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.


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