The Nature of Morality: A Thesis Primer
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. 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.
 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.