Snuffing the Spark: A Nihilistic Account of Moral Progress

by rsbakker



If we define moral progress in brute terms of more and more individuals cooperating, then I think we can cook up a pretty compelling naturalistic explanation for its appearance.

So we know that our basic capacity to form ingroups is adapted to prehistoric ecologies characterized by resource scarcity and intense intergroup competition.

We also know that we possess a high degree of ingroup flexibility: we can easily add to our teams.

We also know moral and scientific progress are related. For some reason, modern prosocial trends track scientific and technological advance. Any theory attempting to explain moral progress should explain this connection.

We know that technology drastically increases information availability.

It seems modest to suppose that bigger is better in group competition. Cultural selection theory, meanwhile, pretty clearly seems to be onto something.

It seems modest to suppose that ingroup cuing turns on information availability.

Technology, as the homily goes, ‘brings us closer’ across a variety of cognitive dimensions. Moral progress, then, can be understood as the sustained effect of deep (or ancestrally unavailable) social information cuing various ingroup responses–people recognizing fractions of themselves (procedural if not emotional bits) in those their grandfathers would have killed.  The competitive benefits pertaining to cooperation suggest that ingroup trending cultures would gradually displace those trending otherwise.

Certainly there’s a far, far more complicated picture to be told here—a bottomless one, you might argue—but the above set of generalizations strike me as pretty solid. The normativist would cry foul, for instance, claiming that some account of the normative nature of the institutions underpinning such a process is necessary to understanding ‘moral progress.’ For them, moral progress has to involve autonomy, agency, and a variety of other posits perpetually lacking decisive formulation. Heuristic neglect allows us to sidestep this extravagance as the very kind of dead-end we should expect to confound us. At the same time, however, reflection on moral cognition has doubtless had a decisive impact on moral cognition. The problem of explaining ‘norm-talk’ remains. The difference is we now recognize the folly of using normative cognition to theoretically solve the nature of normative cognition. How can systems adapted to solving absent information regarding the nature of normative cognition reveal the nature of normative cognition? Relieved of these inexplicable posits, the generalizations above become unproblematic. We can set aside the notion of some irreducible ‘human spark’ impinging on the process in a manner that makes them empirically inexplicable.

If only our ‘deepest intuitions’ could be trusted.

The important thing about this way of looking at things is that it reveals the degree to which moral progress depends upon its information environments. So far, the technical modification of our environments has allowed our suite of social instincts, combined with institutionally regimented social training, to progressively ratchet the expansion of the franchise. But accepting the contingency of moral progress means accepting vulnerability to radical transformations in our information environment. Nothing guarantees moral progress outside the coincidence of certain capacities in certain conditions. Change those conditions, and you change the very function of human moral cognition.

So, for instance, what if something as apparently insignificant as the ‘online disinhibition effect’ has the gradual, aggregate effect of intensifying adversarial group identifications? What if the network possibilities of the web gradually organizes those possessing authoritarian dispositions, renders them more socially cohesive, while having the opposite impact on those possessing anti-authoritarian dispositions?

Anything can happen here, folks.

One can be a ‘nihilist’ and yet be all for ‘moral progress.’ The difference is that you are advocating for cooperation, for hewing to heuristics that promote prosocial behaviour. More importantly, you have no delusions of somehow standing outside contingency, of ‘rational’ immunity to radical transformations in your cognitive environments. You don’t have the luxury of burning magical holes through actual problems with your human spark. You see the ecology of things, and so you intervene.