Sunday, August 30, 2009

A natural history of morals

I’ve been reading a great book, “Philosophy and Feminist Thinking”, by Jean Grimshaw, which I picked up serendipitously at Back Pages Books, in Waltham MA (

As is appropriate for such a broad title, Ms. Grimshaw covers a lot of area, especially for such a short book. She hooked me in an initial section in which, in the course of discussing what it might mean to think of philosophy as “gendered”, she showed, by a very original argument, that, for instance, Kant held views on the nature of women which, to a sexism-aware reader, seem in the context of his general theory of moral behavior, to relegate women to second-class humanity; however, the views of on women, in Kant’s case, could be thrown away, and the general theory would not need to be changed. On the other hand, Aristotle’s teleological theory of natural history led him to see rational thinking as the most characteristic quality, and therefore the most appropriate end or goal, of human beings, because rational thinking derives from language, which is the one quality he saw as being uniquely human. The fact that women have language, but that he believes women not to be rational in the same way as men, thus creates a contradiction in his philosophy; but to eliminate the contradiction by admitting women (or for that matter, slaves) to be fully rational, would undermine parts of his moral and political philosophy which required the good life to be supported by the labor of women and slaves, in order for the full rational nature of humanity to find expression. Thus, Aristotle’s misogyny is integral to his philosophy, and his philosophy is more clearly “gendered” than Kant’s.

In another question she raises in the book, the question of what it might (or might not) mean to speak of women as having a “nature” distinct from men, or of “women’s ethics or values” as being distinct from “men’s”, she brings up some ideas I wish she had developed more fully. She mentions that many of the values which are often seen as being particularly women’s values – caring, attentiveness to relationships, alertness to the feelings of others – are actually behaviors that may be quite practical for survival to a person living powerlessly under the domination of others. A hyper-keen alertness to the feelings and moods of others, for example, is often a characteristic of people who grew up in an abusive environment (my example, not hers). I wish she had explored the political implications of this observation a little more – in particular, does this mean that some of these virtues might eventually dissolve, if we won a more egalitarian world? I hope not!

But what I really want to talk about in this essay, because it gibes in interesting ways with some thinking I’ve been doing, is a little theory of moral behavior that she just sort of casually tosses out in Chapter 7. She is discussing the question of “abstract” vs. “concrete” reasoning, and ideas that “men’s morality” is based on rules and principles, while “women’s morality” is contextual and specific. She points out that, besides being pretty imprecise as to what “women’s moral reasoning” really is, this argument dissolves rather readily into vague mysticism about women’s “intuitive” mental processes. She proposes as an alternative a way of looking at moral behavior that is based on distinguishing between “rules” and “principles”. The definition she uses is that “rules” simply direct behavior: “Do not kill.” “Principles”, on the other hand, direct you to take certain things into consideration: “Consider whether your actions will harm another.” Then, to use an example from her book, a person might hold one rule: “Do not sleep with someone to whom you are not married,” and two principles: “Consider whether your actions will condone immoral behavior,”, and “Consider whether your behavior will stand in the way of maintaining caring and relationships.” A person who chooses to maintain a close relationship to a daughter who was breaking the rule about sex and marriage is thus not seen as behaving in an unprincipled way, but as prioritizing one principle over the other, in a case in which the two led to contradictory behavior.

I think this is a fascinating, and quite compelling analysis. It is also quite close to a theory of moral behavior I’ve been kicking around, which I tend to refer to as my “natural historic” view of morality. (The name implies that this is a theory or hypothesis about what moral behavior in humans is “naturally like”, and not a normative or prescriptive theory, per se.) My natural historical view argues that human morality naturally takes the form of a collection of simple “rules” for behavior, which are not necessarily mutually consistent. (These “rules” in my theory thus play the role of both “rules” and “principles” in Grimshaw’s.) Social or other environmental circumstances have the effect of stimulating or reinforcing some rules, while suppressing others. Different aspects of the particular environmental context may stimulate contradictory rules. The rules, themselves, become part of the stimulus in a feedback mechanism: a rule, once stimulated or “fired”, may serve to have a suppressing or stimulating effect on others. Eventually, some rule (or some reasonably consistent set of rules) wins out, and the person takes moral action. (Of course, gridlock in the form of an inability to come to a decision may also win out.)

This view is consistent with a view of mind that I’ve been developing, under the influence of books like Kosslyn/Koenig “Wet Mind”, Patricia Churchland’s “Neurophilosophy” and George Lakoff’s “Women, Fire and Dangerous Things.” It is also consistent with a growing sense that I have that logical consistency, while certainly important, is grossly over-rated in most traditional philosophy, especially where it bears on the actual behavior of real human beings. (Lakoff’s book is particularly helpful, in this.) Another contributing factor in my thinking about this has come from primate ethological studies such as Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man”, and Frans de Waal’s “Chimpanzee Politics”. (De Waal’s “Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals” is right at the top of my “to be read” pile.)

Since I’m billing this as a “natural historical” theory, I should provide some ideas on how my hypotheses might be empirically tested. I have, in fact, had some thoughts about this, and about the original source(s) of the rules (in our genes, and/or imbued by socialization), but I think this is a long enough post for now...


  1. Wow, what a great post. You've given me a lot to think about, and I'll look forward to reading Grimshaw's book. I hear your thought about "rules" in a kind of cellular-automata or neural network sense- a series of simple connections between stimuli and responses that can give rise to very complicated behavior. I don't think I'd thought about behavior that way before.

  2. It's definitely a neural-type model that I have in mind. I'm hoping to continue with this line of thought, next week; meanwhile, I'm now engrossed in the De Waal "Good Natured" book, which is VERY interesting from the point of view of an interest in the biological/evolutionary basis of morals.