The Nature of Morality: A Thesis Primer

Published by timdean on

Below is a short preface to my thesis on evolution and moral ecology that gives the broad brush outline of my argument and how it’ll likely flow from chapter to chapter. Much is in flux, even at this stage (when is it supposed to settle down, I wonder), but I thought this might be a useful primer for those who have expressed interest in my work.

It also introduces the notion of morality ‘inside-out’ and morality ‘outside-in’. This one way I characterise my approach to looking at morality and doing ethics, and one I’ll elaborate in more detail with a full post soon. In fact, I’m considering turning the chapter on moral naturalism, where I talk about morality inside-out, into a paper suggesting an outside-in approach to ethics is complementary to the conventional metaethical approach, and is something philosophers should take more seriously.

But, for now, here’s the preface:

Look at the world through the lens of ethics and you might well see a landscape populated by agents that are prone to making utterances about what constitutes right and wrong, backed up by reference to abstract principles and moral facts, intuitions or sentiments.

Look at the world through the lens of biology and you see a landscape populated by organisms – such as homo sapiens – shaped by evolution to pursue their reproductive interests, yet sometimes behaving in a way that appears to sacrifice their immediate interests to aid the interests of others; you see organisms wandering about, bumping into each other, and occasionally saying “sorry.”

Both views have their stories to tell, and their ways of telling them. Yet both would appear to have something to do with what we call ‘morality.’ However, where philosophy has focused almost exclusively on the former perspective, the biological view has been largely overlooked as being relevant to understanding morality and solving some of the sticky problems that emerge from the ethical perspective. Through thesis I hope, in some small measure, to rectify this imbalance.

This thesis is quite literally about the nature of morality. It does not seek to give the final word on what morality is or how we ought to behave, but it is my hope that it may shed a modicum of light on a few longstanding debates in ethics and metaethics and act as an advocate for incorporating more empirical science into ethical enquiry.

It synthesises research from a range of empirical disciplines – including evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology, evolutionary game theory and moral psychology – and adds to a growing chorus of philosophers and scientists who believe that biology and science are crucial tools in helping us to understanding the phenomenon of morality (such as Dewey, 1922; Ruse & Wilson, 1986; Greene, 2002; Flanagan & Sarkissian & Wong, 2008; Haidt & Kesebir, 2010; Kitcher, 2011).

One of the key features of this thesis is that it looks at morality as a natural phenomenon, one that can be probed and explored using the considerable tools of empirical science. Many accounts of morality begin with moral language as their starting point, hoping to reveal the nature of morality by analysing the meaning of moral terms.

I call this – in a somewhat affectionately tongue-in-cheek manner – the ‘inside-out’ view of morality. It seeks to tell a story about morality starting with the inner world language and working outwards from there to give a picture of what morality is all about. This thesis takes the opposite perspective, which I dub the ‘outside-in’ view. This perspective begins not with language but with behaviour.

For morality, as it is practised, does not appear to only be about moral utterances, judgements and beliefs about right and wrong, but seems to be importantly about how we, and others, behave. Morality appears in some fundamental sense to be a tool to guide how we act, how we respond to others’ action, and how we urge others to act. It inspires the “sorry” mentioned above when two or more organisms – or their interests – collide.

This suggests morality has an observable component that can be scrutinised using the tools of the natural sciences. This is not to suggest that morality is entirely or exclusively a natural phenomenon, nor that empirical science can reveal the full nature of morality or guide how we ought to act – there are well known problems with this view (Moore, 1903; Joyce, 2006) but these issues by no means preclude the empirical sciences from informing our understanding of morality, as I will show in more detail in chapter 3.

While this is a science-heavy thesis, it is still a work of philosophy. There is still philosophical labour in synthesising and interpreting the results of empirical science, and in reflecting on the implications of this research on issues of metaethical significance, such as whether morality is underpinned by moral facts, or what relation ‘natural’ has to ‘good.’

The outside-in perspective offered in this thesis paints a picture of morality as serving the function of facilitating social living amongst self-interested organisms[1]. It is effectively about enabling individuals to live and work together in such a way that they can pursue their interests without compromising the interests of others – as well as performing supplementary functions, such as fostering group cohesion and promoting cooperation. To this end, humans have evolved a complex and multifaceted social and moral psychology that contributes to encouraging prosocial and cooperative behaviour in themselves and others, as I will detail in chapter 5.

This psychology evolved because those individuals who were better able to live harmoniously with others in social groups outcompeted those individuals who were less social. We have also evolved highly sophisticated cognitive faculties for developing cultural tools to help us live in the diverse environments we found ourselves in, for learning from and sharing information with each other, and for innovating, adhering to and promoting behavioural rules.

In this naturalistic account, I will lean heavily on the broadest rendering of evolutionary psychology, particularly that offered by Kim Sterelny along with elements from Jonathan Haidt, as well as the work of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, and many others. It is my view that in understanding the function and dynamics of the psychological proclivities that promote other-interested (i.e. ‘altruistic’) behaviour, along with the cultural norms and institutions developed to steer behaviour, it is possible to explain a great deal of the moral phenomena mentioned above.

Crucially, this view can also help resolve a core problem that emerges from the inside-out view of morality. This is the tension between the apparent objectivity of moral utterances and norms in contrast with the profound diversity of moral attitudes and norms that exist around the world and throughout history. As I will discuss in the next chapter, these two apparent facets of morality have proven notoriously difficult to reconcile despite many attempts to do so over the past century or so.

It is my hope that the outside-in perspective on morality might not only help provide some resolution between these two apparent facets of morality, but might also explain why morality appears to be objective, yet it manifests a tremendous amount of variation between cultures and between individual attitudes.

The naturalistic outside-in view that I offer is one I call ‘moral ecology’. This starts with the observation that the problems of social living that morality emerged to solve often have no single solution that promotes optimal levels of prosocial and cooperative behaviour in every environment. By ‘environment,’ I mean both the physical environment – including the climate and abundance of resources etc – and the social environment – which includes the behavioural proclivities of the other nearby individuals and cultures.

This can be articulated in detail using the tools of behavioural ecology and evolutionary game theory, which paint a highly complex picture of the problems of social living and how they can often be in constant flux. Adapting a psychology to promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour in such dynamic environments is been a tremendous challenge for evolution. The response is, arguably, quite ingenious. Instead of evolving a set of psychological faculties and predispositions that function in the same way in every individual, humans appear to have evolved a range of psychological traits that vary between individuals.

This has helped us to adapt our behaviour to respond to a wide range of environmental conditions throughout our evolutionary history, and contributes to some of the diversity of moral attitudes and beliefs we see in the world today. Far from being an artefact of ignorance, it appears that some moral diversity may be the result of a diverse psychology that has proven adaptive in our evolutionary past, and could continue to be adaptive today and into the future.

This is not to say that our moral psychology or the attitudes and norms we have always work well, nor that our moral psychology does not sometimes misfire and foster conflict rather than resolving it. It also does not mean that the cultural and institutional systems that we have created over the past several thousand years have not often be coopted by those in power to advance their own ends at the expense of the others within their culture or community.Moral systems can be sub-optimal, they can be poorly adapted to their environment and they can corrupted by those in power, lowering cooperation and causing considerable misery.

However, just as there is generally held to be a distinction between a just and an unjust law, there is a similar distinction between a good and a bad moral system, at least in terms of how far it serves the function of morality (Kitcher, 2011), which is to promote prosocial and cooperative behaviour such as to better advance the interests of those who conform to the system.

As should already be apparent, this is a thesis about morality, yet there is a great deal of talk about cooperation. This is not to suggest that the terms are synonymous, not that promoting cooperation is all there is to morality. However, I believe that through understanding the dynamics of cooperation, and the ways in which our psychology has evolved to promote cooperation, we can gain considerable insight into a great deal of morality.

A comprehensive descriptive account of the dynamics and challenges of promoting cooperation may not answer all questions in moral philosophy, yet I do not believe all the questions in moral philosophy can be answered without a comprehensive descriptive account of the dynamics and challenges of promoting cooperation. In light of this, I will not attempt to argue definitively that morality is only about cooperation, but suggest that to the extent that cooperation is relevant to understanding morality, then this thesis will also be relevant to understanding morality. I will, however, endeavour to avoid conflating the two terms in this thesis, and will offer more detailed definitions of key terms such as ‘morality’ and ‘cooperation’ in chapter 3.

This thesis will start by looking a little closer at the problem of understanding morality from the inside-out perspective, particularly focusing on the tension between the apparent objectivity of morality with the overwhelming abundance of moral diversity in the world. I will look at how a variety of metaethical positions have responded to this tension, and suggest that none are entirely satisfactory.

I chapter 3, I will then make a few methodological points about how my naturalistic account of morality will proceed, clarifying the distinction between the inside-out and the outside-in views, and offering a functional definition of morality. I will then embark on telling a story about morality from this outside-in perspective in chapter 4, a story that is not intended to be a definitive account, but one that draws on our best empirical science to date, and one that I hope is at least plausible.

In chapters 5 and 6 I give an account of how humans have evolved a psychology that promotes prosocial and cooperative behaviour, including how we create and adhere to cultural and behavioural norms, and construct institutions to promote and enforce such norms. It is in the functioning of this social and moral psychology that we can see the tendency to see moral norms as being objective and absolute, even if they are ultimately subjective and variable between individuals and cultures.

At this point, in chapter 7, I address the challenge of accounting for moral diversity, not only between cultures but within cultures. Again drawing on the tools of behavioural ecology and evolutionary game theory, I will explore the complex dynamics of cooperation and then, in chapter 8, go on to look at how these dynamics have influenced the evolution of our social and moral psychology.

Once all these pieces are in place, I will be able to articulate in more detail the full theory of moral ecology in chapter 9, and how it can potentially account for a great deal of moral diversity in the world. Finally, in chapter 10, I shall reflect on some of the metaethical implications of this naturalistic account of morality, suggesting that it supports a kind of subjectivist and anti-realist interpretation of moral language, but that this in no way undermines the importance or authority of morality, as some fear it might. The first step is to review the conventional inside-out metaethical approach and look at the tension between the apparent objectivity of morality and diversity of moral attitudes and norms in the world.

[1] What I mean by ‘self-interest’ will be articulated in more detail in chapter 4 when I discuss the evolution of prosocial and cooperative tendencies in homo sapiens.


Mark Sloan · 8th October 2012 at 4:29 am

Tim, rather than “inside-out” and “outside-in”, I prefer the more familiar nomenclature “top down” (normative moral premises advocate behavior – standard moral philosophy approach) and “bottom up” (behavior reveals descriptive moral principles – morality as an evolutionary adaptation approach). But you may have reasons you prefer the inside-outside image.

A paper describing the complementary nature of the two approaches to metaethics sounds like a good idea. I have been unsuccessfully arguing for the reality of descriptive moral principles on an open-forum with people interested in moral philosophy. The reality of descriptive moral principles is an astonishingly and frustratingly difficult concept for many people familiar with moral philosophy. It would be great to refer them to a relevant paper. A descriptive moral principle with no intrinsic normative power is trivial in the intellectual framework of science, but seems to find no place to rest in the intellectual framework of moral philosophy.

Then, how many of the implications of an outside-in analysis (or bottom up as I refer to it) of morality are you planning to describe?

My view, as you are in part aware, is:

1) A derived functional (descriptive) definition of “evolutionarily moral”, morality dealing with interactions with other people as an evolutionary adaptation, is “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral”. (Kitcher says it is evolutionarily moral to “overcome altruism failures.”) That is, the benefits of cooperation in groups is the selection force for “social morality”, a sub category of the answer to the broad ethical question “How ought we live?”.

2) This evolutionarily moral behavior has been implemented as biological heuristics in the form of our emotions such as empathy and loyalty that motivate altruism and in our conscience and emotion guilt that provide internal punishment of our own moral violations and in our emotion indignation that motives external punishment of other people’s violations.

3) In cultures, this evolutionarily moral behavior has been implemented as cultural heuristics (enforced norms) that advocate altruism (such as the Golden Rule), in norms that advocate limited ‘punishment’ of norm violators, and in rule of law.

4) Herb Gintis (A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution) calls these evolutionarily moral strategies “altruistic cooperation strategies”. All require ‘punishment’ of exploiters. All solve the cross-species universal cooperation-exploitation dilemma: synergistic benefits of cooperation are commonly available, but exploitation of that cooperation is always the winning short term strategy but that exploitation destroys future benefits of cooperation.

5) Cultural “social moralities” are shaped in part by our biology, but our biology is not the ultimate source of human social morality. The ultimate source of human social morality is in the nature of reality as revealed by the mathematics of altruistic cooperation strategies.

6) Evolutionarily moral behaviors include many that “increase the benefits of cooperation in groups” by exploiting out-groups such as slavery and by displays of commitment such as circumcision and not eating pigs. Exploitative behaviors toward out-groups are commonly morally repugnant and not eating pigs is commonly morally irrelevant to modern moral sensibilities who seek more universally egalitarian goals for moral behavior than just the good of the in-group.

7) “Social morality” as an evolutionary adaptation is largely what has shaped (a) our biology and culture based social moral intuitions and (b) the aspects of our experience of well-being that make us such successful social animals. This makes an evolutionary definition of the means of social morality, altruistic cooperation strategies, fit people better than any existing definition of morality in terms of achieving at least one goal of moral behavior – increased well-being. That is, altruistic cooperation strategies are the best presently available instrumental choice (means) for achieving well-being goals. Altruistic cooperation strategies fit people like a key in a well-oiled lock because this key is largely what shaped this lock, our moral intuitions and experience of well-being.

I expect you may not agree with, and will certainly not be trying to justify all of the above claims, but I hope what you do claim and justify will not be dramatically inconsistent with them.

    Robert Hess · 24th October 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Hi Tim,

    This is the first time I am posting on your blog, though I’ve been lurking for a while.

    I have read most, if not all, of your blog posts and other entries about your moral ecology thesis and find myself agreeing with virtually everything you have to say.

    When I was a philosophy graduate student at USC here in Los Angeles in the late 90’s (MA 2000), I was thinking along very similar lines. Unfortunately, it was the wrong time, and also the wrong place (department), for espousing evolutionary views on morality. I was literally told a dissertation on the philosophical implications of Wilson’s sociobiology would be “professional suicide.” And they may well have been right. At that time.

    Today, I am glad to see that evolutionary approaches to human behavior, including moral behavior, have become much more widely accepted (not that there isn’t strong opposition still) and scientists like E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, and Joshua Greene, and philosophers like Michael Ruse, Philip Kitcher, Richard Joyce and, more controversially, Sam Harris (with whose moral realism I disagree for the same reasons as you and Simon Blackburn do) are taken more serious than they were back then.

    So, I think your thesis comes at just the right time. Hopefully, it will establish you as an important new voice in the debate about the nature of morality.

    My only worries from reading your preface is that 1) you are not being forceful enough, and 2) you are trying to cover a lot of ground without a specific aim.

    1) You say things like, “I hope, in some small measure, to rectify this imbalance,” “my hope that it may shed a modicum of light on a few longstanding debates in ethics” and “this thesis will also be relevant to understanding morality.”

    In my mind, you are being too bashful here. I know, you are trying to be modest and not come out with blazing guns, but you don’t want to short-sell yourself, either. The fact of the matter is that, in your mind, your thesis has a great deal to contribute and is more than just relevant to understanding morality. And you are right. It’s critical to understanding morality.

    So, when you are writing your actual thesis, I would take just a bit bolder stance. It will not only better reflect the actual importance of your arguments, but also better keep the reader’s attention. While this may not be so important within your institution, i.e., you dissertation committee will read your thesis from beginning to end, no matter what, it will matter when your thesis is read by potential employers, i.e., philosophy departments.

    2) Your thesis, at this point, seems to lack a specific focus. You cover a lot of territory, e.g., a review of the metaethical debate and your idea of moral diversity (which is excellent), but then seem to conclude on sort of a general note that, hopefully, your theory of moral ecology will shed some light on some of these issues.

    In other words, you may want to argue for a more specific conclusion. For example, you might style your paper more directly as metaethical and argue for moral functionalism/anti-realism and against moral realism. All of your material, e.g, moral diversity, moral ecology, would then be harnessed as support for this specific argument, rather than feature as insights which, though interesting in themselves, have no clear connection to a specific point you are making.

    Well, I hope I have not overstepped my bounds. After all, you don’t even know me and may not care about receiving unsolicited advice on a project that is already extremely time-consuming. But, hopefully, you’ll take my comments as a sincere desire to support your efforts, which I greatly admire.


Mark Sloan · 25th October 2012 at 6:02 am

Robert, your post reminds me that I should also be clear that my comments are intended to be both useful and encouraging to Tim’s approach.

I am glad to hear of your past interest in the philosophical implications of understanding morality as an evolutionary adaptation (part of Wilson’s Sociobiology). Progress in that field is rapid and I expect will shakeup moral philosophy in the next decade or so.

I was planning to bring up the following with Tim, but your comment prompts me to just post it so I can address you both (and perhaps other readers). I hope Tim does not think I am going too far off the topic of his thesis.

As part of what I see as that “good fight”, which Tim’s thesis is also a part of, I am assembling a Morality as an Evolutionary Adaptation subsection for the on-line magazine “Evolution: This view of life” (David Sloan Wilson, editor in chief).

The format will be 1) short introductions and links to existing relevant articles, interviews, book reviews, and blog posts using a “Huffington Post” model and 2) “Exclusives” which will include ETVOL interviews, and may include opinion, background, and survey pieces. Reader interaction will be by moderated comments.

Any suggestions you or Tim might have for making the new “Morality as an Evolutionary Adaptation” section interesting and useful would be much appreciated.


Tim Dean · 29th October 2012 at 5:46 pm

Hi Robert.

First of all, I’d like to thank you for your thoughtful comments. It is heartening to know there are others who have already pursued similar avenues of thought to myself.

I also concede to your critical comments.

1) I could blame my supervisors for warning my about overly strong language, but it could simply be an abundance of caution on my side. I think you’re right that I should stick my neck out a bit more, or at least reflect that I am already sticking my neck out by using appropriate language.

2) I agree that I lack focus. That has long been a challenge for me. I am presently leaning towards hinging my thesis around Mackie’s argument from disagreement – which states that moral disagreement is better explained in terms of “people’s adherence to and participation in different ways of life” rather than the “hypothesis that they express perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values”. I will then cash out “ways of life” in terms of moral ecology, thus arguing that Mackie is right.

This way I have a metaethical peg (thus making this a philosophy thesis), and use the empirically-informed story to back up that argument.

I am presently in the thick of writing, and my emphasis shifts as new chapters are written and old ones edited. Once I have a complete draft (hoping early next year) I will have a better idea of whether it all hangs together. Fingers crossed. Even though I am a writer by profession, this is unlike anything I’ve ever written before, so I’m learning as I go. Guess that’s what a PhD is supposed to be like though…

Robert Hess · 1st November 2012 at 3:34 am

I am glad you read my comments as they were intended.

I like your idea of structuring your thesis (more or less) as sort of a modern, empirically informed defense of Mackie. But unlike Mackie’s, your message would not be only a negative one. You wouldn’t just be shooting down moral realism, but rather offer, in addition, a positive argument for embracing moral ecology as a foundation for ethical thought and action. That should situate your thesis in a very timely setting.

Inspired by your efforts and ideas, I have done a bit more research and reading myself lately. In the process I came up with two philosophers who I think may be of interest to you. Of course, you may well already be familiar with them, but if not, here they are:

1) Stephen Stitch (Rudgers University): A leading and well-known advocate of experimental philosophy, he’s called out traditional philosophers – more or less all philosophers of the past 2400 years (lol) – for their reliance on intuition and thought experiments and their eschewal of empirical data, in particular as this relates to moral philosophy.


Though Stitch has obviously taken a lot of heat for his view, clearly (well, to us anyway) he’s right and, as much as traditional philosophers may want to resist, that’s the direction in which moral philosophy is now moving. This lends strong support to your “outside-in” view of moral philosophy as well as to the relevance of your moral ecology thesis.

2) Tamler Sommers (University of Houston): Sommers’ work focuses on moral responsibility and free will. In his most recent book (which I haven’t read yet), “Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility,” he argues for what he calls metaskepticism about moral responsibility, the view that no theory of moral responsibility is correct.

His basic – empirically based – argument is that there is significant cross-cultural and historical disagreement about moral responsibility. Though Sommers says he’s not a metaskeptic about morality in general, only moral responsibility, it seems to me that his argument is inspired by Mackie’s argument from disagreement.

In any event, I think that Sommers takes the correct perspective on moral responsibility using an empirical, cultural/evolutionary approach, not unlike your own. Like your “outside-in” theory (and Stitch), he objects to the appeal to intuition to resolve issues of moral responsibility.

For an excellent review of his book, see:

Tamler’s first book, “A Very Bad Wizard,” which I have actually read, is a collection of interviews with notables in the field, including Michael Ruse, Jonathan Haidt, Galen Strawson, Joshua Greene, Stephen Stitch, and others. The interview format, I was surprised to find, is very effective and also quite entertaining.

Well, I hope that this will help you somehow along the way. But I realize, of course, that your reading list probably is already insanely long. You can’t possibly read everything everyone ever said on the topic.

Please keep me posted on your progress. I would truly feel privileged if you allowed me to follow along as you go.

All the best!


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