Saturday, June 1, 2013

Moral Monkeys

Two years ago philosopher Peter Railton published “Moral Camouflage or Moral Monkeys?” in the New York Times. Discussion took place at On the Human Forum, sponsored by the National Humanities Center, which is where I originally posted this comment.
A great deal depends on the metaphors and models one uses to conceptualize the relationship between our biological and our cultural heritage. For example, Peter Richerson and Joseph Carroll recently had a conversation on that issue that took place under the metaphorical aegis of E. O. Wilson’s familiar metaphor of the leash in which biology has culture on a leash. Both seemed to agree on the technical framework of gene-culture co-evolution, to whicvh Richerson has been a major contributor. While Richerson clearly wanted to give culture a measure of autonomy that Carroll wanted to deny, it seemed to me that discussion was fruitless precisely because the leash metaphor afforded no useful way of differentiating their positions.

In commenting on this impasse at my blog, New Savanna, I suggested a different metaphor, that of a game, such as chess. In this metaphor biology provides the game board, the pieces, and the basic moves. But culture provides the tactics and strategy that govern long-term game play. This metaphor gives considerably more scope to culture while at the same time recognizing an irreducible primacy to biology: you can’t play the game without the board and the pieces. I suggest that this metaphor can accommodate a real human morality that is, nonetheless, grounded in biologically given behavioral equipment.

The trick, of course, is to move from metaphor to model. Some years ago John Bowlby (1969) reconstructed psychoanalytic object relations theory using primate ethology and some simple systems concepts. The result was the now familiar account of infant attachment. In 1982 Peter Marris published an essay, “Attachment and Society,” in which he discussed utopian religious communities and suggested (p. 199):
So those who try to live without exclusive ties of relationship, like the people of Oneida or the members of a monastic order, have to create a surrogate that will fulfill for them the same structural need for some ordering of priorities of concern. Characteristically, they find it in a symbolic relationship with the same emotional connotations as a personal pond; they are brides of Christ, children of a supernatural father.
That is to say, the attachment system is being “repurposed” by having attachment focus on symbolic beings rather than real ones. Much of ritual and story-telling, I submit, seems to serve such a purpose.

In 1973 the late David Hays, a computational linguist, proposed that abstract concepts are grounded in concrete realities through stories. He chose ‘charity’ as his prime example: ‘Charity is when someone does something nice for someone else without thought of reward.’ The definiens is a general pattern of relationships that defines charity, making charity an abstract pattern. Any particular story that has that pattern would be an instance of charity. Some years later Hays (1981) went on to ground his cognitive system in sensorimotor schemas, thus bringing it in range of neurobiological reality.

I suggest, then, that human morality consists in abstract patterns over behavioral sequences executed by our innate biological endowment. The mechanisms of abstraction are fragile and so abstract patterns subject to degradation and collapse. They are nonetheless real, and not to be discounted. They are what allow us to, among other things, conduct such discussions, but which I mean to indicate not simply the abstruse subject matter under consideration, but the ethical behavior that sustains the intellectual community though veridical reporting of observations and results and proper citation of precedent and sources.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York, Basic Books.

Hays, D. G. (1973). "The Meaning of a Term is a Function of the Theory in Which It Occurs." SIGLASH Newsletter 6: 8-11.

Hays, D. G. (1981). Cognitive Structures. New Haven, HRAF Press.

Marris, P. (1982). Attachment and Society. The Place of Attachment in Human Behavior. C. M. Parkes and J. Stevenson-Hinde. New York, Basic Books: 185-201.


  1. Hi Bill. Thanks for your comments on my post on the Moral Monkeys article. I enjoyed your post, and after reading your comments I wonder if my constructed argument for a form of art as the ultimate signal of the existence of a soul falls into the trap of thinking that it is uniquely not subject to the failure to complete the analysis that early attempts to use altruism did. That is, because something seems to run counter to the algorithms of our existence, perhaps that marks the presence of a soul. But then we look deeper and find a rationalization within the algorithms (the selfish gene in the case of altruism).

    In any case I enjoyed your post best of the ones I saw there, hope my indirect reference to charity was not off-putting. Usually I treat blog comments as conversation, but the tone at the site was more one of essayists, so I wrote in that style.

    Regards - Bruce Morlan

  2. Hi Bruce. Whatever's going on with art, I think it's pretty much up in the air now. We've barely begun to go at it with our most sophisticated tools.

    As for the tone of things at the Forum, I've been hanging out there for awhile (I did the immediately preceding post, on cultural evolution) and folks there have not, on the whole, seemed to get the hang of blogging. While a few manage to develop a conversation in the comments, most do not. Academics seem to have a hard time with the notion and practice of blogging and many grad students and junior faculty blog under pseudonyms for fear of reprisal by their elders.

    Glad you dropped by.

  3. Being and Death isn't that how most "serious" developers consider it?
    I consider that analogous to "hypercontinual spaces in the Riehmanean manifold"

    what is that?

    another thing in the dust fighting for its own being

    "and he doesn't consider specially blown baloons even if they create such an emotional reaction"

    I show you an emotional reaction when one pops a baloon

    morality και κουραφεξαλα

    another book to sell