Monday, March 6, 2017
What makes human systems different from other living systems? Humans alone have rules that are collectively agreed to. These rules create a social reality that can only be maintained by collective human acceptance. I call this social reality - Normativity.
My passion is to seek to understand the nature and origin of normativity. My intuition is that all forms of normativity, including language, originate from its most basic form - morality.
The fundamental fact about normativity is that it is a drawing of a boundary. A line between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsity, or beauty and ugliness. This boundary is not already there in reality like the boundary between water and land; It is one that is created by the agreement of a group of human beings. In order to sustain this boundary humans must be able to agree on a difference, and actively maintain that difference by including some behaviours and excluding others.
We accept certain behaviours, so we include them. We reject other behaviours and so we exclude them. We can look at every incidence of normativity in this way. All uses of rules follow this pattern. Some behaviours are included and other behaviours are excluded. And those who keep doing excluded things become excluded themselves.
You can’t be a Scientist unless you follow the rules and methods of Science. You can’t do math if you don’t learn the rules. You can’t play a game if you keep breaking the rules. You can’t speak a language if you don’t use its rules. You can’t be a member of society if you persist in wrongdoing.
When we observe wrongdoing we normally want to tell others. And when we do, it helps us to maintain the distinction and continue to follow the rules ourselves.
On the other hand, if we see many people breaking the rules, we are much more likely to break the rules ourselves. We lose the motivation to maintain the distinction because it is not being maintained by the rest of the group.
I anticipate that some who read this will disagree with me. Some may argue that morality is objective and does not depend on how many people in a group follow the rules. Others may ask what do I mean, everyone commits to morality, and everyone participates in monitoring and sanctioning others? Morality is imposed by tradition, or absolute authority, or - it’s just a pure fabrication, etc. My argument, that it is a social contract, may not seem self-evident.
But consider this example: language is like morality because it is also a kind of normativity. When we learn a language as infants, we commit to speaking the language. When we make mistakes we are corrected by others. When others make errors in grammar or pronunciation we correct them. If I misspell “conscuusness” you will be irritated by my error and want to correct me. I myself am having a hard time right now not going back and correcting that error.
I’m not about to go back and correct that error because I’m trying to make a point here. Normativity is about commitment. The reason that this is not self-evident is because we’ve already made the commitment a long time ago when we were growing up. Each one of us committed to speaking a language. Each one of us committed to living in a moral system. And if we didn’t do the latter, we are probably in jail now or headed for jail.
Here’s the thing: language is a self-organized human system. There is no one in charge of language. There is no authority out there dictating grammatical rules and rules of pronunciation.
There are seven billion speakers, who all follow rules of grammar and pronunciation, and our world is divided into many groups of speakers speaking variations on these rules, due to variations in geography, cultures, and unique histories. The rules of language change over time and location. This change happens slowly, but it is inexorable, it cannot be stopped by any human authority.
Now consider morality as a human system. If morality is a system like language, then it is a self-organized system also. There is no one in charge. There is no guy with a sword outside making sure that we don’t do anything wrong.
We all must commit to living in a moral system - we have a name for this commitment process: it’s called, “growing up.” We think of ourselves and most others we know, as “good”. We think of wrongdoers as “bad”. We are all motivated to look for and correct wrongdoing and if it’s really serious wrongdoing, to call in the cavalry.
This motivation is a kind of “force,” the force that’s captured in the concept of “ought”, that is, what we ought or ought not to do. We look out for wrongdoing because that’s what everyone ought to do. It’s a more basic and powerful form of the way that we look out for mistakes in grammar and pronunciation and insist on pointing them out to the people who commit them.
We can communicate because we all commit to following grammatical rules; we can live together peacefully because we all commit to following moral rules; but if enough people refused to commit to moral rules society would break down; it’s as simple as that.
In the Seventeenth Century, in his great work, Leviathan, The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes concerns himself with the question: how come humans follow the rules? People can make agreements, but how can these agreements hold together? Hobbes reasoned, correctly, that rules are ultimately backed by force. “Covenants without a sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” he writes in Leviathan, demonstrating that he recognized that rule following cannot simply exist by reason alone.
Hobbes also brought up an idea that had been thought of and then discarded by the ancient Greeks: To be without rules would be as if humans were in a “state of nature”; so humans, if they were able to, would naturally come to some agreement about the rules in order to get themselves out of the “state of nature.”
But, and here’s the thing, the very key to the problem of origins - how would people who don’t have any rules agree to having rules? Hobbes's theory was that such a “covenant,” an agreement we call a “social contract,” was only possible with a “sword,” i.e. someone with a monopoly of power to back the agreement. In other words, Hobbes tries to solve the problem of how morality originated by imagining that a social contract would have to impose a political solution; and because of the times of civil war that Hobbes lived in, he thought that the political solution should be an absolute monarchy.
Here’s where Hobbes got it right. He realized that no social contract could arise out of a state of nature without a realistic threat of force. You cannot depend on people’s good will unless you have morality in place already. In order to get around this dilemma Hobbes argued, in effect, that there needed to be a political solution to a moral problem.
But following the rules is a moral problem and it needs a moral solution. Politics is a way of establishing authority, but morality is about establishing commitment. Morality comes from collective commitment. Collective moral commitment, or, in other words - normativity - is ultimately what makes human beings possible.
Living, as he did, in seventeenth century England, Hobbes had only the sketchiest knowledge about the kinds of groups that the first humans lived in. From what we observe of nomadic hunting and gathering groups they are small, making up from thirty to one hundred people, they are usually made up of both related and unrelated nuclear families, they have very little in the way of political or social institutions other than the family and ethnicity.
We are told by anthropologists that nomadic hunting and gathering groups all share in common a collective intolerance of excessive egotism, boasting, authoritarianism, and bullying. And it would seem that everyone within the group shares the same moral system.
Why do we have feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment? For one thing, all of these feelings help to temper our egotism. These feelings also indicate our recognition and discomfort at our own faux pas. Some people don’t have enough of these “social” feelings. They are called psychopaths. These people act without any internal checks to wrongdoing, except fear of getting caught.
A good example of a psychopath is the present leader of the Philippines, Dutarte. You can watch him speak on youtube videos. Notice the sheer absence of guilt, shame, and embarrassment in this man’s speaking style, especially when he is talking about absolutely horrifying actions. What some people mistakenly take to be rock solid confidence is actually pure psychopathy. This man does not have a conscience.
Morality is necessarily collective both in how it involves shared perception and shared obligations. In the beginning morality must have been enforced by the group as a whole. Does not morality give the group the power to punish and exclude any individual in the group?
From a “management design” perspective moral systems are designed to get rid of psychopaths, and discourage people from crossing the line into unconstrained egotism. The theory that psychopaths have been mostly selected out the human gene pool, was first argued by Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, in his book, Moral Origins.
Morality is something that we share with everyone in our group, and it is something that we each internalize. The perception of right and wrong is shared. We commit ourselves to perceiving actions as either right or wrong just as everyone else does, and we expect everyone else to feel the same way, and that they too will avoid doing wrong. The group is collectively committed to detecting and punishing wrongdoing, and the worse the crime, the more people in the group are involved together in its detection and punishment.
By involving the commitment of the entire group, morality formed a system that, in part, protected the group from outsiders, but more importantly, from wrongdoers within the group. “Peace and Order” were the collective goals; actions to detect and sanction wrongdoing were part of everyone’s responsibility. The moral system worked to further these goals because everyone committed to following the rules and enforcing sanctions. The collective commitment of the whole group to detect and punish any wrongdoing was, in effect, Hobbes’s sword. It was the threat of physical violence, exclusion or assassination made good by the collective membership of the group. In a group of thirty to one hundred people that was realizable and effective.
We may not recognize this, or we may take this for granted today because we now live in huge and complex societies, where membership in groups is often porous and overlapping. In the more complex industrial societies there is an intricate division of labour: there are professional lawmakers, judges, policemen, gaolers, teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, opinion leaders, philosophers, and countless more specialized professions.
We no longer collectively throw stones at wrongdoers. But that doesn’t seem to stop any, or all of us, from continuing to perceive, judge, and share our judgements about right and wrong behaviour with those around us. These impulses to get involved in perceiving, judging, and sanctioning actions morally, hark back to our very origins.
If morality requires clear boundaries, fair and equitable rules, and active participation of group members in monitoring and enforcement, it resembles in some ways the conditions that make for successful long-term management of a Common Pool Resource. Is a moral system, in fact, equivalent to a CPR?
A common pool resource, sometimes called a CPR, is a resource such as a body of water, irrigation channel, fishery, alpine meadow, etc., which is held in common. Common Pool Resources are akin to Public Goods such as public roads, in that, if they are available, they are available to everyone. The thing about CPRs that is different from public goods is that when one takes away from the pool, there is less in the pool. With public goods this is not the case. Up to a certain point of mass congestion, if I drive on a road, I don’t make the road less available to others.
But what about morality? Having it benefits everyone, but is morality a CPR? Is there less of it, if more people benefit from it? At first glance It doesn’t seem to work that way at all. But morality isn’t a resource that gets consumed, it is an institutional system that completely enframes society; It can be seen as a kind of Social Capital; something that’s necessary for human society to get off the ground; something that affords trust and cooperation and social stability. But, morality, unlike physical capital, is a living system that can die if it isn’t maintained and nurtured.
What morality has in common with CPRs is that people who break moral rules undermine the viability of morality, and the larger the proportion of rule-breakers, the more catastrophic it is for a moral system. Just as with CPRs in order for it to work, it needs everybody to share in rule following, monitoring, and sanctioning against any rule-breaking.
Morality is a common pool resource. Here’s why: no human group exists without morality; morality cannot get off the ground without universal support within the group; and once morality does get off the ground, it benefits everybody. All other normative systems are, by the same argument,CPRs too, because rule following exists in all human societies and rule following also requires universal support.
I call morality a Common Pool Resource. This is not the way Hobbes, the true originator of the concept of “Homo Economicus,” saw it, nor the Utilitarian Moral theorists who were influenced by his theories, nor the modern “game theorists” who claim to derive morality from some form of Darwinian natural selection. In fact, philosophers, evolutionary psychologists and behavioral economists have been looking for the origins of morality in all the wrong places - in individual actions, in individual reasons, or in simple aggregates of individuals.
Furthermore,most contemporary philosophers have no idea that an American Economist by the name of Elinor Ostrom received a Nobel Prize for working out the conditions for the origin of morality. (Nor for that matter, did the Swedish Nobel Prize Committee, because they awarded it to her for Economics, not Moral Philosophy. Elinor Ostrom was an Institutional Economist who studied the management of Common Pool Resources. She died in 2012.
I was reminded of this, while reading Does Altruism Exist by David Sloan Wilson. According to Wilson, “Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for showing that groups of people are capable of managing their own resources, but only if they possess certain design features.”
Up to the time of Ostrom’s research the dominant view of Common Pool Resources were that they could not be managed without central government control, which, no surprise, is Hobbes’s solution, or through a Lockean system of private property rights, backed by government. In contrast, collective property rights were thought to be inevitably subject to the “Tragedy of the Commons” - meaning that there was too much individual incentive to overgraze, overfish, or overuse the common resource, inevitably leading to its tragic demise.
According to the dominant thinking of the day, only private ownership of the resource, if it were possible, gave individual owners the right incentives to conserve resources. (This was, of course, contingent on the owner not deciding that the resource was worth more in cash value if it were sold off and then consumed, rather than conserved for future growth.)
As Ostrom pointed out in her research, there are a number of examples of pre-industrial cultures from around the world, maintaining and sustaining common pool resources for hundreds, or sometimes as much as a thousand years without relying on a central authority or the institution of private property.
What is significant in Ostrom’s findings is that she found that all successfully managed common pool resources followed a certain pattern of collective agreement. These she has summarized into “eight design principles” in her book summarizing her career: GoverningThe Commons.
For the purposes of this article, we need only list the first five of these.
The other three have to do with the dynamics and difficulties of larger groups and with competing groups of stakeholders. These seem less relevant to the situation that may have been present at the origin of moral systems, when technology was, literally, stone age, groups were smaller than one hundred people, and a surplus stock of resources was nonexistent, or at best, highly intermittent.
I have taken my account from Ostrom’s book, Governing the Commons. Here I have paraphrased Ostrom’s first five design principles for successfully managed common pool resources:
Successful Design Principles for CPRs
- Clear boundaries and a strong sense of group identity around utilizing the resource.
- Good fitting rules that are fair and equitable and easy to enforce
- There is a workable collective choice mechanism for changing the rules.
- Group members all participate in monitoring
- Sanctions for rule-breaking are consistently applied but they are graduated.
According to Ostrom: “The central question in this study is how a group of principles who are in an independent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”
In this paragraph Ostrom outlines the central question for collective choice problems; but, more importantly for the purposes of this article, it is also the very foundation of any moral system. In short, how could the first human group “obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”
The traditional approach to this “central question” follows Hobbes’s analysis and posits an external enforcer to get the job done. But Ostrom, having seen CPR’s in action successfully deal with this problem without centralized control, points out that: “External coercion is at times a sleight-of-hand solution, because the theorist does not address what motivates the external enforcer to monitor behavior and impose sanctions.
The difference in successful CPRs is that: “....commitment and monitoring are strategically linked.” If everyone agrees to follow the same rules, this reduces the costs of monitoring. When the common resource owners participate in monitoring the behaviour of other owners, they strengthen their own commitment to follow the rules and they raise the costs of breaking the rules for others.
I began Part II by outlining a plausible list of the requirements for morality to get off the ground. My purpose was not to justify these requirements as the basic and only requirements, but to demonstrate that a plausible description of what a moral system does can be closely matched up to the first five of Elinor Ostrom’s eight design principles for successful CPRs.
Let’s take a closer look at those design principles. First, a group needs to draw a clear boundary between itself and other groups. In other words, the people in the group need to have a strong group identity. In North American Hockey, Vancouver Canucks fans will tell you that the Canucks are not anything like the Anaheim Ducks. - two totally different teams. Sports teams and their fans have very strong identities. No doubt this strong sense of identity helps the teams perform better, and the fans support their teams better.
Note also that there is a darker, negative side to strong group identity - it can lead to genocide, witch-burnings and lynchings - because part of what it means to have a strong group identity, is that, whenever you and your group feels threatened you will have powerful reasons to differentiate from people who come from another place and look and act differently; and then it’s not much of a leap to channel your anxiety into scapegoating and persecuting those “outsiders.”
Second, there must be good fitting rules that are fair and equitable. Just for a minute, let’s bracket out Hobbes. Replacing him now is the German Philosopher of the Enlightenment: Immanuel Kant. Remember his famous “Categorical Imperative?” If not, it is only a keyboard click away nowadays:
"Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."
or his “humanity formulation” of the Imperative:
"Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."
In these maxims, Kant was attempting to summarize the human moral system in a single sentence that could conceivably guide all of our actions. This is a heroic attempt but far too ambitious. To put it in modern terms, from a “design perspective,” fair and equitable rules are rules that don’t privilege or prejudice individuals or groups. We want rules to not impose unnecessary costs or burdens and we want rules not to selectively or disproportionately reward certain people.
Rules that are perceived as fair and equitable are more likely to be followed than if they are perceived as unfair. The collective owners of a CPR are more likely to commit to rules that they think will not unfairly burden them or unfairly reward others.
Thirdly, there needs to be a workable collective choice mechanism in place if the rules need to be changed. We now leave Kant and come right back to Hobbes. Hobbes lived through the English Civil War. For significant periods he was exiled from England, and had to live on the Continent.
If the Protestants won they imposed their system on the Catholics. But a Catholic on the throne was a counter-threat to reimpose Catholicism. One does not have to be Hobbes to see that this could be a recurring legitimacy problem. At the time, in seventeenth century Europe, outside of the Netherlands, the only solution appeared to be one state, one religion. No one thought to look at the Ottoman Empire, which tolerated multiple Religions, (but only if they kept to their own enclaves.) Because Europeans couldn’t see past Europe, the only way to legitimize a religion appeared to be either by Civil War or Coup D’Etat.
This is to say that constructing a feasible procedure to allow everyone to agree to a change of rules helps immeasurably to preserve order and stability. They could have avoided the bloodshed of the Thirty Years War if they had realized that.
Fourthly, monitoring must be shared amongst all users of the CPR. If costs of monitoring are too high people won’t do it. Then infractions increase and the pool gets emptied. In contrast, If the rules make it easy to monitor, more people will do it and infractions are decreased.
Fifthly, sanctions must be administered for infractions, but on a sliding scale. A CPR or a moral system cannot be rigid, because environmental conditions and unforseen circumstances frequently come into play. People may be breaking the rules out of desperation to keep themselves or their families from starving. Punishments in this case, should be less severe.
We’re talking management design features here. If the system is too soft, it gives no support, and allows rule-breaking to escalate. If the system is too rigid it will not be flexible enough to deal with changes in circumstances. There has to be a backbone but there also has to be some “give.”
“.....commitment and monitoring are strategically linked.” This is the key to why Hobbes is wrong and Elinor Olstrom is right. CPRs require constant monitoring, the collective owners are able to commit to monitoring if the rules are fair and equitable; the whole system works well if there are procedures in place, such as consensus, or majority rule, for facilitating agreements about making or changing the rules when changing circumstances warrant. The commitment of the owners is also to a strong sense of identity with clear boundaries around the CPR. The owners commit to following and monitoring rules, to sanctioning rule- breaking, and to a strong sense of group identity. It is the continuing commitment of all the members that supports the whole system: its boundaries, its rules and procedures, and its separation of behaviours into included and excluded.
In a small group of thirty to ninety people, everyone knew everyone else on sight; there was no anonymity as there is in our society. Monitoring is a very different ballgame in modern society because the number of people involved is so much greater and the complexity of the system is greater. That’s why our moral systems appear to us to be far more complex, nuanced, and less visible. Morality is internalized, but also spread out amongst different interlocking groups and professions within society. A lot of work is done by the police and legal system, local and mass media, educational system, government legislators, mental health professions, clergy, etc. There is nothing tidy about it.
Here is one famous critic of Social Contract Theory. Notice how he hangs his whole argument on the supposed fact that rule following and following authority are both based on the same foundations.
What necessity, therefore, is there to found the duty of allegiance or obedience to magistrates on that of fidelity or a regard to promises, and to suppose, that it is the consent of each individual, which subjects him to government; when it appears, that both allegiance and fidelity stand precisely on the same foundation, and are both submitted to by mankind, on account of the apparent interests and necessities of human society?
David Hume “Of The Original Contract”
Morality is not the same as Politics. Unfortunately, most critics and adherents of Social Contract Theory, simply repeat Hobbes’s mistake of imposing a political solution on a moral problem. Allegiance, if it is not just the allegiance of subordinates to their dominant, is based on fidelity - the fidelity that each human has to the moral system itself. Without a moral system to begin with, allegiance to a rule-governed political system would be impossible and we would find ourselves in the equivalent of De Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics, which is to say, where the only allegiance is to the Ape dominance hierarchy.
Of all forms of normativity, morality packs the most “punch.” A lot of our most primitive and powerful emotions are driven by our moral concerns. Compared to them, other forms of normativity can seem much weaker. That is one of the reasons that I think that all forms of normativity come from an original moral system. Here is another reason: commitment to a moral system is developmental and occurs mostly in childhood. When we reach a certain level of maturity we are considered to be true moral agents, and no longer dependents.
The length of time it takes to be considered an adult, with all the responsibilities this entails, is much longer than the time it takes children to successfully speak a language. Children master their first language by the time they are six years old, but it takes three times that age to be considered a legal adult in many societies.
One of the major differences between humans and our closest primate relatives is our larger brains and longer childhoods. We are far more behaviourally flexible than other animals and we have a significantly longer post-natal period of neuroplasticity. The longer childhood gives us a tremendous capacity to learn and utilize our larger brains. Developing a moral system early on in our evolution, could have made longer childhoods and bigger brains possible, and these in turn would have encouraged the continued use of the morality in a self-reinforcing positive feedback system.
Morality afforded social stability, and group cooperation. This led to longer, safer, childhoods and more children growing up to be adults. Higher ranking chimpanzees can kill the infants of lower ranking chimpanzees - in most human societies, this is not tolerated. More children survive in human societies because of our greater ability to cooperate. This ability to cooperate relies on morality to get off the ground.