Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_jdsk9cp wrote


How did humans live before the origin of the state? Such questions about the “state of nature” are used in social contract theories as a backdrop to political philosophy.

While some philosophers, like David Hume, regard this such questions about the “state of nature” as mere thought experiments, most of the original theorists on the state of nature - such as Rousseau and Locke - showed significant interest in information about indigenous people. Therefore, many philosophers have taken interest in the question of what modern archaeology and anthropology suggest about life before organised states.

Anthropologist Vivek V Venkataraman argues that we have a pretty good idea about the political organisation in this “state of nature”: humans were largely living as political equals, with proto-democratic practices. This suggests that democracy is older than the state: communal decision-making precedes organised statehood.

In this episode, Venkataraman explains the relevant research and responds to critics of the relevant methodology.


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_ja46zdo wrote

Abstract: Thomas Nagel famously argued that no amount of knowledge about physiology could, even in principle, tell us what it is like to be a bat. Gregory Berns is an animal neuroscientist who argues that Nagel’s thesis is demonstrably wrong. For example, his own work with dog cognition and emotion has demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, that dogs' relationship to their owners is not simply linked to food rewards.


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_j3gvlhc wrote

Many social scientists have become interested in the possibility of studying happiness (i.e. subjective well-being) scientifically. This has motivated many individual studies but also the large and much-reported World Happiness Report. This movement has been criticised by two strands of philosophers. On the one hand, there are those who criticise underlying welfarism. On the other hand, others have criticised the field for studying a topic (“happiness”) that is impossible to study rigorously.
Anna Alexandrova argues that the latter concern is justifiable, but only partially so. There is no clear reason why the kinds of measures used by “happiness scientists” could not be used rigorously (e.g. asking people about their life satisfaction). However, happiness and well-being have many meanings in different contexts, and it is problematic to collapse all these pluralistic measures under one overarching “happiness” variable. Therefore, one can support the general project of the “science of happiness” but remain sceptical about single-variable such as “world’s happiest country” or the WELBY metrics adopted by the UK government.
However, most “science of happiness” reports make the questionable assumption that all of these metrics can be used to gauge a single underlying “happiness” (e.g. “what is the happiest country in the world?”) Instead, we need a pluralistic approach, where scientists tackle more specific questions around topics that fall under the concepts of happiness and wellbeing.


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_ivaj7c7 wrote

Abstract: Philosophers customarily claim that moral questions are out of the reach of science. Michael Shermer argues that this is not the case. Moral claims are intimately related to two facts: what humans want and don’t want (e.g. avoiding slavery), and methods by which to satisfy these values (e.g. by institutions aimed at securing human rights). Both of these aspects have factual claims baked into them, and so, can be studied empirically. For example, social sciences have (or at least could) established that democracies are better than autocracies in protecting people against various forms of harm. To the extent that our fundamental values are out of reach from science, we can treat morality as a set of hypothetical imperatives (i.e. a set of if-then statements).


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_itc9d28 wrote

A reasonable question.

Short answer: many people think that morals are either relativistic (different cultures, different moralities) or absolutist (everyone should have the same morals). Both positions lead people to be very confused.

The relativistic position seems to say that there is nothing that people from outside a culture can say to disagree about a cultural practice. Slavery is right if the culture thinks its right. Imperialism is right if the culture thinks its right. And so on.

On the other hand, absolutism seems to be problematic, too. Where are these moral truths written? Who has the moral truth?

This confusion bothers many. If it does not bother you, that's fine. But it has bothered me. Some are so puzzled that they conclude that morality and ethics must be groundless fictions, and so, they end up nihilistic. Nothing matters, and all that.

Kitcher tris to offer a middle ground. His position tries to make sense of ethics in a way that does not presume some realm of absolute moral truths. It is not as mysterious as absolutism. It also assumes that what a good life looks life will differ based on the cultural situation you find yourself in. But nevertheless, morals are not just fashions of the culture. They are tools. And like any tool, they can be evaluated based on how well they do their job.

Not saying that you should find this interesting. But hopefully, this can illuminate why some of us do find it so.


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_iskmxlp wrote

Well that's one way of looking at it. But good luck having a happy life with that attitude... Even in terms of game theory, you can derive a lot of moral norms from long-term successful strategies. Ken Binmore, Martin Nowak, and Oliver Scott Curry have done a lot of research in this area.


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_iskflks wrote

My pleasure! For Churchland I would obviously recommend my own interview ;) Oliver Scott Curry has some good youtube videos, just em out.

I'd love to get Tomasello on the show but haven't asked yet. Currently, I think the easiest entry is to check out Ricardo Lopes' interviews of him. You can watch the video on Youtube or just listen to the audio in podcast style (links below). But really, if you have the patience to read Natural History of Human Morality then do! It's relatively short, but super dense. So it's good to start with an interview, anyway. But a masterpiece.



Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_isk6ifg wrote

I appreciate this take a lot! I actually have an episode with Patricia Churchland exploring this exact topic! I think she focuses to much on caring and altruism at the expense of the kinds of issues that you mentioned. But still very relevant.

Also, do you know of the work of Oliver Scott Curry? his work is very relevant to your take. For him, morality is all about cooperation (non-zero-sum games). I would press against this extreme, too, and say that care and altruistic concern for others plays a role, too. But anyway, both are interesting scholars.

The best scholar who roots the evolution of morality to both care and sympathy (altruism), as well as mutualism and interdependence (cooperation), is Michael Tomasello. The Natural History of Human Morality is a masterpiece!


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_isjs5q1 wrote

Abstract: What is the point of morality? Why should Homo sapiens care about moral rules? Philip Kitcher presents a theory that answers these questions. According to Kitcher, morality stems from something “very deep within us”, namely our psychological dispositions to altruism and other kinds of responsiveness to others. These are biological traits that we evolved as social mammals. However, these traits are fragile. They fail too often to form the basis of human social living. Morality is a social technology that was created to solve these “altruism failures”. Initially, moral rules were very rudimentary, such as the rule not to grab food from others. With time, these rules became more complex. Two virtues of the theory should be noted. First, the theory allows objective evaluation of morality without assuming a realm of moral truths. Second, the theory allows morality to make sense within a naturalist and Darwinian view of life, without succumbing to social Darwinism.
[Note: The referenced theory is discussed in the first 21 minutes of the episode. You can also access the episode via Spotify, Apple Pod, Stitcher, Amazon etc.]


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_irxwj85 wrote

I will reply later with more thoughts, but I think two folks who are best at making this distinction (why humans can be moral agents, but lions cannot) are Michael Tomasello and Stephen Darwall. If you are interested.

And thanks for actually listening to the content, most people just read the abstract!


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_irvnt73 wrote

Well, I would disagree. I agree that there is a lot of crap evolutionary shoehorning. (You might resonate with this essay I published in the Skeptic, see below). But it doesn't mean that any attempt to think about human natural history is wasted.


Ma3Ke4Li3 OP t1_irvnhh4 wrote

We are apes in suits, but apes differ. We live in huge groups and constantly deal with strangers. This requires different rules for our sociality (whether innate or enforced). Or what would you say?