Titles & Abstracts
How (Not) to Build a Person
ABSTRACT: In much moral philosophy, persons are characterized as reflective deliberators — entities typified by a conscious and concerted mentation that effects control of behavioral outcomes. In social and cognitive psychology, quantities of work on automatic processing suggest that this philosophical conception of persons is empirically inadequate; much human behavior is the outcome of processes that are not conscious, not controlled, and very often evaluatively incongruent with the putative deliverances of reflective deliberation. An empirically adequate conception of persons will therefore de-emphasize reflective deliberation; instead, the human ethical distinctiveness marked with the moral honorific "person" is to be found in the narrative transactions by which individuals living in groups create and sustain consensually validated systems of value.
Measuring Norms of Cooperation in Different Societies
ABSTRACT: Altruistic punishment has been shown to be effective in enforcing high levels of cooperation. In my talk I will show that there are strong cross-societal differences with respect to how punishment is actually applied. I will report results from experiments that we conducted with more than 900 subjects in six different cities in Eastern and Western Europe. We found that in some subject pools there are very high levels of spiteful punishment that is targeted at the high contributors in a group. We also elicited subject's expectations and show that there exist substantially different expectations across societies in particular about spiteful punishment. We conclude that altruistic punishment is only socially beneficial if it is targeted at the free riders only and if this is what people expect. Our results also show that spite is a social preference that needs further scrutiny.
The Psychology of Normative Judgement and Explanation
ABSTRACT: In this paper, I will present some preliminary data relating to the psychological attitudes that people hold towards normative violations. I see "attitudes" as composed of judgements (negative, positive, or neutral) together with the justifications offered to support that judgement. Using a wide array of normative violations, I will describe how some of these tend to elicit similar kinds of justifications, and thus cluster together. I will argue that this provides a potential solution to the classic anthropological problem of how to describe and explain what seems like boundless and infinite normative variability within and across cultures. In the second part of the talk, I will expand on the topic of reasons for norms. While some of the justifications for normative judgement commonly offered might fall short of the criteria for holding a belief held by some, the frequency and commonness of these acts belies their psychological and social importance, and thus need to be accounted for if one wishes to understand the psychology of norms. I will offer some speculative ideas on the tendency to justify one's judgements.
The Role of Prestige and Prestige Goods in the Emergence of Agrandizing Behavior: Some Insight into How Moral Norms Change over Time
ABSTRACT: One of the main endeavors of archaeology has been to explain how and why the social structure of human societies has changed in the past from small, politically egalitarian groups to ones much larger, interdependent and hierarchically ranked. While the focus of theory has been mainly on the development of social institutions underlying political structure, moral norms must have been deeply involved in these processes. For example, ethnographic observation in several egalitarian groups has documented the existence of strong social norms against striving for elevated status via aggrandizing behaviors. In contrast, in societies with moderate levels of ranking aggrandizing is an effective means to achieve higher status and political authority. Given that social ranking emerged relatively late in the human evolutionary trajectory, it is likely the case that the former types of norms were replaced by the latter as part of the development of social inequality — but how? One of the more puzzling aspects of the emergence of institutionalized social inequality concerns why people living in egalitarian systems come to voluntarily accept, at least in part, the authority of a would-be leader. Many scholars have focused on "persuasive" strategies that early elites could use to attract followers and negotiate alliances; of these, the display and distribution of prestige goods is often cited. The admiration and desire for such goods commonly experienced in contemporary societies is the implicit source of this strategy's success. Yet this desire requires explanation, given that prestige goods appear at different times in different groups. Following Henrich and Gil-White's "Information goods" theory for the origin of prestige, I suggest that prestige goods initially evolved to function as signals of skill and knowledge, in response to increasing levels of competition for prestige. Once in existence, prestige goods could then play a role in emerging hierarchy if early leaders were selected/accepted from among those with high prestige. I theorize that association between leaders and prestige goods led to an expansion of their signal content to include elevated social status and power, and thus to a new role in status negotiation, and I would argue contributed to changes in moral norms governing aggrandizing behaviors.
Darwin's Theory of Moral Evolution in Modern Garb
ABSTRACT: Darwin fleshed out a rather complete theory of the evolution of human morality in The Descent of Man. It involved group selection at the tribal level creating a series of moral instincts, such as sympathy and patriotism, that were costly to individuals but favorable to the success of tribes. He thought that the basic moral sentiments evolved in primeval times and that all living humans had the same basic sentiments. He accounted for such moral progress as he thought had occurred since primeval times to such things as the teaching of the best men, and laws and customs reinforced by public opinion. The modern theory of gene-culture co-evolution supports a picture remarkably like Darwin's. Cultural variation is more susceptible to group selection than genes, accounting for why humans have social systems so much larger and more cooperative than our close relatives and why they are regulated by systems of formal moral rules. Paleoanthropolgical evidence suggests that the human social "instincts" had evolved by some 50,000 years ago, just before humans spread out of Africa to people the rest of the world with Homo sapiens. Since that time, the efforts of the best people have often succeeded in creating customs and laws that make peaceful and productive societies possible on a much larger scale than the ancestral tribe. Human moral progress is slow and uncertain because (a) multilevel selection leaves us with a marked residue of selfishness and nepotism in our social psychology and (b) moral intuitions like sympathy encourage the expansion of moral communities but they conflict with those like patriotism that tend to favor smaller communities of culturally similar others.
Is the Moral / Conventional Distinction a Myth?
ABSTRACT: In moral philosophy there is a rich literature on "the definition of morality" which debates how notions like moral utterance and moral rule are best characterized or defined. In the 1970s, clearly influenced by this literature, the developmental psychologist, Elliot Turiel, proposed a definition of morality which he used to design an experimental paradigm that has become known as "the moral / conventional task". The results of experiments using the moral / conventional task have been very impressive, and in recent years the conclusions drawn from those experiments by Turiel and others have had a major impact on empirically oriented philosophers who are interested in the nature of morality. However, it is my contention that all of the important conclusions drawn from experiments using the moral / conventional task are mistaken, and that philosophers and psychologists who rely on these conclusions are making a serious error.
The talk has three parts. In the first part, I'll sketch a bit of the history of the philosophical debate over the definition of morality. This literature is particularly helpful in clarifying what sorts of claims might be made for a definition of morality. In the second part, I'll offer an overview of work in the Turiel tradition, and of the conclusions that have been drawn from this work. In the third part, I'll assemble experimental evidence — some previously published and some new — which, I'll argue, strongly suggests that all the philosophically influential conclusions that have been drawn from work using the moral / conventional task are false.
The Ecology of Altruism in Everyday Life
ABSTRACT: At the behavioral level, altruism is a social strategy that succeeds in some social environments and fails in others, resulting in a "distribution and abundance" similar to species in ecological communities. I use this ecological and evolutionary perspective to examine the expression of altruism in everyday American life, using a method that involves sampling individual experience at random times during the day. Altruists usually profit as individuals, but only because they are usually surrounded by a supportive social environment. Altruists become more stressed than non-altruists in hostile social environments. Non-altruists are more variable than altruists, reflecting the fact that altruism can fail as a social strategy for a number of different reasons. Altruism can also be motivated in a variety of ways, with measurable differences between religious vs. non-religious altruists and even between religious denominations. In general, the experience sampling method provides a way to study humans in everyday life in the same way that biologists conduct field studies on non-human species.
Two Ways to Build an Altruist
ABSTRACT: Altruism (at least in a psychological sense) appears to require ultimate desires concerning the welfare of others — that is, desires for the welfare of others where this is wanted for its own sake rather than as a means to some other end. Because of this getting clear about how such ultimate desires could be produced is essential if we are to have a full account of the psychology of altruism. But, I will argue, it can do more than this — a fuller understanding of where ultimate desires come from will also help to resolve a long standing debate between psychological egoism and more pluralistic theories of motivation. To this end I will consider two models of how altruistic ultimate desires could be produced. On one model (a model that seems to underlie some important contributions to the altruism/ egoism debate) the mind contains systems whose sole purpose is to produce altruism. I will argue, however, that this sort of dedicated system is not needed. Indeed, once we get clear about how ultimate desires can be produced, what at first sight appear to be an egoistic systems could (under the right conditions) produce altruistic ultimate desires. As these conditions are ones that nearly everyone at times finds themselves in, and given that there are good reasons to think that the systems involved are ones that we possess, it seems that we may well be capable of altruism after all.