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.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Knee Deep in Reality

There are a number of hotly contested ongoing - and often thoroughly perplexing - debates in contemporary philosophy that hinge on there being a distinction between an internal and external world.

One example is the debate between externalist and internalist conceptions of mental content. In this debate, the externalist school suggests that the content of a belief about water - which we know is H2O - can only be true if it actually is about H2O. If the belief was referring to another substance that looked and tasted like water but was actually XYZ rather than H2O, then it's not strictly a belief about water.

An internalist denies this distinction, and is happy to accept a belief is about water based only on intrinsic properties to the individual possessing the belief. Whether it's about H2O or XYZ in the external world is irrelevant to attributing the belief to the person.

Another example is the even older debate surrounding realism versus anti-realism. Realism is the fairly intuitive thesis - uncritically accepted by the vast majority of us, including science as a whole - that things exist, and that they do so independently of us. Thus the world doesn't blink out of existence every time we blink.

Intuitive enough, but it's a bag of monkeys when it comes to determining what exactly realism means, to what it applies (objects, concepts, numbers, morals etc) and what its implications are. So trees might exist, but what makes a tree a tree? Is there some special quality possessed by all trees that non-trees don't possess? So is there some Platonic form of tree that itself exists independently of all individual trees that we know? If our sun goes nova and destroys the Earth, and along with it all the trees in existence, what does this mean for the existence of the concept of tree? Etc etc ad nauseum...

However, I suspect there's a ruddy great weakness to all these arguments, and to the debates in general.

I've tended not to get involved in the hurdy gurdy world of the metaphysics of realism or externalism, mainly because I've implicitly never really accepted the fundamental distinction between internal and external. I didn't really reflect on this much until recently, when discussing the implications of evolutionary ethics on metaethics - and I was bombarded with challenges concerning externalism versus error theory etc. I found myself unable to navigate this issue easily and ended up uncharacteristically speechless. A little homework later and I realise it's just because I think these debates start from a fallacy, and are so doomed to tie themselves in a knot.

Perhaps it's time to cut this Gordian knot...

Inside Out

What if the distinction between an internal and external world was fallacious? What if there were not two worlds to be reconciled, but only one? What if there's no intangible barrier between our bodies and minds and the world around us, but our bodies and minds are a part of the world?

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a short definition of the internal/external distinction:
"Many contributors to the debate over externalism take internal properties to be physical properties of a creature that do not depend for their instantiation on any property instantiated outside the boundary of the creature’s body and brain." [my emphasis]
But I would suggest this distinction is far from self-evident. There appears to me to be an arbitrary boundary drawn between the body and the 'outside world'. But it seems to me that our bodies are part of the world. As are our brains. An as I'm an unapologetic physicalist about the mind, thus our minds are also a part of the world.

Vagueness is a crucial concept here. If you accept that it's impossible to draw any hard boundaries between physical objects, then you accept that the abstract definitions we give to those objects - be they 'hand', 'apple', 'water' - are also at some level vague when applied to the world. So there are no nice, absolute, unambiguous types that be cleanly applied to physical objects. Putnam himself acknowledged this point in The Meaning of Meaning (1973), before introducing Twin Earth.
there are things of which the description ‘tree’ is clearly true and things of which the description ‘tree’ is clearly false, to be sure, but there are a host of borderline cases. Worse, the line between the clear cases and the borderline cases is itself fuzzy.
So the fallacious distinction between internal/external appears to be based on our intuitions about there being non-vague distinctions in the world. There are also a bunch of intuitions about what constitutes self, as well as other illusions that contribute to our sense of consciousness. Dennett has spoken at length about the Cartesian theatre, and the intuitive impression we have of being somehow distinct from the world; that we're onlookers rather than participants. And it's possible to erode the sensation that we are distinct from the world.

So I'd contest that we're a part of the world; that we're not separate from it, but instead we're knee deep in reality.

It might not sound like much of a thesis, but I really think it fundamentally changes the way you look at debates such as those discussed earlier.

Now, that's not to say that distinctions and abstractions about 'trees' are not important. Or that notions of 'self', 'cause', 'meaning' or 'belief' aren't important. But they have to be seen in their proper context. We can abstract away and talk about 'trees' as if they existed as an independent entity rather than being just a vague set - and it might be useful to do so occasionally - but we can only take the metaphor so far before it breaks down. And we can only take the abstract notions of cause or mind or beliefs or a distinction between internal and external worlds so far before they break down.

So in some sense this perspective is anti-externalist. It's a kind of error theory: there really aren't any such things as 'trees' according to a hard and fast definition, and that has an impact on what someone means by 'tree'. But meaning is necessarily vague. Trying to pin meaning down is like trying to capture the reflection of the moon in a barrel full of water.

Just ask the practitioners of artificial intelligence. They've been trying to get machines to understand meaning for decades, and the best they can do is get a machine to seek out striped blocks because they taste 'good'. No-one would suggest the robots have any sense of what 'good' means, but they behave in a way that could give us the impression they do. Perhaps we're not so different.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Moral Diversity part 1

A few years ago I read a most remarkable book. I stumbled across it while stricken by a fierce hangover while in Seattle, on the tail end of a media junket. I was wandering through a book store, killing time before the car arrived to take me back to the airport. And while browsing, I spied this book with the simple but intriguing title Moral Politics, by a chap named George Lakoff, from UC Berkeley.

What could it be about? I read the back, and it immediately drew me in.
In Moral Politics, the first full-scale application of cognitive science to politics, George Lakoff analyzes the unconscious world-views of liberals and conservatives, explaining why they are at odds over so many seemingly unrelated issues - like taxes, abortion, regulation, and social programs. The differences, Lakoff argues, are not mere matters of partisanship, but arise from radically different conceptions of morality and ideal family life - meaning that family and morality are at the heart of American politics, in ways that are far from obvious.
It sought to answer some perplexing questions that I had been ruminating over for years, not least of which were:
  • why was the liberal/conservative spectrum so enduring in politics?
  • why were they so violently opposed to each other's world views?
  • why couldn't they agree on some seemingly basic things, like taxation?
  • why did conservatives consistently resist things like environmentalism - what did that have to do with being conservative?
  • why did people seem to fall into one camp or the other so reliably?
  • and possibly more perplexing of all: why did members of each camp often hold contradictory views?
On this last point, I was often mystified as to why conservatives were often so strongly 'pro life', yet they also supported the death penalty. Or why conservatives would blame the poor for not giving their children a decent upbringing, yet would refuse to support the social programmes that were intended to give them a fighting start. Which is not to say liberals were without their contradictions, such as supporting freedom of expression and association, but they were also laced with conformist unionist collectivism such as compulsory student unionism.

Lakoff's book explained all this, and more. His was the first work that explained to me the underlying psychology of the political spectrum.

I had long thought liberals and conservatives saw the world in different ways: liberals saw the world as a generally safe place and people as generally good natured; conservatives saw the world as a dangerous place and people as generally bad. Liberals were idealists and optimists; conservatives were realists and pessimists. Liberals were also more inclined to take the environment (in the general sense, not the 'green' sense) into account when apportioning praise and blame - hence the strong leftist tradition in this country of the 'Aussie battler' and sympathy for those who are 'doing it tough'. And our converse tall poppy syndrome that leads many of us to consider a rich person as no better than we were, just lucky (at least until the Howard government started to erode this sentiment and replace it was a more vigorous aspirationalism).

Compare this to the more conservative tendency (seen in American more than Australia) to attribute more agency to the individual themselves. Hence a rich person deserves their praise, under the assumption they had worked harder to achieve it. Whereas a homeless person deserved their condition because they hadn't worked hard enough, and if they did turn themselves around, they could pull themselves back out of poverty. Thus their poverty is somehow a product of their choice.

However, until Lakoff's book, I had never understood why liberals and conservatives saw the world in these different ways. Then Lakoff revealed his metaphor of the family as a model for moral thinking:

Liberals are like a nurturant mother/parent, caring and compassionate, encouraging and relaxed, open and egalitarian. The nurturant parent encourages the best aspects of their children and is reluctant to punish them when they stray, preferring to steer them back on course.

Conservatives, on the other hand, adopt a strict father perspective. The strict father is the undisputed head of the family and the final moral authority. The strict father knows his children are wild and untamed, and works to instil in them discipline and self control through a model of reward and punishment. The strict father perspective sees hard work as the path to rewards, and deals harshly with those who don't earn their keep. He can't stand freeloaders and coddling, which encourages laziness rather than endeavour. The strict father also respects authority and order, and is suspicious of chaos or unrestrained hedonism.

So, from this metaphorical framework one can see the different perspectives of liberalism and conservatism emerge. One can also start to see a resolution to some of the perplexing questions raised above. For example, conservatives believe in protecting the innocent unborn as a moral imperative, yet they don't back child support programmes once the babies are born because these go against the principle of 'effort leads to reward'.

Conservatives also don't support big government or welfare because they see that as meddling in the natural order, and undermining self discipline and an ethic of hard work. They would rather let those who work hard succeed and reap the rewards, and can't abide the idea that the government would strip them of those rewards to give them to less deserving folk. Just trawl news stories where conservatives were interviewed before the presidential election - and all the fuss they made about Obama's statement to 'Joe the Plumber' about 'spreading the wealth around'.

I think Lakoff's moral metaphor is impressive and has some real explanatory potency when it comes to a lot of perplexing political phenomena. However, even after I'd finished the book, I felt as if this wasn't the end of the story. There must have been some reason why these two moral worldviews emerged, and why they were so persistent.

It was in evolutionary psychology that I found the answers to the first part of that question, and it is from a combination of moral psychology, evolutionary biology and economic game theory that I think we can find the answer to the second part of that question.

The first part, as I've mentioned before, is that we have hardwired moral intuitions that encourage pro-social behaviour and lent our ancestors a selective advantage in our evolutionary past.

The second part is that there are multiple strategies to promote social cohesion and cooperation, and these can be modelled very effectively by game theory. Broadly, the two strategies are egalitarianism and authoritarianism (although they can go by many names and they each consist of many individual moral dimensions). So, it appears that evolution didn't just endow us with one set of sentiments - either the egalitarian or authoritarian - but endowed us with both, and set them in tension with each other.

This enabled humans to generate a wide range of responses to environmental pressures, and apply the strategy that was most appropriate at the time. This is by no means a perfect system, but it has worked to get us this far. And it also accounts for the stubborn persistence of the political spectrum.

This is the background for my thinking about what I call 'moral diversity' - the thesis that intuitions promoting egalitarianism and authoritarianism are both hardwired into human nature, but not equally in all people. In future posts I'll flesh this view out, drum up more evidence in support, and explore some more implications.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Evolutionary Intuitive Ethics

It’s time I cried havoc and let slip the beast. And that beast I call ‘evolutionary intuitive ethics’. (I also call it 'the next several years of my life' as I develop it into my doctoral thesis.) It’s really a hybrid of evolutionary psychology and Jonathan Haidt’s intuitive ethics, with a little Marc Hauser thrown in.

The central thesis is that morality springs from a bunch of evolved intuitions that promote pro-social behaviour, and that these intuitions lent our ancestors a selective advantage in our evolutionary past. It also suggests that there are two broad streams of pro-social intuitions - egalitarian and authoritarian - and that these work in tension to provide a diverse range of possible responses to a wide range of situations. This last thesis I call ‘moral diversity’, and I think its significance is largely overlooked in the current literature.

Evolutionary intuitive ethics has a broad range of implications on a wide range of disciplines, just two of which are moral philosophy and politics. Regarding the former: every moral theory espoused over the past two and half odd millennia has made assumptions about our psychology, whether it be that we’re largely rational, or that we have some kind of reliable access to our inner thoughts and preferences. Recent studies appear to undermine both of these notions, and instead detail a very different mechanism for making moral judgments.

The other area of significance is political philosophy. Wherever political spectra appear, such as in contemporary liberal democracies, they tend to form into a predictable left/right dichotomy. According to evolutionary intuitive ethics, this is no accident, and is to be fully expected. This is because a certain proportion of the population will have intuitions that favour one side of the egalitarian/authoritarian dichotomy. Furthermore, attempts for one side to promote a comprehensive political philosophy - be it based on Marxist collectivism or Randian individualism - will consistently fail to convince a significant proportion of the population. This is because they are coming from two fundamentally opposed moral perspectives in terms of values and worldview, so no matter how much reason is stacked on top, those with the opposite moral intuitions will just reject it outright.

But before we get too far into the implications, I'd best lay out the basic framework of evolutionary intuitive ethics. This will be a very rough outline, little thicker than gauze in many parts, but the intention of this post is not detail, but to give a quick and dirty overview of the main thesis. I will also leave out many of the references at this stage, but I'll add them in as I flesh out each area down the track.

Cognitive Shortcuts

Recent research in psychology paints a very different picture of the mind to what we held even a century ago. The role of reason and conscious deliberation appears to take a back seat to a slew of heuristics - i.e. quick and dirty shortcuts - that enable us to make very quick decisions in a wide range of circumstances. These heuristics enable everything from facial recognition to perception of converging lines indicating perspective to fear responses to snakes and spiders.

Many emotions also fall into the category of heuristics to motivate behaviour without a lot of conscious deliberation. For example, outrage may motivate retribution for an injustice, and all without lengthy reflection on the nature or extent of the outrage - by which point the antagonist might have made a hasty getaway. Pleasure and pain also serve to encourage or discourage certain behaviours etc.

These heuristics are the product of evolution, and served to lend our ancestors an adaptive advantage in our evolutionary past by enabling them to make quick and (mostly) accurate decisions involving navigating the world, securing food and shelter, finding a mate, raising young and defending themselves from threats.

Yet, as useful as these heuristics are, they are far from foolproof. The thousands of optical illusions that abound are ample evidence for how easily our visual heuristics can be tricked. And our other heuristics can be likewise tricked or co-opted into triggering in circumstances other than those for which they were 'designed' (and I use that term loosely, by no means implying that evolution is teleological).

We have also evolved a capacity for abstract reasoning, but contrary to popular belief, it plays little role in the direct motivation of behaviour. Instead, it allows reflection and abstraction from our intuitions into general principles. These then inform the circumstances under which our intuitions fire - but it is still the intuitions that motivate the behaviour.

At this point it's worth stressing that this view doesn't say there is any such thing as an evolved beahviour, just evolved intuitions. These intuitions do lead to behaviour, but it'd be wrong to say, for example, that 'men have evolved to read maps better than women' or 'women have evolved to gossip about relationships'. There may certainly be sex differences in the intuitions that motivate these various behaviours, but the behaviours are not themselves evolved, and the evolved intuitions go through many twists and turns before they result in a behaviour.

Another point worth making is that these intuitions aren't always in accord with each other. It is not uncommon at all to have two or more intuitions competing to steer a particular behaviour. Should I lie and tell my friend their haricut is fantastic, even though I feel uncomfortable about being dishonest? In fact, it is the tension between various intuitions that yields such a diverse range of possible behaviours given any particular circumstance. This is because different strategies can lend a greater or lesser selective advantage in different circumstances. So instead of us being wiring with a limited number of intuitions that might function exceptionally well in limited range of circumstances, we are wired with a large number of more fallible intuitions that can combine to deliver a vastly greater range of behaviours.

This is similar to the contemporary view of personality theory - that we have evolved a range of possible personalities that gives us a wide range of approaches to dealing with the world. Some may not be ideally suited for some environments, but they might excel in others. And by having such diversity lends a measure of insurance against settling on a narrow range of strategies that might result in extinction should the environment shift.

Moral Intuitions

So our intuitions are shortcuts that have evolved to enable us to make quick and dirty decisions that will ultimately improve our fitness. Some of these intuitions promote self-interest, such as greed, fear, competitiveness, jealousy etc. Arguably, these are the more 'primitive' intuitions - the self preservation and survival instincts that all animals have developed to enable them to survive particularly when in competition with other individuals from their own or other species.

But we have also evolved 'pro-social' intuitions, such as empathy, guilt and outrage. These serve to encourage cooperation which can benefit all individuals and improve fitness more than if they were self-sufficient. However, with cooperation comes risk of free riders. As such, we have also evolved a range of intuitions to not only promote pro-social behaviour, but punish those who exploit cooperation.

Now, one crucial point that differentiates evolutionary intuitive ethics from other forms of evolutionary ethics - not all intuitions are moral intuitions! One mistake made by many previous thinkers was to assume that if evolution has endowed us with morality, and morality serves fitness, then all intuitions that serve fitness must be moral. That's wrong. In fact, Thomas Huxley noted as much in 1893:

As the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is so far as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist.

So, core to evolutionary intuitive ethics is that only the pro-social intuitions are the ones we call moral.

So all those fitness enhancing intuitions that promote violence, competition, cheating etc are not moral intuitions. This point requires a lot more elaboration for me to make it convincing - which I'll do at a later date - but it requires us to remember that for over two millennia we've been terribly confused about what is moral and what is not. As such, various thinkers have mistakenly taken the self-interested intuitions as being moral intuitions. Arguably, if they've been called moral, then to some they are. But I still want to make a hard distinction between the pro-social and the self-interested intuitions and only admit the former into the moral world.

There are also other characteristics of moral intuitions that distinguish them from other intuitions - such as feelings of universalisability, impartiality, non-negotiability etc - and I'll elaborate on that more down the track too.

Moral Diversity

Another crucial distinction to make is between the two broad streams of moral intuitions: egalitarian and authoritarian. (Note: they could go by many other names, such as communitarian and hierarchical, or even liberal and conservative, but I'll use egalitarian and authoritarian as they are clear enough for use here).

While we have evolved pro-social intuitions, there are two broad strategies for going about getting people to cooperate. One is the egalitarian route, which promotes equality, fairness, reciprocity and encourages cooperation through empathy, trust, tolerance etc. It's the classic dove strategy from game theory. The benefit of the egalitarian approach is if a majority of individuals also apply the same strategy, they can all benefit for a low cost. However, the weakness of the strategy - as it is a weakness to doves in the iterated prisoner's dilemma - is free-riders. As such, egalitarians have a strong emphasis on justice and cheater detection, but tend to be more trusting until betrayed rather than guarded from the start.

The contrasting approach is authoritarian, which promotes tight group cohesion, strong leadership, powerful emotional bonds based on group identity, a cautious - or even downright mistrusting - attitude towards outsiders and strangers, promotion of family ties (and nepotism) and is less likely to encourage challenges to authority or breaking from ranks. It also encourages fairness, but sees it in a different light to that of egalitarians. To authoritarians fairness relates more to an individual getting the rewards of their toil, and not having others take that away.

It's important to note that while the egalitarian approach might be the dove in game theory, the authoritarian approach isn't the hawk. The hawk represents more of a self-interested doctrine than a pro-social doctrine. The authoritarian approach is more a grudger or a suspicious tit-for-tat, since it still encourages cooperation, but doesn't trust outsiders to play fair. It's also worth noting that authoritarians would employ different strategies when interacting with those within their in-group than those outside it.

The strength of the authoritarian approach is that it's resilient, particularly in the face of a hostile environment and many outsiders who would hope to exploit cooperation. It's also close knit and resistant to change over time, at least more so than egalitarians.

There's a lot more to say about these two strategies - which will occupy a significant part of my thesis - but I'll leave it here with this introduction, which should be more than enough to give you the basic idea. More fascinating research backing up the notion that there are two broad perspectives on morality can be found on Jon Haidt's page.

One final note: I'm not suggesting that there are two and only two moral perspectives. I'm suggesting there is a broad spectrum to our moral intuitions, with egalitarianism on one side and authoritarianism on the other. Each individual will have dozens of moral intuitions that will fall somewhere on this spectrum, and most will balance each other out. However, there appears to be a percentage of people who do consistently tilt one way or the other, but the majority would be somewhere in the centre. It will be a great empirical project to explore this spectrum and where people fall on various issues.

I'd also like to stress that these intuitions aren't purely instinctive. They are informed to a great extent by experience and environment. So while emotions like embarrasment, disgust or righteous anger might be very similar for everyone, the triggers for them will vary depending on experience. This is one of the areas where reason does play a role: reason and reflection shape the lens through which we see the world.

New Ethics

So that's the crux of evolutionary intuitive ethics. I won't explore the implications in detail now - I'll leave that to another day, not least because I'm still trying to figure out what the implications are.

In general I think the implications on politics particularly interesting. This thesis suggests that any one political theory informed by only one side (and most political philosophers have egalitarian intuitions themselves) will be doomed to be rejected by a significant percentage of the population. There may be no ultimate reconciliation - certainly not through reason alone - of the moral perspectives. But this could be why liberal democracy is so robust; it gives voice to both sides of the moral spectrum and allows them to keep each other in check.

I also think the implications on moral philosophy could be significant. There are a lot of metaethical concerns about morality, such as the ontological status of moral statements. If evolutionary intuitive ethics is correct, then we might be forced into some kind of error theory, because moral statements are ultimately based on intuitions to promote fitness - but not all fitness-promoting intuitions.

There's also the question: what are our cardinal values? According to evolutionary intuitive ethics, they appear to be closely linked to the evolutionary notion of fitness. But if we ally them too closely then we might be on a slippery slope to social darwinism. I think that's avoidable, but I need to think more about exactly why.

Then there's the naturalistic fallacy... I happen to feel the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy - mainly because if it's not, then we spiral into a hard problem of ethics: what makes moral facts moral if not natural facts? Non-natural facts? Not according to evolutionary intuitive ethics.

In any case, I'll leave it there for now. I welcome any comments, criticism or feedback. I still have a long way to go before I deliver my doctoral thesis, so there's plenty of time for me to correct my mistakes! Send all correspondence to the [dot] tim [dot] dean [at] gmail [dot] com.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Ockham's Beard

It is a maxim itself of such parsimonious economy:
Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem
Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily

Also told as:

The simplest explanation is often the best

Or, simpler still: Ockham's razor.

Ockham's razor is wielded with enthusiasm and gusto across countless disciplines, and not without some success. However, there is a weakness in Ockham's razor that calls to be addressed. Or rather, it's less a weakness than a necessary counterpoint that places Ockham's razor in context and defines its limits and bounds.

And that is the principle of Ockham's beard, which goes a little something like this:

The least abstract explanation is often the most accurate
This says that the simplest explanation will likely be imperfect when applied to the concrete world.

This is already trivially acknowledged when, for example, we talk about the application of mathematics or geometry to the real world. It's folly to seek a perfect triangle or circle in the real world, although employing the concept of 'circle' or 'triangle' can often be terribly useful in describing natural phenomena.

Yet Ockham's beard goes beyond this example to universalise the notion that any abstraction will likely imperfectly represent its concrete counterpart. Or in other words, the bristles of Ockham's beard will continue to break through the layers of abstraction, inevitably introducing either inconsistencies within the abstraction or incompatibilities with other abstractions. So we can never have a complete and consistent abstraction of the entirety of reality.

Just roll up Gödel's theorem, vagueness and leaky abstraction, and you're led to Ockham's beard.

This is really just a consequence of employing abstractions in the first place. Any abstraction, by definition, is a subtractive process. It starts with some concrete thing and pares it back to some generalisation; to those things that all these concrete things appear to have in common. No two token stars are exactly alike, yet there is plenty that all token stars have in common; enough to call them all by the abstract denominator, or type, 'star'. Yet, inevitably, that type is vague. Should we strive for perfect accuracy, the singular abstraction, 'star', will not get us far.

The search for the most encompassing abstractions is the direction in which Ockham's razor aims. Yet if it's accuracy we seek, then Ockham's razor leads us up and away from concrete reality.

This is not to say that Ockham's razor is somehow flawed or that we should shy away from its use. In fact, Ockham's razor is a vital tool for us, specifically because we are finite beings with drastic limitations to our cognitive capacity. Were we to seek accuracy above all else, we would have as many abstractions and names for things as there are things - and there are a great many things.

And for those who feel Ockham's beard is too inductive, I claim it is no more or less inductive than Ockham's razor. It, too, is a rule of thumb, a heuristic. Less practical than Ockham's razor, but a valuable cautionary notion; to remember that before we employ the razor, we need to acknowledge the existence of the beard. And at the end of the day, we might find a happy medium in Ockham's five o-clock shadow.