• Mark S
    28
    Could this knowledge help resolve disputes about moral norms?

    Cultural moral norms are arguably heuristics (usually reliable but fallible rules of thumb) for subcomponents of strategies that solve cooperation problems.

    See Oliver Curry’s “Morality as Cooperation” papers and Martin Nowak’s book SuperCooperators for an introduction to the field. However, note that Oliver Curry explains as cooperation strategies only what is cross-culturally moral in 60 surveyed societies. I propose that all past and present moral norms can be explained as parts of cooperation strategy explanations. Further, the coherence, diversity, contradictions, and strangeness of past and present moral norms people typically argue about are products of three major norm categories: (There may be other categories of moral norms specific to cooperation by kin-altruism and hierarchies that are less often debated.)

    Partnership moral norms – Parts of strategies that solve cooperation problems between people with equal moral standing. These include heuristics “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, “Do not steal, lie, or kill”, and “Be loyal to your group” which advocate initiating indirect reciprocity. (Cross-culturally moral norms are partnership moral norms.)

    Domination moral norms – Parts of strategies to cooperatively exploit an outgroup to benefit an ingroup. These include “Slaves must obey their masters” and “Women must be submissive to men”.

    Marker moral norms – Markers of membership in and commitment to a more cooperative ingroup. Preferentially cooperating with members of an ingroup can reduce the chances of being exploited and thereby increase the benefits of cooperation. These markers include “eating shrimp is an abomination”, “masturbation is immoral”, and other food and sex taboos.

    Note that to be stable in a society, game theory shows that cooperation strategies must include punishment (of at least reputation-damaging social disapproval) of violators such as free riders. This necessity 1) explains why we have our intuitions about moral norms’ strange innate bindingness and often anger at their violations and 2) enables distinguishing “moral norms” as cultural norms whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment.

    This knowledge can help resolve disputes about cultural moral norms because it provides an objective basis for:

    1) Not following moral heuristics (such as the Golden Rule or “Do not steal, lie, or kill”) when they will predictably fail in their function of solving cooperation problems such as in war and, relevant to the Golden Rule, when tastes differ.
    2) Revealing the exploitative component of domination moral norms and the arbitrary origins of marker strategies.
    3) Piercing the mysticism of religion and cultural heritage that protects moral norms from rational discussion by revealing that cultural moral norms have natural, not mystical, origins.
    4) Refining cultural moral norms to be more harmonious with our moral sense (because our moral sense also tracks cooperation strategies).

    What about its limits? This observation’s usefulness in resolving moral disputes is limited by its silence on important ethical questions. It is silent about what our ultimate moral goals either ‘are’ or ought to be and what we imperatively ought to do. It is silent about who should be in our “circle of moral concern” (as Peter Singer describes it) and who (or what) can be ignored or exploited. And except regarding cooperation with other people, the observation is silent concerning:

    1) How should I live?
    2) What is good?
    3) What are my obligations?

    I am interested in this finding’s role, if any, in ethics and expect commenters will be tempted to leap into those discussions. But in hope of providing a grounding for further discussions, I request this thread focus on:

    Assuming this empirical finding is correct and given its above limitations, do you think this observation about the function of moral norms could be culturally useful for resolving disputes about moral norms? And if not, why not?
  • SophistiCat
    2.1k
    Hello Mark and welcome to the forum!

    First, when you say "this empirical finding," I am assuming you are referring to this, plus your generalizations/summations, right?

    See Oliver Curry’s “Morality as Cooperation” papers and Martin Nowak’s book SuperCooperators for an introduction to the field.Mark S

    This is all fine. Just to add, the study of the natural origins and mechanisms of morality goes at least as far back as Darwin, and has been particularly active in the past 100 years. There are multiple theories from anthropology, ecology, psychology, neuroscience, developmental biology, many of which are not mutually exclusive, but rather provide different and mutually supportive ways of looking at the same subject. Morality as cooperation strategy very much fits into that body of research.

    However, I don't understand how you get to this conclusion:

    This knowledge can help resolve disputes about cultural moral norms because it provides an objective basisMark S

    This implies that you can discern the shape of some truer, superior morality by identifying global patterns in its natural origins. And once you have grasped this "super-morality," you can then use it to arbitrate moral puzzles and disagreements. But why? Why must there be some universal, immutable "super-morality" behind the dizzying variety of cultural norms? And why think that this is the way to find it? Just because you can identify patterns doesn't mean that you have found a general principle. Such an approach is redolent of natural science, but then you must believe that morality is a universal principle of nature, like, say, relativity or the least action principle?

    I suspect that what is really going on is that you are taking modern science as the paragon of a methodology aimed at truth and then applying that methodology to ethics without first establishing whether ethics is a suitable domain of application.

    Identifying general principles behind the historical development of moral norms is a worthy and fascinating scientific endeavor, but I don't think it can inform us about some "truer" morality that supersedes whatever moral norms we may currently hold.
  • 180 Proof
    10.9k
    No. "Moral norms" are like dialects (or even distinct languages) – complementary, not oppositional. Besides, plurality is more adaptive than uniformity.
  • T Clark
    10.7k
    Assuming this empirical finding is correct and given its above limitations, do you think this observation about the function of moral norms could be culturally useful for resolving disputes about moral norms? And if not, why not?Mark S

    It's important to me that I respond in a way consistent with your intent for this discussion, but I have a hard time "assuming this empirical finding is correct," because I don't really understand it. It does not resemble any theoretical approach to morality I have any experience with. I don't really understand what "Cultural moral norms are arguably heuristics (usually reliable but fallible rules of thumb) for subcomponents of strategies that solve cooperation problems," means.

    I'll just leave it at that.
  • T Clark
    10.7k


    And welcome to the forum.
  • Mark S
    28

    Thanks for the welcome! I am glad to be here.

    My post is a proposal for an approach to establish if a scientific observation about past and present cultural moral norms could have implications for ethics. If that scientific observation is useful for resolving disputes about cultural moral norms, then we have reasons for believing science can have some limited implications for ethics.

    As you point out, there are differences of opinion, but I am happy to defend that past and present cultural moral norms track cooperation strategies. Note that this is a claim about what ‘is’ (science’s domain), not what ought to be (moral philosophy’s domain).

    For this thread, can’t we take it as a hypothetical that past and present cultural moral track cooperation strategies and then explore the implications?

    The implications:

    This knowledge can help resolve disputes about cultural moral norms because it provides an objective basis for:

    1) Not following moral heuristics (such as the Golden Rule or “Do not steal, lie, or kill”) when they will predictably fail in their function of solving cooperation problems such as in war and, relevant to the Golden Rule, when tastes differ.
    Mark S

    Without this knowledge, a few people might think of the Golden Rule and “Do not steal, lie, or kill” as mystical moral absolutes and follow them blindly. Most people would intuitively abandon them in such cases (as cultures typically do) but lack an objective criterion for doing so. I can imagine huge arguments about if and when such norms ought to be abandoned. Knowing that these norms track cooperation strategies seems to me useful for resolving such disputes when these heuristics can be expected to fail at that function.

    Key question for you: Why do you think this knowledge would not be useful as I have described?

    I want to emphasize the “limited” implications of science for moral philosophy:

    What about its limits? This observation’s usefulness in resolving moral disputes is limited by its silence on important ethical questions. It is silent about what our ultimate moral goals either ‘are’ or ought to be and what we imperatively ought to do. It is silent about who should be in our “circle of moral concern” (as Peter Singer describes it) and who (or what) can be ignored or exploited. And except regarding cooperation with other people, the observation is silent concerning:

    1) How should I live?
    2) What is good?
    3) What are my obligations?
    Mark S

    I like your other questions and look forward to exploring some interesting possibilities with you. But, for now, can we focus on why you think this knowledge would not be useful as I have described?
  • Mark S
    28

    "Cultural moral norms as parts of cooperation strategies" is consistent with cultural moralities being seen as dialects (specific applications) of those strategies.

    The dialects can be oppositional though. Contradictions are common. Homosexuality is worthy of death in some cultures and morally irrelevant in others.

    Plurality (available variations), particularly in a rapidly changing environment, is beneficial for either biological or cultural reproductive fitness but I expect we would agree that reproductive fitness is not interesting as an ultimate goal for moral behavior.
  • 180 Proof
    10.9k
    ... as an ultimate goal for moral behavior.Mark S
    Well, for proximate beings like us, I think "an ultimate goal" is about as useful for flourishing as tits on a bull.
  • Shawn
    12.6k
    You might find evolutionary game theory more interesting.
  • Mark S
    28


    Thanks for asking! If you did not understand my key point, I expect there are also many others here who did not. I’ll try to clarify "Cultural moral norms are arguably heuristics (usually reliable but fallible rules of thumb) for subcomponents of strategies that solve cooperation problems,"

    This is not a theoretical approach to understanding morality - what we somehow ought and ought not do. And specifically,

    It is silent about what our ultimate moral goals either ‘are’ or ought to be and what we imperatively ought to do. It is silent about who should be in our “circle of moral concern” (as Peter Singer describes it) and who (or what) can be ignored or exploited. And except regarding cooperation with other people, the observation is silent concerning:

    1) How should I live?
    2) What is good?
    3) What are my obligations?
    Mark S

    It is an empirical approach to understanding the function of past and present cultural moral norms, a subject of little interest in traditional moral philosophy.

    This approach takes moral norms to be cultural norms whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment, though the violator may not actually be punished.

    Its scientific truth claim is based on its explanatory power for past and present cultural moral norms, no matter how diverse, contradictory, and strange plus other relevant criteria for scientific truth. Virtually all past and present cultural moral norms can be explained as parts of cooperation strategies. (Proposed counterexamples are always welcome.)

    For example, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is a heuristic (a usually reliable, but fallible rule of thumb) for initiating the powerful cooperation strategy, indirect reciprocity. But the Golden Rule only initiates indirect reciprocity; it is only a subcomponent of the strategy. Indirect reciprocity typically includes other subcomponents such as punishment of people who do not reciprocate (free-riders) and criteria for who you choose to cooperate with and who you choose to ignore.

    So we have:
    “Cultural moral norms such as the Golden Rule are arguably heuristics (usually reliable but fallible rules of thumb) for subcomponents of strategies such as indirect reciprocity that solve cooperation problems."

    This is a scientific claim about what ‘is’. It is a different category of knowledge than claims about what we ought to do.

    Does this help at all?
  • Mark S
    28


    ... as an ultimate goal for moral behavior.
    — Mark S
    Well, for proximate beings like us, "an ultimate goal" is about as useful for flourishing as tits on a bull.
    180 Proof

    When I said "ultimate goal" I was thinking of standard moral goals such as increasing flourishing or reducing suffering.
  • Andrew4Handel
    2.3k
    If morality is all about cooperation strategies then why do you need to use the term morality at all. Why not just say what are the best cooperation strategies? No problems with that goal.

    But It makes the moral labels superfluous and is not what people mean when they make a moral claim.

    It sounds like trying to apply scientific interference into human behaviour to produce desired outcomes but it does not sound anything like a morality but also it sounds very manipulative.

    The whole idea is like discovering what we thought of as morality was just self serving AKA Dawkins selfish genes. My idea of morality, that I thought others shared, was to do with good character reflected in your actions. Compassion etc. A sense of duty and empathy.

    I thought the only point of religions was to give meaning to life. If life has no innate meaning then peoples goals are going to be subjective and arbitrary. I personally see no reason to mindlessly reproduce our genes. I think hopefully people that do want to have children are not mainly focused on spreading their genes but maybe they are? But if you appreciate sunsets hopefully that is not just another strategy to entice you to replicate.
  • Tom Storm
    5.8k
    Cultural moral norms are arguably heuristics (usually reliable but fallible rules of thumb) for subcomponents of strategies that solve cooperation problems.Mark S

    I've always thought along these lines. Moral norms are traffic lights that help guide the flow of human behaviour. Humans can't help but build systems to follow - is morality more than a code of conduct tied to a value system? For me morality seems to be an open conversation and contest of ideas conducted between groups holding a multiplicity of values and beliefs. The best ideas don't always win.
  • PhilosophyRunner
    181
    I also see a large component of moral norms being a common framework for a group to coorporate. of course there are many different ways in which people can coorporate, leading to different cultures having different and sometimes arbitrary moral norms. So I agree on that.

    Where I find difficulty is in how that helps resolve moral disagreements.

    You and I are standing on the edge of a cliff. I say that my moral values lead to the concussion that I should throw you off. You say "hold on a moment, let me talk to you about what is." I listen patiently, thank you for the interesting insight into what is, but since you have given me nothing about what I should do, my should from earlier remains and I throw you off.

    How does the "is" help with disputes about "should" and "ought?"
  • Mark S
    28

    If morality is all about cooperation strategies then why do you need to use the term morality at all. Why not just say what are the best cooperation strategies? No problems with that goal.Andrew4Handel

    Cooperation is a rapidly expanding field, a wonderful topic all on its own, and people can certainly talk about it without mentioning moral norms.

    But assume you are arguing with someone about cultural moral norms. If you said “We could enjoy more benefits of cooperation in our society if you abandoned this or that cultural moral norm either permanently or in these special cases and rather followed this or that moral norm”, I expect all you would get is a puzzled expression.

    Most people would be thinking “Why is he talking about cooperation when the dispute is about following moral norms? My religion or culture provides my moral norms and my intuitions are that they apply to everyone. There is nothing in them about cooperation.”

    Using the insights from cooperation studies to solve disputes about moral norms requires an extra bit of empirical information - cultural moral norms track cooperation strategies. This hypothesis can be shown to be correct based on its explanatory power for past and present cultural moral norms, no matter how diverse, contradictory, and strange. That such as simple hypothesis has the ability to explain such a huge, superficially chaotic data set supports its robustness as scientific truth.

    That cultural moral norms are parts of cooperation strategies must be presented if we are to use what we have learned from cooperation studies to resolve disputes about cultural moral norms.

    I am not a fan of Dawkins’ selfish genes perspective. While perhaps technically correct, it is highly misleading and other technically correct perspectives provide useful insights much more readily.
  • Mark S
    28
    For me morality seems to be an open conversation and contest of ideas conducted between groups holding a multiplicity of values and beliefs.Tom Storm

    Right. But ethics is a much broader subject than cultural moral norms which advocate parts of cooperation strategies. What goals ought we have for our cooperation? How ought we live, apart from living cooperatively with other people?

    The ”open contest of ideas” is more about these important ultimate goals and values, a subject that moral norms as cooperation strategies is silent on.
  • Mark S
    28

    You and I are standing on the edge of a cliff. I say that my moral values lead to the concussion that I should throw you off. You say "hold on a moment, let me talk to you about what is." I listen patiently, thank you for the interesting insight into what is, but since you have given me nothing about what I should do, my should from earlier remains and I throw you off.PhilosophyRunner

    The ‘is’ claim about cultural moral norms being cooperation strategies could help me if you were going to throw me off the cliff because one of your cultural moral norms advocated killing me and you are trying to act as a moral person.

    By explaining that the moral norm, perhaps something like “People who work on the Sabbath should be killed”, is a marker strategy for increasing cooperation in your ingroup, you might be convinced, as a moral person trying to act coherently, to not cause that harm (if causing harm would contradict other moral norms or values you try to follow).

    But what if your moral values lead you to believe that you ought to throw me off the cliff because it would be fun and you have no more important moral values that tell you that you should not do so? There is nothing about what we ought to do in the ‘is’ claim about cultural moral norms, so I expect I should be ready to resist being thrown off the cliff.
  • Mark S
    28
    Oliver Curry is a prominent advocate of “Morality as Cooperation” and I have sometimes used his phrase. However, the responses here have emphasized that such nomenclature is misleading because it reads as an ought claim not justified by science.

    What I propose as culturally useful is that “cultural moral norms are parts of cooperation strategies”, an ‘is’ claim. My claim is silent regarding the broader scope of ethics.

    If I just had a more memorable name for the idea…
  • Tom Storm
    5.8k
    Right. But ethics is a much broader subject than cultural moral norms which advocate parts of cooperation strategies. What goals ought we have for our cooperation? How ought we live, apart from living cooperatively with other people?Mark S

    As I said - that's where the contest of ideas comes in. Which is already in place and morality (in the West) is an active part of public discourse and subject to incremental tweaks, mods, and set backs over time. As a secularist, I might argue for preventing suffering as the primary goal. No doubt others have their goals, from pleasing gods to rule utilitarianism. Which to choose? All we can do is argue a case based on our convictions.
  • Mark S
    28

    As I said - that's where the contest of ideas comes in. Which is already in place and morality (in the West) is an active part of public discourse and subject to incremental tweaks, mods, and set backs over time. As a secularist, I might argue for preventing suffering as the primary goal. No doubt others have their goals, from pleasing gods to rule utilitarianism. Which to choose? All we can do is argue a case based on our convictions.Tom Storm

    I agree, except our convictions can be naive or informed by the accumulated moral wisdom of the ages from moral philosophy.

    What I am proposing (that is newish in the modern age) is the usefulness of understanding cultural moral norms’ underlying principles. Cultural moral norms are a topic almost ignored by traditional moral philosophy as just a chaotic mess. Fortunately, science’s tools can sort through such messes to reveal underlying principles. And I am happy to say that these conclusions about what moral means ‘are’ are complimentary, not contradictory, to traditional moral philosophy’s investigations into moral ‘ends’.
  • Tom Storm
    5.8k
    The challenge will be with what authority do we derive those moral principles? Just identifying the concept that underpin norms won’t appeal to those who believe that a moral fact must have a guarantor - a god, a Platonic realm or from some mechanism of higher consciousness.
  • Joshs
    4.2k
    Cultural moral norms are a topic almost ignored by traditional moral philosophy as just a chaotic mess. Fortunately, science’s tools can sort through such messes to reveal underlying principles. And I am happy to say that these conclusions about what moral means ‘are’ are complimentary, not contradictory, to traditional moral philosophy’s investigations into moral ‘ends’.Mark S


    You may be familiar with a new breed of psychological and philosophical work on the origin of ethical values that divides the realm of subjective emotional sentiment from rational objectivity. Our ethical values arise from biologically evolved subjective feeling differing from culture to culture and era to era, which we can study and compare using an “evaluatively neutral” empirical naturalism at the same time that we maintain a relativistic stance on moral values. The resulting position is a mixture of objective rationalism and subjective relativism.
    Even though moral values are dependent on subjectively relative emotional dispositions, it is possible to determine one moral position as being objectively better than another on the basis of non-moral meta-empirical values such as consistency, universalizability and effects on well-being.

    It has been pointed out that such an empirical stance carries with it its own ethical baggage. That is to say, the supposed neutrality of objective scientific inquiry is itself grounded in pre-suppositions ( consistency, parsimony) that amount to ethical valuations Thus, science is as much in the business of determining ‘oughts’ as any other ethical stance.
  • SophistiCat
    2.1k
    Key question for you: Why do you think this knowledge would not be useful as I have described?Mark S

    Well, to summarize my perhaps a bit convoluted response, I'll reiterate PhilosophyRunner's question:

    How does the "is" help with disputes about "should" and "ought?"PhilosophyRunner

    You yourself seem rather conflicted on this point. In your OP and responses to others you both acknowledge it and contradict it. This is what I find most confusing. There are plenty of people among those who comment on morality who blithely ignore or deny the is-ought problem. But with you I can't even figure out where you stand.

    Let me try to reconstruct your thinking and you tell me if I got something right:

    1. Science can give us insights about generative principles behind moral norms.

    2. Those generative principles constitute a purer form of morality than the specific norms that result from it.

    3. Therefore, by gaining an understanding of those principles, we can apply a corrective to the actual moral norms that we hold, or fill the gaps left by existing norms.

    (2) is the most problematic step here, in my opinion, although plenty can be said about (1) and even (3) to further complicate the issue.
  • Mark S
    28


    Thanks for pointing out that my explanations need more details to clarify how I am handling is/ought issues.

    Assume there is a dispute about when, or even if, following a cultural moral norm will be advocated.

    Lacking the empirical knowledge that cultural moral norms are heuristics for parts of cooperation strategies:
    • The mysticism of religious and cultural heritage and moral norms’ intuitive imperative oughtness can protect cultural moral norms from rational discussion.

    With this empirical knowledge:
    • Any perceived imperative oughts are debunked. (Despite our intuitions, the Golden Rule, do not lie, steal, or kill, and other cultural moral norms do not have any innate, mystical, imperative oughtness. They are only heuristics for parts of cooperation strategies.)
    • Agreement on if or when moral norms will be advocated becomes an instrumental choice. If people want the material and psychological benefits of cooperation in their society, they should (instrumental ought):

    o Advocate following cultural moral norms when they will predictably solve cooperation problems and
    o Advocate not following those moral norms when they predictably will create cooperation problems. (Not following the moral norms when, as fallible heuristics, they act opposite to their function.)

    The scientific study of cultural moral norms reveals that, as heuristics for cooperation strategies, advocating or not advocating cultural moral norms can be justified as an instrumental ought.
  • Tom Storm
    5.8k
    If people want the material and psychological benefits of cooperation in their society, they should (instrumental ought):Mark S

    What if they don't care about the benefits of cooperation but believe instead in the benefits of might is right and getting what they can through power and brutality? Is there any way your model can arrive at a justification for its initial axiom/s?

    In other words how do you justify cooperation to those who aren't interested?
  • Agent Smith
    8.9k
    Indeed, moral norms have a cooperative flavor to them. Kant's second test, in addition to universalizability (the categorical imperative), is cooperativity. In a book, god bless the author, there's a simple example, driving in traffic - if everybody cooperates, everybody reaches their respective destinations in time, but if they don't all arrive late. The famous prisoner's dilemma is another example of how working together is a better option than not.

    In biology two kinds of relationships exist:

    1. Parasitic: in a relationship, one gains and the other loses
    2. Symbiotic: in a relationship, both register a gain

    Morality is, by the looks of it, all about symbiosis and reducing parasitism.
  • Mark S
    28

    it is possible to determine one moral position as being objectively better than another on the basis of non-moral meta-empirical values such as consistency, universalizability and effects on well-beingJoshs

    I agree, but the subject of moral positions in terms of answers to “How should I Live”, “What is good?”, and “What are my obligations?” is beyond what I would like this thread to be about. I’d like this thread to focus on what science can tell us about cultural moral norms as heuristics for cooperation strategies. Perhaps we can return to this in a future thread?

    the supposed neutrality of objective scientific inquiry is itself grounded in pre-suppositions ( consistency, parsimony) that amount to ethical valuations Thus, science is as much in the business of determining ‘oughts’ as any other ethical stance.Joshs

    I understand this is a position some have defended. I see science as not based on premises (pre-suppositions) but as a coherent web of knowledge (as per W. V. Quine) from which the specific pre-suppositions you refer to emerge. Again, this is a topic I would like to put off for another thread.
  • javi2541997
    2.7k
    1. Parasitic: in a relationship, one gains and the other loses
    2. Symbiotic: in a relationship, both register a gain

    Morality is, by the looks of it, all about symbiosis and reducing parasitism.
    Agent Smith

    Well said, Smith! :up: :100:
  • Tom Storm
    5.8k
    Even though moral values are dependent on subjectively relative emotional dispositions, it is possible to determine one moral position as being objectively better than another on the basis of non-moral meta-empirical values such as consistency, universalizability and effects on well-being.Joshs

    Indeed. Nicely phrased.

    It has been pointed out that such an empirical stance carries with it its own ethical baggage. That is to say, the supposed neutrality of objective scientific inquiry is itself grounded in pre-suppositions ( consistency, parsimony) that amount to ethical valuations Thus, science is as much in the business of determining ‘oughts’ as any other ethical stance.Joshs

    These presuppositions are valued because they are good at a particular job relative to a framework - so is it argued that this selection is itself an act 'ought making' and thereby an ethical choice?
  • Mark S
    28

    In other words how do you justify cooperation to those who aren't interested?Tom Storm

    I can't. What I can do is have nothing to do with them. If they exploit other people, I can, at minimum, warn other people these are poor cooperators and they should have nothing to do with them also.

    If they just want to be left alone, we can leave them alone.

    This is how our ancestors have been handling the problem for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.
  • Tom Storm
    5.8k
    Sure, but doesn't this mean that the starting point of your ethical proposal presupposes agreement on corporation which itself needs to be justified.

    Just remind me, what problem are you trying to resolve with your approach? Is it just finding a justification (underpinnings) for potential ethical choices if we have already determined that we must cooperate? What form of cooperation does one use - anything from Communism to neo-Liberalism would be in scope, right?
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