I have been thinking about the question of what exactly is it that develops in moral development, and as a result I want to put forth some inconclusive thoughts. Cognitive structuralism’s approach to this question suggests that the answer is reason, that as people’s reasoning abilities develop, so do their morals. Piaget, for instance, mapped his stages of mental growth to heteronomous and autonomous stages in the development of moral reasoning. Kohlberg, following on Piaget’s footsteps, outlined six stages of moral reasoning from early childhood to adult life (heteronomous morality; individualistic/instrumental morality; impersonally normative morality; social system morality; human rights/social welfare morality; and morality of universalizable, reversible, and prescriptive general principles). The idea in both cases in that as people’s mental abilities develop, they are able to implement more complex and less self-centered models of morality.
This might make instinctive sense. After all, one could argue, aren’t adults better equipped to distinguish moral nuances than children? But careful consideration reveals some problems with this perspective. For example, does cognitive structuralism’s approach to moral development imply that organisms with higher reasoning skills are more capable of moral behavior than organisms with lower reasoning skills? Or to put it in more crass terms: Are smarter people more moral than their counterparts? Do humans behave more morally than jellyfish?
Gilligan (1977), among others, has presented a critique of this approach by contrasting Kohlberg’s idea of the moral subject as an individual who can think formally and act autonomously with a model of the moral subject as someone who thinks contextually and acts socially. Similarly, Hoffman (2002) tries to elucidate the difference between these two perspectives by contrasting morality as justice versus morality as caring. And Dreyfus (1990) argues that intellectualism is of little use to an ethical expert who responds “instinctively and appropriately to each ethical situation” (p. 11; more on this to follow).
In this paper, however, I want to present a different type of critique to the cognitive structuralist view of moral development by making two claims: 1) that Reason (as defined from a Western, Humanist perspective) actually impedes moral development, and 2) that this is so because morality is actually an emergent behavior-in other words, a behavior exhibited by organisms acting according to very simple rules requiring little reasoning, but behavior that results in a complex system, a system which is, in fact, the basis for the order of the Universe, and which is replicated even by organisms without brains… How’s that for outlandish claims?!
To begin, I would like to make it clear that my argument does not rely on a renunciation of reasoning or logic as the basis for morality. To the contrary. While it is a particular conceptualization of reasoning that is the focus of my critique (the Humanist, Individualistic definition of reasoning, or Reasoning), my entire argument rests on the foundation that morality is a form of logic. In this, I take a page directly out of Piaget, who produced one of the most elegant memes about the relationship between morality and logic that I have found, quoted below by Gibbs:
The intertwining of morality with logic is expressed in Piaget’s famous assertion: “Morality is the logic of action just as logic is the morality of thought.” In other words, the two intimately interrelate: Moral reciprocity is rational just as rationality is prescriptive. (Gibbs, p. 36)
Usually, Piaget’s statement is taken as a strong argument for the case that, as his next line suggests, “pure reason [is] the arbitrer both of theoretical reflection and daily practice” (quoted in Dreyfus, 1990). But I would like to take the liberty of using Piaget’s words against his own position by interpreting his statement to mean, simply, that moral reciprocity (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) makes logical sense-it’s just how the Universe works. According to this interpretation of Piaget, logic is moral in that there are right and wrong answers (2+2=4, not 3 or 5). Likewise, moral action is logical in that moral reciprocity makes as much sense as 2+2=4, and moral irreciprocity makes as much sense as 2+2=5. But this has more to do with the way the Universe works than with the particular characteristics of ‘pure reason.’ The fact that moral reciprocity does not require pure reason has been exemplified, among other instances, by the Prisoners’ Dilemma competitions. In this tournament, simple software routines that learn to cooperate with each other do better than those that focus on competing with each other (for a recount of these tournaments, see for example Grossman, 2004). This kind of behavior is referred to as emergence.
But before I discuss how the logic of moral reciprocity is evident in the emergent behavior of organisms in the Universe, I would like to discuss what happens when this order is disrupted by Individualistic Reasoning. My thesis is that the Universe would work much better without this brand of ‘logic’ and that Individualistic Reasoning is in fact a deviation from the type of logic that actually promotes moral behavior.
If a scapegoat must be named, his name is René Descartes. The problem is that Descartes convinced himself that all we have access to in the world is our own private experience. Descartes, following on the footsteps of the Skeptics but armed with the new language of modern science, questioned the reality of perception. He did this on the grounds that our sensory organs, such as eyes, ears, skin, etc., are very imperfect transmitters of information to the brain, which is the only organ capable of interpreting and acting on that information. For example, it is the brain that activates signals of pain received by a particular part of the body, or creates an itch where an amputated limb used to be. It is also the brain that makes things seem real during dreaming, when in reality they don’t exist. So our access to reality is indirect, mediated by the imperfect senses and actualized only by the brain. This line of thinking lead Descartes to believe that the only thing we could be certain of was therefore the content of our brains, and everything in the outside world was consequently less real, or not real at all.
This Skeptical view was eventually contested (after three centuries!) by various schools, including the Pragmatics and the Existential Phenomenologists, who argued that there was no point in even asking how we perceive the ‘external’ world because we are embedded right into it, inseparable from it. As Heidegger argued, there is no such thing as a subject who is not being-in-the-world. “Taking the skeptic seriously and attempting to prove that there is an external world presupposes a separation of the mind from the world of things and other people that defies a phenomenological description of how human beings make sense of everyday things and of themselves” (Dreyfus, 2000, p. 53).
What interests me here is the particular anti-social way in which Reasoning was defined by Descartes and adopted by Western Humanism. Under this rubric, logic (including moral logic) has been defined in the West as something the individual does in isolation, not as part of a system. Norbert Elias describes the antisocial consequences of Descartes’ philosophy as follows:
Descartes’ Cogito [“I think therefore I am”], with its accent on the I, was also a sign of this change in the position of the individual person in his society… The isolated thinker perceived himself-or more precisely, his own thought, his ‘reason’-as the only real, indubitable thing. All else might possibly be an illusion conjured up by the Devil, but not this, not his own existence as thinker. This form of I-identity, the perception of one’s own person as a we-less I, has spread wide and deep since then. (Elias, 1998, p. 231-232)
Individual Reasoning subverts morality by disassociating the acts of the individual from the emergent acts of the ecosystem, of the we. Humanism, in its rush to liberate humankind from “illogical” (read: religiously imposed) morals, made it practically impossible to act in accordance with the logic of the Universe, a logic that Humanist Science itself claims to try to understand! In order to substantiate this claim before I am labeled an obscurantist, I need to finally turn to my statement that morality is an emergent phenomenon. What is emergence?
Emergence is what happens when the whole is smarter than the sum of its parts. It’s what happens when you have a system of relatively simple-minded component parts-often there are thousands or millions of them-and they interact in relatively simple ways. And yet somehow out of all this interaction some higher level structure or intelligence appears, usually without any master planner calling the shots. These kinds of systems tend to evolve from the ground up. (Steven Johnson, in an interview with Sims & Dornfest, 2002)
Johnson argues that emergent systems
solve problems by drawing on masses of relatively stupid elements, rather than a single, intelligent “executive branch.” They are bottom up systems, not top-down. They get their smarts from below… In these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies one scale above them: ants create colonies; urbanites create neighborhoods; simple pattern-recognition software learns how to recommend new books. The movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication is what we call emergence. (2002, p. 18)
Johnson indicates that “[e]mergent behaviors… are all about living within the boundaries defined by rules, but also using that space to create something greater than the sum of its parts” (2002, p. 181).
How does morality fit into this model? Well, the simple rule is moral reciprocity. The “stupid” agents are all living things (regardless of their level of reasoning). The complex emergent behavior, the sum greater than the parts, is Universal Order. One of the things that makes emergent systems durable and easy to propagate is that they are adaptive. Moral reciprocity is universal because there is no “executive branch” that needs to tell everything in the Universe how to behave; rather, the ‘DNA’ of the behavior is widely spread, and organisms-from simple jellyfish to complex humans-can adapt the rules and work out contextually what the logical/morally-right thing to do is.
This does not mean, obviously, that humans have as easy of a time as jellyfish in applying moral reciprocity. Humans are complex organisms living in complex social settings. However, as Dreyfus (1990) argues, the idea that therefore an intellectual approach to moral reasoning is bound to be superior than an intuitive approach might have more to do with our Cartesian biases than with the way things actually work. Dreyfus puts forth a model of moral development that resembles more the process of gaining mastery in driving a vehicle or playing chess than the process of philosophizing: expertise does not constitute deep pondering and analyzing of each move, but comes intuitively:
The intellectualist account of self-sufficient cognition fails to distinguish the involved deliberation of an intuitive expert facing a familiar but problematic situation from the detached deliberation of an expert facing a novel situation in which he has no intuition and can best resort to abstract principles… [I]n familiar but problematic situations, rather than standing back and applying abstract principles, the expert deliberates about the appropriateness of his intuitions. (p. 13)
This constitutes, in effect, a reversal of the “Western and male belief in the maturity and superiority of critical detachment” (p. 23). Instead of the ideal of a detached, uninvolved brain making sense of suspect sensory signals, “[t]he highest form of ethical comportment is seen to consist in being able to stay involved [in the world] and to refine one’s intuitions” (p. 23). I interpret this to mean that, unlike jellyfish, we constantly create and encounter new moral dilemmas, and thus have to “reason” our way back to emergent moral reciprocity-to the logic of the Universe-not by applying abstract principles, but by contextualizing our intuitions. Only in situations that are completely alien to us, argues Dreyfus, do we fall back on abstract moral rules, but “it should be no surprise if falling back on them produces inferior responses. The resulting decisions are necessarily crude since they have not been refined by the experience of the results of a variety of intuitive responses to emotion-laden situations and the learning that comes from subsequent satisfaction and regret” (p. 13).
In short, when individuals apply Individualistic Reasoning to define morals (in an attempt to become the “executive branch” of morality), they stop being part of the emergent system, of the universal order. Individualistic Reasoning presupposes that morality is a function of the rational elite, those organisms with advanced reasoning skills (who for some strange reason are mostly white adult males). Emergent moral reasoning, on the other hand, presupposes that moral reciprocity is a function of the Universe. Everything and everyone acts morally in the sense that their interactions are part of the logic of the Universe, the logic of moral reciprocity. Moral reciprocity just makes logical sense, like 2+2=4; it just happens. It is encoded into everything in the Universe.
Individualistic Reasoning, which assumes that higher reasoning results in higher morality, disrupts this balance by trying to make the system top-down, not bottom-up. In other words, Humanism has placed rational humans as the source of morality. Morality is what highly rational humans say it is, not what the rest of the Universe is telling us it is. Thus, Individual Reasoning-even if it spouses the highest ideals-ends up disturbing the logic of moral action by limiting the domain and practice of morality to the actions of “mature” rational beings.
Some might wonder: if moral reciprocity was really the order of the Universe, how come there is evil in the world? How come killer whales kill senselessly, cats torture mice, and humans commit the most atrocious acts against each other-all of which make it hard to believe that moral reciprocity rules the Universe? The answer to this question is that immorality, in the form of moral irreciprocity, is also part of the emergent system. In fact, it actually serves a very important pedagogical function. It ensures that moral reciprocity spreads virally, in the sense that by suffering or observing moral irreciprocity, everything in the Universe learns-using the most basic reasoning skills, if not mere instincts-that moral reciprocity is the only strategy that guarantees survival. Even the Prisoners’ Dilemma software can figure that out quickly. If we didn’t have deviations (in the form of moral irreciprocity), we would not be aware that moral reciprocity makes logical sense. The exception proves the rule.
Of course, chaos is part of an emergent system, which means that moral reciprocity and moral irreciprocity are not in perfect balance at all times and in all places. In fact, because moral irreciprocity channeled through Individualistic Reasoning-although illogical-satisfies the needs of the individual, and because we live at a time in which Humanism has made the Individual the center of the Universe, we are currently experiencing a larger proportion of moral irreciprocity (ironically, under the guise of Humanism). However, as this places an inordinate stress in the emergent system, we can expect the laws of chaos to eventually enact an adjustment. It’s just our job to help it along the way by surrendering ourselves to emergent moral reasoning, by letting go of our egocentric
belief in ourselves as superior moral beings 😉
Dreyfus, H. (1990). What is moral maturity? A phenomenological account of the development of ethical expertise. Retrieved on December 17, 2004 from http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/rtf/Moral_Maturity_8_90.rtf
Dreyfus, H. (2000). Telepistemology: Descartes’ last stand. In K. Goldberg (Ed.), The Robot in the Garden (pp. 48-63). Massachusetts: MIT Press
Elias, N. (1998). The Norbert Elias reader: a biographical selection. (J. Goudsblom, Ed.), Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers
Gibbs, J.C. (2003). Moral development and reality: beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE
Gilligan, C. (1977). In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47, 481-517.
Grossman, W. (2004). New tack wins prisoner’s dilemma. Retrieved on December 17, 2004 from http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,65317,00.html
Hoffman, M.L. (2002). Empathy and moral development: implications for caring and justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Johnson, S. (2002). Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software. 1st Touchstone ed. New York: Simon & Schuster
Sims, D., & Dornfest, R. (2002). Steven Johnson on “Emergence.” Retrieved on December 16, 2004 from http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/network/2002/02/22/johnson.html
[Note: Originally submitted as a term paper for a Moral Development class]