Evolution and Moral Ecology Abstract

Published by timdean on

There’s a conference coming up later this year in Sicily on the evolution of morality, appropriately called: The Evolution of Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience. Looks like a cracker. Speakers include Frans de Waal, Phillip Kitcher, Patricia Churchland, Richard Joyce, Owen Flanagan and Simon Blackburn, among others.

I plan to go. And I plan to give a paper – although they’re only guaranteeing spots for posters, which is odd. There are some short 15 min(!) talks on offer, so I’ll also try to score one of them, if I can, and cut loose with my riff on evolution and moral ecology.

Before I submit the abstract, I thought I’d post it here for comments and criticism. I’ve never done a poster before (not including my year 4 project on scorpions, which was pretty cool, come to think of it). So not sure how much can be crammed in. Also I don’t think I can order a coffee, let alone talk about evolution and morality, in less than 15 mins, so a talk might be tricky. On the other hand, I can talk fast if need be.

Happy to hear feedback on the abstract, on things like whether the first paragraph lending context is necessary, or the last paragraph offering implications, or whether it generally makes sense etc:

Many philosophers have regarded moral diversity – and its concomitant moral disagreement – as an anomaly to be explained away en route to detailing a single correct system of moral norms. In this paper I take an alternate view, looking at moral diversity as a phenomenon worthy of a more detailed explanation, and central to understanding the nature of our evolved moral psychology.

I argue that moral diversity and moral disagreement are, at least in part, a product of evolved psychological variation. I suggest this is because the adaptive social environment faced by our distant ancestors was highly heterogeneous, both in terms of physical environment, such as local resource availability, and social environment, including the behavioural strategies employed by others within the group.

As a result, there was no one psychological type that reliably produced adaptive strategies in these complex and heterogeneous environments, a phenomenon that can be modelled using game theory. Thus humans evolved a stable polymorphism of psychological types, with some proving more adaptive in certain environments and less adaptive in others, but no one type reaching fixation in any population. This is a phenomenon I call ‘moral ecology.’

The upshot of this notion is that moral diversity may not always have been such a bad thing. It suggests that instead of moral diversity being indicative of some error in thinking on behalf of moral agents, in fact the diversity of approaches to social living enabled our ancestors to adapt to a wide variety of environments, both physical and social. It also suggests that philosophers might place greater emphasis on the diverse dynamics of social living and whether it’s even possible to have one system of norms that promotes behaviour that is beneficial to its adherents in every social environment.

Criticise away!


Henry · 28th March 2012 at 12:25 pm

In scanning this very quickly, I saw considerable overlaps in interests and my current proposed work in Vanuatu.
I will give feedback on this over the weekend, and any implications I think this has for field research.

Mark Sloan · 28th March 2012 at 4:16 pm

Tim, I understand your position is that there are “evolved (biological) psychological variation(s)” with a similar range of variations (as a universal human adaptation) in all ethnic and cultural groups.

That said, solely from reading the second paragraph it was not clear that was what you were claiming. Are these biologically evolved or culturally evolved psychological variations? If biological, do they have the same variation range in all cultures?

The third paragraph may have a similar biology/culture clarity problem. Yes, game theory is wonderful for defining winning strategies for increasing the benefits of altruistic cooperation as well as winning ‘cheater’ strategies in certain other environments.

But assume a society enjoys a degree of altruistic cooperation due to widespread acceptance of the burdens of acting according to indirect reciprocity in the form of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. But some in this society (say 20%) regularly use cheater strategies and they are often punished. Is this psychological variation due to biological or sub-cultural variations?

I would argue that most of the observed psychological variations in whether people follow altruistic or cheater strategies is due to variations in sub-cultures, and that variations due to biology, such a psychopathy are more rare.

So I see first a clarity problem.

But I may have mentioned that I think that in the right environment, and the right subculture, I (and most people) would be, in a sense, right cheerful amoral bastards. There has not been, and I expect will not be, anything remotely as much fun in my life as I imagine going on a Viking pillaging raid (as a born and raised Viking male) back when the Vikings were the terror of Europe. The psychological variations you are talking about seem predominantly the result of culture and personal experiences, not biology.

As you know, I am no expert on this subject and could easily be wrong.

I like the first and last paragraphs which you questioned. It was the middle two I had trouble with.

Yes, it does look like a really cool conference in an incredible setting. And the conference itself is cheap considering they include room and board. Now, if I could just afford the exorbitant airfare …

GTChristie · 29th March 2012 at 4:43 pm

I sometimes regret speaking off the cuff, so I reserve the right to dive off the balcony at any time. Nonetheless, I offer some observations:

As you know, I admire your work for its attention to the cultural and social aspects of moral behavior (which is also largely psychological behavior). Your approach brings many sciences to bear on classic philosophical questions — especially to arguments and theories that ground themselves on “human nature.”

Historically human nature arguments in philosophy have been primarily discussions of human psychology, long before there was a science of psychology. You are bringing evolutionary psychology in particular to bear upon philosophy — a sorely needed synthesis — helping to explore how much “mind science” actually can inform moral theory.

Given that admiration, I hesitate to comment on this abstract. I should limit my critique to these few paragraphs as presented, and evaluate how well they express your approach in general as well as your specific topical niche. I think you are asking: does the abstract well state what “moral ecology” is, and does it show what this concept contributes to (or how it informs) moral philosophy?

But in asking that, you also invite some critique of your theory itself. I see from the comments so far, that is the response you are most likely to get, rather than a more germane answer to “how does this work as an abstract?” So I am going to assume you know exactly what your theory is and what importance it may have in philosophy, so that any shortcomings in the abstract are shortcomings of summarization, not of your theory.

The abstract could be more clear on delineations of cause and effect. Perhaps this is not your understanding of the term, but to me “ecology” is interaction of constitutive (member) elements within an environmental setting; it is not the environment itself but the processes that interact with the environment (and, admittedly, therefore also shape it). So, on your own terms in the abstract, it isn’t clear what processes or features constitute a “moral ecology” and what is the environment in which these processes occur? Any lack of clarity on that brings questions about what comes first: is moral psychology influenced or shaped by an environment (say, a social environment), or is there a moral environment created by human (social) psychology? Given that question (which could be one of those “fine hair” questions you can easily dismiss), it is also possible to ask “what is adapting to what, evolutionarily speaking?” Do you see the problem I’m having? If I already have a theory of what society is, what “social behavior” is, what culture is, and what psychology is, there needs to be more direction from you on what “moral ecology” is, and how it explains the relationships among “social,” “cultural” and “psychological” elements of moral behavior. I don’t get that picture from the abstract, even if I might get the picture from the theory itself.

It’s possible I may not be understanding you at all, or at least not as well as I thought I did. As an editor, I would ask you to punch up the emphasis on moral ecology as an explanatory framework useful in understanding what we might call “moral psychology,” let it explain something quick and dirty in the abstract, and thus whet our appetites for the details.

Yeah, yeah. If I’m so smart, why haven’t I done it myself? Because you’re a better philosopher and smarter than I am. LOL.

Mark Sloan · 30th March 2012 at 6:44 am

Tim, your poster would, of course, be very interesting.

Perhaps you could electronically post a draft before you go?

I would also like to at least read other attendee’s posters. Perhaps the organizers could be convinced, or are even already planning, to allow attendees to electronically post their materials at some central location connected to the conference. If you hear of any such plans, please let those of us less well connected with this community know.

In the meantime, I am thinking to email the organizers with that suggestion and volunteer my time and highly limited skills in aid of making that happen.

I don’t know what kind of ‘posters’ are standard at such meetings, but an example I saw today (for an Arizona conference which allows 4 X 8 foot posters) does present challenges for posting on the internet. Here is one individual’s efforts to that end.


Just FYI, http://www.consciousness.arizona.edu/2012PosterSessionDescription.htm,

has some perhaps useful advice such as: fonts easily readable from 1 meter, don’t use too many words, pictures and bullet charts may get your points across more effectively than formal texts.

It sounds like a great conference.


Jason Collins · 1st April 2012 at 2:18 pm

Interesting topic Tim. Have you spotted the recent theme issue “Evolution and human behavioural diversity” of the Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1563.toc

A few of the article have a similar theme, although focusing on behavioural rather than moral diversity.

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