, the social environment was highly dynamic – heterogeneous, as they say. This means there was not necessarily any one behaviour that would be successful in every environment. This selects for conditional and plastic cognition.
There was also the ever present threat of deception and defection. Social living can have its benefits, but being ganged up on by a coalition of others, or being lied and cheated by individuals who look honest enough, can be fatal. This added to the selection pressure for reliable communication, costly signalling and possibly wariness of deception and cheating.
From here, it’s not a big step towards norm psychology, where we don’t just adopt behaviours for ourselves, but we desire for others to adopt similar behaviours and desire to punish them when they don’t. Then we desire to punish those who, in turn, fail to punish non-conformists.
The seed becomes a seedling.
Now we can better bridge the gap between Kitcher’s chapter 1 about psychological altruism and chapter 2 about normative guidance.
Plasticity and variability
However, one last pivotal point on the development of our moral psychology. Our social environment wasn’t just heterogeneous, but the very amount of heterogeneity itself varied. There was a heterogeneity of heterogeneity!
Now, plasticity is a nifty trick in a heterogeneous environment. But it’s costly. It takes time to learn and adapt to the environment, and organisms can settle upon bad strategies instead of good ones. In a static environment, rigidity is a better cognitive trait, particularly if the behavioural strategies it encourages are well adapted to that environment.
This raises a conundrum. If the amount of heterogeneity itself varies, how plastic is optimal? The thing is, there’s no right answer.
So, what we evolved is plasticity that varies throughout the population. Some individuals are highly plastic, some are less so. And this stable polymorphism of cognitive types is maintained through negative frequency-dependent selection.
And it’s not just plasticity that varies. Other aspects of our psychology also vary, including the Big Five personality traits, the intensity of our emotional responses, levels of aggressiveness etc.
Plasticity is good. But sometimes hardwired variability is better. And put them both together and you have homo sapiens.
In my next post, I’ll tackle a central component of Kitcher’s (and my) naturalistic account of morality: functions.