Thursday, May 10, 2012

Toward a Theory of Moral Change and Constancy


A moral action is a right action in the right circumstances for the right reason. It has a narrative structure. Like language, it has a grammar. A subject acts on or in relation to an object. Specifically, a character acts in relation to another person. This is related to the idea of virtue ethics, where one develops one’s character by always aiming at the beautiful/good(to kalon). From this character (ethos), one acts to achieve certain goals. One’s ethos affects what goals one wishes to achieve, but it cannot necessarily tell you how to achieve that goal. That is where the science of praxeology comes in. Praxeology tells us what actions to take to achieve our goals, no matter what our goals may be. One uses one’s character to judge whether the actions are themselves good (the ends do not justify the means). Thus, for there to be a fully moral action, a person of good character must engage in a good action capable of achieving the desired goal, which itself should be good. If you do this, what you have done is good. If you fail to choose the right action, what you have done is bad (we would not tell an architect who built a bad bridge out of ignorance that he was, nevertheless, a good architect because he meant well). If you have a bad goal, and you use the right action to achieve it, then what you did is evil. If you are of bad character, but you engage in good action that results in a good outcome, then what you have done is what was described by Bernard Mandeville in his The Fable of the Bees. It turns out a considerable amount of good can come from this latter structure, but since I am talking about morality in its fullest expression, we will leave that aside. However, if spontaneous orders are beautiful, or at least potentially so, then we have an idea of what virtue should aim at. This will bring us back to the issues of the varieties of economies. As I have pointed out before, moral instincts --> moral spontaneous order --> moral reasoning. That is morality in a nutshell.

The idea of “personhood” is central to my theory of morality. But so is the fact that we have moral instincts, which are part of our repertoire of instincts, or cultural universals.  In the same way that we do not have a choice but to language when we are surrounded by language users, because we have a language instinct, and in the same way the particular language spoken by those around us is what determines what language we use, even if we can learn more languages later in life and, with some of the greatest poets, introduce elements of other languages into the mother language, morality is similarly both universal and learned. That is, we all have a moral instinct much like we have a language instinct. The fact that there is variation of moral expression is no more an argument against the existence of this instinct than is the presence of variation among languages an argument against the existence of an instinct. The fact that we can identify grammatically-structured sounds as a language certainly suggests that there must be some commonality among the languages to make them identifiable as being the same thing. The same would be true of morality. We can identify the moral codes of a given culture. How, unless there were commonalities with other moral codes that make them identifiable as such? Further, there are gene variations that can derail language learning, in much the same way there are gene variations that can derail moral learning.

The bottom line is that there is an inherited moral sense. Or senses. They become developed as they are expressed due to the moral environment in which the person in question is raised. The Westermarck effect, which is expressed more strongly in girls than in boys, and which is expressed toward those with whom one has been raised up to about the age of 6, results in the moral prohibitions against incest. There are variations on this, with cousin marriages prohibited in some places, but not in others, for example. But this prohibition against marrying cousins is a pretty recent development, and is a considerable extension of the incest avoidance principle. There are those who may object that there have been societies that allowed or even outright encouraged incest, such as the tradition of alternate generations of ancient Egyptian rulers marrying their sisters, but if we look closely, we can discover how these are not in fact violations, but demonstrate the variety of ways we define “personhood.”

Egyptian rulers were not considered persons, but were rather considered divine. This divinity was reinforced through the alternating generations of brother-sister marriages, which both reinforced the ruling line and reflected Egyptian mythology, which included stories of divine incest. This is why society did not object, and in fact thought it right. Insofar as brothers and sisters are raised apart, no Westermarck effect can develop. But if they are raised together, we should expect to see less fertility in such unions. Historically, when we see these kinds of incestuous marriages, these are the patterns we see. Incest only “feels wrong” when the Westermarck effect can properly develop. Thus, these so-called “exceptions” are shown to not really be exceptions. Sexual morality evolves, but within clear parameters.

Another example is murder. What is murder? Murder is the purposeful killing of a person. A person is anyone considered to be equal to you insofar as they are a “fellow human being.” Different societies have different definitions of what constitutes a person. In some societies, women, children (especially female children), deformed children, slaves, members of other tribes, members of other religions, people who have the wrong ideology, unborn children, and/or criminals are not considered to be persons. Darwin suggested that our morality increased as our notion of who is in our tribe expanded. You could, over the centuries, go from all male members of the tribe to all members of the tribe to slaves (at which point slavery becomes immoral) to other tribes to other religions to other ideologies. Eventually we come to those who consider all human beings to be persons. And we see a development of the concept of personhood being applied to animals.

However, we see in a variety of cultures rituals that make certain individuals no longer considered to be persons. To perform a human sacrifice of a member of your tribe, you first have to perform a ritual to remove them from the tribe. Jews and Muslims have to kill animals as they do because they have to be as kind to the animals as possible. This suggests a certain concept of animal personhood, since a ritual must be performed to kill the animal for food. And in places with capital punishment, a ritual (court proceedings) is performed that removes the human being on trial from society and strips him of his personhood so that he can be killed. Those who oppose the death penalty essentially disagree that this ritual performs this function. Those who oppose abortion essentially extend personhood back to conception (in the most extreme cases). The disagreements in these areas involve both definitions of personhood and whether or not certain rituals can in fact remove someone’s personhood. And this is also extended to a variety of violent acts we can make toward each other. The more developed our sense of the other’s personhood, the less violence we can justify to ourselves we can do to them. This would expand to rape as well, as this is a violation of an individual’s personhood in denying them a choice in sexual matters.

From our evolved sense of property rights is where our opposition to theft emerges. Out of our instinct for property emerges individualism itself and ritual. Thus, we need to understand our evolutionary relationship to territory/property rights to understand our morality and our artistic expressions, which develop out of ritual. As we have seen, too, ritual performs certain social realities, including whether or not someone is considered a person, or a full person (as adulthood rituals perform into becoming). Ritual then also points to how we may facilitate more people’s inclusion into our societies, encouraging us and them to consider more and more people to be persons.

But there are more subtle morals, manners, etc. Kenrick et al gives us the dynamic mechanism by which even the most subtle variations in morality can emerge from a universal core. I cannot recommend his two articles on this topic. More work needs to be done in this promising area.

If morality is the right action in the right circumstances, then moral action is the right action for and in the right economy. Consider the following:

Gift economy

What makes one a good artist? What makes one a bad artist?
What makes one a good scientist? What makes one a bad scientist?
What makes one a good philanthropist? What makes one a bad philanthropist?
That is, what constitutes good action within the gift economy?

Market economy

What makes one a good entrepreneur? What makes one a bad entrepreneur?
What makes one a good salesman? What makes one a bad salesman?
What makes one a good capitalist? What makes one a bad capitalist?
What makes one a good financier? What makes one a bad financier?
What makes one a good banker? What makes one a bad banker?
That is, what constitutes good action within the market economy?

Political economy

What makes good governance? What makes bad governance?
What makes one a good governor/executive? What makes one a bad governor/executive?
What makes one a good legislator? What makes one a bad legislator?
What makes one a good judge? What makes one a bad judge?
What makes one a good citizen? What makes one a bad citizen?
That is, what constitutes good action in the political economy?

Divine economy

What makes one a good pastor/religious leader? What makes one a bad pastor/religious leader?
What makes one a good believer? What makes one a bad believer?
What makes one good? What makes one bad? What makes one evil?
That is, what constitutes good action in the divine economy?

Each has actions that are good within that economy. However, what is good action in one economy is not good action in another economy.

And I haven't even brought up the issue of justice, which certainly deserves increased development. Since personhood is central to my theory of morality, I will say we must beware of dehumanizing theories of justice.

And then, this is also all connected to the Gravesean theory of  psychosocial evolution.

I feel a complete model of morality coming about.
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