Friday, January 10, 2020

Moral Revolution, Moral Reform and Moral Drift




Once upon a time, people believed that it was immoral to anatomise dead bodies, for women to pee in public, for a gentleman not to defend his honour through duelling, and for homosexuals to actively express their sexualities. Over time, public attitudes towards each of these practices has changed. Although there are some lingering moral conservatives, the majority of people in Western societies seem willing to at least tolerate these practices. To the outsider, it looks like we have undergone a series of moral revolutions.

Each of these examples is taken from Robert Baker’s book The Structure of Moral Revolutions. In the book, Baker presents a fascinating and provocative theory about how moral systems change over time and then applies it to several historical case studies of moral revolution. The historical details of the revolutions is the main focus of the book and for people who are not yet convinced that the past is a foreign country (and that they do things differently there), I highly recommend reading it. But since I’m more of a theoretician than a historian, I want to focus my attention in this post on the main features of Baker’s theory.

Baker’s main theoretical innovation is to apply Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory about scientific revolutions to moral revolutions. Others have attempted this in the past, but have reached the conclusion that there are too many differences between scientific theories and moral theories for the analogy to bear fruit. Baker differs in thinking that the analogy is quite illuminating. Furthermore, in the process of applying Kuhn’s theory, he draws distinctions between moral revolutions and moral reforms, as well as the related phenomenon of moral drift (or, as I prefer, moral evolution).

In what follows, I want to critically analyse Baker’s theory, paying particular attention to the conceptual distinctions he draws between moral revolution, reform and drift. Are these useful distinctions? Can we make sense of them? I have my doubts.


1. Lessons from Thomas Kuhn
To understand Baker’s approach, you need to know something about Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. If you have ever heard someone talk about ‘paradigm shifts’, then you have, perhaps unbeknownst to yourself, already been exposed to it.

Kuhn’s main claim was that science advances in different phases. At any given time, scientific inquiry will be dominated by particular paradigms. Kuhn isn’t entirely consistent in how he uses the term ‘paradigm’ but my preferred interpretation (and the one adopted by Baker in his book) is that a paradigm is a reasonably general perspective on the world or some specific feature of the world. To put it another way, scientists are interested in understanding the world (or specific features of it) and paradigms enable them to interpret what they are observing in the world in a particular way.

Paradigms, so understood, are distinct from specific theories, formulas or experimental hypotheses. Paradigms help to generate specific theories, formulas and hypotheses, but they are not reducible to them. That said, the line between a theory and a paradigm can be a bit blurry and, at a sufficient level of generality, a theory might become a paradigm. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (as modified by developments in genetics and molecular biology) is, arguably, the dominant paradigm in modern evolutionary biology. It provides the lens through which most biological data is interpreted.

When scientists operate within a dominant paradigm they are doing what Kuhn calls normal science. They are incrementally reforming and expanding the existing paradigm, generating new hypotheses and new theoretical adaptations of the paradigm. This is, essentially, what has been happening in evolutionary biology since Darwin came along in the mid-19th century. Every scientist since then (with minor exceptions) has been working within the evolutionary paradigm, modifying and expanding its reach to cover new phenomena (genetics, molecular biology and, more controversially, psychology).

Although certain paradigms dominate in science at particular moments, they are not unchallengeable or immutable. Occasionally, scientists will find flaws in the existing paradigm. Kuhn referred to these flaws as anomalies. These are bits of data that don’t seem to fit the existing paradigm: no satisfying theoretical adaptation of the paradigm seems to adequately explain their existence. The presence of such anomalies might encourage these scientists to come up with an alternative paradigm that can account for the anomalies. At first, it is likely that these alternative paradigms will be resisted by the proponents of normal science. But, over time, as the anomalies mount and the new paradigm attracts more followers, there can be a ‘paradigm shift’. Scientists abandon the old paradigm and start interpreting the data in light of the new one. When this happens, a scientific revolution can be said to have taken place.

Kuhn’s main example of a scientific revolution is the shift from the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the solar system to the Copernican heliocentric view. This revolution took place over the 16th and 17th centuries. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were the key movers and shakers in instigating this revolution. The Ptolemaic paradigm had dominated astronomy for the best part of a thousand years. It generated complex formulas for predicting astronomical observations. There were some unsatisfying anomalies in it, such as the odd movement of the planets that had to be accounted for using epicycles. That said, the Ptolemaic paradigm and its associated theories did seem to fit the existing data pretty well and was quite intuitive (to us, here on Earth, it feels like we are standing still). Copernicus argued for a paradigm shift, initially on largely aesthetic grounds, toward a heliocentric view of the solar system. Eventually, evidence mounted in favour of his geocentric paradigm and the theories and formulas it generated were more straightforward and accurate than those generated under the old Ptolemaic paradigm. A revolution took place.

That’s the gist of Kuhn’s theory. There are a couple of key features of Kuhnian paradigm shift that are worth emphasising before moving on. First, one of Kuhn’s key claims is that paradigms are incommensurate. That is to say, they cannot be measured or evaluated along a common rubric. Paradigms, in a sense, are the rubric. They are the framework through which evidence is evaluated and measured. Thus, the heliocentric and geocentric paradigms are incommensurate. They have radically different interpretations of empirical data concerning the movement of the planets and the nature of the universe. Second, another of Kuhn’s key claims is that revolutions are often evidenced through linguistic shifts whereby terminology that was endorsed under the old paradigm is evolved to fit the new paradigm. For example, the word ‘planet’ meant something different under the geocentric and heliocentric paradigms. Under the geocentric paradigm a planet was an aberrant star that appeared to ‘wander’ across the night sky relative to the fixed background stars. Under the heliocentric paradigm it was not a star but another Earth-like body orbiting the sun. Linguistic co-optations of this sort are important to building a new paradigm.

These are the points that Baker emphasises in his summary of Kuhn. I would like to note that I don’t quite agree with Kuhn (or, at least, Baker’s take on Kuhn) with respect to the incommensurability of paradigms. It’s no doubt true that competing paradigms are radically different but I don’t think they are necessarily incommensurate. I think there are some common criteria for theory choice and theory evaluation that these can be used to ‘measure’ the success of competing paradigms (e.g. predictive accuracy, simplicity). Indeed, these common criteria for theory choice may often be key to facilitating the ‘shift’ from one paradigm to another. I think this is particularly true in the case of moral paradigm shifts and I will return to this point below.


2. The Idea of a Moral Revolution
Taking onboard the lessons from the Kuhnian model, Baker argues that some types of moral change follow a similar revolutionary pathway. As noted above, he makes this case through the use of detailed historical case studies. Each of these case studies shares some structural properties. To understand these properties, we need to understand how Baker applies the Kuhnian framework to the phenomenon of moral change.

Let’s start with the concept of morality itself. Baker takes a descriptive approach to morality. He does not see morality as a timeless, abstract set of normative truths. Instead, he sees it as a practical, descriptive feature of human society and human behaviour. Morality is the set of norms and standards against which the members of a society measure their behaviour. It is a collection of ideas, shared among members of society, about what is good, bad, right and wrong. People use these beliefs to evaluate their own conduct and that of others.

This set of beliefs can vary from society to society. For example, one society might think that eating meat is morally wrong; another might think it is morally permissible. It can also vary over time, within the same society. For example, people in the 1800s in the US might have believed that slavery was morally justified whereas people in 2000s did not. Morality is, then, for Baker, a descriptive cultural and community based phenomenon. To make sure this is clear in your mind, and that you don’t confuse this understanding of morality with a more traditional philosophical understanding of morality, I will refer to it as ‘social’ morality in what follows.

Social morality is distinct from ethics. According to Baker, ethics is an explicit formalisation of social morality. This formalisation is usually undertaken by philosophers or lawyers. Most of the time, morality is implicit or tacit: it is just part of the unspoken tapestry of everyday life. It is only rarely that it is rendered explicit. Consider, for example, the specific rules that make up the various ethical codes of conduct for doctors. Many of these rules just codify practices that long predated their formalisation. Would we say that there was no morality prior to this formal codification? Surely not. Surely, the observed normative patterns of behaviour, and the associated practices of moral blame and evaluation, were sufficient for social morality to exist.

What, then, is a moral paradigm? Unfortunately, Baker is not very clear about this. He gives specific examples but no general definitions. This may be intentional. The parallel concept of a ‘scientific’ paradigm is not precisely defined either. It’s just one of those things you know when you see. Reading between the lines, however, I would guess that a moral paradigm is just a very general or abstract social moral belief. That is to say, a very general belief about what is good/bad, right/wrong. For example, Benthamite utilitarianism — the belief that maximising pleasure is the ultimate moral goal — might constitute a moral paradigm. It provides a set of a moral glasses through which to evaluate the world. It can be used to generate more specific moral theories (e.g. act utilitarianism) and rules (e.g. “we ought to end factory farming”). That said, Benthamite utilitarianism might be far more general than what Baker has in mind since some of his specific examples involve paradigms with much narrower scope. We will see this in a moment.

Getting clear about the nature of a moral paradigm is important because Baker uses it to distinguish moral revolutions from other kinds of moral change. As follows:

Moral revolutions: These are intentional changes to an underlying social moral paradigm.
Moral reforms: These are intentional changes to social moral rules that leave the underlying moral paradigm intact.
Moral drift: These are non-intentional changes to social morality (that could affect either the specific rules or the underlying paradigm)

As we can see from this, for Baker, the key distinguishing feature of a moral revolution, as opposed to other kinds of moral change, is that it involves an intentional change to a paradigm and not just to some specific moral rule.




This three-part distinction between revolution, reform and drift is intuitively appealing. In many ways, I like it. But does it stand up to closer scrutiny. Because there is a lack of precision regarding the concept of a paradigm vis-a-vis a moral rule, there is a danger that one person’s paradigm ends up being another person’s rule and vice versa. This creates some problems when we examine some of Baker’s examples of moral change.


3. Moral Revolutions versus Moral Reforms
Consider, for starters, Baker’s examples of moral revolution. Baker presents several such in his book. His three main ones have to do with shifting moral attitudes toward the sacredness of dead bodies, the permissibility of abortion and ethics in biomedical research. His opening example of a moral revolution, however, has to do with the rights revolution for homosexuals.

As is well known, Western societies have radically changed their social moral rules regarding homosexuality over the past 50 or so years. Not too long ago, it was a criminal offence to engage in homosexual activity, and people in homosexual relationships were denied the basic legal rights and privileges afforded to people in heterosexual relationships. This is no longer the case. Starting with the decriminalisation of homosexual activity, and culminating more recently in the legalisation of ‘gay’ marriage, many Western countries have now flipped their social moral rules to tolerate, and in some cases celebrate, homosexuality.

This is an example of a moral revolution, according to Baker, because it involved an intentional campaign to change an underlying social moral paradigm. There was an active social movement to change attitudes toward sexuality, led by organisations such as Stonewall (named after a New York gay nightclub that was raided by the police). These organisations operated with the specific aim of getting society to shift from a moral paradigm that saw homosexuality as a kind of ‘deviant’, abnormal and sometimes socially corrosive sexuality, to a paradigm that championed the freedom and autonomy of all individuals to express their sexualities as they saw fit (or as seemed ‘natural’ to them).

Contrast that with one of Baker’s examples of moral reform: changes in the attitude toward bastardy/illegitimacy in the UK. As he points out, for a very long time, children born outside of wedlock were treated with great moral and legal suspicion. The main reason for this was because female sexual activity outside of marriage was viewed as a moral crime or ‘sin’. The dominant social moral paradigm was one that valued female chastity and sexual purity. If a woman became pregnant outside of marriage, her purity was clearly impinged and she had to be disciplined. She would be taken away from society, oftentimes sent to workhouses or other institutions,* to hide her shame. Her ‘sin’ would then be passed down to her children. They would be sent to orphanages or given up for adoption. They would also be denied rights granted to other children, e.g. rights to property under laws of succession. They were tarred with the epithet ‘bastard’ and deemed to be ‘illegitimate’ in the eyes of the law.

Nowadays most people find this attitude towards children born outside of wedlock both odd and abhorrent. Our new dominant social morality thinks all children should be treated equally, irrespective of their origins. One of the reasons for this shift in attitudes, at least in the UK, is because there was an active campaign to reform the laws surrounding the treatment of illegitimate children. Unwed mothers became increasingly common in the UK in the early 20th century, particularly in the aftermath of WWI when so many young men were killed before they could marry the mothers of their children. In this new demographic reality, The National Council for the Unwed Mother and her Child (NCUMC) led a campaign to change the laws in order to save the ‘illegitimate’ child.

They were ultimately successful, managing to get the government to pass a law that protected ‘illegitimate’ children by providing for state support for all children, punishment for fathers who did not provide support for children born outside of marriage, a ban on women from being sent to the workhouse, and a pathway to legitimacy if the parents ultimately married (later laws further regularised the status of children born outside of wedlock).

This is an example of moral reform, according to Baker, because the NCUMC campaign did not challenge the underlying moral paradigm of female chastity and sexual purity. Instead, it focused explicitly on protecting the children. They were earmarked as innocent victims in the whole affair who should not suffer for the moral sins of their parents. As Baker puts it, the NCUMC focused on remedying the ‘deleterious effects’ of female sexual purity norms, and not on changing those norms themselves.

Is this a satisfying account of the distinction between moral revolutions and moral reforms? I’m not so sure. I see three problems with it.

First, regarding the moral revolution around homosexuality, why is Baker so convinced that the negative attitudes toward homosexuality constituted a moral paradigm and not just a specific set of rules that emerged from a more general paradigm? Perhaps, for example, there is a general paradigm based on the moral value of naturalness. From this, emerges a specific set of prohibitions against homosexuality. This, incidentally, isn’t just idle speculation. One of the most popular arguments against homosexuality was that it was, in some sense, unnatural: contrary to the intended purpose or function of human sexuality. Many homosexual activists rebutted this view by claiming that they were ‘born this way’, i.e. that their sexual preferences were naturally hardwired into them. They did not argue that it was an expression of their freedom and autonomy. They did not use this alternative paradigm to make their case. Could homosexual activists who deployed such arguments be viewed as moral reformers, as opposed to moral revolutionaries? Were they just working within the dominant moral paradigm, doing ‘normal’ morality and not encouraging a shift to a different moral paradigm?

Second, and still working with the example of homosexuality, is it really the case that the freedom/autonomy paradigm represented a radical and incommensurate alternative? Was that not already a very popular moral paradigm, particularly in countries like the US and the UK? Consequently, could the changes in attitudes toward homosexuality be viewed as simply the expansion of an already accepted paradigm? Or the end result of an older moral revolution that started in, say, the 1600s and 1700s when philosophers like John Locke started to espouse the virtues of freedom and toleration?

Third, shifting to the example of bastard/illegitimacy, why are we so convinced that this was a reform as opposed to a revolution? Why couldn’t the negative attitudes toward illegitimate children (and the associated rules) not constitute a foundational and general moral paradigm in and of themselves? Maybe they are an obvious derivation from (or consequence of) negative attitudes to female sexuality, but I don’t see that Baker offers any argument for this. He really just takes it as obvious that the latter is the paradigm and the former as something that derives from this. But there is at least some reason to question this since it is perfectly logically possible for children born outside of wedlock to be morally impugned and for unwed mothers to be treated with sympathy. We could, for example, live in a world in which negative attitudes toward male promiscuity and parental abandonment dominate, unwed mothers are viewed as innocent victims of men, and children carry on the sins of the father (not the mother).

Admittedly, I am arguing largely through rhetorical questioning here. That’s often a weak sign. But I think it is telling that Baker doesn’t raise these questions, let alone provide answers to them. Combined, I believe that the three problems speak to the difficulty of distinguishing revolutions from reforms and emphasise the point I made earlier: one person’s revolution could be another person’s reform and vice versa.


4. Moral Drift versus Intentional Moral Change
What about the distinction between moral drift and the two other kinds of moral change? Obviously this distinction rests on the intentional or directed nature of the change. Baker co-opts the term ‘drift’ from evolutionary biology. In biology, evolutionary changes that are the result of selection for biological fitness are sometimes contrasted with changes that are the result of chance. The former mechanism of change is referred to as natural selection; the latter mechanism is referred to as drift.

Consider an example. Suppose you have a population of ten humans with different eye colours (6 with blue and 4 with brown). Brown is the genetically dominant trait. Suppose that, as far as we know, there is no fitness advantage for people with different eye colours. They are not healthier or more attractive to potential mates. Now, suppose, that through sheer chance no blue-eyed members of the population mate with one another. What will happen in the next generation? Answer: everyone will have brown eyes. Does this mean that brown eyes were selected for? No. It was just an accident: the blue-eyed trait drifted away through sheer chance. Moral drift is the same: it is moral change that occurs through chance.

How does moral drift arise? Baker’s go-to example of this concerns changes in the attitudes to bastardy/illegitimacy in the US. Unlike in the UK, there was no concerted campaign to change the rules or social attitudes regarding legitimacy in the US. They changed as the unintentional side effect of other social, legal and technical changes. In particular, Baker suggests that the social prominence of certain children of unwed mothers (e.g. Marilyn Monroe), the ease and prevalence of divorce, as well as the availability of contraception and changing attitudes to extra-marital sex, made the concept of legitimacy increasingly anomalous and, eventually, redundant. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that the changes in attitudes toward legitimacy in the US were more radical than in the UK (at least initially) because they really emerged from a withering away of the dominant paradigm of female chastity and sexual purity. So there was a paradigm shift in the US, it just wasn’t an intentionally directed one.

Is this a useful distinction? Initially, it appears so: there does seem to be a clear distinction between intentional moral change and un-intentional moral change. But there are also two problems with the distinction. First, the adoption of the term ‘drift’ from biology is unfortunate. Natural selection in biology is not an intentional process. There is no divine watchmaker honing biological mechanisms so that they become more fit. Instead, there are just certain biological forms and functions that are a good fit for their ecological niches. These are the ones that tend to survive and reproduce over the long term. This means that the biological contrast between ‘drift’ and ‘selection’ is not cashed out in terms of a distinction between intentional and unintentional change; it is cashed out in terms of a distinction between change that is adaptive and directed (by natural forces) and change that is not. To adopt the term ‘drift’ from biology and then change its meaning so that it refers to intentionality is unfortunate because it misses out on the possibility that some moral change could be adaptive and directed, but not intentional. I think it is plausible, for example, that some moral changes are adaptations to new social or technical realities, not simply the result of chance. For example, the weakening of the taboo around extra-marital sex could be an adaptation to a world in which contraception was more freely available and hence the balance of risks and reward associated with extra-marital sex changed.

The other problem with the distinction is that it arguably focuses on the wrong thing when it comes to identifying what is revolutionary about a moral revolution. Using Baker’s framework, we identify revolutions by a combination of two main factors (i) their intentional nature and (ii) whether they result in a moral paradigm shift. But you could argue that (i) is a distraction. What really matters to a moral revolution is whether it results in a moral paradigm shift or not. The paradigm shift has far-reaching and radical consequences for social morality. Who cares whether this was intentional. In this respect, I tend to think that the changes in attitudes toward bastardy/illegitimacy in the US were, if Baker’s characterisation of them is right, truly revolutionary. To label them as a case of moral ‘drift’ does them a disservice.


5. Conclusion
Don’t get me wrong. Baker’s analysis of moral revolutions is informative and enlightening. I definitely recommend reading his book. I also don’t doubt that there is some value to focusing on moral changes that are intentionally directed. After all, many people who campaign for moral change today have explicit intentions to change social morality. They might benefit from learning from case studies of past intentional campaigns for moral change. That said, I don’t think the distinctions between revolution, reform and drift are as sharp or as useful as Baker seems to believe. I think it would be more useful to focus on the general phenomenon of moral change and then to accept that this comes in different degrees. Some moral changes are quite specific and local, others are more general and wide-reaching. Some affect deeply entrenched moral views, some affect views that are more weakly held. Some are the result of intentional action, some are the result of adaptation to a new social technical reality, and some are just random results of other changes. They are all part and parcel of the same thing and they all deserve scrutiny.


* I have to note here that this practice was prevalent in Ireland until the middle part of the 20th century, facilitated by both the State and the Catholic Church.



Friday, January 3, 2020

New Books in Philosophy Podcast - Automation and Utopia




Someday the seemingly endless promotion of Automation and Utopia will come to an end, but today is not that day. I just had the pleasure of being a guest on the New Books in Philosophy podcast. I discussed the main ideas and arguments from my book with Robert Talisse. This interview is very comprehensive and was a bit of a thrill for me since I am a long-time listener to the podcast (which I highly recommend for anyone with an interest in philosophy).

You can listen via the embedded player above or at this link.




Monday, December 30, 2019

Academic Publications 2019




Another year, another end of year review of academic productivity. As I noted in last year's entry, 2018 was the year in which modesty and self-deprecation were in vogue. I've seen less of that this year. The preference seems to be for people to announce, without noticeable shame, that they are 'thrilled' or 'humbled' to share their latest publications and related career successes.

As per usual, I try to sidestep these fashions and offer this list unapologetically for anyone who might care to read the things I have published over the past 12 months. You can access free versions of most publications (the book is the only exception) by clicking on the links provided.

The typical rules apply: I've only included items that were published for the first time in 2019. I've excluded journal articles that were previously published in an online only version and got bumped into an official journal issue this year. I've also excluded items that were accepted for publication in 2019 but haven't yet seen the light of day.


Books


Peer-reviewed Journals


Book Chapters





Friday, December 27, 2019

Some recent media and podcasts



Regular readers will know that I have been shilling for my book Automation and Utopia for the past couple of months. In that vein, I did two recent podcasts on the book and related topics.


  • The first was on Mike Hagan's 'Radio Orbit' show. This was a fun and wide-ranging interview. It was recorded via phone so my voice is a bit muffled but overall it's probably one of my better interview performances. You can download the episode here.

  • The second was on Matt Ward's 'The Disruptors' podcast. This one focuses a lot on the likelihood of automation in the workplace and Matt plays a good devil's advocate on some of my claims. You can listen to it here or watch a video version (which I was not aware was being recorded) here.

This is a bit more out of date but my lecture 'Mass Surveillance, Artificial Intelligence and New Legal Challenges' was featured in a couple of news stories in Ireland, if you are interested. Here's one report from The Irish Times and another from The Journal.ie. Unrelated to this, I was also briefly quoted in this story about the ethics (and law) of people creating 3D avatars of celebs and exes for sexual purposes.

Finally, for some unknown reason, I was featured on this list of 30 people to follow in Europe on AI. I'm not sure what the methodology was but it is nice to be featured nonetheless.






Tuesday, December 17, 2019

67 - Rini on Deepfakes and the Epistemic Backstop

reginarini

In this episode I talk to Dr Regina Rini. Dr Rini currently teaches in the Philosophy Department at York University, Toronto where she holds the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Moral and Social Cognition. She has a PhD from NYU and before coming to York in 2017 was an Assistant Professor / Faculty Fellow at the NYU Center for Bioethics, a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University and a junior research fellow of Jesus College Oxford. We talk about the political and epistemological consequences of deepfakes. This is a fascinating and timely conversation.

You can download this episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and a variety of other podcasting services (the RSS feed here).


Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 3:20 - What are deepfakes?
  • 7:35 - What is the academic justification for creating deepfakes (if any)?
  • 11:35 - The different uses of deepfakes: Porn versus Politics
  • 16:00 - The epistemic backstop and the role of audiovisual recordings
  • 22:50 - Two ways that recordings regulate our testimonial practices
  • 26:00 - But recordings aren't a window onto the truth, are they?
  • 34:34 - Is the Golden Age of recordings over?
  • 39:36 - Will the rise of deepfakes lead to the rise of epistemic elites?
  • 44:32 - How will deepfakes fuel political partisanship?
  • 50:28 - Deepfakes and the end of public reason
  • 54:15 - Is there something particularly disruptive about deepfakes?
  • 58:25 - What can be done to address the problem?
 

Relevant Links




Thursday, December 12, 2019

What causes moral change? Some reflections on Appiah's Honour Code


Chinese Foot Binding


Morality changes over time. Once upon time, racism, sexism, and torture were widely practiced and, in some cases, celebrated. None of these practices has been completely eliminated, but there has been a significant change in our moral attitudes toward them. The vast majority of people now view them as unacceptable. What causes this kind of moral change?

In his book, The Honor Code, Kwame Anthony Appiah examines three historical moral revolutions (and one ongoing revolution) and comes up with an answer. He argues that changing perceptions of honour, as opposed to changes in moral belief, do most of the work. Indeed, he argues that in each of the three cases he examines, both moral argumentation and legal norms had already condemned the practices in question. They prevailed in spite of this. It was only when the practices were perceived to be dishonourable that the moral revolutions really took effect.

I recently read (well listened to) Appiah’s book. I found it a fascinating exploration of moral change, but I couldn’t figure out whether it the central thesis was interesting or not. I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something trivial about it. In what follows, I want to bring some order to my thoughts and see whether my initial impression is wrong. Is there, in fact, something insightful about Appiah’s argument? I will give an equivocal assessment in what follows.


1. Preliminary Thoughts about the Mechanics of Moral Change
Before I get into Appiah’s argument, I want to make a few general comments about the nature of moral change. Morality can be thought of as a system of propositions and imperatives. It consists of propositions describing the value of certain actions, events and states of affairs, e.g. “pleasure is good”, “pain is bad”, “friendship is good”, “torture is bad” and so forth. It consists of imperatives telling people to do or forbear from doing certain things, e.g. “don’t torture people”, “do give money to charity” and so forth.

The system of propositions and imperatives that constitute morality can be thought of in purely intellectual terms. That is to say, you might think of a moral system as something that is offered to us in order to garner our intellectual assent: we are asked to ‘believe’ in the propositions and ‘accept’ the imperatives, or not. That said, most people agree that a moral system ought to have some practical impact as well. If it is really a system of morality, it ought to present us with reasons for action and ought to change our actual behaviour. To put it more succinctly, most people think that morality is both an intellectual and practical affair.

What then is moral change? Presumably, moral change involves changes in the collection of propositions and imperatives to which we offer our intellectual assent, i.e. changes to what we believe is good and bad or right and wrong. And also changes in our moral behaviour. Full moral change would require both; partial moral change would involve one or the other.

The critical question then is: what causes changes in the intellectual and practical aspects of morality. Why do people no longer believe that torture is morally acceptable? Why is the practice no longer so prevalent? Broadly speaking, there are two drivers of moral change: intellectual and material. Intellectual drivers of change are ideas or concepts that change how we think about the system of morality. Perhaps someone presents a really good argument for thinking that torture is not morally permissible and this leads us to change our mind about it. That would be an intellectual driver of change at work. Material drivers of change are changes to the material or technological conditions of existence that have implications for moral beliefs and practices. For example, technology that makes it easier to extract information from people without causing tremendous pain might reduce the incentive to use certain kinds of torture, which might in turn affect our moral beliefs and practice about the permissibility of torture. That would be a material driver of change at work.

The distinction between intellectual and material drivers of change is not, of course, sharp. There are probably cases in which it is difficult to decide whether a given driver counts as intellectual or material. This is particularly true if you are a reductive materialist or idealist who thinks there is no ultimate distinction between mind and matter.

If we ignore this philosophical complication, however, my guess would be that most episodes of moral change involve a combination of both intellectual and material drivers of change (operating in a complex feedback loop). For present purposes, I will largely ignore material drivers of change because they do not feature heavily in Appiah’s account (although they do lurk in the background). Instead, I will focus on different kinds of intellectual drivers of moral change. Appiah’s account, it turns out, focuses on a distinction between moral and non-moral intellectual drivers of change.

What is this distinction? In the example I just gave I assumed that the intellectual driver of moral change was itself part of the system of morality. But this need not always be the case. Non-moral ideas and incentives might also affect moral beliefs and practices. Consider the following example. Suppose one day I decide to read Peter Singer’s famous essay on famine and the duty to give more money to charities in the third world. I carefully consider his arguments and come to believe they are correct. The following day I radically change my moral practices and start giving more money to charity. In this case, we have an intellectual driver of change that is clearly moral in nature: I was persuaded by reading Singer’s moral arguments. Contrast that with the following case. One of my close friends is an avowed Singerite who routinely gives half his money to charity. I really like my friend. I like the people he hangs out with and would like to win his respect. Consequently, even though I haven’t read any of Singer’s moral arguments, I decide to give half my money to charity as well. In this case, we have a non-moral intellectual driver of change: I change my behaviour because I care about winning my friend’s respect.

The central thesis of Appiah’s book is that a particular kind of non-moral driver of intellectual change — our conception honour — plays an outsized role in changing moral behaviour.


2. Honour Worlds and Moral Revolutions
What, then, is honour? Appiah has a somewhat intricate theory that underlies his book. It starts by stipulating that honour is a form of respect. You are honourable if you are respected by a relevant cohort of your peers; you are dishonourable if you are not. Following Stephen Darwall, Appiah goes on to suggest that there are two forms of respect:

Recognition Respect: The kind of respect that comes from being recognised as an equal member of a given social or cultural group. People with recognition respect ‘belong’ to their relevant social groups and hence have equal standing among their peers.

Appraisal Respect: The kind of respect that comes from being recognised as having superior capacities to one’s peers. People with appraisal respect are esteemed in the eyes of other members of their social group for their prowess, virtue, ability and so on.

Honour attaches to both kinds of respect but they are different in nature. Recognition respect is flat and egalitarian: once you have it, you have the same amount as everyone else. Appraisal respect is hierarchical and inegalitarian: you can be more or less esteemed, depending on your capacities. This is important because it means that recognition respect is non-competitive and non zero-sum (everyone can have the same amount) whereas appraisal respect is highly competitive and zero sum.

Appiah goes on to argue that each of us belongs to (or would like to belong to) an ‘honour world’. Honour worlds consist of people who share basic recognition respect and compete for appraisal respect. Honour worlds can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A family, a tribe, a religion, a profession, or even a social class (e.g. the nobility or the working class) could constitute an honour world. What is crucial about honour worlds is that they are defined by an ‘honour code’, i.e. a set of rules or norms that tells members of the Honour World what they must do to win or maintain the respect of their peers.

Honour worlds are not fixed or immutable. Their boundaries are always being contested. Some people find themselves excluded from an Honour World and fight for inclusion. Some people find themselves being pushed out because they failed to live up to the Honour Code. Honour Worlds can expand and contract, depending on the circumstances.

Honour codes are also not fixed or immutable. What you have to do to win the respect of your peers can change from time to time. Indeed, it is the very fact that honour codes can change — coupled with the fact that honour worlds can expand and contract — that is at the heart of Appiah’s argument. His claim is that changing conceptions of what you must do to win honour, along with changes in the structure of given honour worlds, lie at the heart of several important moral revolutions.





3. Appiah’s Three Moral Revolutions
Appiah focuses on three moral revolutions that took place over the course of the 19th and early 20th century. These revolutions were: the abolition of duelling amongst the British nobility; the end of foot-binding in China, and the end of slavery in the British empire. The detailed discussion of each revolution, its causes and its consequences, are the highlight of Appiah’s book. I learned a lot reading about each revolution. I won’t be able to do justice to the richness of Appiah’s discussion here. All I can do is summarise the key points, highlighting what Appiah sees as the central role that honour played in facilitating all three revolutions.

Let’s start with the example of duelling. Pistol duelling was once a popular way for members of the aristocracy to resolve disputes concerning honour. If a gentleman thought his honour was being impugned by another gentleman, he would challenge him to a duel. Appiah starts his discussion of duelling with the famous case of the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea. The Duke, who was at the time the Prime Minister of the UK, challenged Winchilsea to a duel because the latter wrote an article accusing Wellington of being dishonest when it came to Catholic emancipation. Appiah then documents the fascinating history of duelling among members of the aristocracy in England and France. It was not uncommon at the time for members of this social group to participate in duels. Indeed, there were thousands of documented cases in France and several previous British prime ministers and ministers of state, prior to Wellington, had participated in duels whilst in office. The practice continued despite the fact that (a) the official churches spoke out against it; (b) it was illegal; and (c) many Enlightenment intellectuals argued against it on moral grounds.

Appiah then wonders: Why did duelling come to an end if (a), (b) and (c) weren't enough? His claim is that changing conceptions of honour played a key role. For starters, the practice itself was faintly ridiculous. There were lots of odd rules and habits in duelling that allowed you to get out of actually killing someone (neither Winchilsea nor Wellington were injured in their duel). This ridiculousness became much more apparent in the age of mass media when reports of duels were widely circulated among the nobility and beyond. This also drew attention the scandalous and hypocritical fact that the aristocracy were not abiding by the law. Whilst duelling was primarily a game played by the aristocracy and not known to the masses, it could be sustained as a system for maintaining honour. But when it was exposed and discussed in the era of emerging mass media, this was more difficult to sustain. This impacted on the conception of what was honourable. The duel was no longer a way of sustaining and protecting honour; it was a way of looking ridiculous and hypocritical. In short, it became dishonourable.

The next example is that of foot-binding in China. This was the horrendously painful practice of tightly binding and, essentially, breaking women’s feet in order to change their shape (specifically so that they appeared to be smaller and pointier). Appiah explores some fascinating socio-cultural explanations of why this practice took root. It seems that foot-binding began as a class/status thing. It was upper class women (consorts and members of the imperial harem) who bound their feet. This may have been because foot-binding was a way to control the sexual fidelity of these women. It is difficult for women whose feet are bound to walk without assistance. Thus, one way for the emperor to ensure the sexual fidelity of his harem was to literally prevent them from walking around. Whatever the explanation, once it became established in the upper classes, the practice of foot-binding spread ‘downwards’. Appiah argues that this was because it was a way of signalling one’s membership in an honour world.

As with duelling, foot-binding was frequently criticised by intellectuals in China and was widely recognised as being painful. Nevertheless, it persisted for hundreds of years before quickly dropping out of style in the late-19th and early 20th century. Why? Appiah argues that it was due to the impact of globalisation and the changing perception of national honour. As industrialisation sped up, and the ships and armies of other countries arrived at their door, it became apparent to the Chinese elite that China was losing global influence to other countries — Britain, America and Japan being the obvious examples. These were all cultures that did not practice foot-binding. There was also, at the same time, an influx of Western religious missionaries to China, who were keen on changing the practice. They focused their efforts on the upper classes and tried to persuade them that there was something dishonourable about the practice. They argued it brought shame to the Chinese nation. These missionaries embedded themselves in Chinese culture, and succeeded in getting members of the Chinese nobility to accept that it would be dishonourable to bind the feet of their daughters and to marry their sons to a woman whose feet were bound. This led to a rapid decline in the practice and its eventual abolition. It was, consequently, changing perceptions of honour, particularly national honour, that did for foot-binding in China.

The final historical case study is the abolition of slavery in the British empire. This took place in the early part of the 19th century. I’ll be briefer with this example. Appiah argues that the moral revolution around slavery came in two distinct phases. The first took place largely among the nobility and upper middle class, where abolitionists argued that the practice brought shame on the British Empire. The second phase, which was possibly more interesting, took place among members of the working class. One of the distinctive features of slavery as a practice was that it signalled that certain people did not belong to an honour world: that they were not owed basic recognition respect. These people were slaves and one of the reasons they were denied recognition respect was because they were manual workers. There was, consequently, the tendency to assume that there was something dishonourable about manual work. This changed in the early 19th century because of the rise of the working class. As working class identity became a thing, and as members of the working class wanted to be recognised as honour-bearing citizens, they pushed for the abolition of slavery because it brought dishonour to the kind of work they did.

In addition to these three historical revolutions, Appiah also discusses one ongoing moral revolution: the revolution in relation to honour killing in Pakistan. In Pakistan, honour killing is illegal and is often condemned by religious authorities as being contrary to Islamic teachings. Despite this, the practice persists and politicians and authorities often turn a blind eye to it. Appiah argues that this is because of the honour code that exists in certain communities. In order for this to change there will need to be a revolution in how honour is understood in those communities. Appiah documents some of the efforts to do that in the book.


4. Is Appiah’s theory an interesting one?
That’s a quick overview of Appiah’s theory. Let’s now take stock. What is Appiah really saying? As I see it, his theory boils down to two main claims:

Claim 1: Changes to moral beliefs and practices (at least in the cases Appiah reviews) are primarily driven by changing perceptions and understandings of honour.

Claim 2: Honour is not necessarily moral in nature. That is to say, what people think is honourable is not necessarily the same thing as what they think is morally right.

Are these claims interesting? Do they tell us something significant about the nature of moral revolution? Let’s take each in turn.

Claim 1 strikes me as being relatively plausible but not exactly groundbreaking. All it really says is that one of things we care most about is how we are perceived by our peer groups. We want them to like us and think well of us and so we tend to behave in ways that will raise us in their eyes. This is what honour and the honour code boils down to (particularly since Appiah defines honour in terms of recognition respect and appraisal respect).

I’m sure this is true. Humans are a social species and we care about our social position. One of the more provocative books of recent years is Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain. In this book, Simler and Hanson argue that the majority of our behaviour can be understood as a form of social signalling. We do things not for their intrinsic merits nor for the reasons we often state but, rather, to send signals to our peers. Although Simler and Hanson push an extreme form of this social signalling model of human behaviour, I’m confident that signalling of this sort is a major driver of human moral behaviour. But does that make it an interesting idea? Not necessarily. For one thing, it may be the case that there are many other critical drivers of moral change that are not adequately covered by Appiah’s case studies. Honour may be the catalyst in his selected cases but other factors may be more important in other cases. For another thing, even if honour is the critical variable in some cases, we can’t do anything with this information unless we can say something useful about the kinds of things that honour tends to latch onto. Are there some universal or highly stable laws of what counts as honourable or is it all arbitrary?

This is where Claim 2 becomes important. This is, in many ways, the distinctive part of Appiah’s thesis: that honour is not necessarily moral in nature. Sometimes people have moralised honour codes — i.e. codes in which that which is perceived to be honourable is also understood to be moral — but sometimes they don’t. Indeed, each of the three historical case studies illustrate this. In all three cases, moral arguments were already marshalled against the practices of duelling, foot-binding and slavery. It was the recalcitrant honour code that was the impediment to moral change.

But let’s pause for a moment and think about this in more detail. When Appiah says that honour is not necessarily moralised is he saying that from his own perspective — i.e. that of a 21st century outsider to the honour codes he is analysing — or is he saying it from some other, universally objective stance where there is a single moral code that is open to both the insiders and outsides to a given honour world? The answer could make a big difference. For claim 2 to be true (and interesting) it would be have to be the case that insiders to a given honour code know that their duties to their honour code are in conflict with their moral duties and I’m just not sure that this is the case. I suspect many insiders to a given honour world think that their honour code is already moralised, i.e. that following the honour code means doing the morally right thing. I suspect there are also others that think they have conflicting moral duties: those specified by the honour code and those specified by some external source (e.g the law). But that in itself doesn’t mean that the honour code is perceived by them to be amoral or immoral. Such conflicts of duty are a standard part of everyday morality anyway. Beyond that, I would guess that it is relatively rare for people to think that their honour code is completely immoral but that they are bound to follow it regardless.

All that said, Appiah’s theory might be interesting insofar as it gives us some guidance as to how we can change moral practices. Appiah suggests that moral criticism and argumentation by itself is going to be relatively ineffective; as is top-down legal and regulatory reform, particularly when it is pushed on an honour world from the outside. So if we find a set of beliefs and practices that are morally objectionable, but honourable, we should approach its reform in a different way. Specifically, we should try doing any of the following three things (alone or in combination): (a) make moral conduct honourable (i.e. moralise the honour code), or (b) become an insider to an existing honour code and show how, within the terms of that code, some given conduct is, in fact, dishonourable (e.g. Muslim critics of honour killing can show how the practice conflicts with the superior duty to the rules of Islam) or (c) expand the honour world (i.e. the group identity-circle of respect) to include those with a moralised honour code and then try to reform the honour code to match the moralised ideal (e.g. what happened in China with foot-binding).

This might, indeed, be sound advice. Arguing from an ivory tower is unlikely to start a moral revolution.




Monday, December 9, 2019

Ten Years of Philosophical Disquisitions




Once upon a time, I used to mark yearly anniversaries on this blog. I stopped doing that a few years ago but since today is the 10th anniversary of this blog I though I should mark the occasion. For better or worse, this blog has been a major part of my life for the last 10 years. I have published over 1100 posts on it. (This was the first one). The blog itself has received just over 4 million pageviews. At the moment it is averaging about 70,000 pageviews per month. Given the way the internet works, I'm guessing about 90% of those pageviews are robots, but in light of my own stated philosophical views, I guess I shouldn't be too concerned about that!

As I have said before, I don't do any of this in the hope of getting readers. I do it mainly as an outlet for my own curiosity and understanding. That may well sound selfish, but I believe that if I didn't focus on the intrinsically fascinating nature of what I was reading and writing I wouldn't have sustained this for 10 years. Fame and fashion are, after all, fickle things.

That said, I do appreciate the fact that so many people seem to have derived some value from the things I have written on here. It amazes me that even one person has read it, never mind hundreds of thousands.

Anyway, in light of the occasion, here are the ten most popular posts from the past ten years:




The most popular post is the one on intoxicated consent to sexual relations. I guess that says something about what gets popular on the internet. One thing that I find interesting about this list is that the philosophy of religion doesn't feature much on it. This is despite the fact that the majority of the articles I wrote in the first few years were largely focused on that topic.