Moral Ecology Defined (At Last)

Published by timdean on

I recently found myself confused about the meaning of the term ‘moral ecology.’ This proved to be an unsettling experience, namely because I’m the one who coined the term (with a little help from John S. Wilkins).

Given that moral ecology features centrally in my thesis, it’s probably important that I come to grips with what it means. And I think I have.

My confusion was over precisely what the term referred to. Was it describing the dynamics of the moral diversity we see in the world today? Was it explaining why the Left-Right political spectrum unfolds the way it does? Was it in reference to the diversity we see in moral sentiments? Or the diversity in psychological types?

I wanted the term to carry a heavy load and handle all these things. But it just couldn’t. So I’ve narrowed it down in an attempt to give it a more transparent and robust meaning, and linked it to these other phenomena without stuffing them all under the same term.

Here’s how it goes:

Moral ecology describes the phenomenon whereby it takes a pluralism of behavioural strategies to promote high levels of cooperation within groups, and the complex dynamics of the interactions between these strategies over time.

It refers to the fact that each behavioural strategy – which is often manifest in the form of a moral norm – enjoys differential levels of success in terms of promoting cooperation depending on the environment in which it exists, i.e. the other strategies in play around it.

That’s moral ecology. It’s an abstraction notion demonstrated using the tools of game theory.

Moral ecology then forms the backdrop for the evolutionary pressures that shaped human social and moral psychology, which can help explain the evolution of the highly polymorphic and plastic minds we have today.

Moral ecology also helps to explain the existence of psychological diversity, basically because it shows that there was no one psychological type that evolution could have gravitated towards that would prove successful in every social environment.

And, finally, moral ecology can help explain the existence of moral diversity in the world. Because there is this psychological diversity, we see a corresponding diversity of moral attitudes in the world, and this diversity exhibits the complex dynamics described by moral ecology.

So, in sum, moral ecology is the abstract notion that it takes many behavioural strategies to promote high stable levels of cooperation, which helps explain evolved psychological diversity, which helps explain moral diversity.

Unless there are any gaping holes in this definition, then that’s what I’m going to run with in my thesis, appropriately entitled Evolution and Moral Ecology.


Andreas B. Olsson · 7th May 2012 at 9:23 am

Though I’m not sure I fully intuit your concept of moral ecology based on this first introduction, the idea that moral frameworks are far more complex and fluid than a few deontological rules seems to make sense to me. It would also make sense that seemingly competing frameworks may in fact be necessary to establish a social balance.

But it would still seem that morality, being based on deeper biological aspects (and general system coherency), has a universal and cross-cultural nature. That is to say that, for example, left/right spectra would exist similarly in all societies.

Importantly, flavors along the full ecological spectra would also have to not contradict some higher absolute values (expressed in such things as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). But perhaps my initial intuitions of what you mean by the term moral ecology are way off.

Henri · 7th May 2012 at 4:47 pm

This is essentially very similar to arguments I make in terms of prosociality. The idea that some conditions are conducive to the success of selfishness, and others cooperativess/prosociality, is analogous. I usually take a while to digest what people are saying, but I was a bit confused with ‘differential levels of success in terms of promoting cooperation’, because I was usually thinking in terms of different strategies promote levels of success full stop (in terms of fitness). That’s just because I’ve been thinking in terms of how an individual’s behavioural strategy feeds back on their fitness, as in behavioural ecology. But then again you are talking ‘moral ecology’, so this is something new to get my head around. Out of interest, are you an advocate of group selection, or multilevel selection to use the right terminology?

Do you think a pluralism of behavioural strategies was important for the evolvability of a group? I’m interested in how behavioural strategies on a spectrum of pure selfishness to high prosociality are successful in different environments, and consider a pluralism of strategies very likely as well. But I say nothing about it being conducive to group cooperation, just thinking of how it is an asset or a liability for individuals. That’s why I’m keen on where this notion goes in terms of levels of selection. Because you talk of success in promoting group cooperation, not individual fitness….or am I just not getting it? Sounds fascinating though.

I agree with the ‘there is no one psychological type evolution could have gravitated towards what would be successful in every environment’, especially if we consider the environmentally labile Pleistocene–and I would emphasize that. I think it’s an important part of forming a narrative, and people need narrative as I’m learning in talking about these kinds of ideas.

I really look forward to reading your thesis, if it’s done and dusted before mine I will read it and probably be citing it.

Tim Dean · 13th May 2012 at 7:45 pm

Hi Henri,

The distinction between moral ecology and behavioural ecology is precisely what you’ve hinted at. Behavioural ecology looks at all behavioural strategies that enhance fitness, and this can include many self-interested strategies that advance individual fitness at the cost of others’ fitness. Moral ecology take a more narrow focus and looks only at behavioural strategies that promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour within groups.

Ostensibly, this prosocial and cooperative behaviour advances individual fitness as well, but it’s only a subset of the behaviours that advance individual fitness. Precisely the interesting thing about morality is that occasionally an individual behaves in a way that that appears costly in order to facilitate cooperation. Ideally, the benefits of cooperation make up for that cost, but game theory shows that this is a complex proposition. Moral ecology attempts to describe some of the complexities of this phenomenon.

As for group selection, it’s an interesting question. While my thesis is basically compatible with individual selection, it does suggest that populations can change over time as the frequency of particular psychological types change in response to the other types present in the population. One group might settle into a particular equilibrium that favours certain types more than others, so the frequencies might change, but I can’t imagine this would be a large effect. It might make individuals who’s ancestors lived in resource-poor environments more competitive, but I don’t think this between-group variation would be large compared to within-group variation. Empirical research will tell.

As for the Pleistocene – I think there’s too much emphasis placed on the physical environment around that time. In reality, the physical environment was relatively static compared to the social environment. The tremendous heterogeneity in the social environment is what has driven psychological variation far more so than heterogeneity in the physical environment.

Hope that clears things up. And do tell me more about your research.

David Duffy · 16th May 2012 at 5:59 pm

Moral ecology take a more narrow focus and looks only at behavioural strategies that promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour within groups.

Except that you can’t really do this without including “antisocial” phenotypes in your model for the population (eg proportion of defectors needed to make prosociality nonviable; interplay between individual reproductive success and “cultural success”). So you might end up with a pretty full behavioural ecology anyway.

Tim Dean · 16th May 2012 at 6:28 pm

Hi David. You’re right that the models will need to include antisocial strategies along with prosocial strategies. But I don’t think that obviates the “moral” bit. It’s like modelling predator/prey with a vision to understanding good predator-avoidance strategies.

Maybe I should have clarified my definition above to account for this. Does something like this make more sense?

Moral ecology takes a more narrow focus and uses the tools of behavioural ecology to discover the dynamics of the strategies that most effectively promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour within social groups.

GTChristie · 23rd May 2012 at 9:45 pm

If I’m understanding your approach correctly, it’s just a matter of sorting out in definition what you already have clear in your mind. You’ve already said it right, except for unkinking some syntax. This is how I read (and understand) your primary statement, with slight rearranging to polish the point:

Moral ecology describes the complex dynamics of the interactions between [diverse] cooperative behavioral strategies over time.

Moral ecology [recognizes and] explains diversity of [moral behaviours] as a phenomenon whereby it takes a pluralism of behavioural strategies to promote high levels of cooperation within groups.

Assuming I’m getting the point, that is …

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