Slouching Toward Bethlehem: The Essential Diversity of the Moral Point of View

This post is the first in a series of posts that are intended to provide support for the argument I made in my post on the value of diversity in a liberal democracy. My final post of this series will explicitly trace the evidential thread I’m weaving through the moral, social, and political terrain, so don’t worry about making the connections yourself. Just listen carefully and really think about what I’m about to say.


I’m sitting at the public library near my apartment. I’m ready to write but my neck is tense and I can’t relax. I take a deep breath and close my eyes; my exhale bumps up against a wall of tension in my abdomen. A girl at the next table plays with her hair and watches me close my eyes, take breaths, pause, wonder.

Why do I feel this way? I’m convinced there is a satisfactory explanation, and by ‘satisfactory’ I mean illuminating. I don’t need to know the mechanism by which the muscles in my abdomen have become tense or why the tension has the phenomenology (i.e. feel) that it does. So my asking ‘why?’ isn’t an implicit request for an understanding of how it is that these things occur in my body (i.e. a general mechanistic explanation). Rather, this ‘why’ of mine carries with it a number of mechanistic presuppositions that I simply take for granted. For instance, that this particular instance of tension in my body is the same in kind as other, sensations I’ve experienced in the past that feel the same way; that my beliefs are somehow causally implicated in this type of bodily feel; that how the world appears to me is going to have causal influence on how I behave (e.g. I am not going to drink the coffee on the table in front of me if I believe that coffee is poisonous). These presuppositions are all part of what we call a folk theory of psychology that is part of the body of shared knowledge that is embedded in various cultures and societies. We learn folk psychology—how to explain behavior in terms of mental states—through a combination of innate tendencies and developmentally staged processes of socialization. By the time we are adults, we have pretty sophisticated stories to tell about our behavior and the behavior of others.

Folk theories are tools that we use to help us explain and communicate our experiences of the world. A major presupposition of any folk theory is that the entities it references (e.g. Beliefs) actually exist. So, according to folk psychology, there are beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. whose contents exert causal influence on human action. When I wonder why I’m feeling tense and I explain it to myself in terms of the contents of various beliefs and desires (e.g. That I really want X, but believe that X out of my reach), it seems perfectly obvious to me that I do in fact have beliefs and desires with these particular contents.

Just because we treat our folk psychological terms like they refer to real entities does not mean that they actually do refer to real entities. We could be utterly mistaken about the nature of our own minds. Maybe there are no such things as beliefs and desires in the way that we conceive of them, only deterministic, cosmic computational processes that dictate exactly how we act, and though it seems to us that we believe or desire things that motivate us, it’s not true. It’s fun to think about these wild possibilities, and some people even attempt to defend various versions of the idea that we don’t have mental states at all, or that they are irrelevant to the production of behavior. However, philosophical arguments for claims like this require assumptions that are difficult to defend, and scientific studies would require substantial empirical evidence to convince us that what we experience—having beliefs and desires etc. with specific contents—are not real entities. In recent years, the idea that we don’t know our own minds has made a splash in the psychological literature. But many of these studies have failed to replicate, so we still lack sufficient evidence for doubting what seems so obviously true to us. Even if it is the case that we are frequently mistaken about our own mental states (especially about their contents), this does not imply that we cannot know that we have certain representational and motivational states. So, we have good reasons to continue on as if folk psychology does a pretty decent job of mapping onto real psychological entities.

In the same way that we have folk psychological theories, we have folk moral theories. Rather than tell us how to understand behavior in terms of mental states, moral theory tells us which actions are right and wrong; the conditions under which we should feel morally reactive attitudes like anger, resentment, guilt, shame, and disgust; the conditions under which a person should be held accountable for doing morally wrong actions, and so on. Folk moral theory is learned in the same way that we learn folk psychological theory: through a combination of innate tendencies and developmentally staged processes of socialization. And in the same way that we treat psychological entities as real, we treat the entities posited by folk moral theory as real (e.g. We behave as if the property of being morally right exists in the real world). Of course, it is also the case with folk moral theory that the moral properties it posits don’t actually exist. We might behave as if actions are the bearers of the properties being morally right and being morally wrong, but such entities may not be real. In other words, those of us who have been socialized into the folk moral theory that is common among developed Western nations are what philosophers call moral realists. As a set of philosophical commitments, moral realisms can be quite complex. But the simple definition will do for our purposes. Moral realism is, simply put, the view that moral properties actually exist (i.e. Are real).

Ok, so this is all very interesting, but why does it matter? Well, if moral properties don’t exist, then we don’t have to worry about where they come from and why they have the authority to dictate our behavior. We can tell something like the following story about morality: it’s a malleable social construct that helps facilitate social cooperation, but there is no objective fact about what is right or wrong. On the other hand, if you think moral properties do exist then there is a fact of the matter about whether any given action has a given moral property. For instance, if the act of torturing a puppy for fun is morally wrong, then the act has the property of being morally wrong regardless of whether or not people think the act is morally wrong. The moral features of an action exist independently of what any given person may think about the action. This also entails that there is exactly one set of moral truths (we may know what they are, or we may not).

We behave as if moral realism is true. For example, when we think someone has done something morally wrong, we have emotional reactions toward them (anger, resentment, etc.). When issues that we believe are grounded in moral considerations are up for debate, we treat the central claims of the debate as if there is a fact of the matter (e.g. That abortion should be legal, that we should abolish the death penalty, that women should earn equal pay, etc.). If we didn’t think there was a fact about these things, why get upset about them, why debate about it? Our behaving in these ways (i.e. As if moral realism is true) is our best evidence that moral realism is, in fact, true. HOWEVER, we only get this evidence under certain assumptions like the following:

1.) Human beings evolved to be responsive to moral properties.
2.) Moral properties are at least partly constituted by human social and psychological facts, such that,
3.) The moral properties co-evolved with human responsiveness to them.

This set of assumptions makes moral properties look a lot like mind-dependent entities rather than purely objective features of the world, which actually undermines moral realism. However, whether or not assumptions 1-3 support or undermine moral realism depends on which social and psychological facts are constitutive of moral properties. I don’t want to get into an elaborate discussion about what kinds of facts secure the objectivity required for moral realism to be true. Let’s just assume for the moment that there are social and psychological facts that are acceptably objective and that these are the facts that figure in assumptions 1-3 (e.g. that it’s possible to intentionally cause certain kinds of harm, including pain, and that such harms are bad, etc.).

I think assumptions 1-3 are true and that we have good, intuitive reasons to accept them, so I think we have good reason to think moral realism is true. Further, if moral properties co-evolved with human responsiveness to them, then moral properties are are the kind of properties we can investigate using methods common to science.

To summarize: 1.) we behave as if moral realism is true; 2.) given certain assumptions about the relationship between moral properties and our responsiveness to them, our behaving as if moral realism is true gives us good reason to think it is true; 3.) If moral realism is true, then there is exactly one complete and consistent set of moral truths, and 4.) Moral properties can be investigated using methods common to science.

The obvious problem now should be this: given the diversity of opinions about which actions have which moral properties (e.g. being morally right or being morally wrong), we don’t appear to be very good at detecting moral properties. If we were, wouldn’t we all agree which things are in fact morally right and which things are in fact morally wrong? No! It really depends on whether responsiveness to moral properties a trait of individuals or a trait of a species. Let me explain.

Very generally speaking, evolutionary forces are physical processes that confer fitness on a group of organisms. Evolutionary fitness is a measure applied to genes and has to do with how many instances of a particular genotype or phenotype show up in successive generations. ‘Genotype’ refers to whatever gene an organism carries, and ‘phenotype’ refers to the expression of that gene. (Contrary to popular belief, evolutionary fitness does not necessarily have anything to do with being the biggest, strongest, or baddest organism in your immediate environment. These traits may be the result of evolutionary pressures, but they may not. It depends on what is good for the group as evidenced by the prevalence of features in the group as a whole.)

A very common, simplified example will help illustrate the difference between genotype and phenotype. We (humans) have two copies of each of our genes because we inherit one from each of our parents. People who have brown eyes may have two copies of the brown eye gene (BB), or they may have one copy of the brown eye gene and one copy of the blue eye gene (Bb). Since the brown eye gene is dominant, it’s the one that determines the phenotype. So, in the group of humans who have brown eyes, there is exactly one phenotype expressed (brown eyes) but two possible underlying genotypes: BB or Bb. A person with BB genotype will only pass on a B gene to their offspring. A person with a Bb genotype, however, will pass on either B or b to their offspring.

Now suppose that the phenotype for brown eyes confers fitness on humans. This means that evolutionary pressures have acted on the phenotype for brown eyes and that there are more people in successive generations with brown eyes. These people may have either of the genotypes associated with having brown eyes. If, however, it’s the genotype BB that confers fitness on a species, then evolutionary pressures have acted at the genetic level and the result has been greater numbers of individuals with the BB genotype in successive generations.

The distinction between genotype and phenotype matters because phenotype—the expression of a gene—can be influenced by a vast number of factors external to the gene itself. For example, the fact that humans have two copies of the eye color gene is a fact that is external to the gene itself, but that impacts the expression of that gene (the phenotype). More interestingly, recent work in epigenetics has revealed the molecular mechanism through which gene expression is regulated by an organism’s environment, and it is mind-boggling how much influence the environment has over the phenotype of any given gene. The molecular mechanism responsible for gene expression is even heritable. The complexity of gene expression doesn’t stop there. Many of the traits we consider social and cognitive in nature are the products of multiple genes working in concert, each of which is subject to specific conditions for expression/non-expression. The more cognitively and socially complex the phenomena, the more likely it is that gene clusters are what regulate the underlying behavior.

Moral behavior is actually quite a complicated social and cognitive phenomenon and its evolution is not likely to be a simple, traceable path through human evolutionary history. Despite the the fact that some moral truths seem painfully obvious to us (e.g. That it’s wrong to torture babies for fun) morality and moral behavior is anything but simple and straight forward. This appearance of simplicity is, perhaps, the greatest threat to morality itself. If moral properties co-evolved with our responsiveness to them—that is, our tendency to be behaviorally influenced by them—then moral properties can be rather complex entities. Too complex, in fact, for single individuals to be fully responsive to them directly under every possible set of conditions. So where am I going with this?

We all like to fancy ourselves moral experts, but we are not. In fact, I think what I’ve just written is consistent with the claim that no single individual can be a moral expert. Rather, moral expertise is a feature of communities. But not just any kind of community will do if what we want is full access to the entire range of moral properties. And this is the crux of the entire argument. Humans are still evolving and, unfortunately, our technological progress is forcing a shift in our moral evolutionary pace, one that we don’t appear to be keeping up with very well. We have created so many artificial environments that undoubtedly have influence on the expression of social and cognitive genes related to moral properties and behavior. Not only is our progress possibly stifling our moral evolution, but it’s becoming more difficult for single individuals to be morally competent given the shift in the make up of most of our primary social communities; they are, by and large, homogenous.

The problem with social and psychological homogeneity is twofold. First, the complexity of morality that makes it impossible for individuals to be moral experts if a moral expert is someone who reliably produces correct moral judgments in every possible situation. The truth is that even if morality isn’t context-dependent (and I’m arguing that it’s not), our competence very likely is. If we fail to understand the context-sensitivity of competence, we might be tempted to think that competence in a rather homogenous/simple context confers competence in every other context. This is clearly false.

A great example of the context-sensitivity of moral competence is my lack of competence in environments where the type of structural oppression at work is racism. I’m a white girl. I have not been trained up my whole life to be sensitive to the moral wrongs associated with racism because I’ve never been in conditions where I have been subjected to them. In spite of how much I know about racism, implicit bias, social justice issues, etc. etc. I still struggle with my sensitivity to the moral properties of situations where the racism is not obvious (to me, anyway). In these situations, I need someone else who is sensitive to these properties to help me detect them.

This past summer I worked with at-risk youth through a local non-profit organization. The goal of the program is to help poor African American teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 develop professional job skills. Early on in the summer, I started hearing whispers about my (white) boss. Specifically, that she was racist. I had never picked up on any of this. In fact, I had admiration for the way in which she was able to get these kids to snap to attention whenever she used her ‘boss voice’. I might not be sensitive to the morally relevant features of situations that involve racism, but I am at least self-aware enough to know this about myself. I treated my kids as moral authorities and started paying attention to my boss’s behavior.

I was shocked when I finally noticed just how unbearably racist she was. It was just short of being explicit and it was enacted with full benevolence. Once I started paying attention, several things became painfully obvious. First, she thinks that being a race eliminativist is equivalent to being non-racist. It is not. Race eliminativism is just the view that given the lack of substantial biological differences between people of different races, race is not a legitimate biological category. In other words, race is a social construct, not a biological reality.

But to leap from the claim that race is not a legitimate biological category (which is true) to the claim that race is irrelevant is a very bad move. And it’s a very bad move because race might be a socially constructed category but it does considerable work in explaining social dynamics (especially oppression). Ignoring differences does not make you non-racist. Embracing differences and recognizing that you need someone to basically hold your hand and help you detect the morally relevant features of social phenomena that don’t directly impact you, is a step toward eliminating racism. So called colorblindness is not a virtue. It basically ignores the claims that persons of color have against a society that has oppressed them in virtue of their race.

The second thing I noticed about by boss once I started paying attention was that she clearly believed that what these kids needed most was discipline and reasons to want to become members of the capitalist class. She appeared to have the opinion that if they wanted it bad enough and tried hard enough that they, too, could become well-off in terms of the benefits society has to offer (money, education, power, position, etc.). This was the most egregious of her sins, in my opinion. She completely ignored the fact of structural oppression. These poor black kids weren’t poor because they didn’t want better, that there weren’t talented, that they weren’t taught properly or loved by their families. They’re poor and under-privileged because they live in a society that has systematically deprived them of the benefits the rest of us enjoy, even though they have worked just as hard (probably harder) to obtain those benefits. And they are perfectly aware of this. When you ignore the fact of structural oppression, you are nothing but a cog in the machine that continues to steamroll the oppressed and they are keenly aware of what you are doing while being utterly powerless to stop it.

Her third crime was that she used her social position to manipulate the kids. What I originally interpreted as her having their respect was suddenly revealed for the illusion it was once I started paying closer attention to the situations in which she used her ‘boss voice’. What she failed to recognize (and I did too at first) was that these kids are used to being abused by white people. So, if a white person in a position of power over you demands your attention and respect, you immediately snap to. It’s a survival tactic, not a sign of respect. It’s equivalent in every way to “yes, massa” and it’s appalling that we white folk get away with this shit because we are so benevolently oblivious to the social and moral significance of race dynamics. (Remember: colorblindness is NOT a virtue. It’s just another tool of oppression.)

I really hate to break it to you people, but you are not as woke as you think you are. Remember that. I learned more this summer than I taught my kids. They changed me because I deferred to their superior moral competence in this context and allowed them to show me what I was missing. And they did it gently, with kindness, with respect. They held my hand and guided me, like a blind fool, through their world, a world that was previously completely hidden from my sight, and that still is in many ways (and very likely will always be because I did not grow up black and poor in the United States.)

Dear reader: this is you, too. You are a complete moral idiot under certain circumstances and you don’t even realize how much of an idiot you are. We are all moral idiots in certain contexts. Accept it as a fact of being human and let people into your community who can guide you through the moral terrain you are incapable of navigating on your own. Let morality matter to you, and let someone else be the moral property detector in situations where you can’t detect the relevant moral features (this, of course, means you have take people seriously when they say that you’re missing something important). The world will be better for it. When you have enough diversity in a community that you have a range of people who are capable of detecting the morally relevant features of a wide range of situations, you have a community that is approaching moral expertise. But no single individual of said community is THE expert. That’s just not possible given the way the human brain evolved to respond to it’s various environments.

It’s worth noting here that nothing I’ve said entails that every person who is a member of an oppressed group is morally competent with respect to that form of oppression. This claim is obviously not true. There is overwhelming empirical data that supports the opposite phenomena: people are often complicit in their own oppression. Everything I’ve said in this post assumes that there are certain conditions a person must satisfy to be considered morally competent in any given context. In some contexts, being the member of an oppressed social group is necessary for the relevant kind of moral competence, but simply being the member of an oppressed social group is never sufficient for moral competence in any context. (I’ll say more about the conditions on moral competence in future posts).

The second problem with social and psychological homogeneity is this: the evolutionary facts about morality makes social and psychological homogeneity in communities a threat to moral progress (both evolutionarily and socially). I am going to save this discussion for another day because it deserves an entire blog post. For now, take this with you and really think about it: you are not a moral expert. And you are not a moral expert because you can’t be. So if you can’t be a moral expert as an individual, but you are still individually responsible for your morally wrong actions, then under what conditions can you be morally upright/blameless? It’s pretty simple and it’s a gift evolution bestowed on us: community. But not just any community will do. Only a sufficiently diverse community will do. Snuggling down into a community where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, believes the same things that you do can be suuuuuuper comfy, but it tends (very strongly) to lead to deep moral sickness.

Think about that.


Post Script for the ladies: My example of oppression today was racism. But we all know that’s just one type of oppression that cripples our society. Let’s briefly apply this to sexism and misogyny. My best advice: find a man who wants you to hold their hand and guide them through your moral terrain. There are men who want to be morally upstanding with regard to issues that face women, but we have to step up, take them by the hand, and show them the world they can’t see. No matter how woke a man is, he’s still going to fail to see the morally relevant properties of a situation sometimes (e.g. How his own, unconscious behavior has been shaped by sexist norms). That’s ok. But if a man refuses to treat you as possessing greater moral competence in your own world (the world where every woman has been irrevocably harmed by sexist norms) run away and never. look. back.


Cover image: bird sculpture by Celia Smith