KOSTA: Hello everyone, and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host, Kosta Lucas. Thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth path to untangle the world’s biggest problems and redesign new futures. I know firsthand that we all have so much we can bring to these big challenges. So listen in and see where you fit in, as we un-design the topic of morality and human evolution.
Now, for most of human history, morality didn’t actually change through someone’s lifetime, but today, what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable is changing every decade, if not year. In the past, we’d be told what was right and wrong in categorical terms by moral authorities like parents, community or religious leaders, and we were expected to obey. Today, these forces are weaker and it’s often up to us to decide, which can be a burden for many people. For most of our history, we didn’t have to contend with competing moral views in our community too. Now we do. So how do we evolve our moral decision making to fit the realities of living in a modern world?
Helping us tackle this wicked problem is our latest special guest, Dr. Tim Dean. Tim is an award-winning philosopher, writer, teacher, speaker, and facilitator who runs his own consulting practice called Ockham’s Beard. He’s also an honorary associate in the philosophy department at the University of Sydney, a faculty member with the School of Life, and a previous science and technology editor with the Conversation. He’s the recipient of the Australian Association of Philosophy Media Professionals award for his work on philosophy in the public sphere. His debut book, How We Became Human And Why We Need To Change, hit shelves in July 2021. And it forms the basis of our amazing discussion.
In this incredibly challenging yet stimulating conversation, Tim helps us to explore how we should think about morality. We also get to discuss how morality has evolved over time and change the way we perceive emotions like empathy, envy, and outrage, and even its relationship to things like cancel culture, which we often talk so much about. As you’ll hear in our chat, Tim floors me a couple of times with some really big points, but then he helps you right back up with his effortless and friendly way of talking about some really heavy topics.
You’re in for some big feelings with this one. So if our minds aren’t wired for tolerance, how do we manage diversity today, if things like multiculturalism and diversity are only going to increase over time? What’s acceptable today that won’t be then? And what might morality look in 10 or 50 years time?
KOSTA: All right, Tim. How are you?
TIM: I’m really well, Kosta.
KOSTA: It’s so nice to see you again and to have you joining us. Where are you joining us from?
TIM: Calling in from Sydney at the moment.
KOSTA: Okay. How’s it going?
TIM: Well, it’s good. We’ve now got a little bit more freedom to move around. I actually worked this morning in my second office, which is a café just around the corner.
KOSTA: Oh, how good is that?
TIM: I missed very much working from that location throughout the lockdown.
KOSTA: That’s the natural office of a philosopher, right?
TIM: Yeah. I suppose it is. I suppose it is. Yeah. Some of the best philosophy has been written under the influence of caffeine.
KOSTA: Absolutely, but Tim, thank you so much for joining us today to Undesign. What I think is a really massive topic and the subject of your amazing book called How We Became Human And Why We Need To Change. And we’re here to Undesign, unpack, maybe even redesign this whole concept of morality. Right? So big topic feels very abstract, because it’s not something we can necessarily hold, even if the effects of it are very real. So just before we jump into that, Tim, what does the word morality mean to you? How do you use this word in your every day and in your book?
TIM: Yeah, it’s a really good question to start with. So a funny story is when I was trying to come up with a name for this book, and the book is about how we as a social species have learned to live together and how we’ve evolved biologically and culturally, and it’s about morality, right? And the publisher was saying, “No, can’t put morality on the cover, because morality is going to turn people off,” because the association that a lot of people have with the word morality is like moralizing, is like criticizing, is judgment, is telling people how they ought to live. And from one perspective, I’m like that is what morality is, but from another perspective I’m like, if we can’t have the word morality in public discourse, because people have a negative view of it, we’re stuffed.
And that’s because, as a philosopher, the way I think about morality is, and not just as a philosopher, because I also think about it from the perspective of history and anthropology and culture, and how it’s being used, is it’s the rules that we live by. It’s the rules that allow a group of people to live together in relative peace and harmony. And there are lots of different ways that you can interpret how that can work and how you should render it. And certainly, and probably no two philosophers will have the same definition of it. You can go back to the etymology of it. It comes from the Latin word [Latin 00:05:32], which, and we get terms like cultural morays from that. And that gives you a hint as to what it’s about.
It’s about the cultural constructs that we create that help guide our behavior. And a lot of philosophers want to say that it’s more of in culture. They want to say that it comes from either a divine source, or they want to say that it comes from our conscience or our intuitions, or something beyond just a social construct, but the way I use it is it’s a cultural technology. It’s something that humans invented. It’s the rules that we have come up with and that we impose upon each other to guide our behavior in ways that just helps us to live together.
KOSTA: Interesting. Is morality, from your view, is it a quintessentially human construct or do we see it in animals in any extent?
TIM: Yeah, look, good question. And there’s debate around this. Now, there are some philosophers and some primatologists like the Dutch primatologist, Frans de Waal, who wants to say that morality is not unique to humans. That it is, and he has all these wonderful experiments that he shows monkeys and chimpanzees expressing altruism and empathy, and these features that we associate with morality, but I take a different view. I think that we evolved as a species. Our distant ancestors evolved to have some intuitions and some emotions that helped them to be nice to each other, but that alone is not morality. Morality is the rules that often actually go against what we want to do. So evolving a sense of empathy will make us want to help someone else, but morality will tell us that we ought to help someone else, even when we don’t want to. And that to me is a uniquely human thing, that we can create these rules that tell us to do things, even when we don’t want to do them, because they are the right thing to do.
KOSTA: So it’s decision making beyond empathy, even if empathy helps us to form some sort of morality, do you think?
TIM: Yeah, that’s one way, that’s a good way of putting it. I think we evolved a lot of things that scaffolded to get to the point of morality. So we evolved these emotions like empathy, or like guilt, or like outrage, these things that encourage us to care about how we interact with others and to change how we interact with others. And they’re the foundations. There’s a philosopher, Philip Kitcher, who talks about we evolved to be altruistic. So that means that we are willing to help someone at a cost to ourselves, but he said it’s not flawless. There are a lot of times when we’re selfish as well. We want to screw people over to get a benefit for ourselves. And so those are in the background and they’re super important, but morality is the cultural level where we create those rules that say that even when …
So yeah, look, empathy might encourage us to behave morally, to conform with those rules. We conform and we don’t push people over in the street, and shove them out of the way to get to the front of the line. We don’t do that only because there are rules. We do that because we are empathetic creatures, but if someone didn’t care about empathy, for whatever reason, we would still say that they have a moral obligation to not be a dick to other people.
KOSTA: That’s really funny. Actually, you just made me reflect on this question about can you be moral without being empathetic? And I guess you can, really.
TIM: That’s such a big debate in philosophy. There are some philosophers who would say that it is those sentiments, those positive sentiments towards others or the feelings of guilt that are really essential. So they would say you can’t be moral without having those feelings, but I disagree. I think that you can be at heart a real dickhead. You can be at heart someone who really is a real misanthrope. Literally someone who just doesn’t care about other people, but if you behave well, I think if you follow the rules and not just the explicit rules. A lot of morality are these implicit norms around how we’re, the expectations of how we’re supposed to behave. If you follow all of those, I think you are behaving as morally as one needs to. Now, if you are behaving like that and you have positive sentiments towards others, if you feel genuine empathy towards others, I think that’s better, but I don’t think … It’s too high a bar to say that we need to follow all the rules. Never be selfish, always be empathetic. It’s too much.
KOSTA: And need to feel everything, need to feel all of our moral obligations on a really deep level in order to fulfill them. Sometimes it’s enough to just actually do the right thing that has been decided on amongst a whole group of people. Right? That’s actually, oh gosh, I can sense a rabbit hole I want to go down already, so I’ll stop myself. You used a word before that I think speaks to the heart of some of your work, and also the book, which is you said about how morality evolved. Right? And how here, the central argument of your book, or at least the thesis or the premise that you’re starting from, is that you’ve come to this belief that morality has … Our moral decision making, our cultural technology as you put it, is out of step with the modern world. Right? And the demands of the modern world. What made you arrive at that in a really broad sense?
TIM: Look, it was a funny journey, because when I started my PhD, I was originally really interested in this growing literature in evolutionary psychology, which tried to explain how we behave in the historical terms of us as a species of animal. And there’s some good evolutionary psychology and there’s some bad evolutionary psychology. Let’s get that out of the way. There are a lot of listeners that are going to be like, “Evolutionary psychology, that’s crap.” And there is some crap. There’s totally, there is some crap, but there’s a lot of really good stuff as well. And what I was interested in is, as a social species, did we evolve to become moral? And I was trying to in a way defend that idea, this idea that we evolved to be moral creatures, and that therefore evolution had just been the tool that shaped us into these moral creatures and it was job done. And I was discounting the role of culture in that.
And then I came to, the more I looked at it, the more I looked at the features of us, the traits that we have, physical and psychological that have evolved, I thought some of these are not moral at all. Some of these, we may have evolved empathy. We also evolved envy, right? We may have evolved guilt for when we break some social norm, but we also evolved a desire and a lust that would encourage us to be motivated to get what we want, even when it’s not in other people’s interests, because evolution doesn’t care really about us. Evolution cares about our genes. So if being a misanthrope helped you to pass your genes to the next generation, evolution is like, “Thumbs up. That works.”
KOSTA: Wow. Yeah, sure.
TIM: Whatever helps us to have more babies is really what evolution cares about. And I came to realize that is no basis for what we want to think of as morality. And there’s a really wonderful essay from 1893. I think it is by Thomas Henry Huxley. And he’s often called Darwin’s bulldog. He was one of the most vociferous defenders of Darwin and evolution, because Darwin got attacked a lot from all sides when he released his theory. He did this Romanes Lecture where he talks about how a lot of people around his time were getting into this social Darwinism idea. This idea that, if evolution has driven the nature, right? Shaped the nature of our species. And it’s all about the ‘survival of the fittest’. I have to say in comments, because people can’t see me.
Then we ought to pursue survival of the fittest as a moral standard. So if people are weak, if people have a disability, if people are poor and they have poor development, then they ought to be considered morally inferior. And this motivated things eugenics and stuff, really repulsive stuff, and Huxley came forward and said, “No, no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong.” He talks about evolution as this cosmic process that just drives through these physical and natural forces. And he’s like, “You know what? Sometimes what is moral is actually pushing against that cosmic force. Sometimes what it takes to be moral is to say we need to reject the survival of the fittest. We need to reject the idea that just having more babies is the ultimate end of life. We need to reject these notions of equating evolution with goodness.” He’s like, “Evolution can help us understand how we got to where we are. It’s up to us to decide where we go,” and reading that essay, where he says let us not forget that the purpose of the … I can’t remember the exact quote.
He’s like, “Is not to fall in with the cosmic process, but is to push back against it.” And that really changed my mind, that I realized that a lot of the stuff we evolved got us to where we are. Hey, that’s great. It did make a species capable of morality, but it also gave us a lot of baggage. Biologically, we evolved to be selfish and greedy, and all those kinds of things as well. And culturally, because previous peoples have come up with rules to live that they called moral rules that were sometimes bad. They were sometimes poorly thought through. Sometimes they were biased. Sometimes they were corrupted. We’re talking like misogynistic and sexist rules. These were moral. And I would say yes, they got us to where we are, but today, look at the world we’re living in now. They’re bad. We’ve got to get rid of them. We’ve got to push back against them.
KOSTA: I guess I’m stuck on this thought about emotions or values, right? That may have served a purpose once upon a time. And I don’t know. Do you, is your view that some of these constructs are inherently good or bad? Or is it just based on the effect that they have depending on where we are now? So I guess coming back to your idea about things being out of step with modern society, right? I guess some of our more selfish tendencies could be framed as much as a survival mechanism, right? Particularly if we are fending for ourselves and we don’t have anyone around us to work together with, selfishness could potentially be important for our survival. Right? So how do we know whether anything is inherently right or wrong? Or is that missing the point?
TIM: No, that is exactly the point. I love it. That is-
KOSTA: Okay. Good.
TIM: That is the fundamental question of ethics. How do we know what’s right and wrong? There are lots of answers, but my answer, because you used a term before, are these things inherently good or not? Are they good or bad inherently? And inherent is the word there. And I take a page I suppose from the existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir particularly have had an influence on me, where they said, if there is no purpose to the universe, if there is no divine being that has shaped everything and given us a goal of how we’re supposed to behave, if there’s nothing woven into the fabric of the universe that tells us how the world should be, it’s up to us.
It’s up to us to figure out how the world should be. And it’s in answering that question, what kind of world do we want to create? That is the starting point of ethics, because I don’t believe that we are born into a world that has goals woven into it. I don’t believe there is a divine being that tells us where we should be going, and that leads it on our shoulders. That’s a big burden to bear, but I do think that throughout history, that is the question that different peoples have asked, is how should we live? I don’t think there’s any one right answer. I think there are though a lot of wrong answers. So I guess what I’d say is there’s nothing inherently good or bad. There’s nothing that, because inherent assumes that it’s built into the world.
We can observe this thing. And in the same way that we judge a property like its size or its weight or its color, it’s also got rightness or it’s got wrongness. I don’t think we can look at rightness and wrongness in that way. I think the size and the shape and stuff is in the world. The rightness and wrongness comes from the way that we judge it. And there are lots of different ways to judge it. And I think that questioning process of what the world ought to be is the first question. People need to sit down and think about what world they want to be. And then from that, you can then say, “Well, now if we want the world to be like this,” and the way I want the world to be, by the way, is I would like a world where everybody is able to flourish, where everybody is able to pursue their idea of a good life in concert with each other in a way that enables each other to pursue their view of a good life.
I don’t think there’s one view. I think there’s multiple views, but we’ve got to find this meta level way of allowing us all to explore these different views. And that’s what I’ve decided I think the world should look like. And then the question is how do we get there? And that’s where morality comes in, what rules should we live by to enable people to live this way? And this is where I differ from other philosophers who want to say that it is either, the right and wrong is either given to us from the divine command or it comes from the stricture of reason. Like Immanuel Kant says that just being a rational being means there are certain ways to behave. I reject that. I think it’s a human process. We need to sit down, we need to talk to each other, and negotiate the goals and the rules to live by to allow people to flourish.
KOSTA: Does that come back to that whole essence precedes existence or existence precedes essence argument? Was that Camus and Sartre that had that big falling out over it? I can’t remember. This is me digging back into my first year of philosophy, but it says to me, if nothing has an inherent fixed value, then how you decide what right or wrong is has to be a social process or something that’s driven by a feeling towards it maybe, depending on if you are with people or by yourself. Right? I guess what source do you have?
TIM: This is the thing about we have phenomenology, is this idea that unlike Descartes, who said that, “I look around me and my eyes deceive me sometimes. And so I can’t trust them. So I’m going to discount everything that I perceive, because it’s fallible to try to get at the truth.” This is the idea that essence is the fundamental thing. Experience is less important than essence. And the phenomenologists turned that around and said, “Well, you know what? That venture to transcend our experience to try to get at some universal truth and some universal lessons is just folly, because how do we know that we get there? How do we know what that truth is? How can we know being the kinds of experiential beings that we are?”
So they flipped it around and said, “You know what? Instead of looking at our experience and seeing it as fallible, and then trying to get beyond it,” they’re like, “No, let’s just take the experience seriously. Let’s look at what that experience feels like and look like, and try to navigate a world, taking that experience is the starting point, not dismissing it. So that’s more from phenomenology, but that links into the existentialism, when you then add to that the idea that there’s nothing built into the universe to tell us how to live. And look, I’m not a Sartre expert. I’ve been informed by Sartre, but that’s my understanding of what he was talking about.
KOSTA: That’s so interesting. And I guess Tim, to bring it back to the practical realities of being a moral, moralizing human being in the modern world, what are some of the examples that stick out to you that make you realize this misalignment between us as moral decision making creatures and the demands of modern society? What makes you think we need to essentially redesign moral decision making?
TIM: Yeah, look, okay. Exhibit A social media.
KOSTA: Okay. I was waiting for that.
TIM: Look, I think it doesn’t take long for people to acknowledge that social media often has a very corrosive effect on our wellbeing and on the wellbeing of others. And yet social media is really addictive. It’s really sticky. It draws us in. So the way I talk about social media, and I’ve got a whole chapter in the book talking about this, is what’s driving? One of the big forces driving social media is outrage, is the emotion and the experience of outrage. And this is-
KOSTA: Oh, sorry, Tim. I didn’t mean to jump in. I was just going to ask you, can you explain outrage in this context? Because I think outrage just as a lay concept can mean one thing, but how do you define outrage? And then, sorry, I’ll let you finish. I just wanted to hear what you mean about outrage.
TIM: Yeah, no, of course. Really important. So I see outrage as a form of anger. So when you look at, and this is I’m using the evolutionary functionalist approach to things here. So I’m not just, that you can describe anger or you can describe outrage. We talked about phenomenology a moment ago. You can describe how it feels. What I’m interested here is what it does. So anger is a motivating force. When our goals are inhibited, when we have a goal, something gets in the way of the goal. We feel anger and that anger motivates us to break through that barrier, to achieve what we want to achieve. So we often see anger as a negative emotion, but in a way it’s a positive emotion. It’s a motivating emotion. It’s not like melancholy, which is a demotivating emotion.
So if you try something and you fail repeatedly, you become demotivated to keep trying it just in case you’re wasting your time. These are heuristics. We evolved to help steer our behavior. Outrage is a brand of anger that is triggered when we see wrongdoing. When we see someone do something wrong, and interestingly, it’s not just someone who does something wrong to us. So someone pushes in front of us in the line at the supermarket, we feel outrage. We will feel outrage, even if we see someone do something wrong to someone we don’t even know. It could all be strangers, nothing to do with us. And we still feel outrage. And what that outrage motivates us to do is a couple of things.
One thing that outrage wants is for us to share it, spread it around. So the first thing when we feel outrage, what do we want to do? We want to get validation? Did you just see that? That was, I can’t believe … We share it around it, and then that person gets outraged and they share it around. So the first thing that outrage does is it spreads. It’s a contagious thing, and what it did, there’s some interesting evidence to suggest that the function that it played in small scale society thousands of years ago is that it would encourage a coalition to form of people who, so one person did something wrong. A bunch of people get outraged, spread it around. They gather together in force and can intervene on the individual who did something wrong, and correct their behavior. All these great examples from the anthropological literature.
There’s an example from Turnbull, a guy named Turnbull, who wrote a book called the Forest People. And he talks about this chap named Sefu, who was an Mbuti, who’s from a pygmy tribe in the Congo in the 20th century. And they used to do these collective hunts where they’d all set up nets and they’d bang things. And game would run into the nets, and it would all be distributed fairly. And Sefu was one individual in this group who felt like he deserved a bit more than everyone else. He set up his net ahead of everyone else, captured more game, and then didn’t share it around, but he was spotted and rumors started spreading, outrage started spreading through the group about what Sefu had done.
And the group banded together and lashed out at Sefu, and said, “You’ve done something wrong. You need to share your meat. You need to do the right thing. And if you don’t, you are going to be ostracized,” which is the hunger gatherer equivalent of canceling. Right?
TIM: And that social pressure brought Sefu back into line. He shared the meat, he was forgiven. He was brought back into the band and he was rehabilitated. Now, that same emotion works on social media. We see something that pisses us off. We share it. We get validation from people. There’s evidence from research showing that a tweet that has emotive and moralistic language like, “I can’t believe,” and, “I’m outraged,” is retweeted and shared more than a post that doesn’t have that kind of language. So we’re really receptive to it. We share it more. You get all these thousands, sometimes millions of people jumping on this outrage bandwagon, but we don’t have the ability that we used to in small scale society to do something constructive about it. And it often turns toxic-
KOSTA: Right, so that’s one of the key differences. Okay. Right.
TIM: And so there’s the mismatch. The same force that helped our ancestors to keep the peace, drop it on social media and it causes more harm than good.
KOSTA: Are there any other … If we think of, if we take outrage in the way you’ve described it as an expression of moral transgression or at least witnessing it, or in response to something like that, and that it’s quite contagious, are there other emotions or emotional reactions we have that level of contagion? And if not, what is it about outrage that seems to be very sticky?
TIM: Well, my understanding of the function of outrage is it was to create these coalitions, to create these groups that could intervene, because in a small scale hunter gatherer or nomadic society, face to face conflict was really dangerous. It was really dangerous. There’s no police, there’s no institutions to mediate. There’s no law, there’s no courts. So if someone does something wrong and you front up to that wrongdoer, who wants to stop a fight breaking out? In these societies, most people were skilled hunters. They were usually armed. Anyone could pick up a rock. These could be dangerous. So it often took a coalition of people to keep the peace. So that’s why outrage particularly is so sticky.
There are some other contagious things, things like gratitude and elevation. When we see someone who does something exceptional, we get that deep feeling of gratitude and elevation. And we do want to share that. When we see something amazing, we also want other people to share that gratitude. And that can be a really powerful force for lifting up moral paragons within the group. So the way that we feel about Martin Luther king Jr or Nelson Mandela, or you might feel that about Mother Teresa, whoever it might be, these moral paragons, we actually enjoy. We like feeling good about them. We like sharing that as well, because that has a bit of a function, to show people modeling behavior, but not all these emotions are like that. Some other, like the feelings of guilt. If I feel like I’ve broken the rules and I feel guilty, that’s not contagious necessarily, but other people will see that I feel guilt and they might be more likely to forgive. So all these things interact in interesting ways, but outrage is the one that’s really contagious.
KOSTA: Really contagious. I’m really struck by that observation. And I’d never thought of this before, how outrage is a very, it’s a connecting emotion, right? In some, or it’s a connecting kind of, but when I think of outrage, and this might just be my interpretation of it just through my own lens, but I’ve always thought of outrage as just a very kind of, it pushes something away. It’s a very propulsive kind of emotion. I never thought of it as actually a call for solidarity or a call for backup, or something like that. And when you frame it like that in the context of social media, where outrage is quite easy to come across, I can then understand that challenge of, okay, you create a coalition of people that feel similarly about a bunch of words as they exist on social media. And it could be everyone’s imagined interpretation of the same thing. How do you actually galvanize that to action? And if there’s no outlet for it, then I guess some of those toxic elements you were referring to before potentially emerge, or there’s just this kind of, there’s that huge disconnect, as you said.
TIM: Yeah. And there’s one thing that you mentioned there, which could be a useful distinction between outrage and disgust. So disgust is a physiological response to pollution and waste, and all that kind of stuff. It’s a very strong aversive. So you talked about pushing away. Now, our moral psychology has in a way co-opted our physical revulsion towards things and translated that to a revulsion towards certain immoral behavior. So one thing that, again, can work, is if we see something that we think is morally really repulsive, and we use disgust language to talk about things that are really wrong, we can also spread that around. And that serves a different function.
Instead of outrage, which is drawing you to the source of the outrage, it’s a kind of an anger that once it’s motivating, disgust is demotivating. It pushes you, it’s aversive. It pushes you away. So if for example there’s someone who does something really, really wrong, and people think they are not rehabilitatable, then the disgust might be the emotion that gets spread around. And then people only want to cancel. There’s no desire to rehabilitate or to bring people back into the fold. And that can be a dangerous thing as well.
That can also spread on social media. And what happens is social media gives us access to the information, but not access to do much about it. So this is why people on social media call for people to get canceled or fired or thrown off a project, or something like that, because they can’t sit down with them and berate them. They can’t sit down with that wrongdoer and say, “Here’s what you should be doing instead.”
They don’t have the ability to stop that person from doing the wrong thing in the way that you could in a face to face environment. So you’re limited in what you can do. And my worry with social media as well is it gives us a false sense of agency. So when something goes wrong, we share it. Isn’t this person terrible? This person should lose their job.” Brush our hands off and walk away. We feel like we’ve done good for the day. We haven’t. We probably haven’t done anything. We’ve probably only piled onto someone without actually trying to engage and correct whatever was causing it.
KOSTA: Yeah. Sorry. You’ve really made me pause a few times, Tim. Usually, I’m brimming with conversation when I’m talking to you, but I’m just really, I’m just reflecting on it in relation to my own news feeds and my own interactions on social media. And even in my work in extremism, right? Where disgust, there’s that distinction between anger, contempt and disgust, and that there’s this thing called the ANCODI hypothesis around anger, contempt to disgust are this triumvirate of a particular type of emotion. And they’re a bit of a powder keg when they are in socializing situations that make them combust. Right? And where language crosses from outrage into disgust seems to be the evaluation stage. Right? So for me, I’ve always understood anger to be an evaluation of a situation. Contempt is where that evaluation starts to become on the person or on the agent. And then disgust is past the point of negotiation or forgiveness at that stage, because you’re talking about something that can’t be changed. So disgust is how we feel towards, how we’re conditioned to feel towards, I don’t know, cockroaches or disease or sepsis, or something like that.
TIM: You’re not going to try to negotiate with cockroaches.
KOSTA: Can’t negotiate with sepsis.
TIM: You can’t negotiate with sepsis.
KOSTA: You have to cancel it or get rid of it, but it’s funny, with cancel, all this conversation about cancel culture at the moment, I’m just curious to explore that with you, because for me, I think that concept of being … I have a lot of reservations about what cancel culture actually is and how it’s actually playing out, because I’m always wondering, when people are worried about someone getting canceled for saying something stupid or something being dredged up from their past, from 20 years ago, I’m like is it the same group of people canceling someone? Or is it just that there’s a critical mass of enough pissed off people to make someone retreat from the public eye or whatever it is? I guess I just wonder how do we know whether cancel culture actually does what it’s trying to do, or at least what effect it actually has in society on every day? Do you have any thoughts on that?
TIM: Well, what would you say it’s trying to do?
KOSTA: Cancel culture, I …
TIM: When someone’s getting canceled, what are the group canceling them? What are they trying to achieve?
KOSTA: Again, talking in very broad strokes, I think of it as a way for people, I think of it in the context of people from historically marginalized groups, particularly, just trying to clean up discourse in a particular space. So there’s been more recent examples of Dave Chappelle and his special on Netflix, which has been … I haven’t watched it, but being received as very transphobic and there’s been a lot of reaction to that. We’ve obviously seen Me Too and BLM, which you talk about in the book as well, as moments where there’s a huge pushback. And again, the cancel culture thing gets invoked. Harvey Weinstein and Me Too is another one of those things that gets invoked.
And then you get the other side of the cancel culture kind of debate, which is just, I don’t know, shock jocks or pundits feeling they can’t say things, because people are asking them to be responsible to other people as well. So I guess maybe what I’m getting at here is that I can imagine how frustrating it would be to be in a historically oppressed group, and being told that your outrage or your expression of anger is making things worse. Right? Or maybe not necessarily changing anything, particularly if that’s all you’ve got and it’s like, well, how do we get the people that are causing the cancel culture kind of reactions to hold them accountable? I guess are we essentially shifting the onus on people to moderate themselves too much, particularly in the face of a lot of structural disadvantage that folks have come up against? How do you navigate that tension in that current-
TIM: Yeah. Look, I see what you’re saying and there’s complexities from the outset, because different people have different ideas of what the canceling means and is. And different people employ different strategies when it comes to canceling and what you might think of it. So I think, like you said, for a marginalized group that hasn’t had a voice, to have that voice and to speak up and say, “This is not acceptable anymore.” This kind of speech that others are using, a dominant group are using that they’re oblivious to the effects that it has, this is not acceptable.
That’s one kind of thing that some people call canceling, but then on the shock jock side, there’s an indignation that they’re like, “Hang on. What do you mean I can’t speak the way I want to speak?” There’s a disconnect in terms of understanding the effects of that speech, but I think they’re talking about a slightly different thing, but then there’s the other canceling, where, for example, Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher, utilitarian, ethical, the altruism stuff, he’s been canceled recently. He was going to be speaking at a university and a disability advocacy group was seeking to get him booted off the panel that we’re now talking about the ethics of COVID.
There’s another cancellation. It’s not allowing a certain speech to go ahead. There are differences between these kinds of contexts. Stepping back, like I said with the example of Sefu, who cheated on his tribe, where that he was threatened with ostracism, that’s a kind of a canceling. That’s saying you are just out. You are no longer allowed to engage with us. You are so toxic and you are so disruptive that we are not going to engage with you. The threat of that was real, because in the kind of environment that he lived in, living solo was not viable. So basically, a death sentence.
So that threat of ostracism/canceling was what motivated him to realize that he had to live socially. And if he was going to live in a group, he had to be considerate of others. And he had to be considerate of the rules. And the threat of that kind of canceling was what brought him in, but what’s different with that band of the Mbuti people is that they live in a way where everybody contributes, and losing a member like that, losing an adult fit hunter like that would actually be bad for everybody. So they’ve got a reason to want to threaten to ostracize him, but then another reason to try to rehabilitate him and bring him back in.
The problem with social media is, if I yell about somebody on the other side of the world, I get them canceled. I lose nothing. There’s no stake for me. I do not suffer. My group does not suffer, because we’ve pushed someone out. So the cost for canceling for the Mbuti people was actually quite high. The cost for us is very low. And I would distinguish that from, I want to draw a distinction and I draw this in the book as well, between some aspects of social media outrage and canceling with movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, because there is a really important role that I think both Me Too and Black Lives Matter fulfilled, which is simply giving voice to people who don’t normally have voice.
And that voice is simply saying to the world here is my experience. Here’s what’s happening to me. So with Me Too, there were women saying, “Yes, me too.” And for a lot of people, we were learning, we were learning about the scale of this problem that was not being talked about. With Black Lives Matter, there were people of color saying, “This is my lived experience.” And there’s a kind of, I call that expressive discourse. There’s discourse that’s trying to tell the truth, like scientists. There’s discourse around what kind of policies should we implement? And you can debate this or that.
When it comes to people expressing their experience, you’ve got to take it. You’ve got to take it on face value. Now, you can disagree. If someone says, “I feel threatened,” you can disagree with them as to whether they really are threatened, but you must agree with them that they feel threatened. And that expressive discourse is an incredibly powerful movement. And that’s where social media can do good, to let people understand how people are feeling, what their experience is like. So that then we can take that seriously, validate it. And then have a conversation about what to do with it.
That is a bit different from the canceling conversation. That’s a bit different to the way social media is being used as an attack device. So I do want to say that when I criticize social media and I criticize outrage, I’m not criticizing expressive discourse through things Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
KOSTA: It’s more that blunt application of it that’s very reactive, I guess.
TIM: And often trivial, like a bad joke.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure.
TIM: A poorly word joke. And someone loses their job for 10 years. That’s … Or people take their own lives, because they do something bad and they’re regretful, or they say something on social media that they later realize was very stupid, but they get attacked so much that they feel like they can never come back and they take their own lives. And there’s evidence that this has happened many times. And that to me is really heartbreaking.
KOSTA: Yeah. It seems a very disproportionate sort of, and I would like to think that, that’s not the intention of 90% of people that express outrage in whatever way. That when that’s the end point, and obviously people taking their own lives is very complicated. It’s not mono causal, but just that idea that it culminates in something that is obviously I would think most 99% of people wouldn’t-
TIM: And I’ve got to absolutely agree that the vast majority of people are not engaging with, in this toxic discourse. There’s a very small percent, there’s a fraction of humanity, something like 30% or something, who are even engaged on Twitter. Of them, there’s a small fraction who are very engaged, and of them there’s a small fraction who flippantly attack and flippantly spread outrage. And we, there’s some really interesting evidence to show as well, that toxic social media can make otherwise non-toxic people a bit more aggressive and outraged and angry, and that kind of thing, but really there’s a really fascinating study. I wish I could remember the reference. A fascinating study that showed that the kinds of people who are really the worst actors on social media, the ones who are really getting out there attacking, issuing death threats, et cetera, they’re actually just dickheads in real life.
They’re actually the kinds of people who really are just like that every day, but because they speak that way every day in person, we might not encounter them very often, but on social media, they’re amplified. So it feels like they’re more numerous than they are. Most people are caring. And I do want to reinforce that. It’s just that, because social media is designed by the companies to promote engagements, designed to be sticky and suck us in and be addictive, that people who wouldn’t otherwise engage in that kind of discourse can be sucked into it.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure. I think you said this in the book too. It can be a very addictive kind of, it’s an addictive feeling, I guess, outrage, if in particular, and if people … Again, I see a lot of intersection with my work in extremism, because the heart of extremist group narratives is rooted in injustice and feeling outraged towards something, and mobilizing a like-minded group of people towards that. Whether the actors themselves actually see the world that way is as much shaped by their social their socialization process, as much as it is their own inclinations. And yeah, it can turn. We talk about extremism and radicalization for a reason, extremism being you are zeroing in, you become really single minded about a very extreme solution to a perceived problem.
TIM: Yeah. And that’s so interesting. That resonates with my work as well, because another big difference between our lives today compared to our lives maybe 150,000 years ago is 150,000 years ago you belonged. Wherever you were, you belonged. You lived in a small scale society. You knew everyone around you. You had a role and you had obligations in that society. And you contributed to that society, and you were defined in a way by your roles and relationships. So you always belonged. And now that could be oppressive sometimes. You couldn’t have a lot of choice about whether you disagreed with this or wanted to live a different way. And even in agricultural times, hundreds of years ago, you belonged, but it was imposed upon you what your belief systems were. So there’s a double edge sword there, but you belonged.
These days, were so much more fragmented and it’s so easy for people to not belong to people. They feel like their identity is lost to them, because the benefit of having an identity imposed upon you and that identity being not defined by really who you are, but what role you play in your community, is it was given to you. You didn’t have to create it for yourself. And this is also this existentialist, this postmodern dilemma, is we are now told that freedom is this unreserved good, without acknowledging the burden that it places on each of us to figure out where the hell, who we are, what we care about, what our values are, who’s my people? And so many people are cast aside, because of disadvantage as well. So many people, even people who are advantaged can feel lost, and that triggers our need to find some value, purpose, meaning, community belonging. And there are, as I’m sure you would know, there’s no shortage of groups who will feed that for their own benefit at the expense of the people that they’re luring in.
KOSTA: Yeah. Far too many, Tim. That’s the problem at the moment. They just seem to be easy to stumble across, but the needs have always existed since time immemorial, right? Where like you said, I think the word you used to describe humans in the book that really has stuck with me as well was ultra social. Right?
KOSTA: I love that term, where it goes beyond just socializing, because of circumstance. It’s actually around forceful, intentionally trying to connect with your fellow human beings or whatever sentient beings that are in your, Siri, whatever.
TIM: Look, there is no other species on this planet that lives and interacts and cooperates and engages with other members, other unrelated members of its own species, on the scale that we do. We are unique in that regard. Bees and termites cooperate, but they’re all really closely related. They’re all basically sisters. Humans will interact and share and cooperate with other humans who they barely know. That’s amazing.
KOSTA: That’s such a beautiful thing, isn’t it? When you think about that and what sets us apart, or at least as far as we know from animals and other creatures. On that note, Tim, given that we’re talking about, we’ve really unpacked how morality and moral decision making is very hard and very, there’s a lot of impulses that we have built into us over evolution or even through our own cultural context, what does the future of moral decision making look like to you, if we don’t do something, and how do you want it to look?
TIM: Yeah, look, that’s such a good question, because that’s really, a lot of my book is descriptive. It’s saying how we got to where we are, but really it’s the important bit is prescriptive. Where should we go? What comes next? And I devote a whole chapter to talking about one aspect of the way we evolve to think about morality in black and white terms. And I talk about how that’s really dangerous. So like you said, a lot of extremism is motivated by injustice. Injustice is a moral sentiment. It’s a feeling that someone’s done something wrong. You’re not being selfish. People who give their own lives for a cause are not being selfish. That is the ultimate altruistic act. The question is, is their moral view aligned with making the world a better place or not?
Now, they think it is, but I don’t think it is in most instances. So the question we need to ask is how are we thinking about morality and how can we think about it better in such a way that we can deal with the world that we have in front of us today? And so I argue that we need to get away from the idea that there is one true morality, and that there is one black and white right and wrong that applies to all people at all times. That there’s one goal of morality and one set of rules that everyone should live by. I argue that we need to see morality as this cultural technology, which means that it’s a negotiation.
It’s not given to us. We don’t discover it. We create it. And we create it, not just by ourselves. We create it with other people that we are living with. And that negotiation process is hard. It’s really hard, because as soon as you have a negotiation, one of the virtues of thinking that morality is just given to us by let’s say a benevolent divine being is that we know that it’s prepackaged. It’s good. All we need to do is open the package, read the instructions and assemble.
If morality is not that, if it’s something that we negotiate, then things power come into it. Those people who have greater power can influence the moral system more. And we’ve seen that. So that’s what happened. That’s why there are still so many sexist norms around. That’s why there are still a lot of homophobic norms, because people, the groups who had the power, the ones who shaped things in their favor. We need to be really mindful of that. To give people a level playing field, to have a voice in this moral negotiation.
It’s quite a different way of thinking about the way forward. And when I think about the future of morality, and I have thought about this and I do actually deliver a workshop on exactly this subject, the future of morality. I talk about how things have changed so much in the last even 100 years. All of the big moral, the moral authorities like religion have ebbed and waned in their influence. It’s now more on our shoulders, but we also have this capitalist economy, which tells us all these other things that are good and bad, and that we should be pursuing, that can fool us into thinking that just working hard, making money, buying things and screwing the environment is the right thing to do.
That’s another thing we need to think about. And there’s also greater diversity. So up until about 100 years ago, most of us grew up in a community or a neighborhood that all basically had the same religion, the same beliefs, the same ethnicity, the same culture and the same moral code. And you just fell in with it, right? Now, within our neighborhoods, within our communities, within our nations, we have a tremendous amount of diversity. We live alongside people with lots of different views about how they should live, lots of different ethnicities, lots of different religions, and our moral background didn’t equip us to handle that diversity.
We’re seeing that today. We’re seeing all the tension and the conflict, and we’re seeing on the one side also a naïve elevation of diversity as an untraveled good. And I think diversity is great, but those who are promoting diversity sometimes neglect how people can engage with diversity constructively. And if you just tell people, if you can’t engage with diversity constructively, then you are a bad person, people just retreat. They collapse. So my prescription is to change the way we think about morality. See it as a negotiation. The foundations of that negotiation, for that to happen, we need to build what the American sociologist, Robert Putnam, calls social capital.
We need to build trust, respect for each other. We need to build community bonds that allow us to listen to each other. We need to lay that foundation, so that we can even begin to have that conversation. And that conversation needs to allow for diversity in different voices. Now, if that all sounds really, really hard, it’s because it is. I just think it’s got a fighting chance of success, as opposed to continuing with business as usual, of thinking that there’s one true morality, having them fight against each other, having the powerful influence our moral systems without us being able to have a voice in that. I think that’s the way we’re continuing. And that is just going to create more tension, more conflict and be more divisive in the modern world.
KOSTA: I think I’m inclined to agree. I was just reflecting on the question then, how do you make … Like you said before, morality and moral, the arena in which we negotiate morality is dictated or has a huge kind of power implication, right? Do you have any thoughts on how you would motivate someone in power to create a more equitable moral playing field, where even in their skewed interpretation of things, they seek to lose something?
TIM: Yeah. Look, and that’s a really good question, because that’s a really tough problem. And I think one way that we solve that problem is by looking to the past and how it’s been solved in the past, because let’s look at colonialism for example, which unapologetically said that there are a particular group of people who are superior. There are groups of people who are inferior and the role of those people is to help the superior people live a better life at whatever cost. And I think, or you look at things like slavery, which was there were moral narratives justifying it. And the people who had the power were the ones creating those moral narratives. So how did we overcome those? And there’s a bunch of different ways to do that. And this is where I don’t think it’s necessarily, I’m not going to give the traditional philosophical response of we reason with them. I would love that to work, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t always work.
KOSTA: Oh, I wish. It doesn’t work.
TIM: You can’t necessarily reason somewhere with them. You need to find a way to change the landscape, to make it a more level playing field. So one way that you do that, and interestingly, one way that’s happened in the past is through things like economics. So when the ‘lower classes’ gained more economic independence, they started to have more power and their voices could be heard. And one of the … Capitalism has many flaws, but one thing that it did do in the shift from a feudal mercantilist world into a more market oriented world is it did allow a middle class to emerge, and where that middle class emerges more voices come in. Now, this is just one example and this has flaws, but I’m suggesting that there are non-moral solutions delaying the foundations to allow the moral to come forward.
There are some others as well. So it’s really important to clarify and see the world clearly. And so this is just a function of good discourse, good education, respect for institutions and science and expertise, and all that kind of stuff, but it’s also cultivating the kind of communication where we do listen to this expressive discourse. Now, one example is the quite profound change in views around LGBTI over the last 10, 20 years. So it’s worth remembering that in Australia, homosexuality was outlawed in many states. I believe in Tasmania, it was even outlawed up until the early 1990s. Certainly, in the 1980s, it was outlawed in many states in the ’70s, and then how do you explain the shift to allowing same sex marriage in the 2010s?
Now, one of the things that happened there was in the ’80s there was this push within particularly the gay and lesbian community to come out of the closet. And what that did was, prior to that, people had these stereotypical views of what this minority were like. They were laced with moral language. They were negative views and they were false. They were a false representation. And when people started coming out, the perception changed. It was like, “Oh, okay. Well, now all these people I know whom I respect and admire, they just happen to be gay,” right? It changes the perspective. And so then you start to see the world in a different way. You can humanize, you can engage with people, and then this conversation can start.
You couldn’t start the conversation about same sex marriage in the 1980s, because you’d have all this work to do to try to change perceptions. Now, that work had to happen before the conversation about same sex marriage could even begin. And I think when I think about the future and building a better future, I think there are a lot of similar conversations that we need to have before we can have the moral conversation. I use this term called a slow revolution, this idea that you need to create the right fertile soil for a new moral idea to grow. And if you try to plant that idea too early, you try to force it to grow too quickly, it may fail. It may wither and fail. So this is where the social capital and all these things feed into it.
It’s about not just having a moral conversation. It’s about laying the foundations that even enable that moral conversation to start. And that can take decades. We need to give people time to catch up. And that’s a painful thing to say for those who are suffering today, for those who are disadvantaged today, to tell them, “Hey, wait, slow down.” I’m not telling them to slow down. I’m saying these foundations are so important and there are allies who will help to build those foundations. And the danger is if you push too fast without building those foundations, it can cause more harm, not more progress.
KOSTA: Man, that’s so big, Tim, and I do agree. As unsatisfying as it can sound for certain people who are, just feel the need to explain why they exist on a daily basis.
TIM: It’s gut wrenching.
KOSTA: I guess what you’re saying really is, and without centering this position, but the role of the ally and people who want to make society better is really important to allow those stories to emerge, because reflecting back on the part of the conversation where you said some of the most poignant and genuinely transformative moments from Me Too and BLM is this idea of story, personal experience. People sharing their lived experience with certain things. This was a basic version of that. Before we had social media, this call to come out or whatever it is part of that foundation building in order for changes to take place in the future.
So it’s like this has to be, there’s a big deal of humility, big dose of humility you have to have in that one, right? Where it’s taking on this idea that the change that I want might not necessarily happen in this lifetime, knowing how slow things can go. However, you do these things, hopefully, with people around you to support you, in order to do that. And in the trust that you’re hopefully doing more good and pushing the world towards the way you want it to look. Then you might realize it takes a while for the benefits to-
TIM: It takes patience and it takes great courage as well. I look back on the LGBT campaigners and activists over the last 30, 40 years. And it’s almost inconceivable for me to imagine the courage it would’ve taken for them to do what they did and to suffer what they had to suffer. And yet we have made progress. We have made progress, and it’s difficult. And I also want to say that I’m offering one perspective and I don’t think that everyone needs to employ the same strategy. There’s a role for activism. There’s a role for people to push, to move faster. And there’s a role for people to suggest that we slow down in some areas. I want the world, ultimately, I’m a consequentialist in the philosophical terms. I’m about what are the outcomes? And if we want the outcomes to go best, the world to get better, there may not be one right way to do it. And we may not be able to know the best strategy to do that. So let many strategies operate, and-
KOSTA: Do you think we need-
TIM: We’ll push. We’ll push for it to happen.
TIM: No, go ahead please.
KOSTA: I was just going to say do you think we need to draw a collective vision of the future though, to work towards? Is that something that’s missing at the moment? Do you think where it’s different is that there are too many visions of the future that we are assuming others have when we work towards these things? Do we need to take the time to actually draw that together?
TIM: Yes. So philosophy is about many things. One of the things that I think philosophy is about is encouraging us to reflect upon our own values and tease them out, right? We are all making these decisions every day, big and small, that are informed by something. They’re informed by what we think is good and bad, right and wrong, but we very rarely reflect upon what we really think is good and bad, right and wrong. Philosophy and wisdom is knowing what that is, and being able to articulate that in a way that helps us to have a conversation about the kind of world that we want to live in.
And I think a lot of us are also afloat and we are being blown around by these other forces being told what is good? What is right? What is wrong? And a lot of those forces have their own vested interests, not least the economy, not least market forces telling us what work is good and what work is bad, and money being a particular motivator, and protect your investments and all this kind of thing, and status, and all these other forces are all more than ready to jump in and tell us what’s good and bad, but I think a philosophical and an examined life, and this is why I teach philosophy in schools.
I think every child should have an opportunity to learn some tools about how to reflect upon what they care about and decide what they care about, rather than just have it injected into them without knowing. And yes, we need a conversation about the future. And I think about art. For hundreds, for thousands of years, art very much painted a picture of the world as it ought to be. It was very prescriptive. It wasn’t just describing the world. Now, it was often prescriptive in these kinds of fairly toxic ways. There was painting pictures of religious figures or kings, elevating the wealthy and showing how amazing and important they were. And then art started to become more subversive.
It started challenging those narratives and it started questioning that, and postmodern art, particularly, it reminds us of all the affectations that we have around us that pretends to tell us what’s right, and that art challenges us to really reflect on that. And there’s a value in that, but there’s also a value in returning to art that does paint a world that we want to exist. That does paint a better world. And I use paint to mean any kind of art. Art that paints a better world, that can challenge us to think about what the better world ought to be and to give the artist’s vision of that better world. And that’s it does happen, but it’s less common these days than other kinds of art.
That kind of prescriptive art can be, and this is something that’s not philosophy, right? This is another thing that can help us have these better conversations, or even science fiction. Used to say here’s a utopia, here’s a Star Trek-y kind of world. And this is a world that I think it’s worth talking about and gives us something to aim for. Those kinds of conversations about what the world should look come before most other conversations. And I would love us to have more of those conversations.
KOSTA: Wow. That’s an amazing note to end on. I could talk to you forever. Tim, again, thank you so much. Congratulations on your amazing book.
TIM: Yeah. Thank you.
KOSTA: How We Became Human. It’s been a really … For me, what I love about it is that it’s so deceptively simple and it’s like, because you write in a very accessible way, but then when you really sit with what you’ve written, you’re like holy crap. What does this make my life look like? It’s both inspiring and dizzying at the same time. And it certainly put me in a position to have this conversation with you in a way that I got to scratch some itches that came from reading it. So-
TIM: Well, thank you so much, Kosta.
KOSTA: Congratulations on-
TIM: I love and I really value your perspectives too. I’ve learned a lot from you as well, brother. So I really appreciate, I always love having a conversation with you.
KOSTA: Likewise mate. If people want to follow your work, where’s the best place they can find you?
TIM: If you search for Ockham’s Beard, spelled with a K, so O-C-K-H-A-M-S B-E-A-R-D, you’ll find my Twitter account under that name. You’ll also find my Facebook and my Instagram under that name as well. I’ve got a website as well. Hopefully, do another book next year. Doing workshops through a few different groups, including Small Giants, talking about things the future of morality. So I’m out there, if people are interested in following. I’d love to hear from people. I really appreciate-
KOSTA: Oh, that’s amazing. And also How We Became Human is available at pretty much all your bookstores, right?
TIM: That’s right. Yeah. It’s print, digital. I even got a chance to read it. So the audio book is read by me as well. It’s a lot of fun.
KOSTA: I’m listening to the audio book at the moment and I love it, because I feel I’m talking to you. It’s great. So I highly recommend it.
TIM: It was a lot of fun.
KOSTA: And this will be a good advertisement for what voice they can expect.
TIM: Yeah. Right.
KOSTA: Awesome, Tim. Thank you so much. And look, we’ll chat again, I’m sure.
TIM: I hope so. Thanks, Kosta.
KOSTA: You have been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. And if you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our undesigned page at www.drawhistory.com. Thank you to the talented Jimmie Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures, and last, but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you. Make sure you stay on the journey with us by subscribing to Undesign on Apple, Spotify, and wherever else podcasts are available.
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