Answering fundamental philosophical criticisms

The following philosophical criticisms appear to relevant to my proposed Altruistic Cooperation morality. They are from Verbeek and Morris’ overview article “Game Theory and Ethics”  in the online The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  I recommend both the article and the resource.

From the viewpoint of the reference, Altruistic Cooperation is a functional morality revealed by evolutionary game theory.

For convenience, I’ll summarize my claims here:

“The function (the primary reason they exist) of all past and present enforced cultural norms (enforced moral standards) is to increase the benefits of altruistic cooperation in groups”.

And this function’s implied principle is:

“Altruistic acts that also increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are evolutionarily moral” (For reasons  described in the Glossary, altruism is here defined as  “Acting without consideration of future benefits, at a cost to one’s self, and benefiting other people”.)

Finally, I claim this is the most culturally useful presently available definition of morality for groups choosing (as an instrumental choice) moral standards to be enforced and for individuals choosing (again as an instrumental choice) which moral standards to accept the burdens of.

The following philosophical criticisms present the case that it is a fundamentally flawed idea that game theory (and more generally science) can be the source of a culturally useful definition of what norms ought to be enforced (what behaviors ought to be enforced as moral obligations).

Whether the specific factual claims I am presenting about Evolutionary Morality are ‘true’ in the normal sense of science, independent of these fundamental philosophical concerns, is addressed separately.

Here are the five philosophical criticisms:

1. “The fact that a practice or an institution has a particular function need not explain either its emergence or its maintenance.”

2. “Similarly, even if moral norms and practices serve to bring about Pareto-superior outcomes not realizable through uncoordinated individually rational action, no explanation of the existence and persistence of morality is provided unless it is shown that this function somehow motivates human action and or in some other way is causally effective in bringing about mutually beneficial outcomes.”

3. “… it is open to question whether morality coincides with mutually advantageous or Pareto-superior outcomes in the manner suggested. Many thinkers have argued that we often are morally required to act in ways which are disadvantageous to all. An obvious example is the often-affirmed prohibition against selling oneself into slavery. It might very well be advantageous to both slave and master (the slave would be able to pay off his debts and the master would have a practical solution for the daily housework), yet it is morally and legally prohibited.”

4. “… the functionalist account clearly assumes that the demands of morality conflict with individual rationality. Morality is supposed to correct problems of threatening Pareto-inefficiency which would be the result of unfettered (interdependent) individual rational action. On the functionalist account the moral agent seems ipso facto to be irrational (barring considerations of guilt-avoidance or regret). This then begs the question ‘why be moral?’. Functionalism precludes an answer to this question.”

5. “… finally, the objective of functionalist accounts is of limited interest to moral theorists. Functionalism appears to seek explanations of the emergence and persistence of moral norms and practices. Moral theorists are not interested principally in such explanations. Rather, they usually seek to understand morality with the aim of ascertaining what we should do or what we are obligated to do. It is morality as a guide to action and to life that is the principal interest of the moral philosopher. Morality here is normative, a source of guidance. Suppose that there were a plausible functional explanation of particular moral norms. (Or as in the case of Evolutionary Morality, a single universal function of virtually all enforced moral standards.) Does that explanation show that I am, in fact, obligated to follow these norms when they apply to me? There seems to be a difference between (a) determining the function(s) of morality and (b) ascertaining whether a particular set of norms and practices are, in fact, the ones we should follow. It is not clear how this question is answered by functionalist accounts.” (Words in italics added.)

Now we can begin:

1. “The fact that a practice or an institution has a particular function need not explain either its emergence or its maintenance.”

Answer: By defining function as “the primary reason something exists in its environment”, the function of enforced cultural norms does explain both the emergence and maintenance of enforced moral standards. In the case of enforced cultural norms and our biological heuristics for morality (moral emotions) this function has been constant. The impression that the function of morality changes (as proposed in Phillip Kitcher’s new book “The Ethics Project”) may be largely due to the different benefits of its biological and cultural heuristics and the two radical shifts in the dominant benefits of morality that took place prior to the time of the classical Greek philosophers, see Social Morality’s random walk through time, and 2.1 Explains historical puzzlement about the origins and nature of morality”.

2. “Similarly, even if moral norms and practices serve to bring about Pareto-superior outcomes not realizable through uncoordinated individually rational action, no explanation of the existence and persistence of morality is provided unless it is shown that this function somehow motivates human action and or in some other way is causally effective in bringing about mutually beneficial outcomes.”

Answer: This function motivates human action by first, its implementation of biological heuristics (our moral emotions that motivate altruism) and, second, by our socially enforced cultural heuristics (enforced moral standards) that advocate altruism. Both are the products of evolutionary process selecting for, respectively, only reproductive fitness in the case of biology and, in the case of enforced cultural norms, whatever benefits of cooperation people found attractive (which might or might not include reproductive fitness).

3. “… it is open to question whether morality coincides with mutually advantageous or Pareto-superior outcomes in the manner suggested. Many thinkers have argued that we often are morally required to act in ways which are disadvantageous to all. An obvious example is the often-affirmed prohibition against selling oneself into slavery. It might very well be advantageous to both slave and master (the slave would be able to pay off his debts and the master would have a practical solution for the daily housework), yet it is morally and legally prohibited.”

Answer: Depending on what is meant by slavery (such as what a slave’s rights are), it is possible that, as suggested, Evolutionary Morality could be consistent with some forms of slavery. Perhaps these would be forms of ‘slavery’ not too different from what is experienced by so-called wage-slaves in free enterprise capitalist systems or the special form of involuntary servitude (certainly a kind of ‘slavery’) typical in military hierarchies populated by conscripts.
The error in the thinking behind this particular criticism of game theory as a source of normative information is due to the philosopher taking a prohibition against slavery as somehow a moral absolute.  In fact, enforced moral norms prohibiting slavery are generally useful, but necessarily flawed heuristics, as are virtually all enforced cultural norms, for optimizing the benefits of Evolutionary Morality. Anyone expecting the perfection of moral absolutes in common enforced cultural norms, or in biology based moral intuitions, has not yet understood what morality ‘is’.

4. “… the functionalist account clearly assumes that the demands of morality conflict with individual rationality. Morality is supposed to correct problems of threatening Pareto-inefficiency which would be the result of unfettered (interdependent) individual rational action. On the functionalist account the moral agent seems ipso facto to be irrational (barring considerations of guilt-avoidance or regret). This then begs the question ‘why be moral?’. Functionalism precludes an answer to this question.”

Answer: To clarify the discussion, I will start by assuming that “individual rational action” means that an individual acts in ways they expect, in the moment of decision and perhaps based on careful reflection, will increase their future overall well-being.
As the criticism suggests, accepting the burdens of Evolutionary Morality will often require acting irrationally by the preceding definition. The error in thinking behind the criticism is that this circumstance begs the question “Why be moral?” This question is readily answerable.

Quoting, with a few modifications from the page Why Practice it? We have:
“In the big picture, accepting the burdens of Evolutionary Morality can be rationally justified based on 1) expected increased synergistic benefits of cooperation of all kinds and 2) inherent psychological rewards, both immediate and in our sense of durable well-being, or happiness, a common overriding instrumental goal. These immediate psychological rewards and much of our sense of durable well-being originally evolved in our ancestors as the chief means of motivating people to cooperate in groups, but are now available to us mainly as important benefits of altruistic cooperation.”

(Note that “rationally justified” here does not mean rational in the previous sense of expectations in the moment of decision, but as rationally accepting the burdens of a general rule that might require acting irrationally, as defined above, in the moment of decision. Similarly, based on expectations of likely increased well-being, one might rationally enter into a “social contract” which requires one to act irrationally, against their expected well-being, in some moments of decision.)

Back to the quote:

“Social morality, properly understood, is a biological and cultural adaptation for increasing benefits. It is not just a set of obligations better avoided; morality is a strategy for increasing benefits.”

Perhaps, but how about when an individual expects that acting morally will not be in their best interests even after taking these benefits into account?  Is there a rational justification for, almost always, accepting the burdens of Evolutionary Morality even when an individual expects that acting morally will not be in their best interests?

This would be a highly useful characteristic of a social morality and, fortunately, it is a characteristic of Evolutionary Morality.

The fundamental reason it has this characteristic is that people’s ability to predict what action will best meet their overriding goals in the long term is poor. We cannot know all relevant information, and even if we knew it we are often unable to accurately predict the future. This inability to predict the future, even knowing all relevant information, is partly due to our competing, and often self-defeating, selfish inclinations and partly due to our brain’s computational limitations.

Understanding all this makes it more rational to, almost always, accept the burdens of acting morally even when, in the heat of the moment of decision, we expect doing so will not be in our best interests.” (That is, will be irrational in the moment of decision.)

“Which do you think is more likely to turn out well? Going with the wisdom of the ages (representing forces whose benefits shaped your inner being) or going with your personal, (often faulty) perceptions in the heat of the moment of decision (about what you expect is most likely to increase your well-being)?”

Of course, there are times when people are in a position to make a highly reliable prediction about what will be in their best interests. Consider the soldier who jumps on the live grenade to save his fellow soldiers. The soldier has acted irrationally in the sense that doing so is highly unlikely to be in his future best interests. Of course, that does not mean the soldier has not acted morally. Acting rationally can be can be consistent with accepting the burdens of morality, but acting rationally is not synonymous with acting morally.

However, we can still be confident that “There is a rational justification for, almost always, accepting the burdens of Evolutionary Morality even when an individual expects that acting morally will not be in their best interests”.

In my own life, I plan to, “almost always” go with what I understand to be the “wisdom of the ages”, even when that requires acting against what I perceive to be my best interests in the moment of decision.

5. “… finally, the objective of functionalist accounts is of limited interest to moral theorists. Functionalism appears to seek explanations of the emergence and persistence of moral norms and practices. Moral theorists are not interested principally in such explanations. Rather, they usually seek to understand morality with the aim of ascertaining what we should do or what we are obligated to do. It is morality as a guide to action and to life that is the principal interest of the moral philosopher. Morality here is normative, a source of guidance. Suppose that there were a plausible functional explanation of particular moral norms. (Or as in the case of Altruistic Cooperation morality, a single universal function of virtually all enforced moral standards.) Does that explanation show that I am, in fact, obligated to follow these norms when they apply to me? There seems to be a difference between (a) determining the function(s) of morality and (b) ascertaining whether a particular set of norms and practices are, in fact, the ones we should follow. It is not clear how this question is answered by functionalist accounts.” (Words in italics added.)

Answer: This criticism may be pre-supposing that moral theorists are principally interested in finding the sources of imperative oughts, oughts that are somehow binding regardless of people’s needs and preferences. I refer to these as ‘magic’ oughts. There certainly are moral philosophers who search for, and from time to time, claim they have derived such ‘magic” oughts, but I would be discouraged to find that this, to me, philosophical equivalent of a search for magical unicorns is the mainstream position.

In any event, Evolutionary Morality (even as the universal function of enforced cultural norms) entails, on its own, no imperative oughts.  That does not mean that groups are somehow logically prevented from deciding that its moral principle is what they ought (as an instrumental ought best able meet the common overriding goals of the group) to use to determine what norms to enforce.

Further, the lack of any, on its own, imperative ought characteristic does not prevent groups from putting it forward as an imperative ought “what one ought to do regardless of your needs and preferences at the time” that is a) backed up by cultural enforcement and b), after practicing it for a while and being biologically incorporated into people’s moral intuitions, the principle’s imperative nature being backed up as a biology based emotional ought. Emotional oughts can be quite powerful, can overwhelm rational thought and inclinations for self-preservation (as in the case of the soldier), and appear to be the basis for the recurring illusion that ‘magic’ oughts are somehow consistent with reality.

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