Moral Ecology Updated

Published by timdean on

I’ve gone though a few iterations of moral ecology already. My last iteration focused on the notion that it takes a multitude of behavioural strategies working in concert to promote high levels of cooperation within groups, and on the complex dynamics of the interactions between these strategies over time. I still think that’s true, but it’s not the full picture.

So it’s time I updated that picture a bit in light of further progress I’ve made. As such, here is the latest rendering of moral ecology to warm your cockles or curl your toes.

Moral ecology metaphorically alludes to ecology in biology. Individual species do not evolve in isolation. Rather, they evolve in response to to the contingencies of their environment. However, their environment is no simple construct. Rather, it is complex and heterogeneous  – i.e. has lots of bits that change – over both time and space. A species’ environment includes not only physical landscape and climate in which it lives, but also includes the other species that inhabit it. Predators, prey, competitors, symbionts etc, all these things can influence the selective pressures that are placed upon individuals from that species and their individual traits.

Crucially, a species’ environment also includes other individual members of its own species. The success of any particular trait will thus depend not only on how well that trait enables an individual to survive and reproduce in its physical environment, but how much better or worse that trait performs compared to alternative traits possessed by other members of its own species. And how that trait interacts with all those other traits.

Just to add a further complication, the selective environment for an individual organism isn’t just handed to it as a static entity. The activities of an individual or species can change the environment and the very selective pressures that act upon it – a concept referred to as niche construction and ecological inheritance (pioneered by these folk).

The upshot is that each organism evolves to occupy (and often to carve) its own niche, swayed by the dynamic selective pressures placed upon it by its complex environment. No single organism is optimally suited to every niche. And most organisms exist within a complex web of interdependencies with other organisms, both of their own and other species. Change one aspect of the environment, and it can have knock-on effects on many other aspects. That’s what biological ecology is all about.

Likewise with moral ecology. Except just swap out biological traits for behavioural strategies – and the norms that promote them.

From the (outside-in) moral ecology perspective, morality serves the function of solving the problems of social living to help facilitate prosocial and cooperative behaviour. And moral norms are effectively guides that promote certain behavioural strategies to this end. Morality is essentially a cultural technology, one that we have invented, but no less important because of that fact. The question then becomes: which norms best serve the function of morality? This is where the complexity kicks in.

The success of any particular behavioural strategy (or norm that promotes it) depends on the state of the environment. This can include features of the physical environment, such as the landscape, climate, resources etc, and it can also include features of the social environment, such as the behavioural strategies employed by other individuals in the group. For example, if you live in a group with limited resources and a high cost to free-riding or defection, then a more trusting or forgiving norm will likely serve its adherents less well than a more suspicious or punishing norm. Similarly, if you live in a group of suspicious folks who are prone to defection, then a norm encouraging trust will likely serve you poorly.

Thus, moral ecology. Norms evolve over time in response to their environment. And by changing the behaviour of individuals within a population, the norm effectively alters its own environment. No single norm is likely to work well in every environment. Norms carve themselves a niche, and they exist within a complex web of other norms. And sometimes it takes a pluralism of norms in the same environment in order to promote optimal levels of cooperation.

Morality is complex. And it is far from being the rarefied rationalist construct that many philosophers believe (or desire) it to be. Norms often involve trade-offs, or frequency-dependent interactions, meaning there’s often no single optimal strategy. And you can’t just radically change one norm and always expect it to work, or to stick – even if the new norm is more optimal at solving the problems of social living in ideal circumstances. You first need to make sure that norm will “perform” well within its environment, and if it doesn’t then work to change the environment such that it will stick.

This is why it’s been so hard to simply ban female genital mutilation, as the norm promoting that is scaffolded by many other norms concerning the appropriate roles of men and women, of status, marriage, purity etc. It’s also why you can’t just airlift democracy into an essentially tribal society, as democracy requires that people not only trust government, but also vote along abstract ideological lines rather than conform to norms promoting tribal loyalties.

Moral ecology is intended to be metaphorical. It is intended to convey the complexity of morality as it evolves and operates in the messy real world. It does not diminish the role of moral reasoning or deliberation. In fact, once we identify the function that morality plays, and the dynamics that influence the success or otherwise of a moral norm, we can better deliberate about which norms we should adopt, and how to introduce them.

But moral ecology also cautions us against the hubris of expecting a single moral system to work optimally for every individual in every environment. It encourages us to see morality as as fluid and evolving enterprise, one that benefits from experimentation and cautious reform. And it also gives us a platform to challenge and debate the norms employed in other cultures, particularly if those norms are counter-productive to solving the problems of social living.

In a way, I see moral ecology as the meat in a tripartite moral theory sandwich. The first is the observation of moral diversity in the world. The explanation is moral ecology. And the final piece is what might be called “moral dynamics,” the study of how moral norms fulfil the function of morality and how they interact with and change their complex environments. Moral dynamics might be a useful tool when it comes to moral reform and progress: if we want to change something, it would serve us well to explore how that change might take place, and what impacts it might have on its environment and on other norms. I haven’t thought much about moral dynamics yet, but it’s a project I hope to delve into in more detail after this thesis is done.


GTChristie · 9th January 2014 at 5:35 am

I like this explanation. “Moral dynamics” is a wonderful idea. In fact it’s where I’m stuck to some extent. There’s a complex process going on in creating /conforming /changing norms. Most people get that and would agree. But tracking down what it is, that’s a big question. I’m wondering (off the cuff here, based on first reading of this post) whether a method for tracking that down might be easier to identify than the outcome. An approach that would break down the problem. Meantime … this is really great, Tim.

@EdGibney · 27th January 2014 at 8:02 pm

I really enjoyed this as it fits very nicely within my own evolutionary philosophy framework. To me, morals are rules that tell us how we *ought* to act. If those rules lead us towards extinction, then those rules will become extinct too. Thus, morality must lead us towards survival if that morality *is* to be correct. Once this is established—that the survival of life is the requirement for success of a moral system—then we can look to the ways that life (bio-) is studied (-ology), and come across E.O. Wilson’s book “Consilience,” which attempts to unify that field. Biology, in this consilient view, is broken down according to size and timelines in the ascending order of:

biochemistry -> molecular biology -> cellular biology -> organismal biology -> sociology -> ecology -> evolutionary studies

Along this path, we can imagine rules that allow life to survive at each stage. To me, as these rules develop, then morality, by definition, begins itself to grow and lengthen in its usefulness and importance as well. Your moral ecology is an excellent step beyond the traditional debate of moral tradeoffs between individuals (organismal biological concerns) and society (sociological concerns), and is therefore more “evolved” than most. It is really only a step away from the final evolutionary concerns (which are really just the dynamic changes of ecologies over time) that I posit are the final aims of morality. At least, that’s how I make sense of your post within my own framework. Does that make sense to you as well?

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