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Choice, values and moral philosophy

Choice, values and moral philosophy


Utilitarian approaches to public policy assume a single set of values - or what creates "the greatest happiness", and agreed standards of accounting for such content. Yet we know that people do not agree even on discount rates - on how much more happiness today should be preferred over happiness tomorrow. Look at attitudes to consumer debt to see this in action. It follows that much that is apparently utilitarian is something quite different: smuggled emotionality, masquerading as policy which is somehow 'good in abstract'. Kant called this abstract good the 'categorical imperative'. Hume, by contrast, thought that our values were innately emotional, and therefore reconcilable only where people shared - or could be persuaded to share - common weightings around what they valued and what they abhorred.

This paper reviews something of the development of moral philosophy, which concerns itself with these issues. It uses this as a lead into modern thoughts about socio-biology, and how social collaboration, empathy and other forms of collective emotionality may have been built into us by the forces of evolution. The consequences of this are explored in the closing section.


The note on the future of democracy was interesting, and for the first time I feel that I have something to contribute to this process as a professional philosopher. The core issue that I would wish to question is the assumption of the validity of utilitarianism, specifically as the underpinning of what that note termed "Style B". (I would, however, add that what follows is not a criticism of the analysis in the paper in question, but of the utilitarian flavour of those who adhere to the Style B approach to government.)

On can disagree with someone about the right course of action to follow on two and very different grounds:

One can agree that the outcomes which this action will be likely to generate are desirable, but disagree that the action will in fact bring them about. (One can also argue against the measure that it will bring about other, less desirable collateral consequences.)

One can disagree that the outcomes that the action is intended to bring about are desirable. One may have other values; or one may seek differing balances between values. For example, a Roman would have regarded it as the height of virtue to sacrifice the lives of his family for victory over an enemy. Hollywood virtues would expect a warrior give up in order to spare a loved one. A person set upon national competitiveness at all costs might be prepared to sacrifice environmental benefits, whilst an environmentalist might be equally prepared to lose economic advantage in order to spare the natural world.

Plainly, these are very different positions. I am going to discuss only the second of these, where values are opposed and synthesis between these is difficult. I shall highlight a central distinction between difficult reconciliation which stems from the actual incompatibility of goals - where cakes cannot be both had and eaten - and those where the incompatibility stems more from interpretation and attitude than it does from real pay-offs: for surely one can indeed have environmentally-sustainable activity which is compatible with economic competitiveness?

Additionally, I would draw your attention to the fact that whilst game theory has given a great deal of attention to competition, moral philosophy has not done so. Traditional discussion around morality seems always to assume that moral conduct is connected with mutuality and co-operation. The reality of life - and arguably one of the greatest motors of greater capability and choice - is the fact of competition. What is a viable theory of moral order under the fact of competition for scarce resources and in a world of positive feedback, where success favours the successful? Should our reflexes be to support success in our community? Should we support the less successful? At what cost, to what proportion? Indeed, in what terms would a convincing answer to these questions be set?

Moral philosophy: why do we feel that "good" is good?

In order to reach address these issues, it is first necessary to skim across the field of moral philosophy. The deep questions about values are:

Whether values are somehow absolute and separate from human affairs, or constructs that we have evolved and which are needed for the workings of our societies.

Whether values can be assigned quality parameters, such that one set of values that contradicts another is somehow objectively better than the other. One should note, of course, tat there is a danger of a regress in this question, for are not the criteria for making such choices themselves values that can be questioned in just the way that they are intended to answer? Utilitarians - and others - answer that there is a way around this; but none of them as yet have found a way to agree on the nature of this way. I am going to touch on some socio-biological issues which may get us closer to an answer on this, although it is a rather unsatisfactory answer for many.

Moral philosophy has attracted a copious literature, spread across the centuries. There are probably four fundamental threads to what has been said.

First, there is a class of reasoning which starts with a given body of knowledge - of dogma, of revelation - and works out from this. There is not much that can be added to or subtracted from such a position, save in the adequacy or otherwise of the working-through of the givens provided by revelation. "He who wills the ends, wills the means."

The second strand is that which has been alluded to above, Utilitarianism, in which courses of action are to be assigned relative merit as a result of the balance of benefits and penalties which they generate.

There are, of course, practical problems in applying the principles of Utilitarianism. Is it better to have ten people who are each ten percent happier before, or one person who is twice as happy? The sum of increased contentment is the same in both cases. (Our principle of criminal punishment is, of course, the exact inverse of this question, for we agree together that it is best for the criminal to be unhappy, rather than accept a diffuse, lesser level of general unhappiness from his otherwise unmanaged activities. But perhaps we see this more in terms of deterrence and revenge that collective utility.) There are, however, other unresolved problems: should one seek two units of happiness to be achieved next year over on right now, or three? How should one treat an uncertain path to happiness over a safe route to a lesser outcome? The answers to these questions go beyond the bounds of Utilitarianism, asking "Who matters most?" "What makes (various types of) individual happy?" Notably, we seldom ask where marginal change would most increase the total happiness of a community; or set out to please those whose happiness is most ready achieved. We do not much feel -empathise with - the concept of a generalised sum of happiness; and we are more inclined to be influenced by egregious misery than by boundless, pastel-shaded middle range content.

Equally, it is strikingly difficult to say what level of happiness exists in an individual or community, and how this is changed by an act of policy. GE Moore suggested that such views reduced to tautology: that it amounted to no more than saying that " nice things are nice". Hume, writing two centuries before, noted that our moral goals lie less upon analysis than on a foundation of empathy with our fellows. We are "intentional" about others in the sense that we assign concrete meaning and value to our perceptions of how they thing and feel. Our social world is founded on concepts of obligations and justice, shame and honour as much as it is on property, status and power. It is a separate universe, as real to us as the physical universe of atoms and forces. Such views have been formalised by e.g. Stevenson, whereby 'evaluative' ideas and 'descriptive' ones - that is, what ought to be the case and what is so - are treated as two distinct magisteria, each with its own sphere of influence. Many find this artificial, unconvincing and simply wrong.

To some, social concerns are less important than are unselfish individual perceptions - such as aesthetic views - and it is these that are the fundamental particles of this universe. Romantics of this sort are, however, unable to say what separates a 'selfish' view from a selfless one, of why a strongly held desire to hurt other people is to deprecated, whilst an equally strong desire to cherish them is to be applauded. Indeed, the Romantic views are, in essence, intentional at an individual rather than a societal level, and probably all the worse for this.

The third strand is derived from Kant, by way of more recent philosophers such as Hare. Kant believed that there were certain things which all rational beings would want in the light of rationality, the so-called categorical imperatives. Kant arrives at his views by 'thinking about thinking', in this case thinking why would you still act if all personal or practical concerns were removed. Your action would then be based on reason alone and, if reason is a universal quality, would then be universal. "Act so that the criteria ('maxim') of your action might become a law of nature in the Kingdom of Goals." In essence, it is this position which modern game theory tries to capture when it seeks universal optima, and against which it works - indeed, denies - when it considers the interests of individual players.

The view advanced by Hume - that reason was subject to the emotions, and that disinterested reason was at best a transient state - is denied. Morality implies freedom of action, whilst emotionality is the opposite of freedom, it is enslavement. A person is a member of a moral community to the extent that he or she acts within this freedom and universal rationality, and is not a member - should not be held as equal, or in esteem - to the extent that they do not do so. The categorical imperative is, however, stronger in telling us what we cannot do than what we should.

Hegel amplified this, noting that when the categorical imperative was applied in a society of unequal power, then either those without power were necessarily objectified, made into 'things' that existed to fulfil tasks. Such beings had no liberty or moral nature: 'Slaves can have no morality for slaves can have no choice.' A moral society - in which all participated in the moral community - must, therefore, assign rights to individuals which give them the liberty to choose. This creates a framework within which all can exercise their moral nature. A theory of rights can be built from this insight.

The fourth strand is relatively new, and evidence in its favour is arriving as I write. This approach is essentially socio-biological. It develops from four assumptions.

Many of Hume's bedrock of social emotions can be shown to be universal to all human communities. Equally, individuals can be shown to lose highly focused characteristics due to head injuries, strokes and other trauma to the brain. Research has shown that individuals react to others and to the group in ways which are highly repeatable across the world, with - for example - a universal tendency to object to unfair situations, to punish defectors in a society - even at considerable personal cost - and to defer to dominance hierarchies, to intangible boundaries in physical and social spaces and in other ways to treat the emotional universe as being as real and immutable as the physical one.

In the socio-biological model, rights and duties are outward signs of structural features which societies need if they are to function. Such networks of predispositions are endlessly patrolled in animal societies - the dominant male is challenged by and beats down the lesser rivals. A fine balance of rival predispositions cause some individuals to try their luck and others to accept their limitations; which manage the violence of the fights so that most injuries are not too serious; and which, in a number of species which are genetically quite widely separated - to cause supporter groups to form in order to limit the number of challenges and so preserve the vitality of the dominant animal for its leadership role. Some degree of social transmission exists in order for group 'customs' to pass down between the generations.

Human societies use social transmission much more strongly than do animals, but the pattern of ordering has much the same origins: Hume-like emotionality. We are intentional about others because we are wired up in ways which help us model the inner state of others, and so predict (and care about) this. This wiring is defined by our genetic code, and modulated by the social environment in which we are raised. Kantian imperatives become necessary when we deal with new situations, or societies which rise above a certain level of complexity: we ask ourselves in abstract how we should deal with this or that problem, and solutions find their way into other communities and become a part of the narrative which we learn as children. Hegelian solutions become necessary when we seek societies in which reciprocity is more important than raw power, when we want to exploit the economies of specialisation and where the complexity is such that we must rely on self-assembly around self-interest rather than the dictates of a centralised power.


We have arrived at a multi-layered model of public ethics and morality. The "top" layer consists of more or less formal rules, created by humans as a toolkit to bring orderet otheir society. Below this, however, are two more layers. That is, people are wired up to feel, and what they feel results from two distinct structures. These structures have been tuned by our evolutionary past, and have been in a high non-linear relationship with the social and individual behaviour which they have triggered.

The first of these structures governs the emotions and motives to which the individual is subject. These emotions are often arrayed along an axis, with - for example - the will to dominance at one end, and the tendency to subjection and passivity at the other. (We know that this is not an artefact of description but a fact about how the brain works: neurologically, one can be activated in on one way or the other at a given time, but seldom in both at once.)

The second set of structures are to do with how we perceive and react to our social surroundings. A set of predispositions - such as wanting the good will of others - are also apparently wired into the average human, or is perhaps universal to the average higher vertebrate. These predispositions interact with and modulate our personal tropisms, such that we treat others as emotional extensions of ourselves and not, in general, as things. Indeed, we have to work hard to depersonalise others (for purposes of conflict or punishment, for example) and are prone to anthropomorphise - assign reciprocal feelings to - anything from a pet goldfish to a computer.

Policing and overlaying this interaction are customary outcomes to commonplace dilemmas. Members of animal societies learn how to avoid conflicts, and submit quickly to the dominant so as to minimise injury when these do occur. Humans learn much more complex behaviours, also transmitted culturally and also intended to prescribe responses to common situations. Consistency is important to human societies, so that it is desirable that all sets of responses are mutually compatible and distressing to us when they are not. We share a sense of fairness across the higher vertebrates, and monkeys, dogs and even rats have been shown to reject a 'contract' that seems to be unfair or inconsistent. For example, it has been shown that humans in a wide range of the World's communities will, undergo considerable personal loss in order to reject what is perceived as an unfair - exploitative, non-mutual - situation. Genetically-close relations have proportionately strong instincts to mutual support. We are less inclined to wonder at fatal self-sacrifice by a mother than a first cousin, or by complete stranger.

Emotional predispositions of this sort are 'rules' - albeit probabilistic and flexible rules - which, when applied to the group, create emergent structures. Simple rules allow traders to create a price and, through an emergent invisible hand, so manage supply and demand. Distributed structures of the same sort give rise to the patterns of 'natural morality' that are universal to human societies. Some of these approach Kant's categorical imperative, whilst others - such as the 'tragedy of the commons' - rather plainly do not.

Emergent rules suffer the equivalent of what economists call 'market failures'. The animal kingdom is riven with social failures, and any close observer of animal sin the wild is struck by the bickering, anxiety and stress than governs much of their social interaction. Male lions might select who is to breed by some mechanisms other than through brute force and mutually-crippling battles, infanticide and ambush, but they lack the capacity to do this. If these deficiencies are to be corrected, a new set of machinery is needed that sits above and separate from the emergent structures of order. This we call custom, law and policy.

Human societies are anyway of such complexity that they need formal rules in order to govern the interaction of parts which seldom exchange much information. In addition, human societies use rules as a way of managing power, and its top predators have been adept at creating structures which make the perpetuation of their position effectively effortless. The community of moral beings that Kant had envisaged has never been close to the reality of events, and never far from the aspirations of at least some members of any community, from Roman Stoics to the ethos of British colonial administrators. The modern world, in which competition for scarce resources rewards the successful, who are taxed by the community for its overall betterment, plainly makes gestures to this ideal. However, as we noted in the introduction, there is no extant theory of 'moral competition'. There is competition that is conducted to clear rules and under law, but that was true of Roman slave markets which few would accept as moral today.

There are, therefore, three layers of ordering, each of which has a role to play in our social order. There are deep, shared emotional responses to things. There are regularities which emerge when these social responses are connected together in small communities, Then there are the artificial structures which we have pasted on top of this, for a mixture of reasons that mix the values of the collective and the elite; the need for coherence and specialisation with the desire to impose uniformity of belief and conduct; and a declining amount of baggage that was derived from revealed truth and other dogma.

Recall that the Kings of feudal Europe once possessed - owned, has complete power over - everything within the boundaries that they could hold. The held it because the Deity favoured them and they could prove this, because the critic had only to look at the power and glory in which they lived. The Church was both supported by and gave support to this view. It was able to mitigated Royal power by claiming that the Deity required certain principles to be followed. Nevertheless, this possession of peoples, lands and produce was then parcelled out to favoured individuals, on sufferance and in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. Great swathes of law were created around this as the moral principle of society: essentially, that of the bull ape and his harem.

These three layers fit poorly into the Utilitarian box. Happiness is seldom taken as being the satisfaction of values and customary social interactions, as this is entirely intractable. Equally, societies no longer consist of only individuals. Rather, there are all manner of association, in existence all with 'values', some with the status of legal personae, many with much more power than individuals, much better capabilities to communicate their views and impose themselves on the political process. These associations have a dynamics - essentially, that of the various strands that make up the economy, mass social movements and the like - and these prescribe their own narratives onto the society. To say what would create the greatest happiness for this heterogeneous structure is an impossible task.

The response to this has been straightforward, if erratic and largely unexamined. In place of Utilitarianism, we have installed something to which we have yet to give a name. We are concerned to understand the "engine" that comprises society, the economy, science and other activities and to make sure that it works well. In this sense" well" means free from unfortunate interactions amongst the parts, freedom from unnecessary encumbrance to the functioning of any one part, and the ceaseless pursuit of new potential. Perhaps "Optimisation" would be a good name for this movement, which has no spokespeople, no iconography and yet informs virtually every policy move, every idea coming from business schools and individual agend.

Instead of maximising something (happiness, potential, closeness to the Deity), therefore, the 'Optimisation' approach seeks to improve. It assumes that some measure of merit will exist in any area of concern. Corrective actions will gradually "hill climb" up the figure of merit, usually seen as a surface which exists over the variables which are open to manipulation. Any one such step is open to outcry from affected stakeholders, and the benefits or penalties are usually scrutable. Local political skirmishes - between shareholders and workers, for example - are resolved piecemeal until a narrative about how to think around such issues establishes itself; this moves into general best practice and eventually and where necessary, into law.

Competition is written into every step of this. What constitutes success depends on competition amongst stakeholder groups, and often between companies, nations and other direct rivals for scarce resources or markets. Good solutions are solutions which win, are accepted, which create limited collateral problems. Their narrative becomes a part of what we mean by "good", successful of liberating.

One should note that this style makes no attempt to find shining cities upon the hill. Its principles are those of functionality, and its social filters are less those of moral advance than the ability to attract the custom of many whilst alienating relatively few. It shows up in political styles and popular culture. Yet, what are the alternatives? A fully realised hedonistic and Utilitarian society, in which intensive scrutiny and information exchange did indeed allow personal contentment to be optimised, would allow little personal choice and nothing of Kant's moral society of the categorical imperative. (See Geoffry Ryman's short story 'Everywhere' to get a feel for what such an information society might be like.)

The world several steps back from this is, however, innately fixated on what works, on what is functional in the limited sense that was used above. Any sense of morality which is embedded in this is, at most, a reference to "what works for you", referring to the situation and values of the community for which legislation and commercial change is being enacted. As all of this is going on at massive volume, great speed and many layers of aggregation - from very local to global, for example - the capacity of feedback systems to respond to this is going to be ever-more limited. For this and other reasons, I see the "Carrying the Torch" world as not so much probable as almost fore-ordained. Groups who stick to a revealed morality or other forms of self-limitation will be painted into ever-smaller corners on the global stage.

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