The Ethical Project: The Future of Ethics

Published by timdean on

This is the last in my series in response to Philip Kitcher’s new book, 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 naturalistic programme and make some comments on where to from here.

As is probably apparent from the other posts in this series, I’m very sympathetic with Kitcher’s broad approach to ethics. He calls is naturalistic pragmatism – naturalistic because it doesn’t lean on any non-natural or a priori truths, but on the gritty reality of life in the natural world; pragmatist because of his commitment to a Deweyan picture of philosophy being “reconnected with human life”, and “ethics as growing out of the human social situation”, as well as a Jamesian pragmatic approach to truth (p3).

If I had to give my approach to ethics a label, I’d be quite content to call it pragmatic naturalism.

I thoroughly endorse the notion that ethics is a human invention, a cultural innovation that served the function of solving the problems of social living, thus facilitating greater levels of cooperation. That individual moral norms are best understood as strategies for solving these problems and encouraging prosocial behaviour.

I also dismiss notions of there being moral facts – in the sense of a unique domain of facts that are knowable a priori, and/or non-natural, and/or intrinsically normative, and/or the expressions of a divine will. There is only us, our interests, the dynamics of social living, and the mundane fact that if we want to live socially, and reap the benefits of cooperation, we need to abide by some rules of behaviour lest it all spiral down into mutual defection.

And, as I don’t believe that morality is a special domain, I dismiss the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy as barking up the wrong tree. The kind of special ‘ought’ that is apparently separated from ‘is’ simply doesn’t exist. The simple undefinable moral property of ‘the good’ also doesn’t exist. The fallacies are, well, a fallacy.

This makes me a kind of moral sceptic. In metaethical terms, I’m in the error theory pigeon hole, packed in alongside John Mackie and Richard Joyce. But error theory doesn’t actually say terribly much. It’s just a sceptical argument – one I happen to believe is correct – against a particular rendering of morality. This is a rendering that says morality must be predicated on the existence of some special kind of moral fact – a fact that doesn’t exist. I agree this special kind of moral fact doesn’t exist, but I also deny that morality requires such facts in the first place.

The non-existence of these special moral facts no more imperils ethics as a sceptical argument about knowledge being justified true belief imperils all of epistemology.

Ethics is well and truly an earthly subject. And while we feel that moral norms hold some kind of overriding authority that transcends contingent natural facts, that’s just an illusion.

One of the most profound take-home messages of The Ethical Project is that most of us have been muddled about ethics for a couple of millennia at least. And many still are embedded in this redundant approach, methodically winding up the garden path, and meandering further and further from the true subject of ethics: the gritty reality of social living. Even if you don’t subscribe to all of Kitcher’s analyses, we all ought to reflect carefully on this pragmatic and naturalistic approach to ethics as the best way forward in the real world.

Moral ecology

While I heartily endorse Kitcher’s programme, and pursue a very similar programme myself, I do have a slightly different emphasis in my own work – one which I think is quite complementary to Kitcher’s.

Like Kitcher, I also argue that the benefits of social living exerted substantial selection pressures on our evolving minds, equipping us with a capacity for psychological altruism. However I’m very interested in the many faculties that come together to enable altruism – and other prosocial and moral thinking – in order to better understand the constitution of our moral psychology and to account for the startling amount of moral diversity in the world – even within cultures that are at a similar level of ‘progression’.

If it is the case that social living exerted a selection pressure on our evolving minds, it pays to understand what these selection pressures might look like. As I’ve argued in earlier posts, these selection pressures were far from simple or static. This is because the social environment is very different from a relatively unchanging physical environment.

The payoff for adopting a particular social strategy isn’t fixed. Instead, the payoff depends on the strategies employed by others. And their strategies adapt to our own. This is where game theory has proven an immensely powerful tool in understanding the complex dynamics of social living.

I argue that these dynamic selection pressures endowed us with a panoply of psychological faculties – moral emotions; social learning; plastic cognition; norm psychology; language etc – that further facilitated living in increasingly complex social environments. And I argue that not all minds are created alike – even in terms of plasticity.

I suggest it’s this psychological variation, as influenced by our highly plastic learning processes and conditional thinking, that produce a substantial amount of the variation in moral attitudes and beliefs that we see in the world today.

I also suggest that this diversity and disagreement isn’t always such a bad thing. As long as the problems of social living are not static, then the solutions ought not be static either. This is my theory of moral ecology.

I argue that the optimal strategies for facilitating social living depend primarily on two forces: the external environment, including the amount of available resources and the hostility of neighbouring groups; and the internal environment, including the size of the group and the attitudes and strategies employed by others within the group.

But this account still allows for ethical progress. For any given group, there are better and worse strategies for solving the problems of social living, and the strategies employed by the group can be assessed against this yardstick. This is where I introduce the notion of moral dynamics as a study of the circumstances facing a particular group and reckoning which strategies would be optimal for it.

Getting normative

I happen to believe that just about everyone wants to pursue their interests, whatever they are (which is an interesting discussion that ought to be informed by evolution and psychology too). And just about everyone can pursue their interests better as part of a group. As such, it’s just a matter of empirical fact that most people already want to be moral, although most of us are still challenged by temptation and akrasia. We still need external compulsion and punishment to ensure conformity, but a better approach is to internalise the moral code and encourage moral behaviour without as much error-prone external sanction.

This suggests a path for normative ethics, and that path is very similar to that outlined by Kitcher.

First, we acknowledge that we are the creators of ethics, but no one of us is the master of ethics. Normative ethics begins with a conversation, and a debate about what ends we ought to follow, and how we ought to achieve them.

It also suggests that ethical deliberation ought to include all the other human-invented tools to facilitate social living, including politics and law. They’re all aiming to solve the same fundamental problems on different scales, and it’s only that our evolved psychology lends a particular class of norms a special emotional salience not found in conventional or legal norms.

When it comes to the debate, like Kitcher, I also endorse a form of pluralism. It’s a bounded pluralism, and certainly not a no-holds-barred moral relativism (not that I know anyone who endorses such a view). It suggests that there are many different problems of social living, and many different solutions to those problems.

It also acknowledges that our faculties are finite, and that our psychological diversity will inevitably produce a melange of moral attitudes and proposed norms. These should not be dismissed, but equally they should not be blindly endorsed. But they should be allowed into the conversation. And once we acknowledge that ethics is not a hard categorical otherworldly thing, it ought to allow flexibility in the way we debate these things. Dogma, as always, is the enemy of fruitful discourse.

The pluralism is also bounded by the fact that within each community there needs to be some consistency of norms that are obeyed by the group. There might be a highly pluralistic ethical deliberation going on at one level, but that pluralism ends when the rubber meets the road, provided that system of moral norms remains open to debate and revision.

In this sense, the way I envisage normative ethics operating is not dissimilar to the way politics operates in liberal democracies (and it’s no accident this is the case, because liberal democracy is one of the latest cultural innovations aimed towards solving the problems of social living, and one that happens to be less wrapped up in the muddled objectivist psychology of morality – well, only slightly less…).

And like liberal democracy, there are some principles that are not malleable, such as tolerance of diversity, valuing reason and believing in the conversation itself. No matter what else you believe, you ought to believe in these.

Ethical education

It also suggests that ethical education is crucially important. And that dogma and supernaturalism ought to be stripped from existing moral education. Allowing religions to teach inflexible, dogmatic and intolerant ethics in today’s world is tantamount to allowing fascists to teach inflexible, dogmatic and intolerant politics in our schools. It’s just not on.

Ethical education ought to consist in teaching people the origins of ethics, the dynamics of social living, the psychology that contributes to moral judgements, and a slew of tools to enable rational ethical debate. It should also consist in encouraging virtues, such as patience, tolerance, humility, reason and others that will help temper our more disruptive elements of our psychology and help facilitate healthy thinking and healthy ethical discussion.

I also think ethical education should encompass the environment itself. After all, the moral attitudes we form are influenced by our perception of the world around us: if we perceive the world to be a dangerous place, we’ll form more ‘conservative’ moral attitudes; if we perceive the human agency to be limited by external forces, then we’ll adopt more ‘liberal’ attitudes. So, first of all, we need to do our best to understand how the world really is, and then shape our shared environment to try to reflect and signal that reality, rather than responding only to intuition and guesswork.

The nature of morality

Ultimately, Kitcher’s pragmatic naturalism opens the door to an exciting new approach to ethics – a door that has long been barred by philosophers and religious moralists. The sooner we engage with morality as a human construction – one of tremendous importance to social living – the sooner we can escape the delusions of our evolved intuitions about morality, the sooner we can march out of the philosophical backwaters of spurious metaethical speculation, and the sooner we can unshackle ourselves from primitive and stifling notions of supernaturalistic religious morality.

There is still much work to be done. While I think Kitcher makes a bold first step – well, second step, as be builds on the likes of Dewey, Mackie, Hobbes and others – there are many gaps to be filled. And there’s the great project of cutting the Gordian knot of current ethical thinking and convincing people to move on to a new way of engaging with ethics. These are decade- if not century-long projects. But the sooner we start, the better.

1 Comment

Mark Sloan · 1st February 2012 at 4:27 pm

Tim, I again am tempted to first list the parts of your post I particularly liked, but this time there are just too many of them.

Rather, as usual, I will focus on where I think we disagree.

You describing the function of morality as something like “…to facilitate prosocial behaviour within the group” appears to me to be a perhaps unintended back door route to making a claim about what the function of morality in societies ought (instrumental ought) to be in order to accomplish a Utilitarian goal.

Yes, “to facilitate prosocial behaviour” defines “a” morality that is worthy of being considered on an instrumental ought basis, but (in my opinion) it is not defined by what the function of morality is in the sense of the primary reason morality exists.

As I have said previously, I see the primary reason that morality exists in societies is an empirical question, not a philosophical question (as I remember your position to be), whose answer can be true in the normal sense of provisional truth in science. Further, that function is “to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups by altruistic acts”.

Ok, so we have two alternatives (and Kitcher’s makes three) for functional moralities that are proposed for adoption and enforcement by groups and practice by individuals on an instrumental ought basis. No problem.

So why do I prefer a definition of morality defined by “the primary reason that morality exists in societies”? I prefer it because I think it, of necessity, will be a better instrumental choice (better meet overriding needs and desires).

“The primary reason that morality exists in societies” is what shaped our moral psychology, our cultural moralities, and thereby our moral intuitions and (largely) our experience of durable well-being, a common instrumental goal.

What I take to be your reasoned claims about “what the function of morality in societies ought to be” is not what shaped our moral intuitions and our experience of durable well-being.

I understand Kitcher to be closer to my position than yours on the function of morality in societies. Further, as I understand him, he is proposing the function of morality is something like the primary reason it exists (an empirical question), not what people might reason the function of morality ought to be.

Finally, reading your comments about moral progress and resolving moral disputes, it seems to me that my “to increase the benefits of cooperation in groups by altruistic acts” provides more useful answers and insights. Again, I interpret this circumstance to be because the primary reason that morality exists sums up the forces that designed our moral aspects. And this function thus defines a universal morality that fits us like a key in a well-oiled lock.

Thanks again for this series on The Ethical Project. It has been very helpful.

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