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:


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.


Wellbeing > GDP as Metric of National Progress

The Sydney Morning Herald has kicked off an interesting ongoing feature looking at replacing gross domestic product as our default and singular metric for national and social progress. It has even commissioned an external consultancy, Lateral Economics, to develop an alternative metric, which they call the Wellbeing index.

Now, there are many ways to render such an index, and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the SMH’s method, but… I wholeheartedly support the notion that GDP is a terrible metric to reflect how our society is benefiting us as individuals. Of course, quantifying things is useful, and GPD is a nice well-defined metric. But as easy as it is to latch on to, it’s just not measuring the stuff that matters. And that’s wellbeing (whatever that is).

I touched on this in my earlier posts about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The problem, I believe, also runs deeper than just GDP being a convenient quantification of national progress. It’s also tied to the Hayekian brand of free market liberalism that places too much stock in that economist’s Swiss army knife: utility.


Morality Without God

It keeps being said that without God, there can be no morality. It keeps being said that if we’re evolved from selfish genes, there can be no altruism. It keeps being said that a universe without a divine creator is a universe without meaning.

It keeps being said.

And it’s flat out wrong.

I’m sympathetic to religious sentiments, even if I think the accompanying metaphysical interpretation of those sympathies is in error. But I’m entirely unsympathetic to those of a religious persuasion spreading untruths and fallacious arguments about secular morality.

It’d be like me saying that there is a God, and He is malevolent.

Disagreement over the existence of God is one thing, but to misrepresent the religious view is not acceptable. Not for anyone. Likewise, misrepresentation of the secular view by the religious is ignorant at best, malicious (and immoral) at worst.

So, in the interests of providing a clear and unambiguous exposition of the secular moral position, I’ve compiled a list of false claims made by some in the religious community and the reasons why they’re in error.


On the Importance of Rational Wonder

When you read about secularism and Humanism, you read a lot about reason, compassion, anti-dogma, tolerance, free thought and free speech – and lots of other wonderful things. But one thing you don’t read much about is wonder itself. I’ve said before that Humanism and secular morality still have a Read more…

God is Dead. Now What?

Atheism is a negative thesis: it only asserts that there is no God or gods. It doesn’t, however, put forward a positive thesis on how to live life. Yet the religion that atheism challenges does provide a positive thesis on how to live life (flawed though it might be in Read more…

Cultivating Virtue: How to Encourage Moral Behaviour

It seems a crucial but oft overlooked step in discussions of morality: how to actually encourage moral behaviour?

Most moral philosophy is obsessed with either understanding the nature of moral judgement, or in developing a system that reliably produces the correct moral judgements. Good on it, but that’s not the end of the story. Even if we did have a system that produces judgements on which we can all agree, what then? How to we translate that theoretical triumph into the actual end goal of moral enquiry: encouraging moral behaviour? Seems little ink has been spilled by moral philosophers on this issue.

The exception to the above is virtue ethicists, who do emphasise the role of personality and character in producing moral behaviour, although much virtue ethics is also related to justifying particular judgements or actions rather than talking about how to shape personality or character such as to promote particular judgements or actions.

Moral psychology fares little better. Certainly it provides crucial insights into how we form the moral judgements we do although, like moral philosophy, most studies stop at the point of forming a moral judgement, and don’t investigate how people behave once they form that judgement.

The psychology of action is undoubtedly complex, and even in moral psychology the path between judgement and behaviour is poorly understood. But I think there are a few things we can say with some confidence as to how to encourage moral behaviour in the majority of people in the real – rather than theoretical – world.


Why I am Not a Humanist (Yet)

I was recently contacted, much to my surprise, by a representative of the new US-based Humanist organisation, the Institute for Science and Human Values (ISHV), founded by none other than Paul Kurtz. Apparently, they had come across a missive I’d posted in the past about the Great Adventure of building a workable secular moral system that can, one day, displace supernaturalist religion as a moral compass in today’s society. Evidently, the ISHV shares a similar vision, and they invited me to contribute some suitably spirited language to their upcoming journal, The Human Prospect.

Yet, since this unexpected exchange, I’ve been wondering: why am I not already a Humanist?

After reading the ISHV’s Neo Humanist statement of secular principles and values, it was readily apparent that I share virtually all the same values as Humanism (at least of the ‘Neo’ variety), and yet I have never found myself identifying with the Humanism movement. Why?

It’s not that I wouldn’t want to belong to a movement that shares my values, and explicitly seeks to spread those values (not that I can even imagine what it would be like to be amongst a group of people who all agree with me on most things). But I presume it would be a buoying experience.

It’s also not that I disagree on any particular points of value or principle. Certainly, I have slightly different views on the origins of morality and the meaning of terms such as ‘wellbeing’, but they’re hardly showstoppers.

So, why am I not a Humanist?