The Ethical Project: Functionalism and Disagreement

Published by timdean on

In my first post on Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project I outlined his main argument. In the second post I addressed his account of the evolution of our moral psychology, and filled in a few gaps with my own account that I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis. In this post I look at moral disagreement and functionalism

People disagree about moral issues. There’s probably no other statement in ethics that is as uncontroversial. But what such disagreement means, and how to resolve it – if it’s resolvable at all – is a hotly contested topic.

But if we take the moral functionalist approach – as espoused by Kitcher, and endorsed by myself in my thesis – then we can gain a crucial insight into the origins, and possible resolutions, of moral disagreement.

Let’s start with some typical disagreements. Person A says lying is always wrong. Person B says lying is sometimes right. Then they argue. We wouldn’t be surprised if one appealed to a moral norm they believe in, such as “do not lie”. Another might suggest that lying is against the will of god. Or they might say that lying causes harm to someone’s autonomy. Or that it reduces the overall happiness, and overall happiness is the greatest good. And on they go.

Note that these are all justifications.

Now, comparing justifications is one way of conducting an ethical debate. But I think the evidence suggests that many of our justifications for our moral norms are spurious. If you don’t happen to believe in moral truths or in a divine moral authority (as I don’t), then you can immediately question appeals to them as a defensible justification.

There is also ample moral psychology research that suggests we are easily confused about the justifications of our moral norms. Jon Haidt’s ‘moral dumbfounding’ and the ubiquitous trolley dilemmas show that people offer a range of different justifications seemingly as post-hoc rationalisations for deeply held intuitions about right and wrong. So it’s not the justifications that are doing the heavy lifting, it’s something else.

You can also see this in many contemporary moral debates – such as over abortion or over the moral status of social welfare – where two interlocutors offer their arguments, and then have them torn to shreds by the other side, but no-one changes their mind. Sigh.

Now, I think there are good justifications for certain moral practices. I’m just sceptical whether the justifications that most people cite in everyday moral discourse actually are the right kind of justifications.

So, to understand moral disagreement – and where it really occurs – we need to look elsewhere. And this is where functionalism comes in.

Blind moral maker

The functionalist position is deceptively simple. It states that one way of looking at morality (but not the only way) is to ask not what it is, but what it does: what is the function that morality plays? In this approach, moral functionalism draws on the rich tradition of functional talk in biology and adapts it to cultural and moral matters.

Function was once a problematic concept in biology. After all, how can one employ an inherently teleological – or ‘forward-looking’ – term like function when there’s no designer to set the goals of biological traits?

The function of the heart appears to be to pump blood around the body, much like the function of a pocket watch is to tell the time. The heart or the watch satisfy that function to different degrees depending on the causal processes they embody. But they differ in that it’s clearly us who have decided on the function of the watch, and designed it accordingly, whereas there’s no corresponding designer who has determined the function of the heart and shaped it to fulfil its purpose.

This is where etiological – or ‘causal’ – accounts of function come into play. Starting with Larry Wright (1973), continued by Ruth Millikan (1984), and fleshed out by modern thinkers like Paul Griffiths (1993), Peter Godfrey-Smith (1994) and Philip Kitcher himself, we have an idea of function that isn’t inherently forward-looking, but is instead backward-looking.

In this account the function of a trait is the features of that trait that have been selected for in its recent evolutionary history (Godfrey-Smith, 1994). So the function of the heart is to pump blood – not to make a thumping noise – because it’s capacity for pumping blood that has been selected for in its recent evolutionary history. (‘Recent’ is in there to account for traits that have changed over time, such as feathers, which started out with the function of providing insulation an then came to have the function of facilitating flight.)

Another way of rendering an evolutionarily-aware etiological account of functionalism is to say that the ‘designer’ is natural selection (this is Kitcher’s preferred approach, as articulated in his 1993 paper ‘Function and Design’). In this context, the function of “S is what S is designed to do”, and the designer can be considered to be either an intelligent entity or natural selection.

There’s also another different, but sympathetic, account of function elaborated by Robert Cummins (1983) who renders function in a universal sense. Cummins starts with some object’s ‘overall capacity’, and then breaks that down into layers of functions that contribute to that overall capacity. So the overall capacity of my phone is to facilitate making phone calls (among other things) and the function of the keypad is to facilitate that overall capacity, and the function of the pressure-sensitive button is to facilitate the function of the keypad, etc.

One need only add that the ‘overall function’ of an organism is its ability to survive and reproduce, as set by natural selection, and one can happily conduct a Cummins functional analysis of biological traits (Griffiths, 1993).

Now, functional analysis can apply to all manner of things: biological traits; artefacts; psychological traits; behavioural traits; cultural practices; and even moral norms. For example, the function of the heart is to pump blood; the function of a pocket watch is to tell the time; the function of disgust is to repulse us from potential contaminants; the function of aggression against sexual rivals is to ward them away from potential mates; the function of tattoos is to costly signal some message (such as one’s commitment to their partner, Candy); the function of a norm prohibiting lying is to facilitate trust.

On to morality more specifically.

Moral functionalism

Kitcher suggests the (original overall) function of morality was to “remedy those altruism failures provoking social conflict” (p223). I quite like that. However, I’d offer a slightly more general rendering: the function of morality is to facilitate prosocial behaviour within the group. Then I’d nest Kitcher’s definition one level down as contributing to the overall capacity of facilitating prosocial behaviour. Although I’m open to other functional definitions of morality too – figuring out the best one is a discussion that philosophers ought to have.

Now we can begin to understand moral norms – and moral disagreement – a bit better. Let’s take food taboos (which aren’t necessarily considered moral in post-Enlightenment circles, but I think the morality-is-only-about-harm-and-fairness approach is unnecessarily constrictive). One culture might have a food taboo prohibiting the consumption of pork. Another might prohibit consumption of pumpkins. The first might justify its taboo as being the will of the deity. The other might justify its taboo citing harm caused by eating pumpkins in the past (say, a bad batch caused an outbreak of disease), even though there’s awareness that pumpkins aren’t contaminated today, but it’s now entrenched in the culture’s normative system.

Now, I’d suggest these justifications are basically spurious. They’re post-hoc rationalisations for the existence of these norms. If we want to understand why these norms exist, and why people adhere to them, we need to turn to a functional analysis.

I’d suggest that most food taboos are actually an example of costly signalling. If I give up on a potentially rich source of nutrition, that fairly reliably signals my conformity to the broader social and cultural norms that include the food taboo. It signals my membership in a group, and that I’m likely to behave in predictable ways and be trustworthy in cooperative interactions with others within my group.

Whatever might have kicked off the food taboo – say, a case of contamination – is now irrelevant. It’s now relegated to the level of features as insulation, whereas signalling is feathers as facilitating flight.

The reason the norm still exists – the overall function of the norm – is because it effectively serves to signal group membership. If it didn’t, and if it served no other useful function, it would probably not exist. (Note: this account can accommodate vestiges and persisting functionless traits and norms in just the same way it can account for evolutionary vestiges and functionless traits in organisms.)

Agreeing about disagreement

So, in one important sense, two people disagreeing over food taboos are not disagreeing at all. They’re both attempting to signal their membership to a group – different groups, sure – but the function is the same.

This is why I say tradition is important, but traditions generally aren’t. The function of traditions – to encourage group identity, for example – is important. But the specific traditions that are chosen to perform that function are pretty arbitrary (assuming the tradition doesn’t also serve some other function, such as galvanising family bonds, such as many feast traditions). If a culture has a tradition that is harmful – either causing more harm than benefit, or causing more harm than an alternative tradition – it ought to be scrapped.

So, in the same way that the food taboo has the same function, likewise many apparently conflicting norms are actually the same from a functional perspective. And yet there is still great scope for disagreement, except it’s disagreement not over whether the function is important, but disagreement on the particular strategy in satisfying the function.

If you want to signal membership in a group, or encourage honesty, or prevent people murdering each other, there are many ways to go about this. Some strategies for satisfying these functions are better than others. Some are trade-offs. Some have a negative impact on other practices. Some work better in one environment, and work poorly in another.

This is my notion of moral ecology.

Even once you’ve settled on the functions you wish to satisfy, there are many ways of satisfying it, and the optimal strategies will vary based on the environment. And the dynamics of these strategies can be explored with the help of game theory.

So, I’d suggest a great deal of moral disagreement is actually disagreement over strategies for satisfying the function: how best to facilitate honesty; how best to facilitate group stability; how best to signal trustworthiness; how best to prevent harm etc.

Unfortunately, due to our moral psychology, we tend to take moral norms as being categorical, and we tend to cite our justifications as being non-negotiable reasons for conforming with that norm. So we argue over justifications, not realising that the norms themselves are not black-and-white, right-or-wrong things, but are malleable strategies to satisfy some deeper functional end.

This is the true value of functionalism. It helps us tease apart moral disagreement and get to the root of the matter. Justifications still matter, but we have to make sure that we’re arguing about justifications in the right way, and that we identify our moral norms for what they are – that we see that the norms are slaves to the function, not slaves to spurious post-hoc justifications.

So that’s my take elaboration on moral functionalism as espoused by Kitcher in The Ethical Project. In my next post I’ll tackle moral progress, and argue that there is, in fact, one key linear metric that underlies all moral progress throughout history: trust.


Mark Sloan · 26th January 2012 at 8:44 am

Tim, thanks again for your revealing review posts.

I appreciate it in part because “The Ethical Project” is turning into a bit of a slog for me. This far, Kitcher is only describing ideas I already accept or ideas that I think are not quite right or even flatly wrong.

The most prominent place I think he is wrong is suggesting the (original overall) function of morality was, as you point out, to “remedy those altruism failures provoking social conflict” (p223).

He is right about the necessity for altruism in any functional definition of morality that is defined in the sense of enforced cultural norms being moral standards. If a behavior is self-interestedly motivational (even for pro-social behaviors), rather than altruistic, enforcement would be a waste of resources. However, it seems to me that self-interested motivation for pro-social behaviors such as reducing social conflict is not, as Kitcher implies, morally admirable.

His error is in talking about preventing “provoking social conflict” which is only one proximate goal of altruism. Altruism’s ultimate functional goal is to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups. Sometimes, as in time of war, those benefits of cooperation in groups have been to defeat, while acting morally in the fullest sense, an enemy by the most violent social conflict there is.

To hold Kitcher’s view seems to me consistent with the view that social conflict is somehow inherently immoral. Perhaps this is due to Kicher confusing one of the proximate functional goals of morality with its ultimate goal (to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups). Of course perhaps he actually explains all of this and reveals my objections here as just misunderstandings of his position.

That said, I am still delighted that such a well-respected philosopher has lent credibility to understanding morality as a biological and cultural adaptation.

Tim Dean · 27th January 2012 at 1:31 pm

Indeed, I think a pressing question for philosophical enquiry is what is, or are, the functions of morality, and how have they changed over time.

I suspect the answer will reference cooperation, social living, prosocial behaviour, altruism, in-group preference, out-group competition, reducing social conflict and others. How they all fit together, and how they’re prioritised – and even if there is anything remotely resembling necessary and sufficient conditions, or just a contingent collection of features – is a pressing problem that deserves more discussion.

And I did find the book a bit of a slog too, either because it covered familiar ground with me impatiently nodding along, or got bogged down in detailed exposition over points of contention that I’m happy to sidestep. Still, worth the long haul in the end.

The Ethical Project: Measuring Ethical Progress « Ockham's Beard · 27th January 2012 at 4:38 pm

[…] In this post, I consider the notion of ethical progress. It follows on from my review of  Philip Kitcher’s The Ethical Project, then my post looking at the evolution of our moral psychology, and a post on moral functionalism. […]

The Ethical Project: The Future of Ethics « Ockham's Beard · 28th January 2012 at 5:00 pm

[…] The Ethical Project. You can read my initial review, my look at our evolving moral psychology, on moral functionalism, and my last post on ethical progress. In this post I want to sum up my thoughts on Kitcher’s […]

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *