Moral Tribes

Aside from the political realm, in my quest to gain more perspective on Anarchism in 2022, I am interested in behavioural aspects of the human condition. It seems to me that political constructs as dynamic systems are inherently unstable. Whilst I am predisposed to Anarchy versus the alternatives to which I’ve been exposed, it too is fraught will deficiencies. The question is which system has the fewest deficiencies at any given time. More on this later.

On my journey, I’ve come across Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene, a book recommended in Behave by Robert Sapolsky—perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the trailing decade, which is also to say my favourite book over this period. Professor Greene summarises his concepts on YouTube.


Of course, there’s a but. Joshua Greene seems to come from the same mould as Stephen Pinker. Two Pollyanna defenders of the Enlightenment and Humanism. As such, they are Moderns in the pejorative sense. They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. They both buy into the Classical Western narrative.

What interested me in Greene’s work was the conflict management aspect. I don’t believe in inherent morality, but I do believe in constructed morality, perhaps better known as ethics. I believe that these are self-serving, whereby self represents any entity at some point or limited expanse of time. They never derive from some neutral place without benefiting some at the expense of others.

The axe I have to grid with Greene in Moral Tribes is his belief in facile notions such as loyalty and some sense of definitive goodness and badness. These things, he believes are instinctual. If we can tap into them and manipulate those with broken instincts—or marginalise them—, all will be milk and honey—or wine and roses. Take your pick.

Deep Pragmatism

Greene is effectively a utilitarian as descended from Jeremy Betham and John Stuart Mill, and he views pragmatism as a sort of panacea. Although I operate as a pragmatist as a fallback position from my more existential nihilistic core, I don’t feel that his recharacterising utilitarianism as Deep Pragmatism™ is a viable solution. Presuming that one could actually dimensionalise a society in a manner to measure this utility is a fool’s errand at the start. And, as I’ve gathered from other sources, he not only believes that there is a best morality, and he’s found it—because of course he has. In my book this is a red flag—a flaming red flag signalling a rubbish claim. In some circles, they’d straight up call it bollox.

Given this foundation, I am not sure how much more I’ll be able to maintain my interest. But for now, I’m not optimistic that he’s relying on anything more than hoping to convert ises from oughts with his magic Modern wand. I’ll give it as least a few more pages, but I won’t promise not to skim through to the end.

Pragmatism and Samsara

I was engaged in a conversation in a Facebook Philosophy group for Pragmatists. I feel that these groups take me as adversarial because I question their system of belief. To the extent that I accept any categorical distinction, I consider myself to be a Postmodernist first and foremost and a Pragmatist second. In a similar fashion, I am at once an atheist first, but I operate as a Buddhist. I am a nihilist first, but I operate as an Existentialist. In any case, in explaining this, I hit upon an analogy that I hadn’t considered before.

everything just ‘is’

Pragmatism is Samsara. In Buddhism, there is the concept of Samsara, which contains the realms we reside in before we reach Enlightenment, the state of realising that everything just ‘is’, is , and is undifferentiated, at which case we either exit the system or remain as aware (woke anyone?) Bodhisattvas.

everything is a constructed illusion

The ‘just is’ is the postmodern condition. Nothing is as it seems and everything is a constructed illusion. There is no good, no bad, no right or wrong—not even black or white. This is all perception of difference, but there is no difference.

I am a Buddhist in the same way I am a Pragmatist. I know that this is all a cognitive construct—or constructs—, but I am still stuck in the middle of it, ‘thrown in’ (Geworfenheit) to echo Heidegger, and I attempt to make the best of it. None of it is real, but, as with people of the Matrix, I can’t perceive my way out of it.

The risk for Pragmatists is that they are empiricists. They trust that the past will ostensibly operate the same as the future. It’s been generally that way thus far, and we’ve misinterpreted how things operate in the past, but we’ve corrected this interpretation, and we’ll correct and refine these interpretations in future. That’s the employed logic. I’ve not got a better plan, so as shoddy or rickety as it might be, it’s my life raft replete with holes, but I’ll patch them as swiftly as I can and hope my history of having not encountered any sharks or tidal disruptions or undertows persists.

none of this exists

All the while, my core beliefs are that none of this exists—not in a solipsistic way, just not as we imagine it does. It’s the wall constructed of atoms and molecules that is more space than not, and yet we can’t pass through it. If only we could all be Neo and overcome this misperception.

The Truth about Truth (First Amend)

Please note that this content has been subsumed into the originating article: The Truth about Truth.

We have no idea how close or far we are from Reality on the Y (Truth) axis.

Graph: Correspondence of Truth to Reality (Asymptotic Curve)

Assuming for the time being that there is an approachable truth, we have no reference to understand how close to reality we might be. In practice, we seem to operate on a basis of always being within some level of statistical significance of where Truth = Reality, and when new information is introduced, we say, “Hooray for Science!” Aren’t we glad that science is self-correcting. And Empiricism has its own issues.

Historically, we’ve had ‘wrong’ correspondence between Truth and Reality, but then we got it ‘right’—until we didn’t.

We may all know how Einstein progressed and refined Newtonian physics. What Einstein did is to create a new narrative—a synchronous shift of paradigm and rhetoric—, which has been accepted into a new orthodoxy. In our mind, this feels like progress. How close are we to the real truth?

Taking our understanding of gravity or of the fabric of space-time, we still have no idea what’s going on or how it operates, but this doesn’t prevent us from accepting it as a black box and making pragmatic predictions from there. So, for all intents and purposes, the ‘truth’ mechanism is less important than the functional relationship, just as I can tell time on a watch I have no idea how it operates.

Moral Pragmatism

It appears you are interested in the workings of morality from a practical perspective.

This statement occurred in a discussion thread on The Philosophical Hack.

I don’t feel there is another perspective. It is a human construct of language, but, in particular, it’s a social construct. By definition, language is arbitrary (though not capricious), any anything within language is necessarily arbitrary, too.

Morality and its cousin, ethics, are essentially normative rules of conduct, so they are, foundationally speaking, pragmatic: what is the best system for a society to flourish. This implies some goal or goals. In essence, this becomes an optimisation problem that involves systems thinking, and humans are particularly poor at systems thinking especially when faced with complexity. Along our evolutionary path, managing complexity was not a huge survival factor. Kahneman and Tversky identified two systems: System I is the sort of automatic reflexive system and System II is for advanced functions. System II requires a lot of energy and upkeep. For most humans, it’s not well-developed or maintained,and System I appears to be the arbiter and has right of first refusal, so it attempts to solve heuristically something that should be assessed analytically.

Why the ramble? Morality is a complex system with boundary conditions and dynamics: precisely what humans are poor at. Just defining the boundaries is a challenge. Perhaps this is why some people simply attempt to define the boundary as universal, but this creates its own challenges. And many reject universal morality, opting for smaller moral domains—nations, states, municipalities, communities, schools, churches, families, peer groups, couples. To Hegel and Nietzsche, the main concern is authenticity for the individual. And Nietzsche didn’t feel that there was any one-size-fits-all morality to begin with. I could operate with different moral imperatives than you. This was most evident in his Master-Herd distinction.

But since I reject the notion of objective morality, it is necessarily normative or relative or subjective. Here, we end up trying to optimise an equilibrium model, but the trick is what to optimise.

In the modern age, the consensus is to maximise happiness or utility, but, as I’ve mentioned before, we are still left in a quandary: do we optimise personal happiness or group happiness, and what group? A nationalist might choose to draw a boundary around the nation. This will maximise happiness within the borders without concern of whether ‘people are starving in Africa’.

Of course, there are multiple dimensions to any morality. If there are two people and one has $100 and the other would feel happier to take it, in a utility optimisation model, there is nothing to defend not taking it. Prospect theory within behavioural economics provides some rational insomuch as humans tend to value loss over gain, so the $100 received is perceived as having less value than the person losing it. This is further complicated if the person receiving it is poor—perhaps s/he has no money—and the person relinquishing it is Jeff Bezos, to whom it is nothing more than a rounding error.

I mention these because we could have a positive sum game (borrowing from game theory)—the gain to the poor person would outweigh the loss leading to a net positive gain—, and yet Pareto optimisation disallows this. Of course, happiness and utility cannot be measured in the first place and they are not persistent in the second place.

My point in all this is to argue that humans are woefully ill-equipped to grasp these topics, and so most of this is not much more substantial than mental masturbation. And this leads me full circle to me original contention that morality and so-called moral truths are nothing more that rhetoric, the ability to persuade that your position is the truest truth.