Moral ontology

A while back I wrote a post titled “What is a moral claim” that did not do a good job of getting at the heart of the topic I was actually aiming to address. So I wanted to recalibrate and go beyond asking “what is a moral claim” by offering an answer. That has turned into a rather thoroughgoing presentation of what I now consider to be the moral ontology which is most likely true. Sorry for the length, but I hope its worth the effort.

First, some moral epistemology

This is what your conscience looks like

I am of the opinion that epistemology should inform ontology (and vice versa). In other words, understanding how it is that we know about something should play a role in defining what we think that something is. Likewise, our understanding of what something is should play a role in defining how it is that we know about it (I covered this more generally in My Ontology – Part 1). I have found that the discussion of morality, particularly in the God debate, often focuses on moral ontology – we like to talk about what morality is without giving too much thought to the epistemology. By asking “What is a moral claim?” in that post last year I was aiming to explore how moral epistemology might inform our moral ontology – contra William Lane Craig, who suggests we should just posit our desired moral ontology and then define our epistemology as a follow-on.

My assertion in that original post was that we can recognize moral claims, and distinguish them from other claims, and that this tells us something about the nature of morality. As was noted by several commenters, this supports nothing more than the notion that morality is at minimum a distinct mental concept. However, I was aiming for something more…

The moral referent

In one of the comments on that original post Dave compared morality to beauty, to which I replied by noting that:

“This is the question of the referent. For beauty, we can generally link the shared concept to ‘the way we feel about certain sensory perceptions’, like sunsets, music, etc…. There is a class of experiences which trigger a similar response in us and so we call those things beautiful.”

This gets to the heart of the matter. As with beauty, there must be some referent which shapes the concept of morality and, as with beauty, it appears that the best we can do is to introspectively trace this to a particular feeling. Just as the concept of “tree” is informed purely by the phenomenal experience of trees (and not through some special metaphysical access to the abstract ideal tree) the concept of beauty is informed by the phenomenal experience of conditions which trigger a particular feeling. Isn’t it most reasonable – perhaps even obvious – that morality is no different?

But there are trees out there in the real world which are separate from our phenomenal experience of them. What is the corresponding reality which feeds into the concept of morality?

When I presented my ontology, I identified universals as mental concepts which are constructed as generalizations of our experience of particulars. The particulars which inform a universal need not be mind-independent, objective entities. Despite the connotations of our language (e.g., “that’s a beautiful sunset”), most of us are not inclined to actually assign beauty as an intrinsic property of the object of our perception, but we rather accept it as a subjective component of our experience; beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Likewise, we’re all familiar with the concept of sadness, but not because it exists ‘out there’ in some sense, but because we are all human and have been able to relate a similar internal state to a common idea which we can communicate. My proposal is that morality is like beauty and sadness. Morality is informed by my phenomenal experience of the feelings and intuitions which arise under certain circumstances.

I take it that the view I have presented for sadness and beauty is fairly uncontroversial, but for some reason morality is a different beast. We struggle against the prospect that the subjective experience of the feelings and intuitions which have informed our conception of morality might be wholly subjective – it’s uncomfortable to suppose that there isn’t an objective reality against which we can hold others accountable and point to and say “No! You’re wrong!” How do we account for this relatively unique property of the moral experience?

 The social theory of moral origins

I have been hesitant to adopt the standard naturalist explanation for the origin of morality as an evolutionary product of our social heritage. Regardless, I have since come to accept that the evolutionary development of a moral faculty driven by social selection pressures is quite plausible. In the following sections I attempt to summarize the key evidences and reasoning behind this conclusion.

Prosociality in non-human primates

If morality is an evolutionary product then there should be traces of it in other species and, in fact, morally relevant sociality is a characteristic of our closest evolutionary relatives (and beyond). This is perhaps best described by just about anything that Frans de Waal has published or, more immediately, his TED talk (below) offers a quick and accessible overview:

Social factors strongly influence our morality

If a social heritage was a key element in the development of our moral intuitions then we would expect to see that social forces have a continued impact on the expression of that morality. This appears to be the case:

  1. surveillanceSocial Awareness: A multitude of studies have demonstrated that even subtle awareness of “watchers” impacts our moral behavior. This may reflect a biological predisposition, but when we allow that our moral sense is in part a development that arises through our life experience, the social dimension of that development also corresponds nicely with this data point.
  2. Social Compliance: Setting aside survival instincts, ‘peer pressure’ is perhaps the most capable mechanism for getting us to act in opposition to our moral sense. The Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Nazi Germany and, more recently, Derren Brown’s “Push” program serve as some of the more extreme negative examples. However, this applies equally in reverse, where our tendency to realize an arduous moral good is substantially bolstered by encouragement from peers and anticipation of “other-praising” emotions.
  3. Social Feedback in Moral Development: From a developmental perspective, feedback about character and a disapproving response (a social consequence) is more influential on the formation of our moral sense than is feedback about the moral status of the action itself and a punishing response (a physical consequence).
  4. Social Comprehension: Our moral intuitions tend to calibrate moral culpability in accordance with the moral agent’s capacities and intentions. This feature depends on an interpersonal judgment built on a theory of mind, such as would be inherent in a socially developed morality where other agents inform that development.

In the end, it is clear that the social environment is a primary factor in our moral behavior even when the social consequences of our behavior lie well beyond our perception. This is consistent with the theory that social pressures have guided the development of our moral sense.

The rider and the elephant

elephant_and_riderThe long-standing traditions of moral philosophy and ethics infer that moral judgment is primarily a rational endeavor, but this appears to be a flawed conclusion. Jonathan Haidt has famously compared our moral sense to a rider on an elephant – the rider being our reasoning process and elephant being our emotionally driven intuitions. There is an extensive body of constantly growing literature on this topic, so for a deeper dive on the role of emotion in morality I will simply refer to the writings of Joshua Greene and Jesse Prinz in addition to those of Haidt.

Regardless, the proposition that our moral sense is predominantly emotional only lends support to the social theory of moral origins when we consider empathy and the explanations on offer for the causal link between morality and emotions. Claus Lamm is one of the more prolific researchers of empathy and is a cautious voice at a time when many are hailing mirror neurons and empathy as the underpinnings of our moral intuitions. Despite this caution he affirms that “there is compelling evidence that similar neural structures are activated when empathizing with someone and when directly experiencing the emotion one is empathizing with” (here) and that “There is some support for the above-mentioned role of empathy in morality, although the direct link between empathy and morality remains rather unclear and requires further investigation” (here).

I hope to heed Lamm’s concerns but I also cannot help but step back to view the big picture and see a tidy set of links wherein our moral intuitions are largely dictated by an emotional elephant whose course can be directed by the neurological capacity to take on the perspective of others – a definitively social faculty. The cohesive picture this paints is compelling and when one considers the implications for moral origins, the social theory seems a natural fit.

Moral agreement

bonobo_hugThe last piece of evidence I wish to present for the social theory of moral origins is the very concern which instigated this discussion – the apparently innate drive toward moral agreement. The desire to hold others and ourselves accountable to a particular moral standard has led many to conclude that morality itself is objective (in fact, this is the only non-pragmatic reason I am aware of for the claim of objectivity) but this phenomenon is also explained if our moral sense was developed through social pressures. To say that selection occurred through social pressures is to imply that there is a social dynamic to the evolutionary pathway. This, in turn, requires that there be some sort of reproductive advantage to the selected pro-social tendencies. However, a lone altruist among a band of free-riders is unlikely to realize any advantage. The advantages which arise from prosocial behavior are then also dependent on reciprocity and cooperation. This means that the development of prosocial behavior is most readily accomplished in coordination with the development of proclivities which favor agreement and reject disagreement with respect to those behaviors. The end result is not only a tendency toward prosocial behavior, but a tendency toward favoring agreement on those behaviors.

Some will object here and suggest that our intuitions regarding the objectivity of morality are more like the intuitions we have regarding the veracity of a proposition (e.g., I am sitting on a chair) than they are like a drive toward agreement with others. I’m not sure this is a proper assessment, but I do agree that on the spectrum of intuitions about an entity’s objectivity, our moral intuitions are generally weighted closer toward the ‘objective’ end compared to more broadly subjective claims like beauty, ice cream flavors, etc… This is perhaps most evident in the language we tend to employ in moral discourse, where objectivity is often inferred (though not always – and this inference is certainly also frequently employed in other domains that are generally regarded to be subjective). That said, I’ll offer two thoughts in response:

  1. As noted above, morality is deeply entangled with emotion. The majority of other subjectively informed claims do not carry the same emotional weight, and this is a significant component of the perceived difference and the drive toward absolutes. That is, the strength of the underlying emotions compels us toward an unwavering perspective. There may even be some degree of a subconscious post-hoc rationalization informing an intuition of moral objectivity. The emotional elephant leads the way and the rider can only make sense of the world by rationalizing the course it’s taking as if that is simply reflecting the objective facts about the world. Neuropsychology is replete with examples of how our cognition engages in this kind of post-hoc rationalization and confabulation.
  2. Though speculative, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the evolution of our moral sense may have incorporated the same faculties which bear on our sense of objective veracity if this improves the effectiveness of morality as a motivating factor. Despite the protests of anti-realists, the data does seem to indicate that moral realism is more conducive to moral compliance than is anti-realism (see one, two, three). This makes intuitive sense – if we think that our moral judgments do not have any subjective wiggle room and we can thus be held objectively accountable to those judgments, then we are more motivated to align our behavior with those judgments. So if our moral sense evolved to incorporate some of the same cognitive machinery that helps us judge the veracity of non-moral propositions then the moral sense would be more effective in eliciting the advantage of moral behavior. The net result would be the subjective perception, to some degree, that our moral judgments are in fact objective. Subjective preferences like beauty wouldn’t carry the same selective advantage and so wouldn’t bear the same character in this regard.
Social origins objection #1: Widespread non-social moral intuitions

ralphiesoapSo what about those pervasive moral claims which are devoid of social impact? For example, why have so many cultures moralized purity and why has disgust been shown to influence our moral judgments? How does the social theory of moral origins explain this?

The first point to make on this topic is to note that whereas some moral claims are devoid of a direct social impact, they are typically not insulated from social feedback. In particular, the anticipation of shame is a significant factor in motivating against non-social behaviors which have been moralized.

Second, there may very well be an indirect social impact. In the case where purity or disgust is linked to the non-social moralized behavior we can note that an inadequate avoidance of pathogens is not only detrimental to the individual but also to that person’s social circle. The germ theory of disease converts a seemingly non-social disgust instinct into a socially relevant behavior, such that social judgment that accompanies moralization may in fact be efficacious.

Lastly, if our moral sense is largely an adaptive product of evolution then the evolutionary path is predicated on the behavior which corresponds with our moral sense (because the feelings themselves offer no selective advantage apart from behavior). Evolution favors efficiency, so it is likely that the neurological systems which serve to guide our behavior in general (through the feelings which motivate and inhibit) are also involved in our moral sense, such that there is some level of commonality in our interoception of the morally relevant motivations and the motivations which influence other aspects of our well-being. This would imply that there isn’t a ‘moral’ category that cleanly distinguishes moral interoception from other interoception. So even if the majority of the intuitions that we have categorized as ‘moral’ carry a social relation, it is reasonable that other, non-social intuitions may seem to fit that category as well.

Social origins objection #2: Culturally constructed morality

Many anthropologists have argued that morality is memetic, not genetic. That is, they suggest that the moral sense is learned and acquired from one’s environment – specifically, one’s cultural influences. I think there’s some truth to this perspective, but I don’t see that it is mutually exclusive with an evolutionary explanation. It seems quite evident that cultural influences serve to inform our moral intuitions but this alone does not explain the aforementioned ‘moral referent’, that distinct component of our interoception. I do not doubt that one’s moral compass is informed by their environment but it’s the compass itself that is primarily of interest here, and culture does not explain it’s existence in the first place.

This is an important concept when it comes to the discussion of moral progress. If morality is defined to be nothing more than a cultural construction then the realist is correct to suggest that there is no such thing as progress. However, if there is a biological basis for the moral sense then progress can be assessed relative to that faculty. Even if there is variability across persons, there is still a common origin that fosters some level of agreement at a fundamental level. Here anthropology re-enters the picture to support the notion of an innate moral nature, as elucidated in the work of Donald Brown and Richard Shweder. This is not to suppose that we can necessarily determine right and wrong answers to individual moral claims by reference to that nature alone, but rather to say that there is a general bent which our species shares.

What is a moral claim?

This was the question I asked long ago and hoped to also answer here. In case the preceding discussion has not made it clear, I am arguing that morality is the concept which refers to a particular set of feelings and intuitions that arise as a result of predispositions which developed in our species through social pressures and are shaped and influenced by our development, experiences and reasoning. As such, a moral claim is simply a claim which implicitly or explicitly refers to those feelings and intuitions (or their absence) as if they were properties of an action, person, object or event. This perspective entails a particular moral ontology, namely …

Moral relativism

So it seems that in adopting this view I have officially joined the moral relativist camp. I am quite comfortable with the epistemology and ontology this entails (as outlined above) but these are not informing my conclusion in isolation. Other considerations include:

  1. Dependence on biology:  Though I have already touched on this to some degree, there is much more that could be said. Neuroscience has increasingly demonstrated how variations in our neurology bear on our morally relevant judgements and behavior, as most famously illustrated by the classic cases of Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman (also see Patricia Churchland’s ‘Braintrust’ and, more briefly, David Eagleman’s article in the Atlantic for overviews). While this state of affairs is not logically inconsistent with moral realism, it is more parsimonious with a relativistic ontology.
  2. Moral diversity:  In accordance with the biological dependence noted above, we observe that these variations manifest themselves in widespread moral disagreement. Though it is true that there are many claims where moral agreement abounds, and even some fundamentals that are nearly universal, it is also the case that moral disagreement is more rampant than is found in objectively arbitrated claims. That is, we are more likely to disagree about a moral claim than to disagree about a claim that is based on empirical observations. As before, though this condition is not incompatible with moral realism, it highlights a divergence from the ontologies we posit for most of the entities that we identify as objective and so it is in that sense unexpected. Conversely, such diversity is entirely expected under a relativistic framework.
The implications

Epistemology and ontology aside, relativistic normative ethics is admittedly troubling. Not because I am forced to subscribe to Dostoyevsky’s “all things are permitted” – the shallow characterization of relativism which completely abandons both normative ethics and moral discourse and is often parroted by theistic apologists. No, the trouble is that normative ethics are inherently social and even when we employ frameworks which seek to satisfy our moral intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, such as social contract theory, we are unable to realize the ideal. The application of a normative ethic at the social level will require some level of subjugation wherever there is genuine moral disagreement. Perhaps this is simply an inescapable tension which is intrinsic to our moral sense; a consequence of the unavoidable competition between the benefits of both freedom and cooperation. Just as the realists must concede the inability to objectively arbitrate the moral truths to which they subscribe, perhaps the relativist must concede that the implementation of normative ethics cannot escape the morally distasteful act of imposition. Thrasymachus made a similar observation 2500 years ago and as far as I can tell we’re no closer to a solution. It’s worth continued discussion, but I have grown increasingly skeptical that it will ever be resolved.

Moral relativism also does not mean that we surrender our ambitions of moral progress. There is a human nature and even pervasive moral intuitions are sometimes inconsistent, or in conflict with our nature, or uninformed or misinformed by errant beliefs. Moral discourse and experience can elicit change so that our moral judgments are more accurately aligned with reality and with our inherent nature. Relativism does not mean that we accept all moral claims as equally true. It does not entail pacifism, complacency or anarchy. It does not ask us to ignore our sense of indignation and stand idly by. No, none of these strawmen are true if you’re willing to scrutinize your moral judgments. Can a moral relativist tell somebody else that their behavior is wrong? Yes, but be ready to expose the inconsistencies and faults in their reasoning. Can a moral relativist promote or discourage social policy? Yes, but be ready to use evidence to justify your position, preferably with reference to fulfillment of human nature. Can a moral relativist fight back or intervene when they perceive wrong? Yes, of course. I’m not sure I understand why I even feel the need to answer that question but the rhetoric around this issue suggests that I do.

The big objections

hitlerWhich leads to the big question. It was going to happen eventually, so I might as well put Godwin’s law into effect now: “Relativism, huh? So the Nazis weren’t wrong?” Under relativism I am able to say that the Nazis were wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. Notice that the framing of the objection begs the question for moral realism, so it’s a bit of a trap that tries to force a response within the bounds of that assumption, pushing one to grapple with the intuition toward objective morality that was the focus of the prior discussion. That said, it seems to me that it’s also very reasonable to argue against the legitimacy of the Nazi program on the grounds of errant beliefs and an inconsistency with the moral nature of those who carried out the program. Furthermore, as noted above, there is nothing about relativism which entails inaction or ambivalence toward those with whom we disagree.

“and there’s nothing wrong with torturing babies for fun?” Again, I am perfectly able to say that this is wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. However, this is a bit more difficult because there isn’t any reason in this case to also object on the grounds of errant beliefs or conflicts in human nature. If an individual were to be biologically disposed so that they did not find this behavior morally abhorrent then I have nothing but disagreement to offer (though I would argue that in a practical sense, the realist is in the same position). As before, this does not entail inaction or ambivalence.

The last word

In the end, moral relativism is neither pacifism nor a blank check. It requires introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse. We sometimes act in ways which are in opposition to our true values and intentions; we experience regret. Relativism suggests that you take a hard look and try to understand those values and intentions – to consider whether they actually align with your nature and to examine how they are best achieved – and then to direct your life accordingly. You will still mess up, but at least you are trying and that diligence can eventually shift the underlying feelings and intuitions into closer alignment with reason and, hopefully, reality.

“Ha! Caught you. That’s self-defeating! You can’t say that moral relativism requires scrutiny of our moral judgments! That’s an absolute moral claim!”

I have indeed made a normative assumption, but that assumption was not moral. It was an assumption about the reliability of cause and effect. So allow me to rephrase: moral relativism is most rational and most able to accurately satisfy our morally relevant desires when coupled with introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse.

I embarked on this truth-seeking pilgrimage four years ago and in doing so devoted myself to following the evidence wherever it leads. Accordingly, I have refrained from aligning with any particular moral theory for most of that time. It is an incredibly complex, confounding, divisive and emotionally draining topic. Evidence is difficult to gather and interpretations abound. So while I have finally taken the step of adopting a moral ontology, it is perhaps more tentative and provisional than any other position that I have staked, even as I recognize that this hesitancy is almost entirely emotionally motivated. Regardless, if you disagree with the conclusion then you are welcome to try and change my mind. That’s why I’m here.

Share