"Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture" - Iris Murdoch

Thursday 15 December 2016

Escape Route

This is the second in a series of 12 posts going through the chapters of Owen Flanagan's book The Geography of Morals.

In my last post, I wrote about the first chapter of Flanagan's book, where he argued that moral philosophers should break out of standard ways of thinking by engaging with anthropology and cross-cultural philosophy.  In his second introductory chapter, "Moral Psychologies and Moral Ecologies", he lays out a few foundations for the path ahead.

Flanagan does three things in this chapter.  He sets out a general framework for fitting psychology, anthropology and ethics together in a scientific picture.  He then describes and assesses a few stages in the history of moral psychology, which clarifies how it will help set our direction.  Finally, he discusses whether science leaves anything left for ethics to do: once we have explained actual moral thought and practice, is that it, is there any space for "oughts", or have we reached a dead end?

Flanagan is a committed naturalist: humans are animals, and our account of human nature must be consistent with evolutionary theory.  There should be two sides to the account.  On the one side, there is the human being, an organism with an evolutionary lineage, a long natural history.  On the other, there is the ecology, the setting in which the organism lives.

An important feature of this picture is that there is variation on both sides.  Strictly speaking, no two individuals share an exact ecology.  The circumstances faced by individuals will vary, within a country, because they live in different towns; within a town, because they live on different streets; within a family, because at each stage of its life, each child faces differently aged parents and a different set of sibling interactions to the ones its siblings did; and so on.  (Flanagan talks of ecologies, microecologies, and micro-microecologies.)  As is hopefully clear, there is a social dimension to ecologies.

Flanagan illustrates all of this using C.H. Waddington's image of an epigenetic landscape—you can see one of the original drawings here at the University of Edinburgh's "Towards Dolly" site.  Applied to the case of moral psychology, the ball rolling down the landscape is the human organism developing morally.  Flanagan says the ball should be imagined with variegated dimples, the result of individual and social histories.  Presumably social history includes interaction with the landscape up until this point.  The landscape itself—the ecology these individuals share—should be imagined as much more complicated and variegated than in Waddington's illustration.  Individuals start at different points on the landscape, and the moral psychology they develop is a result of the trajectory they take.

A final point is that Flanagan's naturalist framework is non-teleological.  Nature doesn't aim at the success of individuals, nor does it specify what should happen to them or what their aims should be.  Dominant features of our lives—agricultural food production, living in cities, trade—are not biologically selected for, but produced through our coevolution with ecologies.  This framework could, but doesn't have to, include the idea that social and cultural structures are selected by how successful they are at solving problems of contributing to flourishing (of powerful groups, say).  One kind of social and cultural structure that humans (but also some other animals) can build is a normative order—a structure of what is right, wrong, better, and all the rest of it.  This is made up of individual dispositions (tendencies) to respond to such ideas or aspects of a situation, and public institutions to regulate individual behaviour.

Flanagan's history of recent moral psychology runs through Hartshorne and May's Studies in the Nature of Character (1929-30), which drew attention to the lack of stability of character and personality; Kohlberg's moral stage theory (1958, 1971), which build on Piaget's work on child development, but which was criticised by Gilligan and others for problems like gender bias, narrowness of focus, and lack of realism about decision-making; and E.O. Wilson's sociobiology, which used the idea of genetic fitness to explain the development of moral-psychological dispositions like selfishness, altruism towards relatives and reciprocal altruism between those who interact regularly.

There is more to say (or discuss in the comments below) about the detail here, but I will skip to Flanagan's conclusions from this history.  One is about experimental moral psychology work, gathering responses to moral problems to test theories like Kohlberg's.  This has produced at least some data on how moral judgements are made, in certain ecologies, given certain tasks.  We have to beware possible criticisms of how such studies are framed—that they often focus on judgements about third parties' decisions (rather than one's own emotions or actions), that the tasks are unrepresentative of moral life, that they frame moral decision-making as individualistic—but they still provide information.

The second conclusion is that evolutionary theory can tell us something about our moral psychology, but not everything.  There is quite a lot of space to work to overcome our biologically or socially given characteristics, a theme that Flanagan will return to throughout the book.  But this brings us to the final section of the chapter.

This is on whether we explain morality away through science (and social science).  Suppose the aspects of normative order I referred to earlier—the virtues, the values, the norms and the practices—can all ultimately be given a natural explanation and description.  You might then think there is nothing left for philosophy to do, no way to say things "ought" to be this way or that—there's just the way things are, and the things that we do (one of which is using words like "ought" to influence, persuade or even coerce each other).

This is known as the problem of normativity in philosophy, and is the subject of a huge literature.  I'm not going to get into the argument that Flanagan presents here, as it didn't fully answer my questions.  I suspect I will need to read this article by him and co-authors to understand his position fully.  But also, as Flanagan says, the book as a whole is intended as a demonstration of how philosophical thinking can indeed make us better.  So perhaps we should consider this more as a practical question, and see at the end whether it has worked.  (To make this concrete: the book uses anger as a case study.  Will I be less angry by the time I finish writing this series of posts?)

Still, it will be helpful, before we set out, to sketch out the naturalised picture of normativity that Flanagan finishes the chapter with.  In this picture, ethics works on existing human characteristics and capacities which have developed through evolution.  These are developed into norms, virtues, values and practices, not by a process of deduction, but by inductive and abductive reasoning, about what ways of feeling, living and being are good for us or worth aspiring to, given the ecological niches we are in.  The evidence we use in this reasoning process is drawn from any sources of knowledge about what is good and what it is to be human.  In particular, Flanagan emphasises the importance of imagination: being able to explore the possibility space for how we can be and live.

I'll leave things there, though again, those words "good", "worth" and "aspiring" in the previous paragraph are bothering me.  I'm not a sceptic about their meaningfulness, I'm not asking Flanagan to prove what they are deductively, but I'll be watching out for more detail about the role they play in our lives.  Another question is about the role that imagination is playing in Flanagan's account: helping us consider different alternatives, look into possible futures, and consider impacts we have on others which we will never experience directly.  This may turn out to be crucial.

And finally, my four sources from Flanagan which looked particularly interesting to follow up:
  • Robert Boyd and Peter Richardson's The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (2005) is a collection of essays offering a biologically grounded notion of culture to bridge gaps in the social sciences (for instance, aiming to dissolve the distinction between methodological holism and methodological individualism).  A nice review is here.
  • Since Carol Gilligan's criticism of Kohlberg's moral stage theory from a gender perspective, there has been a lot of work to try to develop an alternative ethics of care (which has itself been critiqued for narrowness of focus).  I'm going to pick a recent work, Eva Feder Kittay's Love's Labor (1999), partly because it was also recommended by my cousin.
  • The point raised about Hartshorne and May about stability of character has also evolved into a sophisticated discussion about the role of situations.  Flanagan's colleague Hagop Sarkissian has an interesting (and publicly available) 2010 paper here on how "situationism" is ultimately about the interconnectedness of social behaviour.  (From the look of it, fans of behavioural economics will like this paper.)
  • Finally, philosopher of science Philip Kitcher offers a critical discussion of sociobiology in his 1985 book Vaulting Ambition.

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