Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ethics as a Social Technology

One of my classes this semester consists in evaluating my advisor's manuscript for his upcoming book. The book is on a naturalistic account of ethics, and while I can't say too much about it specifically (it's still a work in progress), I can at least say that I'm finding it rather compelling. He's concerned with showing how our evolutionary history--specifically, the development of altruism in our hominid ancestors--led to the creation/development of ethics as we know them today. In one passage for this week's reading, he made a parallel between ethics and technology, saying that ethics (like any artifact) exists to fulfill a function--that is, it was created for a purpose. I find this idea incredibly compelling--it seems to me that thinking about ethics as a social technology is precisely the right way to frame the issue--and so I'm taking it upon myself to develop this part of his account further. I've only been thinking about it for a few hours now, so my formulation is still in its preliminary stages, but here's my thought-process thus far.

First, let me say a bit about what I mean by a piece of "social technology." The paradigm case for this, I think, is language, so that's the extended metaphor I'm going to use in my discussion here. All pieces of technology have (at least) two features in common: (1) they are the products of intelligent design (no technology exists as a mind-independent part of the world--artifacts don't grow on trees), and (2) they are created to fulfill some specific function. Before we progress, let's say a bit more about how these conditions tend to be expressed.

Generally, (2) is realized by extending our natural capabilities; in their simplest forms, tools are just pieces of the environment that we use to interact with other parts of the environment in ways that our unmodified bodies could not--the most intuitive example of this is something like the use of a smooth stick to reach something (say, honey) that is inaccessible to our human hands. More sophisticated tools, of course, fulfill more sophisticated functions; the most complex tools that we've created to date actually aid us not in direct physical interaction with the world, but in cognition--computers are reliable mechanisms which, while not directly doing any "information processing," let us take shortcuts with our cognition. In short, tools are environmental changes that accomplish some function.

(1) is a bit more obvious, but I should still say a bit about it. I've argued before that there is no such thing as "natural function"--I follow Searle in saying that function is only definable relative to the beliefs and desires of some intentional agent. I'm not going to rehash this argument here (though I will have to when I do a more formal presentation of this idea), so just bear with me on this point for now. All tools have functions, functions imply users/designers, and so all tools are the products of design and/or use (I'm still not sure if these two can be made equivalent). Now on to the meat of my point here.

Language, on this definition, seems to count as a tool. Proponents of the extended mind thesis (especially Andy Clark and David Chalmers) have been counting language as a tool for quite some time, and despite other disagreements I might have with extended mind philosophy, I think they're spot-on with this point. Language consists in changing the environment (usually--but not always--through the production of compression waves with the vocal chords) in such a way as to communicate one's own mental states to another person. This allows for all sorts of developments that might not have been possible--it opened the way to collaboration, information sharing, and socialization--but that's not what I want to focus on here. Like any tool, language has a function--in fact, it seems to have two distinct functions: expression and communication.

By 'expression,' I mean something akin to what's happening in poetry generally (or metaphors specifically): the conveyance of emotion, tone, mood, and other non-conceptual mental states. In this respect, language can be considered something like music--a series of sounds put together to convey not so much a concrete message per se, but more to communicate a set of abstract ideas. Shakespearean language is paradigmatically expressive, it seems to me: it is flowery, beautiful, complex, metaphorical, and often designed to do more than simply express propositions.

On the other hand, language is also used for communication in a more mundane sense--that is, it is to convey propositional attitudes about the world. This is the use with which most of us will likely be more familiar: it is the way we are using the linguistic tool when we give directions, express philosophical ideas, make requests, describe things, and generally use symbols to represent the world as being a certain way. The constructed language Lojban is probably as close to a purely communicative langauge as we can get--it is designed to totally exclude the possibility of any ambiguity of expression by being as syntactically precise as possible. It was formulated by logicians and mathematicians to express ideas about the world in the most clear and precise way possible. Of course, this precision means that it is more difficult to formulate purely expressive sentiments in Lojban--metaphor and other poetic devices, while not impossible to use, are much more difficult to construct.

Clearly, most languages are used for both these purposes--it would be possible to do science, philosophy, and logic in Shakespearean English, and it would be possible to write poetry in Lojban--still, there are cases (as we've seen) in which a particular language is better at one and worse at another; relative to each purpose, all languages are not created equal. Still, most do passably well at both--it seems strange to say that English is a "better" language than Chinese. There are, however, cases where these sorts of evaluative judgments seem not only possible, but reasonable. One notable case is that of the Piraha tribe in South America. Their language, which has been extensively studied and debated, seems relatively unique among modern languages in lacking common features like recursion (the ability to say embed smaller clauses in larger ones, e.g. 'Jon, who is the author of this blog, went to class, which was at Columbia University, which is on 116th street, today'), discrete numerical terms, discrete kinship words, and other common features. Many of the concepts we express on a regular basis could not be formulated in the Piraha language. If language is indeed a tool--in that it was created to fulfill a function--it seems like we can say that Piraha is, at the very least, less effective in the communication sense. In a relevant sense, English is better than Piraha just because it does the job of language better.

I think we can make a similar case for ethics. If we look at the history of our ethical practices, it seems clear that they arose as a result of our ancestors' increasingly social lifestyles--ethical rules and norms were created to let us live together in larger groups, and they accomplished this goal by artificially extending our naturally altruistic tendencies to more and more people. Ethics, then, like language, has two distinct functions: to maintain group cohesion, and to remedy altruism failures. Like language, it is a human-created tool that arose to accomplish socially oriented goals.

With this picture, we can have our pluralist cake and eat our relativism too--just as with language, it is perfectly coherent on this picture to see different ethical systems as competing but not superior or inferior to each other. There might be many ways to solve these two problems that wouldn't be compatible with one another, but that still solve the problems equally well. To draw another tool-related analogy, we can compare two competing ethical systems to two competing operating systems: neither Windows nor OSX is inherently superior to the other, they both simply approach the computation problem differently. Still, as with language, there are cases where one is clearly better than another--both Windows XP and OSX are better than their predecessors of 15 years ago just because they discharge their fuctions (i.e. solve the releveant problems) better and more efficiently.

Similarly, we can say unequivocally that our ethical system is better than that of the Nazis--a Nazi ethical system just doesn't solve the social cohesion and altruism failure problems in an effective way. A dictatorship might well keep society together cohesively, but it does so without solving the altruism failure effectively. Since an ethical theory's function is to solve both these problems, we can say that Naziism is an objectively worse ethical system. Ethics, if understood as a tool, lets us make these value judgments at a meta-theoretical level--we can call two ethical systems competing but comperable if they both discharge their functions equally well but in different ways, or we can call one better than another one if it discharges its function more efficiently and effectively.

This seems to me to be precisely the right way to think about ethics and morality. I'm going to develop this further as the semester progresses, culminating in a formal presentation in my final paper for the course. I'll update this account as I solidify things more, but for now I would welcome comments and thoughts.


That 0ne Guy said...

This has touched on my thoughts about cognition being a "tool" developed through evolutionary means.

This is truly, quite compelling.

Robert K. Logan said...

I thought you might enjoy my book The Extended Mind: The Emergenece of Language, the Human Mind and Culture (Toronto: U. of Toronto Press) which treatslanguage as a tool. Robert K. Logan

Michael said...

An implication of treating ethics as a human tool is you lose any method to suggest to anybody that they "should" follow the ethics. Indeed, that they should avoid gaming, taking advantage, of those who do follow the system. No one can tell me it is "wrong" for me to use a screwdrive to poke holes in sheet metal because it was "designed" to put in and take out screws. As a tool, we drop it in front of the people and we see how well it works and what it does. There is no place for "right" or "wrong" about it.

Further, what is your basis for defining the two things ethics should accomplish? Would you say the democratic ethics of ancient greece were wrong because that society has vanished? That is, is your argument as emotionally compelling when you use a vanished civilization that is still in favor?

Good to see your blog back!

Michael said...

Has your prof. referenced "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright? It seems to be very much down the same alley as you are being taken now.

I like this alley, in the sense that in terms of understanding how we get the ethics we get, I think dumping the "shoulds" is helpful. I do wonder often how, if it is possible at all, to put the shoulds back in place once you have treated it as an evolutionary or made-tool result.