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.


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