Models, windows, reductionism and pluralism
We’re familiar with the idea that thought creates ‘models’ of reality. So it’s easy to slip into thinking that our task is then to just make our models better and better, i.e. more accurate representations of reality. This leaves out what Mary Midgley calls ‘philosophical plumbing’ which involves continuing careful thought about how well those ideas are doing their job. That’s why I like her alternative metaphor which involves thinking of ‘reality’ as the body of water with fish swimming through it in a public aquarium with our ‘thought’ being the various different windows through which we can view that space.
The metaphor by which thinking builds ‘models’ of reality often leads to reductionism. Living in the physical world we all acquire the intuition that smaller objects are the building blocks of larger ones and, in that sense more fundamental. The sandcastle is built of grains of sand and not vice versa. Those grains of sand are built from chemicals, and those chemicals are built from atoms and so on. Similarly, it has been proposed that physics investigates the most fundamental things about our universe, then chemistry, then biology and then the social sciences.
Midgley’s ‘windows on an acquarium’ view of thought suggests otherwise:
There is, for example, the way a furniture maker studies tables (as solid things on which one can rest a cup) and the way sub-atomic physicists study tables (as collections of atoms that consist mostly of empty space). One is not more “real” than the other.
The easy intellectual pluralism of Midgley’s aquarium metaphor prompts us to ask how good the view is from each of the windows available to us. Any window might be large or small, clear or foggy. Its location might obscure important perspectives or enhance them.
Which brings me to my subject. In the last two hundred-odd years our ethical world has become impoverished. Until then our view of our ethical life was had through the numerous windows which we called the ‘virtues’. Virtues such as courage, and honesty and prudence and justice. Adam Smith takes a peek through all these windows and more in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
However today the virtues seem old-fashioned and they’re strangers to much modern ethical thinking. Today we talk about ‘altruism’. But altruism is a new-fangled fiction, like ‘the ether’ in nineteenth-century physics and cosmology. It’s a ‘filler’ concept which enters our mind because it seems to be implied by the way we’re thinking. Its presence in our lives is experienced, if at all, only dimly. I think we rely far too much on this window into our ethical life. I make this argument in the following sections, firstly by outlining some other fictions, then by describing the origin of altruism as a concept and then by elaborating the appeal of the virtues.
Metaphysical fictions from the ether to homo economicus
Most of us are familiar with the way in which the world of nineteenth-century physics posited the metaphysical entity of the ether. If we were to imagine that light travelled in ‘waves’ by analogy with sound, that presupposed a medium in which they travelled. Voila! We had the ether, on which we also rested our earthy intuitions that the ‘space’ within which the universe rested was just like the space in our everyday lives – an invariant three-dimensional place which we can parcel up with coordinates up and down, left and right, in and out.
All perfectly good science. But it turned out it didn’t stack up with the discovery that the speed of light seemed to be invariant in Spring and Autumn when the earth is hurtling in opposite directions around the sun. I think altruism is a bit like this ether, though in saying that, I should say that the analogy is not perfect (analogies wouldn’t be analogies if they were!). For like the ether, ‘altruism’ wasn’t something we discovered in nature. Rather it was a name we applied to certain phenomena which were thrown up by a successful reductionist paradigm.
As I’ve been making myself more acquainted with evolutionary reasoning, it’s struck me how similar it is to neoclassical economics. In both fields, the debate runs on very tight protocols of what is and is not acceptable in an explanation. In both fields, self-interest is the major driver of the way the world unfolds. That the fields are so similar is not surprising. Darwin’s early inklings of natural selection came as he pondered political economist Thomas Malthus’s story of the human population’s struggle with the constraints of survival.
In both fields, competition is the central engine of progress. In biology, there’s endless debate about whether the unit of competition is genes, sub-organisms, individuals of a species, groups in a species or the species, or rather what mix of these in different circumstances. In economics it’s simpler – individuals (and sometimes organisations) compete.
In both paradigms, cooperation then needs special explanation. ‘Altruism’ emerges as the ether did as a filler concept. Nothing more than a word – a shortcut – to identify a particular phenomenon. This is an observation of mine – not a criticism. And in biology of course, ‘altruism’ is generally used without any kind of psychological baggage as biologists ask why ants fight ‘altruistically’ for their whole communities. In this sense altruism is a metaphysical notion. But metaphysical ideas like this have a habit of taking on a life of their own. Economists should know about that.
Anyone with any familiarity with debates about economics as a discipline will be aware of the metaphysical fiction of ‘economic man’ or homo economicus. In an age in which people were keen to mark out the various disciplines’ intellectual territories, and to systematise their methods, economics came to define itself as seeking to understand the behaviour of people in the ordinary business of providing for their material needs. And the preeminent context for such conduct was within markets.
And the essence of market behaviour is mutual self-seeking. When you shop at a local market, you and the vendor understand that you’re both seeking to serve your own interest. To capture that essence a fictitious character was made up. Non-economists often don’t get that no-one who uses homo economicus thinks that he’s real. The rub is that economists so often miss this detail too. They understand that it’s an abstraction, or argue it in defence of the model, but then it runs away with them – and comes to dominate their thinking. It’s well known for instance that economists overestimate the extent of people’s selfishness. And they mostly ignored aspects of their approach to things at least some of which have been imported into behavioural economics from psychology.
Ethics without God: Egoism and altruism displace the virtues
And ‘altruism’ is a similar fiction. You may be surprised to learn that it was coined by the French social philosopher Auguste Comte in 1830. He derived it from the Latin alteri – meaning other people. By then homo economicus aromas were wafting in from the kitchen of John Stuart Mill. He published the concept in 1836 even if it took another fifty odd years for it to gain the full dignity of translation into Latin. So how did we get here – with a concept so lacking in any sense of the psychology of our ethical nature sitting at the centre of our understanding of ethics?
As John Gray keeps reminding us in apocalyptic terms, the imagery and basic categories of religious thinking continue to dominate our world view, most particularly amongst those who imagine themselves as heroically throwing off their shackles – the schoolboy atheists whom it is no coincidence include among their number the arch neo-Darwinist populariser, Richard Dawkins.
Mary Midgley’s friend Elizabeth Anscombe was one of the first to bell the cat on this. In 1958 she warned that modern approaches to ethics transitioned from Christianity to a world in which God was optional, but they retained its structure, presuming that morality came down to us from a singular giver of commands. “Let there be light”.
In other words, following hot on the heels of mono-Theism, we got mono-Atheism. There are two broad streams of mono-Atheistim – two systems of ethics which reached up to a singular apex command.
Do whatever act has consequences that maximise wellbeing
Duty based (Kantian) ethics.
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law
These twin peaks both emerged at the end of the Enlightenment. The word ‘egoism’ emerged at about the same time which, as we’ve seen is a few decades before its obverse ‘altruism’ arrived.
The ethics of the classical world weren’t just pre-Christian. They were pre-monotheistic. Not imagining itself as part of some grand, unified set of commands from on high, those in the ancient world build their ethics not from the top-down – deduced from commands or strict protocols of thought – but from the bottom up – from life as it was experienced. And where if one were trying to speak ancient one might use the word “virtue” to translate the modern word “altruism”, ancient virtue was built from the virtues which were qualities of which people had daily experience.
The four classic cardinal virtues are temperance, prudence, courage and justice. Aristotle let rip with 11 virtues, each of which sits somewhere between two qualities of mind that define it but are not so good as it – thus for instance Courage is midpoint between cowardice and recklessness. Someone with courage is aware of danger, perhaps feels fear but overcomes it to act well. The other Aristotelian virtues are Temperance, Liberality, Magnificence, Magnanimity, Patience, Truthfulness, Wittiness, Friendliness, Shame, and Justice that latter virtue being a keystone of the virtues.
Unlike altruism, these virtues describe qualities that are already part of our lives and which most of us want to foster. They also provide the means by which so many systems of ancient philosophy seek to show how they’re the worldly vehicles to human happiness and fulfilment considered in the broadest, wisest sense. Ethical treatises might involve themselves in intellectual disputation about the virtues, but the point of the exercise is to show, and indeed to entice the reader on the quest to embody these virtues within their own lives and indeed to help them do so. Some readers may be able to provide counter-examples but I don’t know any books of ethics that aren’t also self-help books. Certainly Russ Roberts has shown how true this was of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.
So the virtues had psychological content. As Aristotle put it, virtue is excellence at being human, and one learns it one’s whole life. And who doesn’t want to be ‘excellent’ at least at what they value? By contrast, when I think about altruism, and the thinness of its appeal to us, I remember the day I saw a priest with nothing better to offer his captive audience of Catholic school girls than to urge them to “try to be more like Jesus”. The girls’ remained appropriately zoned out throughout. Did Jesus of Nazareth say anything as inane and contentless as that? That’s no way to get anyone to be more like Jesus – or ‘altruistic’.
An ethics for our shared social life
In so far as ‘altruism’ exists as a factor in our psychology, it resembles what Adam Smith called the virtue of ‘beneficence’ “the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building”. It maddened him how little ethical progress had been made via the Church’s endless dichotomising – between good religious life and teachings and bad worldly practices.
We can measure its significance in the national accounts by asking how much we give to others. It’s usually around 1 per cent and always less than 2% of GDP. Now a full-time score of Altruism – 1, Self-interest – 99 doesn’t look too good. However, as I’ve argued previously, I think the notion of shared intentionality is useful here. It also helps us shed some scientific light on the contrast between the virtues and altruism.
Here are two researchers explaining shared intentionality:
It has been hypothesized that the evolution of modern human cognition was catalyzed by the development of jointly intentional modes of behaviour. From an early age (1-2 years), human infants outperform apes at tasks that involve collaborative activity. Specifically, human infants excel at joint action motivated by reasoning of the form “we will do X” (shared intentions), as opposed to reasoning of the form “I will do X [because he is doing X]” (individual intentions).
This gets us much closer to understanding ethical life. Like the sacrifices made from workplaces to families, from the football oval to the battlefield, most sacrifice isn’t experienced as sacrifice but as the acts we do as part of a ‘we’. In fact, as a community, those in the developed world collectively choose a position where self-interest gives up around 40% of its earnings to government. In this reckoning the scoreboard looks more like this:
Shared intentionality 40
It’s in this context of our identities being shot through with “I”s within different “We”s that the virtues make so much more sense – and have so much more power to move us – toward that goal of personal and collective excellence that Aristotle talks about. If you look at my footnote itemising all the 11 Aristotelian virtues, you should be able to relate strongly to them all, though some may want to make one or two exceptions. Some of them get talked about at team meetings, others get talked about around the water cooler or in private. We all appreciate their value – to those who have them and to the groups in which they operate.
Where altruism dichotomises ethical life, identifying two forces, selfishness and selflessness and two parties – ourselves and others, the virtues mediate our social and ethical relations in all their subtlety and difference. To use Midgley’s metaphor, they provide us with windows onto the reality of own souls and those of others and also onto the reality of our own agency in shaping those souls and their destiny.
 In this schema philosophy, or (philosophy of science) could claim to be the most important discipline of all – the all-purpose credentialling and thought police making sure there’s no monkey business going on.
 Homo economicus, the term appears in various forms in the late nineteenth century, but the concept is clearly articulated by John Stuart Mill in 1836 where he proposed that political economy “does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end. [It uses] “an arbitrary definition of man, as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained”. J. S. Mill, 1836. “On the Definition of Political Economy, and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It,” London and Westminster Review, October.
 Homo economicus is more use in some areas than others. Buyers and sellers in the stock market and people in the vegetable market are essentially seeking to advantage themselves. In the labour market, things are more complicated, particularly in the workplace where there are strong social cues and other things besides. I recall asking a labour market economist of some age and standing (and a reasonable guy at that, not some raging ideologue or methodological extremist) for some good reading on intrinsic motivation in the workplace. He didn’t know any. Likewise, it’s clear that social relations in the workplace are a major part of the story. Now one could build such things into the ‘objective function’ of the worker, but that can do as much harm as good – disguising the need for something new to enter the analysis. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous other methodological fictions and protocols in economics.
 Also known by the bewildering name of “deontological ethics”, which, just to keep you on your toes, has no relation I’ve ever been able to discern to another agressively abstract word – ‘ontological’.
 By way of aside, think of what you’ve seen of Eastern Orthodoxy and compare it to Roman Catholicism. Wandering and wondering through Rome one day I came upon a Roman marble plinth inscribed ‘Pontifex Maximus’. It hadn’t struck me before then how fused Western Christianity was with the Roman Empire and how megalomaniacal the architecture of Western Christendom was. All those monumental cathedrals with St Peter’s having bronze markers down its nave, as one might imagine a great American evangelical church might, to prove how it was the biggest of all.
Courage: The midpoint between cowardice and recklessness. The courageous person is aware of the danger but goes in any way.
Temperance: The virtue between overindulgence and insensitivity. Aristotle would view the person who never drinks just as harshly as the one who drinks too much.
Liberality: The virtue of charity, this is the golden mean between miserliness and giving more than you can afford.
Magnificence: The virtue of living extravagantly. It rests between stinginess and vulgarity. Aristotle sees no reason to be ascetic but also warns against being flashy.
Magnanimity: The virtue relating to pride, it is the midpoint between not giving yourself enough credit and having delusions of grandeur. It is a given that you also have to act on this sense of self-worth and strive for greatness.
Patience: This is the virtue that controls your temper. The patient person must neither get too angry nor fail to get angry when they should.
Truthfulness: The virtue of honesty. Aristotle places it between the vices of habitual lying and being tactless or boastful.
Wittiness: At the midpoint between buffoonery and boorishness, this is the virtue of a good sense of humor.
Friendliness: While being friendly might not seem like a moral virtue, Aristotle claims friendship is a vital part of a life well lived. This virtue lies between not being friendly at all and being too friendly towards too many people.
Shame: The midpoint between being too shy and being shameless. The person who has the right amount of shame will understand when they have committed a social or moral error but won’t be too fearful not to risk them.
Justice: The virtue of dealing fairly with others. It lies between selfishness and selflessness. This virtue can also be applied in different situations and has a whole chapter dedicated to the various forms it can take.