Review: The Ethical Project

Pop back in time roughly five million years to the time of the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, and you’d likely spot roving troops of creatures not dissimilar to today’s great apes. Yet, while chimpanzees and the rest of our evolutionary cousins have changed relatively little over the last few million years, our species has undergone remarkable change.


Arguably the strongest driving force for this incredible evolutionary change is our uniquely social nature – and our uniquely moral proclivities – to the point where today we interact in a global network of billions of individuals, a network of staggering complexity hinging on levels of cooperation unmatched by any other creature.

And the glue that holds our social and cooperative life together is morality.

It’s in charting and explicating this progression from the earliest forms of pre-moral inclinations to our modern day complex moral deliberations that is the ambitious goal of Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project.

And Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, does a remarkable job of not only weaving together a coherent picture from many disparate threads, but also lays down a path for potentially fruitful ethical debate in the future. And he does it all in a thoroughly naturalistic, empirically-aware and refreshingly grounded way, with his method strongly influenced by his commitment to “pragmatic naturalism”, which heavily informed particularly by John Dewey and William James.

He also espouses a theory that is startlingly close to my own PhD thesis, much to my joy and chagrin. Even if there are now a few less revelations in my own thesis, it is deeply heartening to see that I’m not the only one charting an evolutionarily-informed naturalistic account of morality.

That said, there are a few gaps in Kitcher’s account, and a few key details that he overlooks either deliberately or unintentionally. In this post, I’ll outline the main thrust of Kitcher’s argument, and in a subsequent post I’ll provide a more critical review, comparing and contrasting it with my own account.

First, an overview of Kitcher’s argument.


Finding Moral Motivation

What would you think if you met someone who stated convincingly that they believe stealing was wrong, and yet you knew that they were prone to theft, and did so in an entirely nonchalant manner?

And when asked after stealing something whether they still believe stealing is wrong, they reply emphatically that, indeed, it is. That people shouldn’t steal. Yet they show no inclination to change their stealing behaviour, not any apparent negative attitude towards their own acts of stealing.

What would you think? Maybe that there was something somehow wrong with them? Or perhaps something wrong with their moral conviction?

It certainly seems something is awry in this situation. For it seems intuitive that in order for someone to state that some act is morally wrong, they must feel some compulsion to behave in accordance with that belief. Surely, they can experience weakness of the will, or they can have conflicting moral proclivities, but they must at least feel some motivation to act in accord with the moral norm, even if that motivation is eventually overwhelmed by other desires.

As such, it seems somehow fundamentally inconsistent for them to say X is wrong and yet be either entirely indifferent to X happening, or for them to do X with indifference. Some even think it’s logically inconsistent, or even logically impossible, for them to say they believe X is wrong and feel indifference towards X.

However, if this notion of ‘internalism’ is true – the notion that moral beliefs entail some motivational component – then it raises a hairy pickle. Namely, how it is that a mere belief can carry with it a built-in motivational compulsion? What kind of strange beliefs moral beliefs would be were this the case.


On Moral Relativity and Conformity

There are many ways of living socially, and many moral systems that foster social and cooperative behaviour – none perfect, but some better than others in certain environments. That’s the crux of moral ecology, a theory I’m elaborating in my PhD thesis.

At its heart, moral ecology stresses that any norm, or system or norms, will enjoy greater or lesser success in fostering social and cooperative behaviour depending on the environment in which it exists, including the external environmental conditions as well as the internal dynamics of the group.

As such, different groups will settle upon different sets of moral norms which are appropriate to their particular environmental conditions, and that’s a good thing. Tribal cultures in hostile environments with limited resources may have norms that encourage hierarchy, honour, stability and group cohesion at the expense of sacrificing some cooperative opportunities with outsiders. Larger liberal societies might have norms that encourage fairness, tolerance, egalitarianism and cooperation, trading-off stability for greater innovation and cooperation internally and externally.

Were we to impose the one system of moral norms universally – say either the tribal or the mass society system, for example – I would suggest it would be an utter catastrophe, at least it would be in many environments. It would also stifle innovation and flexibility, allowing the system of norms to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Thus moral ecology, in a sense, is a form of relativism. I’m arguing that different cultures (or, more accurately, cultures living in different environments) can and should employ different moral systems. The monism at the core, however, is that all these systems serve the same ultimate end: fostering social and cooperative behaviour within that group.


Scientism, Evolution and the Basis for Morality

Cut, jab, thrust, confusion! That seems to be the spirit of an ongoing exchange between Michael Ruse and Jason Rosenhouse of Evolutionblog. It started with scientism, the term (often used in the pejorative) applied to the notion that science is the best/only way of knowing the world. It then shifts to a somewhat complex (but useful) discussion of moral knowledge, moral absolutism and the slippery slope into moral subjectivism.

The discussion is useful precisely because it’s complex and irresolute – and that’s precisely where the debate lies at the heart of naturalistic ethics today. In delving to this depth – a more arcane depth than most public commentators would delve – we can get to some of the most pressing and important questions in ethics.

First, a word on scientism: I do firmly believe that science is the best tool in our kit for understanding the natural world. But it’s a limited tool. As they say, science is a wonderful tool, but a terrible master. Let’s not wander into the fallacy of assuming because it can’t do something then therefore that thing doesn’t exist.

Ultimately, I take a pragmatic stance on knowledge, and on the utility of science. We’re confronted with phenomena, we organise and structure that phenomena and posit theories to explain it and make predictions about future phenomena. Science has been very carefully developed and refined to be exceptionally good at this task – and if you care about explaining and predicting phenomena, then science beats all comers, especially any brand of revelation.

But that’s not all there is to knowledge. As Ruse points out, there are questions about this method itself, or about how the world can be such that science even works. Science can’t answer those. And that shouldn’t worry us a jot. That’s what philosophy is for.


Beyond OWS: The Slow Revolution

In three earlier posts I outlined what I believe to be some of the core underlying problems that have inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement – problems with our current economics, politics and society – even if the Occupy movement itself is yet to identify these problems itself while it rails against the symptoms of inequality and greed. In the next couple of posts I’ll offer some solutions to these three underlying problems.

The good news is they’re fixable. The bad news is that we have to do the fixing by fixing ourselves. And that’ll take time. And discipline. There are no quick fixes. That’s why I refer to my approach to fixing these deep societal problems as the Slow Revolution.


The Burqa is Bad (But Banning it is Worse)

I oppose the wearing of the burqa – particularly the niqab, or veil – and I believe women shouldn’t wear it, or be made to wear it. I also oppose banning of the burqa or the niqab, and believe the government should not prevent people from wearing it (excepting, of course, circumstances where people need to be identified).

And these two positions aren’t even remotely contradictory.

Unfortunately, many people – particularly many on the Left – think they are contradictory, and in doing so they get themselves stuck between condemning a practice that is often oppressive to women and condemning those who call for a ban on the burqa as being racist.

However, it is quite possible to hold a clear stance against the burqa and the values it represents, and drawing a line that says the government has no right to dictate what we can and can’t wear (beyond very loose modesty requirements). Here’s how:


The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?