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Morality and Evolution 6: Moral dispositions

Last updated on 22 May 2014

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

In any field that has statistical variation, it is necessary to isolate the variables. Biology is all about statistical variation of populations, and so we must expect that any account of morality that is based upon biology will have variation along a number of axes. Here I wish to sketch out what the variables might be.

All human dispositions vary in individuals [Why dispositions and not behaviours or beliefs? Read my series on Evopsychopathy. We evolved to be disposed to acquire beliefs and behaviours in particular ways, not to acquire beliefs and behaviours directly as a result of any level of selection]. That is, a population will have a distribution curve of traits for any traits that can vary individually and independently. Given my account of moral dispositions in the previous posts, I suggest that we can usefully begin to visualise moral dispositions in the following manner:

  1. There will be tails for any distribution that are seen as over-cooperative (“saintly”) or under-cooperative (“evil”). This is a fact of statistical distributions.
  2. Norm enforcement exists to deal with the detection and sanctions of deviant behaviours like these.
  3. Depending on the value of the variable, sanctions will be applied against such deviation:
    1. Rewards for cooperators, unless the cooperation causes coordination problems (there is such a thing as being too saintly)
    2. Punishments for defectors: precautionary measures included.
  4. If there is a stable mode in the populational distribution, it will represent the average best tradeoff of costs over benefits to cooperation. However, in unstable environments (say, constant invasion, or changing trade conditions), the mode may be a transitory optimum, and possibly one that is best adapted to past conditions, given the delay in social adaptation. If things are too chaotic, it may be the mode represents only the more conserved behaviours, and not any kind of optimum at all.
  5. If there is a skewed distribution of behavioural dispositions, then the null hypothesis must be that there is some selective pressure to which a population has not yet adapted, and a mode that trades off costs and benefits (at that level) optimally. If there is a flat normal distribution, then either there is no selection on that axis, or it has been greatly relaxed. A tight and high normal distribution suggests high levels of selection on that axis.

The implications of these considerations are that the mere existence of a norm is no guarantee that it tracks past success (at that level of fitness bearer), and so we ought not expect that the moral landscape is an adaptive landscape to which morals have adapted, as Sam Harris has it doing. To show that this is the case, we would need to show that the context of the norm (biological, cultural, economic, etc.) is stable for long enough for the distribution of the population to normalise under selection. But let us suppose that we have such a case. What then?

Individuals within the population will tend also to vary in their dispositions over some curve. Some will be at the tails, most will be at the mode or near it, and some in between. What are these dispositions? From my fundament (sorry, from fundamental considerations) I offer these as a first cut:

  1. Other-regarding v self-regarding. This is a general cognitive style, not restricted to morality. It has been called the hererist–autist axis in studies of autism spectrum disorders, which can be seen as the extreme end of a general dispositional distribution.
  2. Virtue consequence. This is where an agent treats rules for their own sake (virtue) or as expedient means to an end (consequence). This is a standard distinction in moral philosophy.
  3. Conservatism v progressivism. This is the disposition of an agent to adopt or retain rules. Some people are disposed towards novelty (“early adopters”), while others are disposed against it (“late adopters”). In times of moral norm change, there will be some who hold out against changing behaviours no matter the consequences.
  4. Narrow v wide scope. Some will tend to broaden the scope of cases under which a rule is applied, while others will tend to be more restrictive. We might call the narrow case appliers legalists and the broad case appliers liberalists.
  5. Reflexivity v mimicry. Some tend to reflect upon the intension, or meaning, of a norm in their moral development. Others simply follow the observed pattern and do not reach any kind of reflective equilibrium (and of course most are somewhere in between these poles).

Now it is possible that these are not independent; that all conservatives are self-regarding virtue ethicists, narrow in their application of norms, and mimics; but if so, that is to be demonstrated empirically. I suspect that while there may be concentrations like this, there will be a spread of alternatives in the population. The modal distributions on this 5-space will be contextual and historical instances of strategies that work in a given environment, not universals about human behaviours. These are context-dependent peaks in the 5-space, and what counts as fit in moral terms depends on what resources and costs there are in the environment. Dawkins once used the metaphor of a Gangster Society (like 1930s Chicago). If you live in such a society, you have limited alternatives to be nice. If, on the other hand, you live in a Society of Friends, it is easier and more rewarding to be a grifter.

Societies can be flat, or they can be structured. The larger the population and the more diverse the ethnicity, the more hierarchical I expect a society to be. That is, those who have all the wealth and control will be a small, ethnically constrained, elite class. In a structured society like this, where upward mobility is difficult if not impossible, pressure from below will tend to undermine the societal norms in favour of class or ethnic norms. Conflict will ensue (this is hardly surprising news).

And finally, I would suggest that moral norms are heavily scaffolded. By this I mean that the development of moral norms is something that individuals receive from the social order and enforcement as they mature. Nobody reconstructs moral norms individually. You get them from your socialisation. An anarchical morality is a theoretical possibility, but in fact, it is impracticable. Even the most libertarian of rugged individuals gets their moral norms through socialisation. You couldn’t get them by experience. Consider how that would have to play out:

  • You would have to draw general conclusions from first principles, and where would they come from?
  • You would need to set up your own norms as hypotheses, out of an indefinitely large number of alternatives, and test them against the behaviours of members of your society.
  • You would deed to have some independent criteria for success of these hypotheses.

In short, moral norms are under determined by observation. Now suppose that you simply do what others do (mimic behaviours), and are sanctioned for this (rewarded or punished). Your norms will evolve rather quickly as action-guiding rules, without much if any reflection upon them and their justification. In short, the reward and lack of punishment is the criterion of success. This is much simpler.

But even reflection upon norms is scaffolded. Norms are justified by the social context (“God wills it”; “it is your duty as an X”, “what would life be like if everyone did that?”). When you first start to reflect upon the norms, these questions and a host of proffered answers, are the tools an agent will begin with. Few range far from these. Reflection is widespread, but not very deep.

All this leads to the diversity of moral behaviours and development one sees in a complex society, and indicates the difficulty in finding universals among all societies. Biology underpins moral behaviour, but at best our biology is an adaptation to constantly changing environments rather than to a singular social structure (whether 1950s suburban American capitalism, or to semi-nomadic foraging societies).

The final post will be “How should I choose to be moral, given evolution?”


  1. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    I’m getting a bad feeling about this. You are probably going to feel unfairly criticised, but hey, philosophers criticise each other all the time.

    My primary concern is that you started off so well: “I am an ape. That is what apes do.”, but then you started talking about the nature of morality (not behaviours as such) in philosophical terms “If moral facts are real,…”

    You then prepared the way by explaining the Primate Standard Social Structure, fair enough, but again based on observations of behaviours. But then you swapped into philosopher mode by asking “Is morality fitness-enhancing?” – to which I have already commented that you have started to talk about ‘morality’ as if it has an existence or definition. I am not keen on the ‘Levels’ either. Although they may be useful as props for thinking, have we any evidence that these are well founded contexts for selection tracking fitness (survival and reproduction tracking fitness?)?. Is there any proof of an underlying mechanism or is it a reflection of how you choose to categorise your world? As an aside I think this is where ‘physicists’ would start looking pained – you have elaborated a concept which may be true, or may be a fever dream, how can we tell?

    The next section is rather better (in my opinion) where you ask the philosophical question: can there be a universal ethics without a universal ethics bearer?

    But then you spoil it all again in Moral Dispositions. You acknowledge that there are problems with assuming that ‘moral dispositions’ (whatever they are) follow a distribution curve and then accept that assumption and characterise it as a Gaussian distribution. Although Gaussian distributions are typical in statistical variations within a population, you have not shown this to be true, or appropriate for the use you will later make for it. Is there a stable mode? Is the distribution double humped because men and women, or young and old, have different dispositions? Do different population demes (high altitude populations, lactase retainers) have different ‘moral dispositions’ because of their distinctive envirnoment and genetic clusters?

    You then propose some dispositions behind the proposed Gaussian distribution, which you assume vary in the same way. I’m not sure why you chose these dispositions (other than from introspection) over many other personality and psychological categorisation hypotheses (for which more data is available). You conclude that “this leads to the diversity of moral behaviours and development one sees in a complex society, and indicates the difficulty in finding universals among all societies”. Now from my own observations I agree that moral behaviours are complicated, varied, and not based on universals, but I don’t think you have shown that your suggestions and assumptions necessarily lead to that conclusion.

    Now I’ll make a prediction: your final “How should I choose to be moral, given evolution?” will weigh heavily in favour of your own philosophical/political/moral views. How could it be otherwise when you have used those views to construct your arguments?

    • I carefully did not presume a Gaussian distribution, just the fact of some distribution. In fact, unless fever dreams have intervened, I argued that deviations from a Gaussian normal distribution indicated incomplete adaptation. And again, I think I suggested that we might get skewed and multimodal distributions. I suspect you are arguing with somebody else here.

      If you go to my Welcome page, you will read this: “This is where whatever passes through my forebrain in sufficient coherence gets put, as an aide memoir. It is unedited, unchecked and unneeded.”

      In the event that I develop this to a paper, of course it will be very different, but I am arguing in a context of discussions about the evolution of morality, in which moral dispositions are an agreed premise. How that might be explicated is one other topic, and of course much of interest could be said about it. I just haven’t been led in that direction here.

      As to whether this is real or just how I choose to categorise the world, I would hope it is both. I don’t expect I got it right to begin with, but one must start somewhere, and my reading of social structures in both humans and other primates suggests that I am not entirely imagining it. One thing I was trying to make clear, though, is that humans are vastly more complex in the fitness bearers for moral behaviours, and in the ways in which they acquire those behaviours. I did not focus on behaviours as such, but on the underlying cognitive and behavioural mechanisms; and it is not the role of a philosopher to say what these should be. I would recommend reading comparative psychologists like Thomas Suddendorf on this.

      My unstated reason for thinking that there are social universals of human behaviour that are uniquely human is that none have ever been well demonstrated; the databases of universals are highly biased towards social behaviours of the cultures and societies of the researchers, and have been challenged. There must be some species-typical dispositions to acquire behaviours among humans, but I see no reason to think there are species-typical behaviours, across all times, environments, and economic situations.

      • I suppose that caring for some other humans is species-typical behavior, across all times, environments, and economic situations. Exceptions include biological sociopathy.

        • Sociopathy is at the hard edge of self-regarding behaviour IMO.

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