moral cognition

"To be indoctrinicated is to internalize a structure of thinking by habitual repetition, allowing for now question, alternative or critical exposure. Typically, people carrying on inside a closed value order do not recognize what they are part of, largely because the demand sof that order are incessantly routinized a the requirements of daily life and presupposed as "the way things are" and "must be"." - John McMurtry, Unequal Freedoms - the global market as an ethical system, page 6

"To escape blindly executing the value program of the society they are born to, but also to escape blindly executing some moral order that remains neglected or has become inevitable, to walk that narrow path, is the ethicist's duty." - Craig Hubley.


People making an ethical choice are usually perceived as having had some kind of moral cognition or moral insight into the nature of the problem. If that of the observer differs drastically from that of the affected or acting parties, the choice will simply be seen as unethical, self-interested, e.g. as "economic choice".

There are many studies of individuals making choices in ambiguous situations, most from the perspective of moral reasoning theory. Some studies claim to have discovered basic moral primitives such as a preference for reciprocity (see fairness ) or for closure ( see groupthink ) or racism, sexism or other cognitive biases affecting moral decisions. Many of these tendencies are observed in near-human behaviour also.

Accordingly a formal study of moral cognition, including the potential of a moral grammar built in to the being - - such as Noam Chomsky proposed as guiding human language acquisition - became popular in the early 2000s. Some attempted to relate that cognition to the senses directly that perceive the physical reality.

"People are apt to believe that a practice is simultaneously free, expresses a law of nature, and is ordained by a divine authority. The incoherence of these assumptions of a value program cannot be registered within it, because its nature is closed to any possibility that it could be wrong. This is a strange and fateful pattern of humankind, a herd-pattern operating beneath conciousness, a pattern that bedevils history and civilization. But it is not inalterable, or immutable. It is always an unexamined value system." John McMurtry, passim, page 7

One of the worst such biases is anthropogenic bias, that is, assuming that only humans make moral decisions or perceive moral choices.

"We need only truly look at animals to see behavioural expressions that, at first, are amazing to us, but that's only because they are, to that individual, revelations. Animal behaviour, like human behaviour, evolves and devolves. " - Robert Wenting

methods and models

Examining value systems requires methods. The search for a formal method for evaluating and quantifying ethicality and morality of human actions stretches back to ancient times. Political thinkers can more or less be defined as those who had something memorable to say about it.

While any simple view of right, wrong and dispute resolution relies on some linguistic and cultural norms, a 'formal' method presumably cannot, and must rely instead on knowledge of more basic human nature, and symbolic methods that allow for only very simple evidence.

insert McMurtry on definitions here?

By contrast, modern systems of criminal justice and civil law evaluate and quantify social and moral norms (usually as a fine or sentence or ruling on damages) rely usually on adversarial process and forensic method, combined using some quasi-empirical methods and many outright appeal to authority and ad hominem arguments. The method used at openpolitics.ca itself, for instance, relies on argumentation frameworks and cite links to evidence elsewhere - it's main value being to make TIPAESA relationships explicit.

These would all be unacceptable in a formal method based on something more resembling axiomatic proof, which by definion relies on some axioms of morality.

Religious moral codes provide such axioms in most societies, and to some degree, following those strictly could be considered formal in that no more trusted or respected method existed. But our modern concept of what is formal and thus universally trustworthy and transparent is derived from that of the ancient Greeks and propagates some of their value system:

Pythagoras and Plato sought to combine moral and mathematical elements of reality in their work on ontology. This was very influential and the work of both is still consulted to this day, although, the social and political implications of their methods are often rejected by more modern philosophers.

Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon and some of the Asharite philosophers shared a belief in some kind of over-arching ethical reality provided by a deity. But while Aquinas and Bacon integrated this with methods of Aristotle and ultimately inspired Jesuit and other Catholic methods of assessing and dispensing justice, resulting in Catholic canon law and other forms of Christian church law, the Asharite influence on Islam rejected parallel Mutazilite work on Aristotle, and eventually resulted in the "classical fiqh" and sharia now being revived in some parts of the Muslim world. Thus it could reasonably be said that Catholic and Islamic thought diverged on Aristotle's ideas in the middle ages. It might also be said that Protestants to some degree followed the same path as the Sunnis towards a secural moral model. George Berkeley said that to Protestants philosophy was the "science of sciences" while theology was to the Catholics.

Some consider the debate to continue to this day in economics, with the neoclassical economics based firmly on Aristotle's methods via Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, against Islamic economics and feminist economics which reject some aspects of Aristotle's logic, e.g. law of excluded middle, and seek to build on some intuitive and morally defensible ontology, as Plato did. This is probably no less of a controversy today than it was in Plato's time, or among the Asharites.

Today, few accept that economics is a means to any ethical or moral end, but more of a technology that serves the ends of those who control and refine it, what John McMurtry calls a "value program".

It remains however that economics does "evaluate and quantify" relationships of such importance, e.g. food, labour, that most humans literally cannot live without an economy around them. A producer market is the most basic and natural kind of economy, but a capitalist market based on debt and bank-created money differs from it in kind, and a global market differs again. The scale and potential exchange value, the transport regret and so on, all varies as the number and remoteness of participants, their relative power, monopoly power, and liquidity of the market become extreme. Thus the scale of a market is its primary value determiner, according to John McMurtry.

But any economy embodies assumptions about ethics and morality. Karl Marx thought that this was itself proof that capitalist economics and bankers had subsumed the role of the old feudal methods and lords - a view current to this day in Marxist economics.

However, the longest-lived view of formal methods as applied to morality comes not from Western but Eastern traditions. Confucianism with its stress on honesty and transparency and etiquette, and moral example of rulers and elders, has at times been seen as a formal method among the Chinese, its "axioms" often respected as much or more than any from science. The analects of Confucious are raised to an unexamined dogma by being used in conversation - as Chinese idioms, mostly four-word phrases embodying some Confucian imagery.

Buddhism also stresses notions of right livelihood which seem to be possible to measure and compare in a quasi-formal manner. The Noble Eightfold Path is a set of priorities, ordinal not cardinal, not strictly quantities, but still, a useful framework for any more formal or weighted value theory. It became popular in the "New Age" era to embellish or interpret the Path into very pragmatic self-help or corporate training programs.

In part due to Eastern influences, during The Enlightenment the various Western traditions had become more unified:

Immanuel Kant, in his "categorical imperative", sought to define moral duty reflectively, in that everyone was obligated to anticipate and limit the impacts of one's own actions, and "not act as one would not have everyone act.". This can be seen as a restated Golden Rule.

In the 20th century it was restated as the ecological footprint, a measure of one's use of the Earth's natural capital, which later became a keystone of green economics. Global values began to be expressed as local scales of value reporting began in the 21st to be influenced by this, most notably the UN ICLEI ecoBudget methods and the World Wildlife Fund's EF measurements.

Parallel nation-state and trade bloc attempted to quantify ethics for inclusion in decision making: means of measuring well-being and assessing the implied value of life of various professional ethical codes and infrastructure decisions. Some of these, e.g. Natural Step, value of life ratio, Green moral order, train their adherents in a cognitive bias designed specifically to reflect global concerns into the more local decisions.

While these systems rely on empirical methods for gathering data, and are more interested in "is" than "should", they are at least "transparent" and "repeatable" in a sense that could be called "pre-formal" or "pre-requisite to formal". Some think that they verge at times on the reliability of the quasi-empirical methods in mathematics, in that no conceivable disproof seems possible, but evidence "for" is not disputed - an example being the observation of Marilyn Waring that actions which prepare for war have measurably higher economic values than those within family.

Most supporters of these approaches hope that a formal method could reconcile many points of view by excluding forensic or audit methods which passed morally-undesirable outcomes, e.g. war or genocide, or worse which valued them highly. It could not validate any one view a "true" but it could find a "best" or "best next step" for some given time horizon or limited list of models or choices to evaluate. Most proposals for moral purchasing employ some such process.

Given a very large number of socially-shared semi-formal economically-committed methods, one might take a mean or other stochastic measure of ethical and moral acceptability to those participating, and thus produce very nearly a very broad and empirically defensible methodology of agreement. GROOP governance methods and Living Agenda are possibly nearly mature in this regard, being used in real political party operations. Living Platform was an experiment that proved it was difficult to extend this method to a diverse distributed group. B5AV+C+P and WUNS were proposals to directly measure acceptability (of candidates, parties and agenda items) in both negative and positive directions, but seprately.

Global ethicists and online deliberation theorists seem to seek a species-wide informal method that would have as much reliability as one could expect from any "formal" method. Some NGOs in civil society, notably those associated with the ecology movement, peace movement, labour in various countries, altermondialistes and so on, tend to express similar goals though often deny they would accept any form of globalization, including ethical.

An alternative but less popular view is that "human nature" can be so well understood and modelled mathematically that it becomes possible to assess with formal and mathematical methods, the cognitive bias or moral instinct, e.g. altruism of humans in general, perhaps with measurable variations due to genetics. This view has been popular since the emergence of the theory of evolution. B. F. Skinner may be the best known of these theorists, but E. O. Wilson and George Lakoff are also among those who have asserted a strong "biological basis for morality" and called for a "cognitive science of mathematics" respectively. Similarly, the moral grammar theorized by Axel Honneth attempts to reconcile social theory and moral philosophy. Most mainstream theorists dismiss these all as attempts to avoid moral reasoning - an approach which remains the dominant way we understand and teach moral cognition.

Political applications of these can be troubling and threaten to become new dogmas. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity did certainly create a public reaction in its time. Some combination of the more-formal views may become effective at posing a starting point for models of moral cores and instincts and aesthetics in human beings. However few see them as routes to new moral codes that would be more reliable than the traditional religious ones. Skinner's "Walden Two" had proposed exactly such replacement, a sort of behaviorist utopia which had many characteristics in common with modern eco-anarchism and eco-villages. Most advocates of such co-housing and extended family living situations, e.g. Daniel Quinn or William Thomas, consider informal, political, "tribal" methods sufficient or more desirable than those involving any kind of "proof". These are accordingly not models of cognition in any sense.

If these "lifestyle models" are sufficient, then, the long search for a formal method to evaluate and quantify ethical and moral outcomes, even in economics, may come to be seen as a sort of mathematical fetishism, scientism or even commodity fetishism to the degree it requires the reduction of quality of life to a series of simple quantities. However, it does seem that efforts to find just such quantifications, be they labelled "eco-footprint", Genuine Progress Indicator, Gross National Happiness or value of life ratio, will continue, even if this is merely reactive response to, or attempt to reform, a value program such as that of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

According to McMurtry, the danger is that the moral cognition that is accepted as default by a bare majority of global people is that of the capitalist market extended to the global scale, will become an unchallenged value system that has no serious competitors strong enough to organize producer markets in any other way than in accord with a single store of value, e.g. barrel of oil or gold mass.

However, each of these globalizations comes with its own push-back: As local moral standards grow weak and the temptations of global trade grow stronger. the pressures for ecological and social indicators to play more of a role in the decisions of the mediating entities, typically those of the nation-state, local government or aboriginal nation, should increase. Meanwhile, efforts like the Parliament of World Religions or Global Greens increase pressure to accept a common moral order which could guide moral cognition.

training programs to increase moral cognition

Educational programs in turn could express this order, as they do in religious school and training today.