23 December 2016

Continuity & Philosophy

I recently used our Order Facebook group to discuss some aspects of karma doctrine. I discovered, with no great surprise, that there were a multitude of views on the subject that spanned the spectrum of historical views: from sutra style views, through Abhidhamma and Madhyamaka, to Yogācāra and various hybrid views. I know for a fact that we have a few secular humanists as well. So there seems to be no coherent view on karma in the Triratna Buddhist Order, and whether or not this even matters is up for discussion. Some of us simply don't care about it. I do find karma a boring subject, but what got me interested was all the internal contradictions in the traditional doctrines. And not just the contradictions that I found, but the historical records of sectarian Buddhists finding fault with each other's views on karma.

In writing up some comments, I revisited a well known passage from the Milindapañha (Mil). Nāgasena's discussion with King Milinda is interesting in relation to some of the issues I have been highlighting lately in my writing about philosophy (in the PTS translation this discussion starts on p.54. In Pāli, MP 40). The king raises the question of whether the one arising (yo uppajjati, i.e. the one being reborn) is the same [as one the one who died] or different. Nāgasena walks him through the answer in his usual Socratic way
Ns: Is your younger self the same as you present self?
KM: No.
In modern Buddhism is the right answer. However, back when the Mil was being written, this was the wrong answer! Nāgasena replies that if the King was correct then he could have no mother or father, nor could he have had a teacher, nor have mastered a craft, nor cultivated moral habits or wisdom. All these require continuity over time. And Nāgasena locates this continuity in the body, "... all these are held together as a unity in dependence on this body itself" (imameva kāyaṃ nissāya sabbe te ekasaṅgahitā Mil 40)

Nāgasena likens the body to an oil lamp. Although the flame changes constantly as the lamp burns, the lamp itself does not change, at least over the length of a single night. As the King puts it, the lamp was "burning all through the night in dependence on itself." (taṃ yeva nissāya sabbarattiṃ padīpito Mil 40).

I think this view has merit because it makes a sensible distinction between the effervescence of mental states and the relative stability of the body. The persistence of the body over time is also acknowledged at SN 12:61. So at an early point in Buddhist philosophy it was OK to admit that objects existed and persisted in time. At this point the problem of persistence only properly concerns dhammas—i.e. mental objects—as this sutta affirms. Mental events arise and cease constantly and do not persist. And it is precisely by paying attention to mental states as dependently arisen that one attains cessation of suffering.

Of course the idea that something might be a condition or basis (nissāya) for its own existence is problematised by Nāgarjuna. I need to make a few more comments and then I'm come back to this issue.

Coming back to Milandapañha, the texts seems to record a view that existed just prior to dependent arising becoming a theory of everything, as it was for Nāgārjuna for example. After Nāgārjuna we are forced to apply a rule designed to describe the dynamics of mental events, as our main framework for understanding the objective world. Suddenly nothing at all may persist. Suddenly we are forced to deny that the lamp persisted through the night! This causes problems because objects (like the lamp) clearly do persist, so Buddhist doctrine now claims to be the ultimate reality, but in fact it contradicts reality. And although Nāgārjuna seems to have been aware of the problem, he seems also to have avoided back-tracking and committed to ploughing forward with this contradiction, which he rationalises in the metaphysics of the two truths. One error leads to another and before we know it we are endorsing paradoxes and other fallacies.

If we step back from this and allow that external objects exist and that they follow a different pattern of evolution from mental events, then there is no need for two truths. What the two truths do is mix up ontology and epistemology (what exists and what we know about it). But this is simply bad philosophy. Perception is patently not reality, so why would we expect the same pattens of evolution to apply to both?

So now we can see why the lamp being a condition for itself is not really a problem. If a mental state were to be the sufficient condition for its own existence then only two there are only two possible outcomes: either it always exists (which is forbidden) or it never exists (which makes it irrelevant). And since mental events are constantly arising and ceasing, neither of these options can apply. But these rules don't apply to objects like lamps. The lamp persists because that is what macro-objects can do. This does not mean that it does not change, eventually. Nāgasena may have chosen to use the image of the lamp because another feature of lamps is that they are not consumed by the flame that they sustain. Even when the flame stops, you still have a lamp.

This begs the question of why the universe and the mind follow different patterns of evolution. The answer to this is scale and structure. In my philosophy we admit that the universe is made of one kind of stuff. At the fundamental level it is made of quantum fields. But depending on which scale we observe the universe we see different kinds of objects and different kinds of behaviour. So yes, the universe is made of one stuff, but that stuff is made into a vast array of objects each of which may have behaviours that only emerge because of the of structure of the stuff that makes them up. In this view, both substance and structure are real. Indeed we can talk about a fundamental substance, but not about a fundamental reality. The objective world is real in different ways at different scales. So if we look at how objects behave at one level of organisation (e.g. our house and the objects in it) there is no reason to expect the same behaviour from objects at a different level (e.g. our brain and neurons). 

Take a pottery lamp. As unfired clay is has one set of properties. Clay is an aggregate of particles of minerals. It absorbs water, is malleable when wet, and not durable. But provide enough heat to drive a series of chemical reactions and the aggregate turns into a new compound in which there are no longer particles, but a single new substance with quite different properties. Fired clay is porous but does not absorb water, it is brittle and not malleable, and it is durable over thousands of years. What has changed is the internal structure of the material. Structure makes the difference and it is structures that persist. 

In this view there is still one reality. This one reality is monistic with respect to substance but it is pluralistic with respect to structure. So the differences between how the objects behave and how our minds behave is not a contradiction, but a confirmation of this ontology.

However, when I say that objects exist and are real, this is not to say that objects are permanent. Nor have Western intellectuals ever considered them to be so. From Heraclitus down the ages, the refrain of the Western intellectual tradition as been: "everything changes" (except God and we got rid of God). Change is a given when talking about existence in my intellectual tradition. In contrast to the Buddhist tradition, existence is always temporary. Our Western view leads to more sensible philosophy (eventually).

If there is one axiom of Buddhist metaphysics that needs to change, it is the idea that existence is equivalent to permanence. This axiom forces us to take up indefensible positions and defend them using irrational arguments, such as those involving paradoxes. And the thing is there is no need to invoke paradox and before Nāgārjuna, no Buddhist text does invoke paradox. The Pāḷi suttas acknowledge the difficulty of communicating the experience of liberation, but then immediately go about forming similes, metaphors, and abstractions that attempt the difficult task. They also emphasise that the recipe is not the cake and encourage everyone to see for themselves using the traditional idea that the dhamma is ehipassiko (literally, either "come and see" or "go and see"*). Although there are some wrong ideas and bad philosophy in the early texts, they don't seem to deliberately obfuscate either the process or the outcome.
*The first person singular imperative form of the verb √i 'go' is the same as for the verb ā√i 'come'; i.e. ehi.

Even if objects were permanent, our experience of them would not be, because the object is only half of the equation of experience. Our minds are the other half. However, once dependent arising is accepted as a theory of everything, then epistemology got thoroughly confused with ontology; perception with reality. We are left trying use an explanation suited to one level of reality for all levels of reality. And this never works. 

If we disentangle epistemology from ontology then Buddhists presents us with many fewer problems. Dependent arising still more or less does the job it was designed to do: explain the arising of mental states, especially from the point of view of those who base their account of the mind on experiences in meditation. Once we peel back the faulty and redundant metaphysics we are in a much better position to think about our world and our place in it. I don't find karma an interesting subject per se. I'm not fascinated by supernatural explanations of morality, though I am more interested in naturalistic explanations of morality. The fact that these contradictions are so obvious in the doctrine of karma is what interests me most about it. Karma is one area of Buddhist thought in which the ancient cracks are fairly obvious and this gives us something to work with.

Orthodoxy clearly changes over time. In some cases, as in our Order, there is hardly any orthodoxy on some subjects. I think most of the Order probably agree that karma is part of our intellectual landscape. Like all social primates, we believe that actions have consequences and how we treat each other is important. Of course we tend to yoke this to the practice of meditation and the cultivation of altered states of mind.

Most of us want the intellectual equivalent of our emotional/intuitive commitment to "actions have consequences". We want to think we are sensible, rational, and reasonable in taking on these religious doctrines. Unfortunately I don't think we are, but then generally speaking nor is anyone about anything. We just aren't very rational. Given a feeling we go looking for a justification and we tend to settle on the first one that comes along. We look for confirmation of our beliefs. We uncritically accept ideas that seem to fit our worldview and uncritically reject ideas that don't fit. This is humanity. We just have to be honest with ourselves and work with what we have. 


02 December 2016

The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Empathy.

Three parts: one | two | three |

"I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and the chimpanzee only later—or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring and cooperation. What a different intellectual landscape we would occupy!" - Frans de Waal.

2. Empathy

Frans de Waal, following neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, thinks that empathy probably evolved from maternal care. The bond between mother and infant breaks down the self-other barrier and allows the two of them to feel what the other feels. This allows the mother to understand and respond to the needs of the infant before it can clearly communicate them; and it allows the mother to help the infant regulate its emotions, especially to calm itself once aroused. The natural outcome of this is attachment between them that continues to manifest throughout their lives. Attachment is vitally important for young primates to develop normally. Primates which do not successfully attach to their mothers, or a substitute, are at a real disadvantage throughout their lives.

Simple empathy is just emotional contagion, which is when we pick up on the state of arousal of others and respond in kind. It helps to coordinate responses to threats and opportunities and provides a certain amount of group cohesion. It helps mothers and infants cooperate to better care for the infant.

A striking example of emotional contagion is that when one baby hears another baby crying, it will often begin to cry. Humans have the ability to mimic another's facial expression, body language, and tone of voice and this triggers the same emotion in the one doing the mimicking. We literally feel what others feel. We judge a great actor by whether or not we catch emotions from them that seem authentic to the situation being portrayed. Another example of emotional contagion that has fascinated me is catching yawns. Humans, great apes and dogs can all catch yawns from each other. One individual yawns and this provokes a yawn in another. I've tried this with cats and they don't seem to catch yawns, though they do yawn, and I am susceptible to catching cat yawns.

The next level of empathy is concern for others. If a fellow group member comes off worst in a fight, a chimp, often the victor, will go over to them, pat, kiss, and groom them. This helps both chimps to down-regulate their state of arousal. It also helps repair the bond between the combatants. Another way of looking at it is that chimps and other primates have a sense of interconnectedness within their group and when that is damaged or broken, they take steps to reconnect. I'll discuss the importance of this below.

On the other hand it is also possible for group members to pass through different layers of what novelist, Orson Scott Card, called the hierarchy of exclusion, which defines how we treat outsiders and especially how we judge the human/not-human distinction. At the Gombe Stream National Park a splinter group of chimps was systematically hunted and killed by the main group, led by Frodo, an unusually violent alpha male. Minorities in human societies are always vulnerable to this phenomena. All too often we hear of peaceful co-existence until some external shock or economic hardship polarises the community, setting off inter-communal violence and sometimes even genocide. Still, many examples of peaceful co-existence can be found also, especially as globalisation and the free movement of people has created mass movements of people seeking prosperity and/or security. Migration on a large scale also creates some anxiety from existing communities. All kinds of emotions can be contagious. 

Social mammals are able to take empathy a step further, because the ability to literally feel what others feel enables members of groups to recognise and respond to need in each other. Chimps and other animals will often care for individuals that have difficulties related to age or illness for example. Evidence is that both early modern humans and Neanderthals cared for members of their societies that could not have been productive (people with physical developmental problems for example).

Humans and the social apes can take the perspective of the other individual. We've already seen an example of this above when a chimp refuses a reward until their companion gets the same reward. In order to do this, the individual has to understand that the other will sense the unfairness, but also that they will remember it and perhaps retaliate later. They have to understand the consequences of their own actions now, but also understand how the other feels about it and what they might do in the future as a result. Whether a chimp is "reasoning" this out is moot, but they are clearly able to understand and respond to the situation and anticipate, and thus avoid, some likely outcomes.

In another example, de Waal describes two adolescent female chimps in a zoo who held up the group feeding because they wanted to stay out in the sun. Keepers feed the group inside and only start when the whole group is present. So the whole group had to wait for the two. The next day when they were released back into their compound, the group chased, cornered and beat up the two young females. That day, and subsequently, they were the first ones to go in for their food. The group identified who had caused them to wait for their food, they remembered the next day, they acted in a coordinated manner to teach them that actions that affect the group can have unpleasant consequences. The two adolescents understood that they were being punished for behaviour from the day before and modified their behaviour in the future. 

A positive example of such perspective taking, reported by de Waal, involved an elderly female chimp who was blind and quite crippled. Each day a she was led out to a sunny spot by one of her group. Other chimps brought her food. Some would carry over mouthfuls of water that they would spit into her mouth. This suggests that chimps are quite capable of caring for a member of their group who cannot fend for themselves, but that they can also anticipate their need for comfort, food, and water and act to provide them. Humans and Neanderthals also did this well back into prehistory. 

In Robin Dunbar's account of human evolution (2014) he describes primates' time as being almost entirely taken up with three activities: feeding, sleeping, and grooming. All other activities take up a very small percentage of their time. For all social primates except humans, grooming is an important mechanism for experiencing empathy and ensuring social cohesion. Grooming has the effect of promoting a shared sense of well-being (mediated internally by endogenous opiates or endorphins). Chimps and gorillas spend a lot of their time grooming. Bonobos have replaced grooming to some extent with sexual contact (a full range of the possible combinations is observed), though it is almost always very brief. De Waal says ten seconds would be a long time for sexual contact between two bonobos. These strategies enable chimps and bonobos to live in groups of up to around 50 members, though their feeding strategies mean that the main group constantly splinters and recombines over time

Humans tend to live in groups of around 150. If we relied on grooming, getting around everyone would require more time than is available in a day. Since the amount that we need to sleep is more or less fixed, the extra time required would have to come from feeding. And for this to work required significant steps up. We still don't know which was the driving force, but brain and group size both grew together. It's likely that the early hominid ancestors of modern humans began to exploit food sources from the water, especially fish, shellfish, and algae* which gave us access to higher energy-value food and provided nutrients (protein and omega 3 fatty-acids) required for growing bigger brains (this is an aspect of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis).
* A very recent paper, Boesch et al (2016) describes chimps "fishing" for algae using long sticks, while baboons grab what they can from the shore.
Better quality of food gave us one step. Using fire to cook food was another step up. Cooked food gave us more calories per mouthful and made proteins easier to digest. But the major steps up were social. Instead of one-to-one grooming, we began to use many-to-many activities to promote social cohesions. Laughing, singing, and dancing together, for example, produce the same physical feelings of well-being which is mediated by endogenous opiates. Later we added story-telling, and eventually religion combined most of these elements with a sense of greater purpose that allowed us to work together to achieve communal goals (Norenzayan 2013). Much later we learned how to cultivate food animals and crops and this, eventually, led to a population explosion. Predictions seem to be that human population will top out at about 10 billion some time around 2050. 

If we look more closely at laughter, we are thirty times more likely to laugh at a comedy if watching it in a group of four compared to watching it on our own. Our ability to experience empathy is part of what makes this possible. Laughter can be extremely contagious. It's why in the 1970s and 80s TV comedies had canned laughter tracks, and why a lot of broadcast comedy is still done in front of a live audience. Children will often join in adult laughter without getting the jokes, just because laughing together is pleasurable. Laughing together promotes a sense of connectedness. And if the whole group is laughing together, then social cohesion is achieved very efficiently in contrast with extended one-to-one grooming. 

A sense of connectedness is a prime quality for successful social living. We have to connect to our mother, our family, our tribe, etc. The sharply differentiated individual that tends to dominate the Western world, is a rather new, and I think unfortunate development in human evolution. Lone wolves tend not to thrive like pack wolves do. We observe the desperate attempts to substitute  a sense of connection through technology for the real thing. But the rising occurrence of mental health problems in technology rich societies suggests that this is not working. One of Futurologist John Naisbett's maxims in his 1982 book Megatrends was "high-tech/high-touch". He suggested that increasing use of technology would require more human contact not less. He revisited the theme in 1999 in a book called High-tech/High-touch where he explains that "The two biggest markets in the United States are consumer technology and escape from consumer technology." I've argued that virtual communities are ersatz communities and that they largely exist to commodify our lives. The alienation that results from the destruction of our real-life communities, for example, may help to explain the steady rise in the use of prescription antidepressants.

In any case, as our brain grew, our group sizes could grow and maintain their cohesion. Larger groups made us more successful at surviving, so this became a virtuous circle, but it also meant we had to exploit more varied food sources covering wider ranges, which probably led us to the long migrations that saw us settle every continent except Antarctica by about 15,000 years ago. Our reliance on water -based food sources meant that our early migrations followed coastlines and river-banks. These are still our preferred living situations. Until about 30,000 years ago there were up four other species of humans that we shared the planet with, all growing larger brains and larger groups than our ape cousins. All of the species interbred. All non-African humans have 1-2% Neanderthal genes on average, as well as smaller amounts of Denisovan, and other as yet unidentified species. The production of viable hybrid offspring raises the question of whether the different types were actually species or just variants. As it happens, Homo sapiens is the sole survivor of the genus, but we have not evolved beyond the need for a community and all that this entails. Empathy is what makes communal living successful.

2.1 Managing conflict

One of the behaviours that caught de Waal's attention early on in his career as a primatologist was that after a fight, two male chimps would actively reconcile. Often the victorious chimp would reach out a hand to the loser. Once the initial gesture was accepted, the two might hug, kiss, and groom each other until both had calmed down and re-established harmony. At the time this ran completely counter to the mainstream view of what behaviours chimps were capable of.  Ironically, the Romantic view of nature as "red in tooth and claw" dominated science. In this view chimps were seen primarily as dangerous violent animals. The idea that animals might fight was seen as normal, but that they would make-up after a fight was difficult for many scientists to swallow well into the 20th Century. When it turned out that bonobos also made up, but used sexual contact to do so, many scientists were too embarrassed to even mention it in conversation. Here de Waal's Dutch upbringing, with its very straight-forward approach to sex, may have been an invaluable asset amongst more prudish American and British colleagues.

Large aggressive males are part of the successful strategy of social animals: males evolve this way because they are better able to gang up on predators such as leopards, better able to compete with other groups of their own species, and more able to compete intra-group for food and chances to mate with females. Males of most animal species are capable of killing each other, but rarely engage in the kinds of conflict where death or serious injury will result. Aggression is channelled into non-fatal forms of combat, or sublimated into displays and posturing. The same is generally true of humans in small-scale communities, though aggression greatly increases with the advent of "civilisation" and the concept of ownership. Especially, once we can conceive of owning land, we tend to become acquisitive. No doubt, chimps are aggressive and more violent than humans, but for one group member to injure or kill another is to undermine the group that provides the vehicle for their own survival. So it is rare.

The point of this observation is that where you have aggression built into the group dynamic, there have to be mechanisms for managing it and preventing it from escalating, or the group will simply fall apart. There has to be a feedback mechanism to down-regulate the arousal associated with aggression and ways to mitigate the effects of aggression that does break out. Without it aggression might escalate. 

De Waals not only observed reconciliation in chimps, but in one zoo also noticed that an older male who had retired from the hurly-burly of vying for dominance in the troop took on the role of "policeman". He would intervene in conflicts on the side of the weaker party, preventing physical violence from escalating and waiting until the two parties calmed down and reconciled before leaving them alone. This behaviour has since been observed in older males in other zoos and in wild chimps.

There are both internal and external pressures that drive evolution of larger more aggressive males. But social species would not be successful if there were not ways to regulate in-group aggression and violence. "Male-bonding" may be the subject of feminist ridicule these days, or of suggestions of homo-eroticism, but in fact it plays an important role in holding communities together. It helps to create a sense of connection that forestalls aggression and provides a basis for reconciliation if things do flair up. Men need to spend a lot of their time together in the absence of competition for mates (for example) in order to create a sense of connection essential to conflict management. We've seen this sense of connection degraded in recent decades, with detrimental results for communities.

Empathy and altruism are part of this story, but peace-making and conflict resolution seem to be important skills in their own rights. Managing conflict so that group members are not injured during intra-groups conflicts, especially where there is the real danger of group members being killed, is vital for the survival of the group. Injured members are a drain on the resources of the group. This is partly because the require and receive care, but also because the full strength of the group is required to defend against predators and external competitors. Preventing group members from harming each other is an important capacity to build into a group and evolution has typically furnished with such capacities.

~ Conclusions ~

We should not romanticise about chimps or bonobos. Chimps are more violent than humans, far more prone to physical confrontations than we are. As well as displaying the rudiments of morality, they also sometimes act in ways that in humans would be seen as immoral. They are known to deliberately kill other chimps, especially strangers and infants. Chimps have hunted and eaten human children as they do with small primates that live in their range. It was recently announced that bonobo mothers have been observed to eat their own dead infants, though this is not associated with infanticide.

The emphasis here on moral qualities is for the purpose of highlighting the fundamentals of moral behaviour; it is not meant to portray the chimpanzee as a saint. The bonobo is much less violent than its close cousin the chimpanzee, but is still no saint either. Sainthood does not apply to species, though there may well be saintly individuals in any species. By the same token I have little time for those people who demonise species (or genders for that matter). One of Frans de Waal's complaints is that for most of his working life the negative side of animal behaviour was stressed in biology, partly, he thinks, as a way of highlighting what were thought of as uniquely positive qualities of humans. It turns out that chimps are much better, and humans much less unique, than we thought. We are what we are.

The argument I've outlined in this three-part essay (soon to be a book chapter) is that observing social animals, especially social primates, suggests that there are two principles upon which moral behaviour are based: reciprocity and empathy. I've further argued that reciprocity opens the door to fairness and justice, and that it requires generosity and altruism (generosity with no expectation of reward) as a starting position. In a society in which reciprocity is the norm our reputation for sharing or non-sharing can make a huge difference to our life chances. Empathy enables us to feel what others feel, breaking down self/other boundaries, providing us with a sense of connection with, but also obligation to, the group we are a part of. Such obligations are essential for morality. 

These are not qualities that we have to force ourselves to experience, rather the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. We naturally experience empathy and practice reciprocity at least with our in-group, and we have to make an effort to suppress them. The capacity for reciprocity and empathy is something we share with other great apes and to some extent with other mammals and with birds. They are the basic requirements of a social lifestyle for any animal (social insects are different). We evolved to favour these behaviours because these are the qualities that make for successful social living. These behaviours include maternal care, infant protection, group protection, emotional contagion, concern for other group members, perspective taking, sharing of food, peace making, conflict resolution, and reconciliation.

This much is obvious: for a social animal to succeed as a species it has to have a strong tendency towards prosocial behaviour. If it did not, then no amount of law-making or intellectual reflection could create a workable society. In light of this observation, the idea of the fundamentally selfish human is self-evidently ludicrous. This has not stopped it becoming widely accepted as a fact by theologians, economists, philosophers and psychologists. De Waal dismissively calls the idea that we are fundamentally greedy, selfish, and vicious with only a thin surface layer of civilisation, the veneer theory. This theory is at odds with what we are like, but it's at odds with what we have to be like as social animals. That our theories about ourselves can be so strongly contrasted with what we are actually like is telling us something very important about how our minds work. 

The Freudian idea of a monstrous bestial Id, made up of chaotic and amoral basic urges, held in check by an rigidly authoritarian Super-Ego is a fantasy. The psychoanalytic tradition can be seen as a form of veneer theory. But perhaps the most influential version of veneer theory in the Western world comes from the Abrahamic Bible. Taken as an allegory about the loss of innocence at puberty, it has a certain charm, but historically it has been taken as a literal statement about the inherent evil in humanity, which can only be redeemed by divine intervention. And we invite this intervention through submission to the will of God as expressed in the holy book. Many Buddhists also believe that people are incorrigibly immoral and that redemption comes only through restraining our desires. The restraint of desire as the route to liberation from suffering is a feature of all Indian religions, except Tantra in which immoral desire becomes the vehicle for transformation. Part of the power of Tantra is in the antinomian practice of giving into what are normatively seen as immoral urges: for example, breaking Brahmanical taboos against intermingling of caste (sexual consorts are meant to be women from the untouchable section of society), meat eating, or drinking alcohol.

Our genes may well be selfish, but human beings are not. We are prosocial by nature. And in fact we extend this prosociability to other species. For example, dogs have been part of human families for thousands of years. The reason we tend to favour mammals and birds as pets is that we experience reciprocity and empathy with them. In the absence of human company an animal will often suffice to provide enough company to stave off the madness that we experience when cut off from community. We share a considerable range of pro-social behaviours with other animals. And we can see plenty of commonality in chimps and bonobos, though the two are distinct from each other and we overlap with each in different ways. So morality develops on top of this core of pro-social behaviour and ways of dealing with antisocial behaviour.

To return to the morality/ethics distinction I mentioned in Part I of this essay, the moral principles outlined here form the basis of system of ethics that has universal appeal and applicability, i.e. empathy, fairness, justice; reciprocity, consoling the afflicted or defeated, compassion, peace-making, and conflict resolution. These are the basic features of required for social animals to thrive, so any society ought to acknowledge the value of them. That said, this leaves a vast amount of leeway for designing moral rules or precepts to enact these principles. Flourishing is associated with general principles, not with specific rules. Many different species and groups with different approaches to the same principles have thrived. The principles are not prescriptive at the level of specific rules. The other caveat, is that some societies have false views about humans. The various religious versions of the veneer theory, for example, would forestall accepting these moral principles. If you believe that people are fundamentally wicked, your system of ethics will be designed radically differently from a system predicated on prosociability.

Searle's deontological view of morality based on deontology, i.e. on rights, duties, and obligations with respect to our group and members of our group, is consistent with the principles that emerge from studying primates. I've seen some descriptions of deontological morality as being about following rules. But this is not how I interpret it. Obligation to our group follows from the principle of reciprocity. Our fundamental obligation is to the flourishing of the group as the vehicle for our personal survival and we mainly fulfil this obligation this through reciprocity. At least in small-scale societies this seems pretty straight-forward. In larger societies where reciprocity is more tenuous because we are mostly interacting with strangers or out-group people it is more complex.

The evolution of social animals of many different types has converged on these behaviours precisely because they are the most successful. One of the least successful strategies is the Neoliberal zero-sum game where the winner takes all. The unfairness and inequality involved in this strategy weakens the society that adopts it. History is littered with evidence of the lack of viability of inequitable societies. The best places to live are socialist democracies, i.e. places where everyone has a say, but everyone is committed to the general welfare and well-being of everyone else. The catch is that the socialist democracies that flourish tend to be rather small (a few million people at most) and have a strong sense of national identity. And because they are open to persuasion, they are also open to being usurped or suborned.

We also have to be aware of social hierarchies, i.e. the internal social hierarchy of a group and the hierarchies of inclusion (aka the Dunbar Numbers) and of exclusion. Social animals are not typically egalitarian, their societies are almost never flat, but have a vertical hierarchy with alpha-males and alpha-females at the top. But it is worth noting that animals occupying these positions tend to exemplify not brute force, but rather the same moral principles of empathy and reciprocity. Being alpha-male in particular involves a number of quid-pro-quos in return for support. Alphas are more bound by reciprocity and have to be more highly attuned to the the mood of the group and the dispositions of individuals, rather than less. The higher the status of a social animal, the heavier the obligations on them. This may be why humans expect so much from leaders, and why rich people shirking their obligations are seen as egregiously immoral by the masses.

The hierarchy of exclusion is a moveable barrier which literally excludes the majority of people and animals from the reach of our morality. Humans are certainly capable, at their best, of having a very wide and open circle of inclusion. The fact that we keep pets, for example, and frequently treat them as members of our family is a significant indicator for how far we are able to include strangers in our group. So successful are we that it's likely that dogs have evolved to be more like us to fit in better. Dog social dynamics seem to be more like ours than, say, that of wolves or wild dogs.

The principles of morality are transparent to society, meaning that reciprocity and empathy are so ubiquitous we don't often think of them and we don't need to think of them when formulating rules. Moral rules tend pertain to the breakdown (real or potential) of our natural sociability, i.e. everyone gets on with their lives, but when things go wrong, the spoken or unspoken rules are invoked as a way of re-establishing order and/or harmony. Thus is consistent with Searle's idea of background capabilities, where we develop dispositions to behave in ways that are consistent with the rules, without having to consciously follow the rules.

For example, the rules that Buddhist monks follow were in many cases composed in response to failures to act in ways consistent with what was socially acceptable for monks. Notably the law text for Buddhist monks, the Vinaya, records that many of the rules for Buddhist monks resulted from direct complaints about the behaviour of monks by lay people. For this reason most of the monks' rules are matters of social etiquette, specific to Iron Age India rather than having any general moral significance. However, though the Vinaya records that monks were given the opportunity to make this distinction, they eschewed it in favour of rigid rule following. Even so, disputes over the rules resulted in multiple versions of the rules (seven versions survive in Chinese translation).

One of the problems with religious communities is that they become obsessed with rules and enforcing norms. This partly because salvation is contingent on good, or even perfect, behaviour. I've seen this go wrong in large and small ways in my own community. I've seen quite bad behaviour be rationalised on the basis that someone else is breaking the rules. Charismatic individuals are also able to persuade people that their version of morality supersedes a more general version and in this lies the basis of the cult. 

The transparent nature of morality seems to have deceived intellectuals for many years. For too long, for instance, we thought that morality was a function of intellect and reason. But simple observation shows that this picture is simply wrong. Humans are social, even prosocial, they tend to generosity and reciprocity, and are naturally empathetic. We are naturally attached to our parents and peers and this attachment make us happy. Infants who fail to develop attachments are developmentally stunted and likely to suffer from personality and mood disorders. But it also means we suffer when our loved ones die (and this predisposes us to belief in an afterlife).

Moral theory has been hampered by a failure to detach itself from erroneous legacy thinking. In recent decades governments have promoted psychopathic anti-social behaviour. For example, Alan Greenspan (inspired by his psychopathic guru, Ayn rand) is said to have been against prosecuting financial traders for fraud because of his belief that "the market" would punish them. This is quite close to the Buddhist view of karma taken literally. But it didn't work. The finance industry, freed of regulation and over-sight by Greenspan and people like him, relieved of any obligation to society, simply ran amok. Which makes you wonder about whether Buddhist karma could possibly be the basis for morality in the real world.

People often assert that science cannot tell us how to live. Anti-science advocates like to say that science can play no role in the design of moral rules or ethical systems. Clearly this is not the case. Here, science has revealed the underlying dynamics of the lives of social animals as based in reciprocity and empathy. Any moral system which is designed with a different understanding will be flawed and will fail to provide appropriate incentives and disincentives to be moral. Science provides insights into our motives and decision-making processes that are crucial to fostering prosperous and healthy communities (if that is our goal). There will be no perfect system, no panacea for refusing the duties and obligations of group membership, and no stable set of rules that will deal with all situations. But, we do know what principles evolution produced to make groups generally successful. We have the choice about whether to use this information or not. I hope we do use it and that we make societies that are more fair, justice, harmonious and connected than our current societies as a result. But I fear we have a lot of unlearning to do before any of this will make sense to the majority. 


Three parts: one | two | three |

~ Bibliography ~

Boesch, C., et al. (2016), Chimpanzees routinely fish for algae with tools during the dry season in Bakoun, Guinea. American Journal of Primatology. doi:10.1002/ajp.22613

Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. (2 Vols). London: John Murray.

Del Testa, David W. (2014). Government Leaders, Military Rulers and Political Activists. Routledge.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Kay, John (2016). The monumental folly of rent-seeking. Financial Times. 20 Nov 2016.

Lakoff, George (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sloan Wilson, David. (2004). The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest, in Evolutionary Psychology and Economic TheoryAdvances in Austrian Economics, Volume 7, 201–220. doi:10.1016/S1529-2134(04)07009-7 http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/DSW10.pdf

Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52]. https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

Waal, Frans de. (2016) The Life Scientific. [Interview with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio4, broadcast 4 Oct 2016]. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wt6bj

25 November 2016

The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Reciprocity

Three parts: one | two | three |

So these are the pillars of morality. If you ask anyone, "What is morality based on?" these are the two factors that always come out. One is reciprocity, and associated with it is a sense of justice and a sense of fairness. And the other one is empathy and compassion. And human morality is more than this, but if you would remove these two pillars, there would be not much remaining I think. And so they're absolutely essential. (Frans de Waal. Official TED Talk transcript)

1. Reciprocity 

Reciprocity is one of the most basic features of morality. At its simplest, reciprocity is just give and take. Chimps display this trait in sharing of food and in mutual grooming. In The Atheist and the Bonono, Frans de Waal tells the story of a hunter-gatherer who did not share the food he had hunted one day. The community acted in concert to shame him so that in the end he gave all his food away. His single act of selfishness would likely be remembered by the community for a long time. One of the basic rules of the social primate lifestyle is that we stand together or not at all. Anyone who does not share, threatens the survival of the group. 

We often talk about morality in terms of metaphors of balance or accounting (Lakoff 1995). This reflects the fact that we keep track of give and take and aim to balance things out. Other social animals can also keep track of give and take, and are aware that others will share on the basis of being shared with. A chimp knows that if they do or don't share food with an individual that it will remembered. Chimps remember which other chimps share or don't share and they preferentially share or don't share on this basis. This is a feedback loop.

If the tendency is not to share, then social individuals end up in an every-one for themselves situation and their group breaks down and stops being an effective survival mechanism. Such a set up would be naturally selected against. Social animals must have both a bias for sharing and a bias against not sharing; i.e. both positive and negative feedback aimed at promoting reciprocity. Anything else would simply fail. Sharing encourages future reciprocal sharing; and sharing is the basis of success in social species. There is still some residual desire to get more for oneself, but being caught being greedy means that one is more likely to face retribution (violent confrontation in many primate societies); but one is also less likely to receive shared food in the future. Thus selfishness carries considerable risk for any social animal. Under normal social conditions for a chimp or a hunter-gatherer human, greed is self-defeating because it creates a reputation for not sharing, degrades one's status in the group, and makes it less likely that others will return the favour in the future. I'll return to the subject of reputation below, since it is absent from Searle's account of social reality.

Only a disposition to reciprocity can survive in a social group. The logic is so obvious and so simple that as I work through it systematically, I cannot believe that anyone ever believed otherwise or fell for the rational choice theory or the errant nonsense of people like Ayn Rand. Selfishness is death to a social primate, not only individual death, but the death of the entire group. Selfishness only becomes a viable strategy in a situation where social connections have broken down or become ineffective; i.e. where there is none of the negative feedback that social connections would provide. And even in this case it can only be short term. An example might be the looting that occurs when civil order breaks down in a city. As a strategy, looting only makes sense if reciprocity is weak to start with and has has temporarily broken down; and if there are no (perceived) consequences to just taking what you can. In this narrow scenario, looting is the short-term rational choice. But even then, in the long-term, society is damaged by looting because trust is broken and can a long time to re-establish.

We can go further than this and say that social animals must have a predisposition to initiate sharing, i.e. to generosity. Without it, the negative feedback in which individuals do not share with non-sharers would result in the degrading of the group. In order for reciprocity to prosper, generosity must be the norm. And others must be willing to accept the obligation that this places them under to reciprocate. I'll say more about this under the heading of altruism. 

In Searle's deontological terms, each group member experiences an obligation to share. Being a group member is a function imposed on individuals by collective intentionality. You count as one of us while we think of you as one of us. And if you are one of us we expect you to fulfil the obligations that we understand are entailed by being one of us. For chimps, this mainly means functions like sharing food, mutual grooming, and respecting the group hierarchy. Anyone who is considered one of us and acts like one of us, gets mutual support in the form of protection from predators or competing members of our own species, and reciprocal sharing of food, access to mates, and mutual grooming. This is not anarchy or the communism, because there is a hierarchy and the alpha male exploits the group to get preferential treatment in terms to food and mates. He does this with the help of a coalition or clique, with whom he is then obligated to share with ahead of non-supporters.

Keeping track of the hierarchy, the coalitions, and the necessary reciprocity is as important as keeping track of sharing more generally. The necessity of keeping track of all this information is what lends it to the bookkeeping or accounting metaphor. Indeed it may be that this is not a metaphor, that morality is literally a bookkeeping exercise. The development of the brain power to keep track of all this in primate groups is an important part of Robin Dunbar's account of human evolution (Dunbar 2014). Brain size, especially the ratio of neo-cortex to overall brain volume, is correlated to social group size, suggesting that we use the neocortex to keep track of social information. Larger group sizes require a larger brain to keep track of all the relevant relations; while a larger brain facilitates keeping track of a larger number of peers. Since larger group sizes are better for survival, there is pressure to always operate of the limit of how many relationships we can track and for group size to creep up if possible. What makes an increase in neocortex size possible seems to be related to food sources. Quite possibly the exploitation of protein and omega-3 fatty acid sources such as shell-fish, oily fish, and algae were pivotal in the evolution of our larger brain. Cooking food also helped. But larger group size also requires more time commitment to keeping track of reciprocity and maintaining relationships. One to one grooming is inefficient and humans seem to have adopted a number of many to many activities that meet the same need: for example, dancing, singing, and laughing in groups produces the same sense of well-being in humans as grooming does in chimps. The efficiency of our methods of generating social cohesion allow us to maintain much larger groups that any other primate.

This brings us back to a factor not discussed by Searle in his account of society, i.e. reputation. Frans de Waal points out that even amongst chimps, an individual who shares, gains a reputation for sharing; while one who hoards gets a reputation for hoarding. Reputation amongst the group is important because it can determine our position in the hierarchy. If our reputation is for not sharing, then this might override the more general obligation to share: persistent freeloaders are excluded from society. Reputation encompasses how well the group thinks we are living up to the obligations placed upon us. Are we a reliable team player, or are we likely to go rogue and disrupt things? Reputation can be very difficult to shift. Just look at how we deal with criminals. On one hand we say that someone who has served their jail term for a crime has "paid their debt to society", but they typically have a permanent criminal record that restricts employment opportunities amongst other things. Despite the rhetoric of "paying debts", it is a fact that once one has a criminal record one has the status-function of criminal. Because morality is based in these evolutionary imperatives to help groups function, we can feel very strongly about immorality. At some level immorality threatens our survival, because it undermines our group. A reputation for immorality is a millstone and outlaws are often outcasts. Many societies still take reputation very seriously indeed, up to and including killing family members who act in ways that undermine reputation. 

Searle argues that though rules are discernible and may be conscious, in fact most of the time we are not following rules. Rather, in the process of learning the necessary skills we internalise rules to create dispositions. These dispositions give rise to behaviours that are consistent with the rules, without actually referencing the rules most of the time. This is important here because most of the time we are behaving and judging other people's behaviour according to standards that we may find difficult to articulate. This may account for the popularity of simplistic moral formulas like the Ten Commandments or the Five Precepts. They give focus to strongly felt, intuitive responses to pro- and antisocial behaviours and help to rationalise how we treat rule breaches. It may also explain the interminable arguments around morality as each disputant is struggling to articulate rules that are deeply felt, but not immediately available to consciousness.

The problem with most sets of moral precepts, however, is that the generalise too far up the taxonomy. The argument I'm making here is that empathy and reciprocity are the two general principles on which morality is based. For a moral system to be successful, it has to generalise these principles: to reward group members who empathise and reciprocate and punish those who do not. The Christian commandments are too culturally specific and have to be continually re-contextualised; the Buddhist precepts are general in the right kind of way, but they are conceived of as representing the idealised behaviour of the arahant who has no need of social connections. As one of my colleagues proposes, the Buddhist precepts are "not about being good". I think grounding ideas morality in the necessity of living together in large groups is essential. 

Dunbar in fact describes a social milieu in which each of us is surrounded by shells of increasing numbers of other people expanding in factors of 3: on average roughly 5, 10, 15, 45, 150, 450, 1000 etc. The obligation for reciprocity applies most strongly to family and intimates (5, 10, 15) and naturally extends outwards to our group of 150, i.e. to our village if we were living in the New Guinea highlands or medieval Europe. Where we are part of larger communities there will be a weaker obligation, in diminishing degree, extending to tribes and larger units. But beyond this, obligations are not so natural and often have to be enforced by the use of physical power. Feudal lords require standing armies to enforce the obligations of peasants and put down revolts. The bourgeoisie have "managers" and the threat of being fired to do the same job.

Where reciprocity often does not apply, is to strangers, i.e. to those who are completely outside our social circles. Jared Diamond describes strangers being killed on sight in New Guinea. Chimps and bonobos will attack and sometimes kill strange males, but welcome new females. Humans are capable of entering into reciprocal arrangements with strangers, but are not obligated to. In some cases agreements with strangers are not obligations. It is not for nothing that most surviving examples of early writing involve records of trade and/or treaties between kings. Writing enabled obligations between strangers to be binding. 

We have what novelist Orson Scott Card aptly called a hierarchy of exclusion. In the sequence of novels centred around the character of Andrew "Ender" Wiggins there is a tension between alien species and humans (with humans guilty of xenocide or wiping out a whole alien species; xeno is Greek for stranger). The category of "human" is extended in a hierarchy to 1. those we know; 2. those who are like us but from somewhere else; 3. those from another species who have recognisable "human" qualities that make communication possible. Beyond this we have 4. truly alien species, that might be intelligent, but with whom no communication is possible (with the suggestion that war is the only possible interaction). In addition there are non-intelligent beasts or monsters who are inimical to human existence. In this system we perceive an obligation to treat aliens as humans if we can communicate with them, but not if we cannot (See Hierarchy of Otherness and cf. Why Artificial Intelligences Will Never Be Like Us and Aliens Will Be Just Like Us. 27 June 2014).

For most modern people, we don't just in large groups, but in large groups of people who are mostly strangers or out-group. The difficulty of creating a moral system that everyone will follow in a multi-cultural society is substantial. And this is why many people want to live in familiar, homogeneous groups and why first generation migrants tend to cluster together. They are not necessarily racists, or if they are then their motivation is not necessarily fear or hatred of strangers. Humans crave the sense of well-being that comes from belonging to a group where everyone knows what the social rules are and can be fairly sure that everyone is keeping to them; where we can be assured that reciprocity will hold us together. This is really only certain in groups up to the limit of 150 imposed by the size of our neocortex, which is a problem if we live in a city with a hundred thousand, a million, or even ten million people in it. Yes, an outcome of this might be xenophobia, the fear of strangers, but it comes from a deeper desire that ought to be taken seriously and met: a sense of belonging. An ersatz version of belonging in the form of nationalism is promoted by states, and ersatz communities of people using computers do form, but there is no substitute for being a member of a flesh and blood, local community. This is something the Amish and related sects understand better than any other communities in the Western world. They haven't let technology or the demands of capitalism tear them apart. They remind us of how we could live if we chose to. Neal Stephenson coined the term Amistics for the study and limitation of the impact of technology on society. 

It is a principle of propaganda that to sustain war, people must hate the enemy. And the easiest way to generate that hate is to insist that the enemy is subhuman and that we cannot communicate with them; they are monstrous and lacking in morality; and they are a direct and present threat. Although the idea was first fully enunciated by Nazi propagandists, we see the technique of dehumanising an enemy throughout history and into the present. The UK invaded Iraq on the basis of the fantasy that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that it could deploy into Europe within 40 minutes. In reality Iraq had neither the weapons, nor the deployment capability, nor the desire to attack Europe (probably most of the terrorism ascribed to Iraq was in fact sponsored by Syria anyway, which makes sense because Syria had a genuine reason to be angry with us). Ironically we are often allied with the worst offenders. Gaddafi was our friend, then our enemy, then our friend, then our enemy again. Saddam Hussein also went in and out of favour depending who his enemy was: when he invaded Iran we sold him armaments (though we also sold arms to Iran); but when he invaded Kuwait, we sent an army to defeat him. Most egregiously our ally, Saudi Arabia, is one of the most brutal dictatorships in world and practice punishments such as physical beatings and death by stoning. Not only that, but they export the brand of Islamism that inspires Muslim terrorists. They are at least as bad as Assad of Syria and yet the Saudis are our allies and Assad our enemy. We've betrayed Syria many times and earned their hostility. This is one reason the UK is sometimes referred to as Perfidious Albion.

Governments regularly use propaganda to manipulate public opinion and rewrite history in their own favour. The British have a genius for turning their defeats (e.g. the first and second invasions of Afghanistan, the charge of the Light Brigade) into triumphant stories that demonstrate the superior British character. The media gleefully join in, because the propaganda is often more exciting than the real situation or history, and excitement is what they sell. Propaganda trades on the ingroup-outgroup distinction in how we perceive our obligations and theirs. There is so much propaganda at every level, that the truth is almost completely and permanently obscured.

This seemingly long digression serves to highlight the natural context for reciprocity. Humans have a remarkable ability to extent our sphere of reciprocal interactions out beyond our in-group, but we don't feel the same level of obligation at every level. And we are quite capable of beastly behaviour as long as we can define the strangers as non-human. It is notable that for many isolated traditional cultures, their word for themselves is simply "human". Strangers are automatically not humans; not included in the network of obligations; not protected by norms and conventions. One of the great advances that come with civilisation is precisely this ability to expand the category of "human" to include strangers.

The consequences of the failure of reciprocity only serve to highlight how centrally important it is to the survival of social primates. This brings us to the question of fairness, which is our knowledge of when reciprocity is working and when it is not. 

1.1 Fairness

Out of reciprocity comes the notion of fairness, i.e. if I have shared with you, it is only fair that you share with me. If you do not reciprocate, that is unfair. It might be thought that fairness is a distinctly human notion that is associated with our superior reasoning ability, but this is not the case. An appreciation of fairness has been documented in apes, elephants, dogs, and some birds.

The following video an extract from a TED Talk by de Waal on moral behaviour in animals. It became a sensation in its own right (it has been watched 10.8 million times on YouTube). 

In the video we see two capuchin monkeys performing a simple task for a reward. The two monkeys are able to see and interact with each other. Both are happy to perform this task when the reward is cucumber. But when one monkey starts getting a preferred food, a grape, the other goes on strike, actually flinging the previously acceptable cucumber back at the researcher. These monkeys clearly understand fairness. They would rather forego their reward all together, than participate in an unfair experiment. The reaction is instantly recognisable to de Waal's audience who spontaneously burst out laughing when the monkey flings his piece of cucumber back at the researcher with evident disgust. The fact that the video went viral and has been viewed more than 10 million times reinforces this impression. We know, that they know, that this grape business is bullshit. And we appreciate the way they let the research know that they know.

In a refinement of the experiment one of de Waal's colleagues has shown that in chimps the individual who is getting preferential treatment may actually refuse the preferred reward until their peer also gets the same. It is thought that they are aware that being seen to get preferential treatment by a peer may mean that they are punished later. Chimps keep track of failures to share and may retaliate violently. This suggests that not only do chimps appreciate fairness, but that they may well also be concerned with justice, i.e. with some attempt are making an unfair situation fair and enforcing the sharing norm. More on this in a moment.

In stark contrast to these observations of behaviour, is the economists' Rational Choice Theory (aka Homo economicus). This is the idea that consumers are narrowly self-interested and behave rationally, where "rational" relates to maximising utility, i.e. to getting the most value for money . The realisation that in the real world consumers are almost never rational, but make emotional decisions that are rationalised after the fact, and almost never maximise utility, led to the development of so-called behavioural economics, but this almost immediately got bogged down in Game Theory which also sees humans through a distorted non-empirical lens (it was designed by John Nash who suffers from paranoid-schizophrenia and who, ironically, became the subject of a film called "A Beautiful Mind"). An uglier view of humanity can be found, but his has become so popular that it deserves special attention.

Selfishness in a social primate is, as we have seen, irrational, since it leads to the breakdown of reciprocity. That "rational self-interest" is an oxymoron for any social animal seems not to bother economists or game-theorists. Studies of social animals show that there is some competition amongst group members, but that they are all oriented to being pro-social. They ensure their own welfare by ensuring the welfare of the group. Social animals will forego rewards to ensure fairness, just like the monkeys in the video, but also like workers who go on strike and forego wages in order to ensure a fair workplace for all. Attunement to fairness is a key disposition for social mammals. It ensures that the group all prosper together, rather than some members of the group leveraging the others to get ahead. Such unfair leveraging is pathological in social primates and detrimental to the survival of the group.

The Taj Mahal, the beautiful and iconic shrine of Mumtaz Mahal, built by Shah Jahan in the mid 17th Century, is a good example of the problems that unfair leveraging or economic exploitation causes. Shah Jahan is celebrated as a patron of the arts, but he seems to have levied taxes amounting to about 40% of GDP to "support a lifestyle of exceptional ostentation and self-indulgence" (Key 2016). These days we would say that the Shah was a Totalitarian Fascist. The Taj represents the accumulation of vast wealth by a ruler at the expense of his people, and his wasting that wealth on gratuitous, self-indulgent monuments. It was built by forced labour and at a cost that so weakened the fabric of Mughal society that the Empire collapsed leaving a power vacuum filled by the British, who continued the virtual enslavement of the peasants of India. By contrast Sweden levies taxes of ca. 45% of GDP, but spends extravagantly on providing free healthcare, education, and welfare for its citizens. The Shah's son, anxious to maximise his own share of the loot and concerned by the scale of the levies on the population, overthrew him, but it was too late. Far from being a romantic icon, the Taj should stand as a monument to the folly of exploitation, inequality, totalitarianism, Fascism, forced labour, and short-sighted leadership. The building of Ankor Wat similarly placed an intolerable strain on the economy of the kingdom of Suryavarman II, leaving the state bankrupt and on the verge of civil war (Del Testa 2014: 178). 

Once we have the idea of fairness and unfairness, then justice becomes possible. Justice is the idea that the condition of fairness can be sought and attained by our actions; that unfairness can become fairness, that wrongs can be righted. We not only keep track of obligations and notice if someone is reneging on theirs, but we are motivated to see balance restored; to enforce fairness. 

As with the Taj Mahal, when an individual or group appropriates too much of the wealth in a society, it harms the prosperity of all. Inequality is a big issue in economics today, as the 1% appropriate the wealth of the 99% at an increasing rate and use their money unwisely (with a few notable exceptions). In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote
"You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths." (Marx & Engels: 1848, 20) 
In modern terms, what this says is that the 1% have appropriated a majority of the world's wealth, all of which is either created by workers or is the result of gambling on the price of the products of labour. I'm not advocating for Communism, merely pointing out that Marx and Engels identified the problem 150 years ago. The 99% largely live on the wages they receive for labouring. Wages are a minimal share of the wealth created by production, with many companies seeking to drive wages down, while the lion's share of the wealth created by labour goes to shareholders. Yes, production also requires capital and land, but the division of the profits is presently inequitable. And this is detrimental to society, because when workers don't have enough to spend in shops, the shops don't have enough to spend at wholesalers, who don't have enough to spend with manufacturers, and so on. The 1% own most of the media outlets that shape public opinion and have been unstinting with propaganda to the effect that workers must accept less, while bosses get more, and shareholders take most. So greedy are they, that the government has to legislate a minimum wage, and even then this is insufficient to live on in many cases. Even monkeys cannot help but notice and respond negatively to unfairness like this.

Humans are so attuned to fairness and justice that many, probably a majority, of us believe that it must be built into the fabric of the universe. This is the idea of the the moral universe or the just world. I've previously explored why evolutionary psychologists think people find the idea of a just world is plausible, even in the face of ample evidence that the world is not fair. We can now see more clearly why people might think like this. The fact that we share reciprocity and a sense of fairness with other animals suggests that it evolved many millions of years ago, i.e. it predates the emergence of the genus Homo, let alone the species Homo sapiens. In all likelihood, we've appreciated fairness for millions of years. From this, and other knowledge of how our body-mind works, we can infer that we experience fairness/unfairness at an emotional level, rather than at an intellectual level. In other words, fairness is not a rational calculation, but am emotional, even a visceral, response.  And for this reason it makes sense to us, despite evidence, not because of it. It makes so much sense, that we come to see it as fundamental to the universe. Since the world clearly is not fair, and because a supernatural realm also seems plausible to many people because of a fundamentally dualistic outlook on mind and body, the afterlife as a place where justice is meted out also seem plausible to the majority.

1.2 Altruism & Justice

I said above that we must have a predisposition to share if reciprocity is to provide any benefit to the group. In fact all group members must be willing to initiate sharing with other group members because otherwise the feedback loop leads to the disintegration of the group and the death of the individual. We can call this predisposition to share, altruism. De Waal describes altruism as the empathetic response to perceived need in others (2013: 32-3). 

Altruism has been one of the most controversial subjects in biology of recent years. The mainstream were concerned to deny the value of altruism because it undermined the idea that everyone is motivated by self-interest (and at the same time undermined the idea of "selfish" genes). If scholars did admit that altruism existed, then it would be accompanied by some explanation which involved revealed the hidden self-interest in the apparently altruistic act. In other words, in this view, we are fundamentally selfish really only help others if we perceive some benefit to ourselves. They might argue, for example, that mothers only care for infants because they benefit from passing on their genes. This is a particularly alienated and, I would say dangerous, point of view. De Waal's response to this is to point out that altruism blurs the lines between self and other, and thus between motivations which are selfish and selfless. But he also points out many examples of behaviour where altruism has no benefit other than making the altruist feel happy. Simple examples like caring an ageing parent with dementia, which has no genetic reward and no other obvious pay off for the child. Of course it may be motivated by a sense of obligation, but this is still not self-interested, since the obligation is imposed by society. In discussing Searle's approach to social reality I said that "the most important fact about deontic powers is that they give us reasons for acting that are independent of our immediate inclinations." Which suggests that in being prosocial we have to put aside our immediate inclinations, our selfish desires. Of course we may still have selfish desires, but in order to be a social animal we have to be able to restrain them most of the time in favour of what is good for the group, or the group dies and the group is what keeps us alive. 

Part of the problem for biologists dealing with altruism was and is political. The rise of Neoliberalism and the application of Neoliberalism to the field of biology and in particular to genetics to create the "selfish gene" theory, combined with the ideological commitment to reductionism inherited with physics, and with a Victorian sensibility with respect to class and privilege, created a vigorously defended, but weird and distorted normative view of humans and animals. Darwinism was already ripe for misinterpretation along these lines, because Darwin was part of an elite, imperialist class that was systematically exploiting both workers in Britain and the people and natural resources of colonised places. Keep in mind that On the Origins of Species was published in 1859, eleven years after the first edition of The Communist Manifesto, and it already identifies the essentially exploitative character of Darwin's class, i.e. the Bourgeois.

Neoliberal biology is epitomised by Richard Dawkins' metaphorical selfish gene. Dawkins, like many scientists before and since makes the error of taking descriptions from one level of the hierarchy of science to apply universally. And some scientists and philosophers erroneously concluded from this that if genes were selfish, then this confirmed their intuition that people were also. This is similar to the error that many physicists make in considering free will, i.e. they reason that if the behaviour of matter and energy is deterministic at some level, then it must be deterministic at all levels. Thus human behaviour must also be deterministic and there is no such thing as free will. This assumes that all levels of structure behave identically and that properties of behaviour are transmitted upwards through levels of structure, which is equivalent to stating (reductio ad absurdum) that all organisms behave as though they were atoms. This is patently not the case. Thus we find ourselves in the invidious position that the mainstream argument about human nature is largely specious, though it is paradigmatic amongst physical scientists; just as selfishness in social animals is specious, but paradigmatic amongst biologists.

Even if genes were selfish in the sense that Dawkins claimed they are (and I do not grant that this is so), there is no reason at all to suppose that humans are selfish as a result because there are multiple levels of structure between gene and social animal. Simple observation shows that while modern urban humans can be very selfish, that selfishness is a very rare trait in small-scale human societies and all primate societies, which still rely on reciprocity within a defined group for survival. 

To a field which accepts the basic selfishness of humanity, altruism is anathema. No sense can be made of acts that benefit others at all, let alone acts that only benefit others and may even occur at a cost to the altruist. But of course examples of helping others where there is no possible benefit to the helper are ridiculously common. As de Waal argues, it seems that altruism just feels good. And like other things that evolution has equipped us to enjoy—high energy foods, sex, company, etc —altruism is probably enjoyable because it is essential to our survival. Pleasure motivates us to seek these experiences out and thus helps us stay alive. There is nothing mysterious about this.

Altruism makes perfect sense in a system where reciprocity is the norm. We would naturally evolve to kick-start the positive feedback loop of reciprocity through unprompted generosity or response to a perceived need. If we did not, then reciprocity would never get started. This need not involve calculating an anticipated future reward, it would simply feel good to an animal evolved for social living to be generous and altruistic. Humans have this ability evolved to such a peak that we frequently help complete strangers who are in no position to offer us anything. Donations pour in to help those affected by disaster and calamity. We adopt children and raise them as our own, house stray dogs, care for drug addicts or elderly parents, and any number of other acts which promise nothing in return except the pleasure of giving.


I hope I have demonstrated the centrality of reciprocity to the lives of social animals and that I have dispelled the egregiously false notion that human beings are fundamentally selfish. Where there is an understanding of the need for reciprocity then fairness and unfairness become obvious even to monkeys. Once we understand fairness, it is only a short step towards wanting to ensure fairness, to take steps to make the unfair situation fair. We call this justice. I hope too I have gone some way to explaining why inequality is toxic for human societies. The examples I used were rather extreme, but we are in a period of extremes. It is true that generally speaking everyone is better of on average, but average often obscure extremes, and must always be considered in relation to the standard deviation. The 1% have set things up to be inequitable. We all feel the injustice and unfairness of having to break our backs just to earn our day of leisure, while those who exploit us effortlessly obtain everything they tell us we should aspire to. We all want to fling our cucumber back at them. But we are also afflicted by a concerted and persistent propaganda campaign aimed at convincing us of the benefits of consumerism, merchantilism, and the desirability of having a super-wealthy clique controlling our lives. And we, unlike the monkey who cannot think ahead but merely acts out the disgust it feels,  are all afraid that in complaining we might lose what we have worked so hard to gain.

Allied to our understanding of reciprocity, fairness, and justice is our ability to act with altruism. In order for the social lifestyle to work for mammals (I'm excluding social insects) we must have a predisposition for sharing. Often this sharing is motivated by the expectation of reciprocity. But all too often we see true altruism in which the action has no benefit to the actor, and may even have a cost. Caring for an elderly parent with dementia is paradigmatic of this. We are able to see a need in another and act to fulfil that need without expectation of reward (or of punishment if we fail to act), and possibly at some cost to ourselves. De Waal argues that we are altruistic because evolution has equipped us to experience helping others as pleasurable. The "pay-off" from selflessness is that we feel good.

This view of humanity and the world is less optimistic than one which proposes a moral universe and just rewards in heaven, but I would argue it is more realistic. At the same time it is far less pessimistic than the standard picture promoted by economists, game theorists, and some biologists in which selfishness and greed are the norms; let alone the idea shared by physicists and some neuroscientists that all our actions are deterministic responses to stimuli. As a social mammal, humans are born with all the tools they need to solve the major problems that we face.  We have inherited a legacy of dour and apocalyptic views of humanity from religion, and equally miserable and pessimistic views from certain mainstream scientists. If we can just substitute a realistic idea of humanity and what we are capable of then I believe we have reason to be hopeful. And we have yet to even discuss empathy which is the main topic of the next part of this essay.


Three parts: one | two | three |

~ Bibliography ~

Boesch, C., et al. (2016), Chimpanzees routinely fish for algae with tools during the dry season in Bakoun, Guinea. American Journal of Primatology. doi:10.1002/ajp.22613

Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. (2 Vols). London: John Murray.

Del Testa, David W. (2014). Government Leaders, Military Rulers and Political Activists. Routledge.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Kay, John (2016). The monumental folly of rent-seeking. Financial Times. 20 Nov 2016.

Lakoff, George (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sloan Wilson, David. (2004). The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest, in Evolutionary Psychology and Economic TheoryAdvances in Austrian Economics, Volume 7, 201–220. doi:10.1016/S1529-2134(04)07009-7 http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/DSW10.pdf

Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52]. https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

Waal, Frans de. (2016) The Life Scientific. [Interview with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio4, broadcast 4 Oct 2016]. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wt6bj

18 November 2016

The Evolution of Morality. Introduction and Deontology

Three parts: one | two | three |

"...the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts; and in the case of the lower animals is would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness, or for the happiness of the community. They have, however, certainly been developed for the general good of the community."—Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man, 1871.

In this multi-part essay I will explore the idea that features of society in social animals—particularly humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos—can give us insights into the evolution of morality. This essay will form a chapter in my forth-coming book which has the working title: Practical Philosophy. This idea has long been promoted by primatologist Frans de Waal.

As a young researcher de Waal noticed that chimps practised reconciliation and peace-making after conflicts and that they displayed empathy and consoling. The paradigms of animal behaviour of the day focussed on violence and aggression, and many zoologists were reluctant to accept that chimps were even capable of emotions, let alone empathy, which was seen as distinctively human. Fortunately de Waal persisted with observing actual behaviour and describing what he saw.

He discovered that chimpanzee alpha-males often do not hold that position merely by being the biggest, most aggressive animal, although that can happen. Usually the alpha-male is the one who can build and sustain a coalition of support both from males and females. This allows smaller males to become alpha. In fact male chimps, like most male animals, avoid physical confrontation most of the time. About three times stronger than the average human male, chimps have the strength to cause serious and fatal injuries to each other. A male chimp's bite can crack large bones. However, like most male social animals they have a preference for not using their strength against other members of their group. De Waal also discovered that older male chimps will intervene in conflicts to try to defuse them. All of this ran counter to the scientific narratives of the day, and to some extent still runs counter to the popular view of animals. We still seem to think of nature as "red in tooth and claw". In fact social animals prosper by being prosocial. This should be obvious, but somehow it is a surprise.

Like Jane Goodall before him, de Waal has made some discoveries about our close primate cousins that seem startling given what we thought about them based on preconceptions. We have been theory-led rather than observation-led in trying to understand apes. Observation being theory-led seems to be a problem across the field of social studies where researchers often make a virtue out of being committed to an ideology (Freudian-, Foucauldian-, Feminist-, Marxist- etc). When an ideological commitment comes before observation, the chances of understanding what is going on is slim. Paying attention to how the animals actually behave often requires a change in our theoretical understanding of animals, but also of humans. Changing our theoretical understanding is difficult if we are committed to an ideology, because we simply reinterpret observation to fit our beliefs.

The human/animal distinction has been getting thinner and thinner in recent years. Animals use tools, cooperate, have intentionality, theory of mind (higher order intentionality), experience emotions, have empathy, and understand reciprocity. If we break language down into it basic components (articulation, grammar, syntax etc) we find that individually these components are all found in other animals. What is left to make us special?

As a long time fan of Jane Goodall and deeply interested in the subject of morality, on hearing de Waal speak for the first time a few weeks ago (Waal 2016), I was immediately interested by his comments on the prosocial nature of chimpanzee behaviour and the evolution of morality. In this essay I will outline the evolutionary basis of morality based on my reading of de Waal (esp. 2013) and then try to see how this might integrate with my evolving worldview.

~ Deontology and Morality ~

I first want to reiterate the connection between morality and obligation in line with John Searle's philosophy of social reality, outlined in my recent long essay in five parts (starting here).

Since I often struggle to remember the distinction, let me restate that I take morality to relate to the rules governing relations between people (and possibly animals); and ethics to be the abstract principles behind the rules. Some people talk about meta-ethics—the principles behind the abstract principles which govern creating rules for how we behave—but I'm not sure another layer of abstraction is necessary or meaningful. One of the questions we need to think about with respect to the evolution of morality, is whether both morality and ethics are the products of evolution. Intuitively it is only morality that evolved and ethics is a late abstraction based on intellect. But we shall see.

In Searle's view, society imposes observer relative functions onto people and objects through collective intentionality, or more specifically, by agreeing that the person or object has that function. Such functions are not intrinsic to their physical features, but exist only because of the minds of the observers who conceive of the function. Along with the function comes the status appropriate to carrying out the function (hence the compound term status-function), and an empowerment consistent with that status and function. A £5 note is money because the government declares it so and the citizenry agree to act as if it is. The note is thus empowered to be money and citizens have an obligation to treat it as money. The status which is ontologically subjective (reliant on intentionality) becomes an epistemically objective fact: a £5 is money. Sellers are bound to accept money as payment for goods and services. The government has a duty to manage the supply of money. "Seller" and "government" are also status-functions, demonstrating that each status-function operates within a network of interrelated status-functions.

The imposition of a status-function on a person also imposes rights, duties, and obligations on that person. For example, Elizabeth Windsor counts as Queen Elizabeth the Second, head of state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as New Zealand, Australia, and Canada; this is true in the context of her being the oldest child of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Note that Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was Queen by marriage rather than succession and is thus not numbered amongst the heads of state. Citizens acknowledge Elizabeth as Queen and many institutions are built around cultivating (or demanding) and reinforcing this acknowledge; aka pomp and pagentry. As Queen, Elizabeth is moderately rich, though she is not in the top 300 of the Times' Rich List, and she and her family live in relative luxury. However, she has many rights, duties and obligations. In many ways her life is governed by antiquated formality and ritual, and she has almost no power over her subjects any more. in many ways her only power is to insist on the formality associated with her status-function. Each year she has the humiliation of reading a speech written for her outlining her government's legislative program. It composed by spin doctors in the awful political jargon of the day and sounds increasingly bizarre and anachronistic in the mouth of a 90 year old woman. Some citizens are against the institution of the monarchy. If these people were a large majority, they could vote to discontinue the institution. It is likely that Australia, New Zealand, and Canada will become republics at some point as the connection to the UK, whence the founding colonists embarked, becomes more and more tenuous. A person is constrained by society to act in ways that are consistent with their status-functions. If they persist in behaving differently, their status-functions can change (as with the impeachment of President Nixon). The Queen is only queen with the agreement of her subjects; she can easily be overthrown (c.f. the French Revolution and the revolt of the US colonies). Many people feel the crown prince, Charles, will not make a good king and discuss the possibility of bypassing him in favour of his children (though this is not allowed by the current rules).

Although people like the Queen have very obvious status-functions, in fact all of our lives are structured, and our identities defined, by the many socially imposed status-functions that apply to us. Our behaviour is regulated by obligations entailed by such status-functions. We learn from day one to subject ourselves to the expectations of society. Certain behaviours are rewarded and others are punished. In the grey areas, we may choose for ourselves. Society is constituted by a network of status-functions and the attendant reciprocal obligations. The network is also a network of conventional power: statuses, functions, and their attendant obligations are imposed and policed by the group. A person is empowered to act or prohibited from doing so. In situations where our actions are seen as having a moral connotation, i.e. in our behaviour towards other people, we are moral to the extent that we fulfil our rights, duties, and obligations to other group members. Morality is effectively obeying the authorisations and prohibitions imposed by society. Some of these may have reasons that go beyond mere convention and be based on the imperatives of social living. This is where we might find some cross over between Searle and de Waal.

According to de Waal we could not enforce morality if we did not already have moral tendencies. We see this in unenforceable laws, for example laws against recreational drug use. Humans enjoy experiences such as intoxication, euphoria, and even hallucinations. Many animals are also known to seek out these experiences. Prohibition has created a huge and lucrative black market, often run by criminal gangs who use extreme violence to control their market. But even quite harsh punishments do not eliminate the use of drugs in most societies. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug use in the USA have tripled the prison population since the 1980s, UK prisons are overflowing (to the point of causing riots); billions of dollars have been spent on policing and paramilitary operations during the so-called War on Drugs; and hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Despite this, we cannot even keep drugs out of prisons. Humans have a propensity for taking mind- and mood-altering chemicals and laws against doing so are effectively unenforceable. So moral law has to be founded on a moral propensity or it fails to regulate behaviour. 

The social lifestyle is clearly a very successful evolutionary strategy for primates. The basic idea of this essay is that looking at how different social primates—particularly humans, chimps, and bonobos—manage their social groups will shed light on how morality might have evolved. By showing that certain types of social behaviours are common to us all and how these are related to moral virtues, we can get some insights into how morality emerged from addressing the challenges of a social lifestyle.

Certain features of behaviour seem to be necessary for social living in mammals. Social insects have quite a different dynamic, though David Sloan Wilson (2004) has argued for revisiting how we see bees. Each social primate species has distinctive ways of dealing with the problems that living in a group creates, however, there are common features and these boil down to two qualities: reciprocity and empathy. Following de Waal (2013), I'll refer to these the Two Pillars of Morality and devote the next two parts of this essay to them respectively. Under the heading of reciprocity, I will also discuss altruism; and under empathy, I will discuss conflict management. Although in de Waal's view these two special cases fit under their respective headings, I think by highlighting them we get a better sense of how morality might have evolved. It is as if there are two major pillars and two minor pillars.


Three parts: one | two | three |

~ Bibliography ~

Covers all three parts of this essay

Boesch, C., et al. (2016), Chimpanzees routinely fish for algae with tools during the dry season in Bakoun, Guinea. American Journal of Primatology. doi:10.1002/ajp.22613

Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. (2 Vols). London: John Murray.

Del Testa, David W. (2014). Government Leaders, Military Rulers and Political Activists. Routledge.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Kay, John (2016). The monumental folly of rent-seeking. Financial Times. 20 Nov 2016.

Lakoff, George (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sloan Wilson, David. (2004). The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest, in Evolutionary Psychology and Economic TheoryAdvances in Austrian Economics, Volume 7, 201–220. doi:10.1016/S1529-2134(04)07009-7 http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/DSW10.pdf

Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52]. https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

Waal, Frans de. (2016) The Life Scientific. [Interview with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio4, broadcast 4 Oct 2016]. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wt6bj
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