Many useful comments on my poster at the Evolution of Morality Conference!

I received many useful comments on my poster summary of the cultural utility of my proposed universal moral principle “Evolutionarily moral acts are altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups”.

No one admitted to thinking my ideas were crazy, most seemed to think my general thinking was sensible, a few graduate students flatly told me they thought my conclusions were correct, and one said he thought it would influence the direction of his research.

On increasing the clarity of my presentation, perhaps the most useful suggestion was that I should put stronger emphasis on my point that the domain of science was left behind in determining group ultimate goals (such as increasing well-being and rejecting Evolutionary Morality’s Dark Side). Thanks John!  As I agreed, science is silent on what people’s ultimate goals ought to be and evolutionary morality’s utility is only in guiding selection of enforced cultural norms in order to best meet group goals, specifically through increased benefits of cooperation in groups.

On where I might be factual wrong, the three most useful comments were, first, my remarkable claim that my moral principle explained (was the underlying principle of) virtually all past and present enforced cultural norms and, second, my definition of altruism includes some human behaviors that are not culturally altruistic, such as a person accidentally doing something that is costly to himself and benefits others. It was also suggested that I clearly define the characteristics of counter-examples to my evolutionary morality principle in terms of a past or present enforced cultural norm.  That is, is my surprising claim about virtually all past and present enforced moral standards falsifiable? Or have I defined things such that I can claim that any enforced cultural norm shares my universal moral principle? Suggested counterexamples to my claimed moral principle included female circumcision and enforced moral obligations to obey a mad king. Third, I should be clearer how “groups” are defined. Thanks lunch ‘group’ on Thursday! I plan to address all these issues in future posts.

The funniest comment I got, though I did not think so at the time, was from a philosophy doctoral student who dismissively referred to my proposed moral principle as “contingent”, as if that reduced it to something that belonged in the refuse bin. I said something to the effect no, it was not contingent on anything. Later, another philosophy doctoral student explained to me that the dismissive comment could be based on my proposal only being valid in our physical reality. It might be invalid in a universe with different physical laws. This makes it second rate compared to moral principles based on pure reason which is the preferred basis of moral principles in philosophy. That is, my moral principle is ‘second rate’ because it applies only in this universe!

I was able to explain my position to several knowledgeable people including two internationally known philosophers and an internationally known neurobiologist. All appeared to think my position was, at least at first glance, sensible, and without obvious fatal flaws. That was very encouraging. My experience at the conference was very rewarding.

Finally, Erice, Sicily is a beautiful, charming place and I recommend it. The ancients picked a wonderful site for a temple to the goddess Venus.

Here are our esteemed speakers.

Click on the image of my poster to open it in a new window in which you should be able to enlarge it enough to read it easily.

The next pictures is the view from the break room at the lecture hall. It is a wonderful facility. The other pictures are just ones I liked.

Here is the 1600′s church that has been converted into a lecture hall.

Me in the break room in the lecture hall in the converted old church.

Courtyard of conference center. Lecture hall was the church down the street.

And here are Norman and later castles built on the ancient site of the Temple of Venus in Erice, Sicily.

6 thoughts on “Many useful comments on my poster at the Evolution of Morality Conference!

  1. Mark,

    I feel uncomfortable that considerations of inclusive fitness play such a small part in your thinking on the evolution of morality. You seem to be implying that the endpoint of evolution is well-being of the group. This is not the case. Groups will not continue simply because their members are comfortable. Groups continue because they succeed in attracting or producing new members. For most of human evolutionary history, the production of new members (by giving birth to and successfully rearing new people) playing a very large role in the success of groups. (Contemporary Western cultures are unusual, I think, in that their success is largely due to the attraction of new members. They are relatively poor at producing new people.)

    I am bringing this up because I think it tells us something about the characteristics of evolutionary morality. We must assume that (unlike many contemporary cultures) most human cultures have perceived the production and successful rearing of new young members to be an important purpose, If so, then we can say something about content of the morality of those groups. I suggest that there would be a large number of rules limiting sexual behaviour and the defining appropriate behaviours of group members based on their age and sex. By this reckoning, your suggestion that rules which control sexual behaviour and women are part of the dark side of evolutionary morality are incorrect. Is there not more support for the idea that advocating sexual freedom is part of the dark side? After all, sexual freedom often results in the production of unsupported children and the spread of diseases that cause infertility and early death.

  2. Hi Lesley,

    In Martin Nowak’s 2006 paper Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation, one of his five game theory strategies is kin altruism. After trying out some alternatives, I decided to follow Nowak’s convention in lumping kin altruism in with all the other cooperation strategies, so inclusive fitness is fully included in “Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral”. The “group” here is relatives, and the relevant benefit for inclusive fitness is reproductive fitness.

    However, your post points out the need for an explanation of this convention. For example, how it is sensible to talk about a mother’s care of immature offspring as being a special kind of ‘cooperation’ distinct from the more standard “cooperation” in direct and indirect reciprocity? I’ve had in the back of my mind that I needed to do that and I will start roughing out what that explanation will look like.

    To your specific points:

    Contemporary Western cultures do commonly have lower than replacement birth rates. If people considered it an individual benefit to have lots of children, I expect that would flip the other way. So a declining population among a group of people who individually prefer to have few children is consistent with using my proposed evolutionary morality principle. It is just a strategy for increasing whatever benefits of cooperation that groups seek, which may or may not (as in current western cultures) include maximizing reproductive fitness. Also, note that evolutionary morality is not necessarily about the ‘good’ of the group as outsiders might judge that ‘good’ (except for its biological implementations which are about the reproductive fitness of shared genes). Cultural implementations are about meeting common desires by increasing the benefits of altruistic cooperation, whatever those desired benefits might be. Those common desires could include having fewer than the replacement level of children.

    But assume people become concerned about under population, not about overpopulation as many in western cultures are. Then groups might start enforcing, at least by social disapproval, the idea that people have a moral obligation to altruistically have lots of children. That also would be consistent with my proposed evolutionary morality principle.

    The Dark Side of evolutionary morality is the exploitation of out groups for the benefit of in groups. And sure, some of the “rules which control sexual behaviour and women are part of the dark side of evolutionary morality”. For example, enforced wearing of burkas and ‘honor’ killings I would put in the Dark Side of evolutionary morality because the primary function seems to me to be far more about keeping women subservient to men than anything else.

    I agree that complete sexual freedom would be immoral because of its adverse effects as you describe. (By this I mean that groups are will almost certainly enforce norms limiting sexual freedom in order to prevent harm.) But being immoral does not, by itself, mean a behavior is part of evolutionary morality’s Dark Side. To be a part of the Dark Side, a moral standard must be about exploitation of an out group. The importance of this category is that it explains how people have done horrible atrocities (exploiting or eliminating out groups) and were able to feel fully morally justified in doing so because benefiting their in group (even by committing atrocities) was just which their moral biology was selected to do.

    Thanks for the input. I’ll let you know when the new section is ready – perhaps that will be in a week or so.


    • Mark, If a group contains men and woman and men cultural norms dictate that men and women do different kinds of work, your argument suggests that exploitation is occurring and that this is the dark side of evolutionary morality. It could, however, also be argued that these are norms which encourage cooperation between men and women. Groups which evolved norms which required that men look after children and perform work that can be done while caring for children and women do work that requires greatest strength would do less well than groups which divided labour in the opposite way. I suggest, therefore, that we can make some predictions about the content of morality human populations that are competing effectively.

      • I agree that divisions of labor based on sex can “increase the benefits of cooperation” in groups and, in that case, are not part of evolutionary morality’s Dark Side. In modern societies, we might argue that basing divisions of labor based on individual inclination and capacity, rather than strictly by sex, is a more effective strategy for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups, but that is just a question of relative effectiveness. There is nothing in the useful strategy of division of labor that is in necessarily in conflict with “Altruistic behaviors that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral”.

        Moral standards that divide societies into in groups and out groups, such as family/not family, friends/not friends, and so forth, up to and possibly past intelligent being/not intelligent being, do not necessarily become part of evolutionary morality’s Dark Side. They are only part of Evolutionary Morality’s Dark Side if the division is for the exploitation of the out group.

        For example, division into family/not family is critical for the raising of children. We are all members of many groups with different levels of commitment and responsibility to each. Enforced moral norms that recognize this seem to me to be advocating moral behavior that is highly effective in maximizing the benefits of cooperation in groups. The Dark Side only comes into play with division for the purpose of exploitation.

  3. Hi Mark. Just finding this now that you’ve posted on my site. Can I ask how you were able to get a poster presented here at all? I’m under the impression that you are a non-academic philosopher like myself. Was it hard for you to be accepted here, and now, several months later, was the experience “worth it”?

    • It may have been a unique opportunity. I came across the announcement by chance, it said all were welcome and could present posters if the summaries were approved. I submitted, was approved, and had a wonderful time. Highlights were reviewing my poster with the philosopher’s Richard Joyce and Simon Blackburn (of Cambridge). Both said they saw no fatal flaws. I also had an interesting 30 minute conversation, mostly about Phillip Kitcher’s related new book, with Patricia Churchland.

      I was the only non-academic poster out of about 25. Only mine and one other (a religious studies professor) were not students. I found putting my ideas in a poster format itself wonderfully useful for clarifying and compacting my presentation. The poster concept was new to me. No such thing existed when I was in school.

      The experience was well-worth it for the high quality of criticism I received – which was what I went for. I did not change my core ideas, but did improve my presentation. Also, I was uncertain about being able to “Hold my own” in discussions with professionals in the field. As it turned out, no problem.

      If you hear of another such conference where they allow anyone to seek approval to present a poster, please let me know. I would appreciate the opportunity to repeat the experience. Just going to a conference without having a poster to present is not nearly so attractive. and I expect would be much less productive.

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