Monday, January 05, 2009

Inside the Moral Black Box

That we make moral judgements is uncontroversial enough, but how we do so - how we go from a particular stimulus to a moral judgement and subsequent behaviour - remains a matter of great conjecture. What exactly goes on inside the Moral Black Box?

We can start by graphically representing the process of moral judgement in its simplest terms (all diagrams go from the bottom up, with yellow indicating a change from the previous diagram):

Figure 1

At the bottom of Figure 1 is the raw stimulus: the sights, sounds and smells that confront our senses. At the top is the moral judgement, such as whether it's permissible or not to cause harm to another person. In between is the Moral Black Box, the inner workings of which have been the subject of much debate and speculation of late.

However, we don't just want to know how we form moral judgements, but we want to know how moral judgements lead to behaviour. So we expand our diagram slightly in Figure 2:

Figure 2

One solution to the workings of the Moral Black Box comes from Immanuel Kant, who suggested it is reason that plays the pivotal role in making moral judgements:

Figure 3

Thus, when you observe an act, you consider it in light of moral principles and subsequently judge it as permissible or impermissible. Only after that does emotion come into play to motivate behaviour.

Another solution comes from David Hume, who saw the moral faculty in almost the exact opposite light to Kant:

Figure 4

Instead of reason being the primary arbiter of moral judgement, Hume suggested it is the emotions or sentiments - feelings of approval or disapproval. This is because reason alone can not motivate moral judgement, all it can do is evaluate facts - the is but not the ought of a situation. However, once the moral judgement springs from the sentiments, reason provides options and alternatives for subsequent behaviour.


However, these aren't the only models of the workings of the Moral Black Box. Marc Hauser has suggested a possible 'hybrid' model incorporating elements of both Kant and Hume, “a blend of unconscious emotions and some form of principled and conscious reasoning,” (Hauser, 2006):

Figure 5

The two faculties of reason and emotion may be in accord or they may conflict, in which case another mechanism must interject to resolve the conflict and arrive at a moral judgement. (Note: Hauser's model stops at moral judgement; I've added the extra step to behaviour to keep it consistent with the other diagrams.)

Hauser then goes on to suggest a new, more sophisticated, model incorporating some insights from John Rawls, Hauser's so-called 'Rawlsian creature':

Figure 6

According to Hauser, “perception of an action or event triggers an analysis of the causes and consequences that, in turn, triggers a moral judgement... Emotions, if they play a role, do so after the judgement,” (ibid.).

Hauser then draws on Rawls' linguistic analogy to talk of the 'action analysis' as a 'moral grammar'. This moral grammar automatically gives structure and meaning to a situation, such as attributing intentionality to observed agents, and inspires moral judgement. Reason and emotion engage only after the moral grammar has done its work.

Moral Psychology

Which, if any, of the above diagrams is the correct model? Thankfully, we needn't speculate entirely from the armchair because moral psychologists have performed experiments intended to probe the moral faculty and establish whether reason or sentiments play the pivotal role. Here is what one of them found (Haidt, 2001):

Figure 7

Evidently, Hume was pretty close to the mark. According to the research, emotions (which, for the time being, will be used synonymously with 'sentiments' when applied to moral judgement) come first and inspire moral judgements. This process is rapid, automatic and not mediated by conscious deliberation. Only after the judgement springs forth does reason come into play to justify the judgement (although it's not always successful or consistent) and to direct behaviour.

(It should be pointed out that Haidt's experiments dealt with a fairly restricted set of situations, and other more complex situations such as moral dilemmas might yield different results, and a different moral model - although this will be factored into the moral diagrams further down.)


Assuming this model is accurate, it still raises a few key questions:
  1. Why are certain emotions elicited by certain stimuli rather than others?

  2. Given a particular stimulus experienced by two individuals, how can we account for variations in moral judgements made by those individuals?

  3. How do moral judgements lead to behaviour?

  4. What role, if any, do reason and moral beliefs play in the formation of moral judgements?
Moral Grammar

For a solution to the first question, we can turn to Hauser's 'Rawlsian creature' of Figure 6 and appeal to the notion of a moral grammar. This is a faculty is not unlike our language faculty, with a universal grammar that automatically and systematically structures sensory stimuli and orders them according to certain moral principles. One example of the moral grammar in action is the attribution of intention to agents, such as whether person A intended to do action X to person B, or whether it was accidental - a distinction that is crucial to forming a moral judgement.

However, instead of the moral grammar leading directly to a moral judgement, perhaps we can bring Hauser's (Figure 6) and Haidt's (Figure 7) models together and create a new one:

Figure 8

In this model, the moral grammar then inspires particular emotions/sentiments that lead to moral judgement - all automatically and without conscious intervention. Only after the initial moral judgement is made does conscious reflection kick in.

One of the big questions in this area is whether there is but one universal moral grammar that operates in much the same way in all humans, or whether there are multiple specific moral grammars that might vary from person to person, culture to culture. I'll remain fairly agnostic on this question, although I wouldn't be surprised if there was only one moral grammar with fairly minimal variation between individuals and cultures, and the variation in moral judgement springs from another source, which I'll discuss next.

The Lens

It's clear that there is an enormous variability in moral judgements and moral perspectives around the world, and any model of the Moral Black Box needs to account for this. One possibility is that the emotional responses vary from one individual to the next. Another is that there are many moral grammars, each informed by biology and culture, and these account for variation in moral judgement.

However, I think there may be another approach that could account for a great deal of moral variability without tinkering too much with the moral grammar - which can remain relatively uniform amongst all humans - and the emotions.

I call it the Lens:

Figure 9

Psychology is already very familiar with the notion that the raw input from our senses is heavily edited before it reaches our conscious awareness. We pick out shapes, faces, objects and even apply stereotypes or gauge threats in the barest moments after we've perceived something.

Perhaps we can draw upon this notion to propose a Lens through which the raw stimulus is filtered, even before it reaches the moral grammar. In fact, the Lens could determine which things are processed by the moral grammar, and which are processed by regular non-moral cognitive faculties.

It's the Lens that gives meaning to the raw sense data, and it's this meaning that could end up doing a majority of the work in forming a moral judgement. For example, we know that we make near instantaneous judgements about who belongs to our in-group and who to our out-group well before we have a chance to reflect on our judgement. Certainly, we can redirect this impulse, as many of us do, but the impulse is there.

So if we do have a Lens that plays a role in moral judgement, what could be the influences on it?

Figure 10

The Lens may be shaped by a variety of influences. One may be biology and evolution, such as the fact that we sort people into in-groups and out-groups at all.

Another influence could be culture, which could provide much of the content of the Lens, such as to whom we attribute in-group and out-group status.

A third influence could be experience, a trivial example of which is if you get food poisoning from an oyster buffet, you'll never look at oysters the same way again. The same might be said if you're assaulted by a member of a particular ethnic group, you might find yourself with automatic aversion responses or an automatic mistrust of other members of that ethnic group.

A final influence (although there could easily be more) on the Lens could be mood. Have your bag stolen and suddenly everyone looks like a thief. Or have a wonderful relaxing day, and everyone suddenly looks like a friend.

It's even possible that Hauser's moral grammar itself is a component of the Lens - although one that I believe must trigger later than some other elements of the Lens.

So, a certain stimulus is passed through the filter of the Lens, which sorts and orders the stimulus, discarding useless information and applying meaning to specific elements that are of significance. It could determine whether a certain action triggers the further moral faculties or passes through non-moral faculties.

If a certain stimulus triggers moral responses, it could then be processed by the moral grammar, which applies rules such as the principle of double effect. Depending on the outcome, this could trigger certain emotions, such as empathy or outrage, leading to a moral judgement. All in a matter of moments.


What of reason? Surely it plays some role in moral judgement? According to Haidt's research, “moral reasoning is an effortful process, engaged in after a moral judgement is made,” (Haidt, 2001, my italics). This places is somewhat later in the chain:

Figure 11

Once the initial moral judgement has been made, such as having someone push in front of you in line and responding with outrage and disapproval, reason may interject. An impulsive response to an injustice might be to enact retribution against the protagonist, but reason might give us pause to reflect on whether that action is in our best interests. Reason gives us a unique capacity to imagine future consequences of our actions and evaluate which are desirable and which are not. It also allows us to employ abstract concepts and moral beliefs, such as that 'violence is wrong', thus blunting the potential retribution.

Reflection using reason might yield multiple possible behaviours and enable us to balance them against each other via their various possible consequences. Should some of these consequences go against our explicit moral beliefs, or should we consider a more suitable behaviour that yields an optimal consequence, we can redirect or inhibit our original impulsive behaviour (although, of course, this may not always be successful).

A big question here is the role of explicit moral beliefs, their origin and their voracity. I'll leave these questions open for the time being, but it's a topic I will develop further later.

Moral Dilemmas

As we all know, moral judgements are not always straight forward affairs. Moral conundrums abound, as we can see in the plethora of moral dilemmas concocted by philosophers throughout the ages. To account for conflict within the moral faculty, we need to adjust our notion of the roles of emotions:

Figure 12

Here we have a slightly more complicated model, where the Lens and moral grammar contribute to multiple emotions - such as happens in trolley dilemmas. We could also have self-interested emotions arising at the same time. Perhaps the individual who pushed in front of you looks to be a dangerous sort. Perhaps our sense of danger battles with our sense of outrage, yielding conflicting judgements and conflicting possible behaviours.

Figure 12 is only a very simplistic rendering of these processes, which I think could take place both in the emotions and in reason. But it does start to explain the sources of moral conflict, which could be as follows:
  1. Conflicting moral emotions (eg empathy for the various bystanders in the trolley dilemma)

  2. Moral emotions conflicting with self-interested emotions (eg outrage versus self-preservation)

  3. Moral judgement conflicting with moral beliefs (eg outrage versus belief in non-violence)

  4. Moral judgement conflicting with possible consequences for behaviour (eg desire to help but anticipation that behaviour will cause harm and/or guilt)

  5. Multiple possible behaviours (eg only possible behaviours have negative consequences)
I have no doubt this is far from a comprehensive list. It will only be through empirical endeavour that we will be able to tease the various sources of conflict out of our moral faculty.


Bryce Huebner, Susan Dwyer and Marc Hauser recently posted an opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Science questioning the role that emotion plays in moral judgement. In some ways, it's directly questioning Haidt's findings, as shown in Figure 7. Huebner suggests that emotion may play a role at multiple points in the moral faculty, not just at the beginning as the font of moral judgement.

While not directly suggesting a concept such as the Lens, Huebner comes quite close:
“We suggest instead that our moral judgments are mediated by a fast, unconscious process that operates over causal-intentional representations. The most important role that emotions might have is in motivating action.”
This places the emotions after the Lens, as in Figure 9. However...
“Emotion could modify the inputs into distinctively moral circuits rather than modulating the operation of these moral circuits themselves.”
This could parallel the role of mood in the Lens in Figure 10.

I think Huebner is referring to the moral grammar in the article when he mentions "a fast, unconscious process," but I think the Lens could be a better fit for what he's looking for. And that's not to say the moral grammar isn't one component of the Lens. But I do think his criticism of Haidt's research - or at least Haidt's interpretation of the results - is valid. We don't yet know the role of emotion in moral judgement for sure.

In fact, 'emotion' may actually refer to several things that interact with the moral faculty at several differet points. For example, mood might affect the Lens; moral emotions like outrage or empathy might affect the initial moral judgement; and guilt might come into play when we imagine possible outcomes of actions or after we've acted. So 'emotion', in all its guises, might occur throughout the process, not just at one specific point.

Also, consider that we never get a single stimulus and the time to reflect on it in isolation. We have a continuous stream of stimuli and a corresponding continuous stream of emotions. So positing emotion at one particular point is a gross simplification, albiet hopefully a useful one for the purposes of understanding the workings of the moral faculty.

The Moral Black Box

Figure 13

So the Moral Black Box may not be impenetrable to scrutiny after all. We are accumulating an ever-increasing amount of evidence that reveals the ways in which we make moral judgements, and in recent years we've seen a resurgence of Humean and Rawlsian approaches to our moral faculty.

However, as far as I know, no-one has gone as far as to propose a Lens through which our sensory input is filtered; a Lens that may play a substantial part in forming moral judgements by giving meaning and significance to the objects of perception.

From there (or as a part of that process) a moral grammar may apply specific rules, such as the principle of double effect, which leads the way to initial moral judgements, fuelled by emotions. Up until now, everything has happened nearly instantaneously and without conscious reflection. Perhaps even higher primates and other social animals possess similar moral faculties to this point.

But only humans have reason. Which, at this point, steps in and causes us to pause and reflect and consider possible consequences of our action. This is a slow and taxing, process, however. It may also introduce new complexities and threaten to paralyse action through conflict with explicit moral beliefs.

But ultimately, we settle on a considered moral judgement, which may be the same as one of the initial moral judgments, or could be revised. And this leads to a course of action. Although even that action might trigger further moral consideration, such as through triggering guilt.

This is only an early model of the moral faculty, and I have no doubt it will be contested and revised many times before it gains even occasional agreement. And it'll ultimately be up to empirical science to test this and other models to see whether they actually work, and if they do, how they differ in structure and/or function from one individual to the next.

These models also raise a great number of questions, such as:
  • How is the lens constituted?

  • To what extent is the lens fixed (i.e. attributing in-group/out-group) and to what extent is it variable (i.e. who is assigned to in-group/out-group)

  • What are the influences on the lens (biology, culture etc)?

  • How do conscious thought, reason and explicit beliefs affect the lens, if at all?

  • What role does emotion and mood play in the lens?

  • Is there one universal moral grammar or are there multiple moral grammars?

  • To what extent do they account for variation in moral judgement and moral competence?

  • How are conflicting moral sentiments resolved?

  • How do moral beliefs form and how do they influence moral decision making?

  • How does the flow through the model differ for various moral dilemmas?

  • Which faculties are domain-specific and which are domain-general?

  • How do individuals with psychopathy or other neurological disorders (such as VMPC) differ from normal individuals in their moral faculty?

  • How does the human moral faculty differ from that of social animals or primates? Is it similar except for our capacity to reason and inhibit behaviour?

  • And many more, I'm sure...
I welcome any comments, criticism or feedback, or any suggestions of changes to the models. I also have the original file used to create these diagrams, in OpenOffice Draw format, and I'll be happy to forward the file to anyone interested in tinkering with them. Just email me: the [dot] tim [dot] dean [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Racial Time Bomb

In 1994 psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray published a book that started a war. The book was The Bell Curve, and the war was one of ideas, with nature on one side and nurture on the other. But that war is far from over - in fact, it's only just begun, and the front lines are about to expand dramatically.

At least, they are according to Jonathan Haidt in an editorial over at the ever-thought-provoking
I believe that the "Bell Curve" wars of the 1990s, over race differences in intelligence, will seem genteel and short-lived compared to the coming arguments over ethnic differences in moralized traits.
Haidt is speaking of an issue that I consider to be a ticking time bomb of Homerian proportions that is bound to detonate some time in the next decade or so. While The Bell Curve dealt specifically with differences in intelligence between various racial groups, the coming controversy is about far more than just smarts.

As Haidt explains:
Skin color has no moral significance, but traits that led to Darwinian success in one of the many new niches and occupations of Holocene life — traits such as collectivism, clannishness, aggressiveness, docility, or the ability to delay gratification — are often seen as virtues or vices.
And if not only individuals differ in these capacites, but entire racial groups do, then we're not only talking about intelligence or abilities, we're talking about morality.
Virtues are acquired slowly, by practice within a cultural context, but the discovery that there might be ethnically-linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues is — and this is my prediction — going to be a "game changing" scientific event.
I agree. Not that we will find evidence that there are ethnicaly-linked genetic variations in moral competence, but that if we do, then there'll be trouble. Should evidence for such variations be discovered tomorrow, we as a society will be wholly unequipped to deal with the ramifications.

That's also not to say that there will necessarily be negative ramifications to such a finding. But that without a clear philosophical understanding of the issue and its implications - and reasons for why there aren't negative ramifications - then there'll be many who will effortlessly slip into a potentially devastating form of genetically-justified racism against ethnic groups they perceive to be 'less morally capable'. It could also fuel existing racial tensions and advance the cause of racist groups around the world (probably irrespective of the individual findings themselves).

Human genome pioneer, Craig Venter, posted a similar cautionary editorial on a couple of years ago, although it didn't get a whole bunch of attention back then. Venter was concerned that our burgenoning knowledge of genetics would reveal a plethora of biologically-influenced inequalities:
It will inevitably be revealed that there are strong genetic components associated with most aspects of what we attribute to human existence including personality subtypes, language capabilities, mechanical abilities, intelligence, sexual activities and preferences, intuitive thinking, quality of memory, will power, temperament, athletic abilities, etc.
We can now add morality to that list.

I think that as a matter of utmost priority, scientists, philosophers, politicians and community groups need to engage with the issue of the biological and genetic basis of behaviour - and morality - and formulate some considered responses to the various possible discoveries yet to be made. We need to arm ourselves to respond to this issue in a measured and rational way rather than let it fall to those with their own extreme agendas to set the tone of the debate, by which point it may be too late.

And we may not have years to figure all this out. We may have a matter of only months. So we'd better get to it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Moral Psychology Compendium

I'm excited. This morning saw the thud of a sizable delivery from - the brand spanking new Moral Psychology, volumes 1, 2 and 3, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. And what a collection!

Only a few years ago, literature on moral psychology (particularly incorporating evolution and neuroscience) were hard to come by. The field was a disparate collection of fragmentary sparks of insight, with no overriding framework to tie it all together. But no longer.

These three volumes represent the emergence of moral psychology as a serious and burgeoning field of enquiry, as significant, perhaps as the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, edited by Robin Dunbar.

The rollcall in these volumes is impressive: Casebeer, Cosmides, Tooby, Mikhail, Ruse, Sarkissian, Joyce (from ANU and USYD, just around the corner from me), Haidt, Hauser, Greene, and many many more.

And I'm excited. Having started a PhD on the evolution of morality, a compendium such as this will prove invaluable. Not only will it save an enormous amount time tracking down scattered papers in various journals, but the volumes include replies to papers and subsequent responses by the original author. Being relatively new to the field, such material is incredibly valuable, not only when it comes to familiarising myself with the research, but also in understanding the state of play of the debates.

If you're at all interested in the newest and (I think) most exciting field of psychological and philosophical research, then this looks to be an essential volume. I'll be adding more detailed individual comments on specific papers as I wade through the various tomes.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is the US More Liberal than Conservative?

According to the Norman Lear Center in the US, it is. This goes against the grain of much contemporary commentary suggesting that the United States is a fundamentally conservative, or at least Centre-Right, nation.

The Lear report found 34% of Americans are 'liberal', 41% 'conservative', which might support the notion that America is more conservative. However, crucially, the Centre - or 'purples' - occupied a significant 24% of the population, and this group leaned more to the Left. As a result, the US tilts to the Left more than the Right.

Interesting notion. However, I find the report, and commentary on the Huffington Post by Marty Kaplan, far from convincing.

Firstly, and most obviously, the poll was conducted during the build up to a what was to be a stunning victory by the Left. Given political sentiments are hardly etched in stone, it's quite likely that some individuals had found themselves either disillusioned with the ideals of the Right over the previous several years, or found themselves caught up in the liberal tide of the day. The very fact Obama won indicates a shift of sorts was already on the cards. Either way, this might suggest the US (or its Centre) is swaying to the Left now, but it says nothing about whether it might sway Right back again in a few years time.

Secondly, the response to the following question is telling:
Freedom is more important than equality.
To which a vast majority replied in the affirmative. Should one consider the United States' political leanings from an international perspective, then it most certainly isn't Centre-Left on this point alone, and that's not even considering the responses to guns and religion.

But to me, the most interesting thing is what this means for Moral Diversity. This is the notion that there are two broad strategies for approaching social life and cooperation: egalitarianism and authoritarianism - or Left and Right. These strategies are, to some extent, hardwired in our genes, so it's no surprise that in every liberal democracy there's some manifestation of the Left and the Right on offer - and not two opposing parties that represent a different mix of values.

According to Moral Diversity, it's expected that each individual has a range of sentiments that in sum tilt them one way or the other, but this doesn't mean we're likely to find individuals who are entirely Left or Right. This prediction is supported by the findings of the Lear report:
"Reds didn't always endorse the red position, and blues didn't always pick the blue position. There were four instances where the majority of reds endorsed the blue position (including the 55% of reds who said that 'foreigners immigrate to America for the chance to work for a better life'), and only one instance where blues endorsed a red position (52% agreed that 'freedom is more important than equality').
It's an interesting study, although I'd recommend a pause before taking to the streets declaring the culture wars over and the Left (or Centre-Left) the victor. Obama's policies and other concerns such as security and unemployment could easily disrupt the current balance of political sentiments in the US. Although Obama might have more chance than most of keeping the fulcrum in the Centre instead of pushing it Left only to have it snap back in four or eight years time. Guess we'll have to wait and see about that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Human Rights in the 21st Century

Happy birthday to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 60 today.

It's truly a remarkable document. Despite the countless cases of human rights abuses that have transpired since its inception, it's a testament to fact that humanity appears to be on a path towards betterment. Not a smooth or well signposted highway by any means - more a rugged track carved through the wilderness of our fears, mistrust and folly.

And even though the 20th century was by far the most violent in the planet's history, it also saw immeasurable improvements to the liberty, wealth and standard of living of billions of people - more than any other century in our history.

My question, as a philosopher, is whether the Universal Declaration is robust enough to see us through the 21st century. For it is not just threatened by the same avarice and malice that have challenged it in the 20th century, nor the rising tensions of a world pitted in competition over diminishing resources. But the Declaration may be threatened by science itself.

Article 1 states:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
As we learn more about the role that genes and heredity play on behaviour, the more we realise we may not all be created equal in ability. This, for some, will challenge the notion that we're also born equal in dignity (whatever that means) and rights.

The issue of the biology and genetics of ability, and how this crosses so-called 'racial' and gender lines, is one of the most important topics to be actively ignored by the vast majority of academics and intellectuals in the 20th century. Instead, it is left up to extremist groups with radical agendas to fill the void. This can't go on. We must engage this topic actively, and explore the potential ramifications of biology and ability, and ensure that we can build a solid bridge between the facts, and a notion of equality of rights in the Declaration.

The other primary challenge that may face the Declaration comes from a seemingly unlikely source: artificial intelligence and transhumanists. The current declaration explicitly focusses on 'human' rights. There's already concern that it doesn't give adequate concern to animal rights. But what of transhumans or artificial life?

Not only would we expect sentient non-humans to demand rights of their own, it would be naive to think they would have the same values we do. Or that they would not compete with us for resources. If evolution has taught us anything, it's that genes (or their artificial equivalents) are geared towards survival, and if that survival (or flourishing) sees humanity as a barrier, then there may be conflict. Possibly mortal conflict.

So what should we do? I consider the Universal Declaration to already be a superb document, but it needs critical analysis in anticipation of a number of scientific advances. We needn't modify the document, or create any new ones, until such time as it's necessary to do so, but we should anticipate the impact various changes might make - such as if there is a breakthrough in longevity treatment that might extend life to 500 years or more, but it's available only to the very rich. Such a shift could have significant ramifications on morality and human rights.

We should be equipped if not with answers, then with the right questions ready to ask when the time comes. For on the 160th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are sure to be living in a very different world.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Knowing That is Knowing How

At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.
It has come to my attention that contemporary epistemology is entirely arse-backwards. This is because it's caught in the uncompromising grip of an obsession with knowledge-that. This, over half a century after Gilbert Ryle famously made a strong case that knowledge-that is not all there is to knowledge as such.

Philosophy, you disappoint me sometimes. Not that I'm angry. Just disappointed.

All the way back when I was writing my honours thesis - which applied knowledge-how to Frank Jackson's Knowledge Argument in the philosophy of mind - it appeared as though there was at least a modicum of debate going on over the nature of knowledge.

But I turn my back for a decade, and what happens? Knowledge-that comes back to the fore and puts the brakes on any progress on some of the most important questions in epistemology: what is knowledge; to what does it apply; how is it acquired; can we really know anything? These are important questions - more-so than many in metaphysics - because they virtually underpin every other philosophical endeavour, as well as relating to a number of very significant real-world issues, such as ethics (and metaethics), politics, science, and philosophy of mind.

So, what I'd like to do here is espouse an alternative view to the paragon view of knowledge-that espoused by Stanley and Williamson, who recently suggested that knowledge-how is a species of knowledge-that. In fact, I'd like to espouse the entirely opposite view: that knowledge-that is a species of knowledge-how. An arse-forwards view, one might say.

Knowing How and Knowing That

I'll kick off with a very cursory summary of the debate as it stands today. In his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind, Ryle mades a concerted attack on what he called the Official Doctrine, which was the prevailing mind-body dualism that had influenced philosophy since the days of Descartes.

As a part of his assault, he also gave a new treatment of knowledge, one which introduced a new distinction. To know the sky is blue is to possess some knowledge-that, whereas to know how to ride a bicycle is to possess some knowledge-how. And, crucially, they were different.

Philosophy of Ryle's day (as it sadly is today) was obsessed with knowing-that to the exclusion of knowing-how. Ryle saw this as another throwback to the Cartesian dualism he was attempting to dispel. For in the Cartesian paradigm, the mind wore the pants - it was prior to and more reliable than the body or material objects. Where the latter could be doubted, the former were the very essence of what it meant to exist - cogito ergo sum.

All activity, whether that be thinking something, knowing something or doing something, involved the mind - and not just background mental processes, but active thought. Certain things like walking or riding a bicycle were seen as mere mechanistic processes of the body, and not considered in mental terms. Thus was knowledge-that the only type of knowledge explored by philosophers. But, as Ryle pointed out, one can learn how to ride a bicycle in the same way they can learn that the sky is blue. Furthermore, in order to learn the sky is blue, one must have some kind of ability to learn, to think and to know, and one can do this poorly or well.

But in the same way that early practitioners of artificial intelligence focussed on singularly intellectual tasks, such as playing chess, while they ignored the far bigger issues of sensing or locomotion, epistemologists busied themselves exploring the bounds of knowledge-that, mostly ignorant that they were missing out on a substantial piece of the knowledge pie.

Since Ryle, very little has been written on this immensely important topic, besides a few acknowledgments that knowing-how was somehow different from knowing-that. Then came the latest blow when Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson published their paper, Knowing How, in 2001, which advanced a radical intellectualist thesis that all knowledge was knowing-that, and that knowing-how was simply a species of knowing-that.

It seems to me that Stanley and Williamson have made the fundamental error of mistaking the description of some knowledge-how as being the knowledge itself. One might describe Hannah's knowledge-how to ride a bicycle in one, 10 or 1,000 propositions - none of which might have ever occurred to Hannah, or that she might even agree that she holds. Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

To attribute some propositional knowledge to someone must mean more than that you can describe their knowledge in propositional terms. What ever happened to justified, true, belief?

Furthermore - on a slightly mad dog, but no less sincere note - I'd suggest that no finite number of propositions will ever completely capture an instance of knowledge-how, such as the knowledge-how to ride a bicycle. Think of all the physics and biomechanical propositions in bicycle riding alone that must be implicit in knowing-how to stay aloft on one. Then we can talk about propositions about contingencies ('if a car pulls out in front of Hannah, going at 17.5 kph, swerve 22.7 degrees to the right unless the road is slippery or there is a pothole in the way'), or propositions about every nomically possible state of the world and how they might be handled. There's a lot tied up in the knowledge-how to ride a bike, but it doesn't seem to be ably captured in its entirety by even a very long list of propositions. Hmmm, that sounds like a disposition...

So, here I'd like to present an alternative thesis, although one that doesn't springboard directly from Ryle, but takes things back a step and builds knowledge up from a concrete foundation. And one that, hopefully, doesn't fall foul of the fallacy of description-being-knowing.

What Do You Know?

Let me start by posing a few paradigmatic sentences regarding knowledge of one kind or another:

1) Hannah knows 2 + 2 = 4

2) Hannah knows the sky is blue

3) Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle

The first two are commonly accepted examples of knowledge-that, while 3) is an example of knowledge-how. There are also many other more exotic examples of attributions of knowledge, like knowing how to do 1,000 push-ups or knowing how to locate Hesperus but not how to locate Venus. I'll get to these in another post in detail, but I'd suggest most are knowledge-that about knowedge-how.

The first point I'll make is we should treat our language in this field as largely suspect, as we should our intuitions about what counts as knowledge. We use terms like 'knows...', 'believes...', 'can...', 'forgot...' in many contexts, not all of which might be proper attributions of knowledge of some kind. Consider the tendency in nature documentaries to attribute knowledge to animals: "the spider knows how to weave an intricate web"; "the baby turtles know how to find the sea". They are certainly saying something interesting, but it we need to be cautious of all usages of language when it pertains to knowledge in case we're actually talking about several things and only using one word, or talking about one thing and using several words etc.

This is one reason why I'm not swayed by Stanley and Williamson's paper. A thorough analysis of the language of knowledge it might be, but that doesn't convince me that our language and intuitions correspond to anything terribly special.

So, on with the show.

Bottom Up and Top Down

In laying down my alternative approach to knowledge, I'm going to start up in the air and make my way down to the ground. Why? Because I think contemporary theories of knowledge are backwards already, I hope this will make my theory more intelligible by starting somewhere familiar.

1) Hannah knows 2 + 2 = 4

This kind of sentence expresses knowledge-that, or propositional knowledge. It's a statement about the agent (Hannah), a proposition (2 + 2 = 4) and establishing the relation of 'knowing' between them. Nothing too controversial here. There are reams of epistemology papers exploring this kind of stuff.

That's not to say this picture of knowledge is without its problems. For one, the 'justified true belief' model of propositional knowledge has been batted around for centuries, to the point that it's looking quite battered these days. It seems to be mostly accurate, but niggling problems keep cropping up, whether they be Gettier problems or understanding the truth conditions of such knowledge.

I won't deal with these issues here - because ultimately I don't think they're problems at all. This is because these kinds of propositions are never going to be unambiguously true, at least of the world. That's because these propositions are ultimately vague abstractions from the concrete world - a world I'm going to talk about shortly. And as abstractions, they've already abandoned some crucial information about the world, so they'll never be able to perfectly represent that world. No two ducks are exactly the same, so the word 'duck' represents a vague collection of things.

But wait, isn't 1) a priori - independent of experience? Yes, it is. The proposition '2 + 2 = 4' is an abstract proposition about other abstract propositions. As such, they can be 'true' - or 'consistent' - within that particular 'proposition-' or 'concept-space', such as the space of mathematics. However, I'd suggest - in true empirical tradition - that such a proposition needs to be related to the world in order for it to say something true of the world.

Mathematics started from abstractions from experiences of the world, from which point lots can be said within mathematics - and even new mathematical knowledge discovered within that system - but maths (or any axiomatic system) will never be entirely consistent and complete. Godel told us that. So when it comes time to relate maths back to the world, it won't relate perfectly. And I'd suggest this is the case with all abstract systems, including language, propositions and thus knowledge-that.

I call this a priori propositional knowledge 3rd-order knowledge. And I'm using the term 'knowledge' reservedly here, in a more psychological sense, as I don't believe a priori knowledge can ever be perfectly true when related back to the world. And even when analytic, it's only a weak form of 'truth' (there might be a better name for it) since it's only true within its abstract a priori system, and not of the world.


2) Hannah knows the sky is blue

This sentences expresses knowledge from the next tier - 2nd-order knowledge. This is another example of propositional knowledge, except in this case it's a posteriori rather than a priori; the truth of this statement depends on some fact about the world.

However, like 3rd-order knowledge, this kind of propositional knowledge involves abstraction about the world. 'The sky' and 'blue' are vague abstractions from the concrete world. That's not to say that there isn't something in the concrete world we're talking about when we mention 'the sky' or the colour 'blue'. But the proposition 'the sky' and 'blue' will never perfectly capture or represent that thing we're talking about in all its detail.

Big deal? Yes. Abstractions are useful, but they're also deceptive. I'll talk about the concrete world in a moment, but whenever we abstract from the concrete world we make at least one error - we draw distinctions. A and not-A. The sky and not-sky. Blue is not red. Yet these distinctions don't exist in the concrete world, which is single and contiguous, but not homogeneous. As such, any proposition based on such an abstraction will only ever be a vague approximation of some aspect of the real world - like a stereotype, not 100% accurate, but useful none the less.

I don't think this in any way prevents us from using such propositions - I just think we need to stop short of talking about 'knowledge' about the world (and from that, knowledge within a proposition space abstracted from the world) in black and white terms. If, by 'truth', we mean perfect correspondence with some aspect of the world - that's impossible.


3) Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle

Now we're in knowing-how territory. This is 1st-order knowledge, under this model. Knowing-how is non-propositional. However - and this is one reason I think we need to be careful with our use of language - whenever we talk about knowing-how we use propositions: the language of knowing-that. And these propositions will never completely describe the knowing-how.

So 3) could be translated into saying:

4) I know that Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle

I'd characterise 3) in a similar way to Ryle. 3) means that Hannah has a disposition to perform a certain action under the right circumstances, and she possesses this disposition by virtue of possessing certain mental and physical properties. The mental properties needn't be conscious, and in fact, I'd suggest a vast majority of 1st-order knowing-how is non-conscious. Heck, think about the last time you drove home. Can you really convince yourself you were conscious of your gear changes, or indicator usage, or lane changes?

And this is where I think a lot of confusion crops up when talking about knowing-that and knowing-how. Because knowing-how can also be abstracted away into knowing-that. So when I say something like 3), this could also be stated in terms of a long ream of propositions about pedals, balance, applying pressure to the breaks, inertia, wind resistance etc. However, I'd suggest these propositions would never a) perfectly describe the knowing-how (see above) and b) they are not what we're talking about when we say Hannah knows how to ride a bicycle.

Hannah riding a bicycle is concrete, not abstract. She knows how to ride the bike because she does (in the appropriate circumstances). Any description of her riding is abstract, thus cannot capture the activity in its entirety.

Now, an objection is often raised at this point, one that Stanley and Williamson raise against Ryle. They suggest one of Ryle's premises is:
If one Fs, one employs knowledge-how to F.
And they provide an example in this vain:
If Hannah wins a fair lottery, she still does not know how to win the lottery, since it
was by sheer chance that she did so.
But, I'd suggest this is a not an example of 1st-order knowledge, because winning the lottery requires no mental activity. They could have just as easily said that Hannah knows how to use gravity to stay attached to the Earth. I would suggest that any 1st-order knowledge requires intentionality, and as such, has mental properties upon which to base the dispositional nature of this species of knowledge-how. And that rules out lotteries and gravity from being knowledge-how.

But... I do think we attribute 'knowledge' to people, animals and even things even when we're talking about non-intentional acts. The spider knows how to weave a web. The plant knows how to angle its leaves towards the sunlight. The seeds know to germinate when the 10 year flood arrives. Etc.

Now, we may well be mistaken to call this knowledge in any of the above senses. But we're talking about something interesting here, and something I think is often overlooked. For if you explore what we're talking about, we're still talking about dispositions. Except instead of requiring mental properties, they require physical properties alone.

No difference in kind, just degree - properties by virtue of which that thing possesses that disposition. Which brings me to the ground floor.


While I'm happy to call 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-order knowledge 'knowledge' (at least in a psychological sense, if not justified, true, belief), I still would like to admit a species of disposition that I think underlies all of our knowledge-how: 0th-order 'abilities'.

Abilities are much like 1st-order knowledge in that they're dispositions. Something has the ability to x if it will x under the appropriate circumstances. So yes, a glass has the 'ability' to break. (Maybe there's a better word than 'ability', I don't know. I'm reluctant to use 'disposition' as it's a complex term that appears in the other orders of knowledge. But it is the foundation of those orders of knowledge, so perhaps it's more suitable. I'm open to suggestion.)

We can talk about thinking as one example of an ability possessed by humans. Ryle even seems to hint that we need some kind of prior account of cognition in general before we start talking about the font from which knowledge springs. I'd suggest thinking, and all its related faculties, are abilities held by an individual by virtue of their physical properties, namely their possession of a brain structured so.

Nothing really remarkable about 0th-level abilities, but I think it's important to have them on the ground floor to give a foundation to the higher orders of knowledge. And again, a word of caution not to mistake the description of an ability (in terms of knowledge-that) for the ability itself.

Know what?

So there you have it. A four-tiered model of 'knowledge'. One that places abilities and knowledge-how at the base, and dethrones propositional knowledge from its foundational status as found in Stanley and Williamson. Furthermore, knowledge-that requires knowledge-how and abilities to exist. For one cannot abstract without the ability to do so.

I'll state one counter-example that is often cited to deny that knowledge-how is prior to knowledge-that.

4) Hannah knows how to do 1,000 push-ups

Hannah might be quite capable of doing one push-up, and she might be able to imagine doing 1,000 push-ups, but she is a long way from being able to actually do 1,000 push-ups. According to the Stanley-Williamson account, Hannah could know-how to do 1,000 push-ups without actually being able to do them. This is because she knows a number of propositions that could constitute her knowledge of how to do 1,000 push-ups, were she physically able to do them.

Under my alternate model of knowledge, Hannah doesn't know-how to do 1,000 push-ups, because she cannot do them. She might know-how to do one push-up, or 10. But this knowledge-how is dispositional, depending on her mental and physical properties (the only difference with 0th-order abilities is they depend on physical properties alone).

Yet she might possess some knowledge-that abstracted from past experiences of push-ups, along with some theoretical knowledge of human physiology and physics. With this knowledge-that, she could perhaps describe to someone how to do 1,000 push-ups in the same way she might describe how to ride a bicycle to a learner. Yet the person receiving the exhaustive list of propositions about riding a bicycle or doing 1,000 push-ups may quite plausibly be unable to actually do either one. The learner wouldn't acquire the knowledge-how to do the 1,000 push-ups.

The Zen of Knowledge

You also might be wondering why I chose that particular quote at the beginning of this post. That's a Zen proverb that I think captures the spirit of this model of knowledge. For in Buddhism it is acknowledged that the world beyond our senses is unitary and contiguous, and it's us that break it up into discrete chunks and apply labels to things like mountains, rivers and bicycles.

These labels are descriptions - incomplete descriptions - that don't perfectly represent the objects to which they refer. So if we're to look at mountains, we shouldn't fall for the illusion that that's all they are - a bundle of discrete things as represented by our propositions. Our labels, our propositions, are alluring, but they're not enough to represent reality. Thus, to see mountains as they really are requires us to unshackle ourselves from the distinctions and propositions we project on to the world.

But - and there's the zen twist - those propositions are still necessary to our understanding of the world. We might escape our constrained perspective on the world for fleeting moments - and in those moments we might even see things as they are - but when it comes to making sense of the world, we need those limited, clunky, inaccurate labels and propositions. So we get on with it, and mountains become mountains, rivers become rivers, and bicycles become bicycles again.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Moral Diversity part 2

So, after the background waffle, let’s get to the crux of Moral Diversity: what it means, how it works and why I think it’s significant to moral philosophy and politics.

It’s natural to think of the moral spectrum in terms of a single one dimensional spectrum from good to evil, or moral to immoral. That’s how I think we intuitively reflect on morality, and this flavours much moral literature, such as in talk of ‘the good’, as if there is but one quality of ‘goodness’ (even though it might be composed of many individual elements). But I think the real moral spectrum is more complex than this and speaking of one ‘good’ is misleading.

We’ve already seen from George Lakoff that liberals and conservatives (using the terms in the American political sense) see the world in different ways – from a nurturant parent and strict father mentality respectively – and these perspectives flavour their moral outlook. In fact, it flavours it to the extent that many liberals see conservative values as immoral (overt nationalism, insularism, nepotism etc), and vice versa (permissiveness, the nanny state etc).

We’ve also seen Jonathan Haidt elaborate on this thesis by revealing the five moral foundations, and demonstrating how self-reported liberals and conservatives respond to them differently. And this isn’t just a local phenomenon restricted to American university students (as is much non-scientific moral speculation); this is a global phenomena, according to Haidt.

So on this perspective, there doesn’t appear to be a single one dimensional moral/immoral spectrum with a terminus in a single ‘good’. Perhaps instead we should visualise the moral spectrum terminating in at least two ‘goods’, if not fanning out into an arc of ‘goods’.

Good = Pro-Social

Why? Because ‘good’ in the broadest possible sense means ‘pro-social’. Consider some traditional moral imperatives: don’t murder; don’t steal; don’t lie etc. All of these regulate social behaviour and enable or encourage cooperation, or discourage self-interested behaviour when it can harm others and hinder cooperation. There are also other moral imperatives surrounding tradition and purity, but these, too, serve to enhance social cohesion through shared traditions.

But while ‘good’ might generally equate to ‘pro-social’, there’s more than one way to mow your lawn (I avoid cruel cat aphorisms).

Pro-sociality encourages cooperation between individuals. But cooperation is a funny game. Cooperation often entails making oneself vulnerable to exploitation by free riders. If you’ve participated in a shared assignment at school or university, you’ll probably remember how tempting it was to sit back and let the others do all the hard work – or conversely, how infuriating it was when someone else on the team didn’t pull their weight.

As such, a successful moral strategy (i.e. one that could have evolved over many generations) will be one that can promote the maximum amount of cooperation without leaving itself vulnerable to free riders. But here’s the kicker.

There is no one strategy that can manage this perfectly.

If the strategy strongly encourages cooperation, all it takes is one free rider to disrupt the system, with the eventual result of increasing the proportion of self-interested individuals in the populations. However, if the strategy is to guard itself against free riders, it must pare back the level of cooperation. If it does so, then it will not be as productive as a population with greater levels of cooperation. Then, all it takes is for a small number of cooperators to invade the population, and the balance will start to tilt back again.

This is all modelled in detail in economic game theory through the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Hawk-Dove game, and others. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, if a player chooses to cooperate, they leave themselves open to exploitation by the other player, thus copping the ‘sucker’s payoff’. However, if they both defect, thus protecting themselves from the sucker’s payoff, then they forfeit the advantages of cooperation.

In iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma games, strategies that cooperate – so-called ‘Nice’ strategies – have the potential for the maximum payoff when interacting with other Nice players. However, a ‘Nasty’ player will be able to take advantage of a Nice player (at least once…) to the Nice player’s detriment. But if one adopts a very cautious/suspicious strategy (not necessarily Nasty, but one more likely to defect if it suspects the opponent might defect first), it might protect against sucker’s payoffs, but it reduces the possible payoff from cooperating.

And there we have the two broad approaches to encouraging pro-social behaviour, and the reason why there’s not just one ‘good’. If ‘good’ means opposing self-interest, there’s no one way to go about it.

Moral Politics

How does this all relate to ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’? I’d suggest that liberals represent individuals who are more Nice - or what I dub 'egalitarian'. They are willing to promote cooperation, even at the risk of exploitation by free-riders. Hence, they’re more ‘optimistic’ about other players’ intentions.

In contrast, conservatives are more pessimistic about other players’ intentions, and are more concerned with preventing exploitation by free riders, even at the cost of some cooperation. I call this strategy 'authoritarian'. However, it’s not just that simple.

Conservatives also have another strategy up their sleeves: they promote the establishment of groups of closely knit individuals whom they can trust – such as family, racial, church, social groups etc. Within these groups they behave more like liberals – they’re relatively far more trusting of other members of their own groups, and are thus more likely to act Nice towards them. However, as a consequence, betrayal of that trust is punished severely – another method to encourage pro-social behaviour.

I’d also suggest that this behaviour isn’t only learned, but that each of us are born predisposed towards being either liberal or conservative, or somewhere in between. There’s scope to move around a bit, but our sentiments are mainly hardwired, and these for the most part decide to which end of the political spectrum we belong.

As an example, think about the first time you reflected on your personal political affiliation. Was it because someone argued a point that you had never considered? Or was it because someone argued a point that resonated with you already? I’d suggest for most people it would be the latter.

Also, one of the features of moral sentiments is that they feel universal. They feel like they need to apply to everyone. So if two individuals, say a liberal and a conservative, have a different perspective on a moral issue based on their varying sentiments, they both feel as though their own sentiment is pointing towards some objectively true feature of the world that should apply to everyone. Hence, the moral outrage that liberals and conservatives feel towards each other. Even though they're both ultimately promoting pro-social behaviour, the fact they're going about it in different ways makes the other appear to be morally wrong rather than just another strategy. I think to some extent this is a necessary 'evil', so to speak, because if morals weren't seen as being universal, then they wouldn't pack the motivational mojo they have and would be seen more as conventions.

Where to?

I think there are a lot of ramifications to Moral Diversity, and not only in our conception of the good. One great empirical project will be to determine the nature and extent of this spectrum, and to what extent different individuals fall into the various portions of the spectrum. I suspect it will be around a third of the population will be liberal-leaning, a third conservative-leaning and a third with sentiments from both approaches - but we'll have to wait and see what the science says.

I also think Moral Diversity raises what I call the Fallacy of Enlightenment, which is that ‘if everyone is just nice to each other, then we don’t need laws’. While ostensibly, this is true, I see it as being virtually inevitable that free riders will invade such a population. As such, we can never rely on an 'enlightened' population for a moral or political theory. This is one reason why I think strong socialism will never succeed – it’s overly optimistic about human nature and is not resistant to invasion by free-riders.

It’s also one reason why liberal democracy is a very strong form of government: it allows for both liberal and conservative strategies to keep each other in balance (at least over the long term in some kind of dynamic equilibrium), without letting any one take over.

There’s also one further element of the moral spectrum that I haven’t discussed yet, but I think is worth raising in light of Moral Diversity. This is ‘evil’ behaviour that is not just self-interested, but 'heinous'. Things like murder for the sake of it, wanton destruction, aggression and violence – acts that don’t necessarily promote an individual’s self-interest, thus aren’t adequately covered by Moral Diversity’s definition of ‘evil’ as typically self-interested.

What I’d suggest is that these kinds of acts are not a strategy to promote one’s own interest, nor, obviously, are the pro-social – but they are an aberration of the sentiments that promote pro-social behaviour. One of the strongest of these is empathy. However, some people, whether they’re psychopaths or conditioned in a particular way, can eliminate or suppress empathy, thus leading to these particularly heinous acts. This means the moral spectrum is somewhat more complex, but this can still be accommodated in Moral Diversity by examining the sentiments that encourage various strategies, and looking at what happens when those sentiments are warped or missing, as in the case of psychopaths.

There are many avenues yet to explore within this thesis, and I welcome any thoughts or criticism. I’ll also continue to refine the thesis and update this site as I go.