A Naturalized Context of Moral Reasoning    



Using a broadened conception of “sociality” from George Herbert Mead, I examine some current research in the life sciences to pose a picture of the human self as radically social, through many dimensions. These examples come from evolutionary biology (Richard Dawkins), cognitive science (Robert Wilson), and perceptual theory (Christine Skarda). The shift in perspective has significant bearing on how we conceive of the moral sphere, presaged by John Dewey’s analyses early in the 20th century.


I am concerned about making sense of the moral sphere with a conception of the human subject as a product of evolution and both socially constituted and uniquely integrated in an environment (more carefully—a related suite of environments). The beginning point of this reframing is in Mead’s notion of the social constitution of human being. Most readers of Mead take up such constitution only in the arena of what Mead calls  “significant gesture,”[i] using spoken language, especially in propositional form, as exemplary, and as providing the foundation for mind, self-consciousness, and so on. But Mead’s concept of sociality is much wider in scope than this; the concept is fundamental to his cosmology. Without exploring in greater depth Mead’s contribution to thinking about sociality as a precondition for the most fundamental natural processes. I would like to use a broadened version of this to frame some contemporary work in biology, ecology, and cognitive science as they relate to human existence, especially in terms of how we may think productively about the moral sphere.


Human beings, as products of natural selection, are social animals. Humans did not become social; we became human (as individuals and as a species) within an already established pattern of social relations. Group life long predates the appearance of whatever characteristics we take to be typically human. Each of us is born into a social organization that provides an environment in which and through which a self with self-interests arises. Furthermore, until relatively recently and still most places on earth, the survival of a human infant has been predicated on being firmly and literally attached to a lactating woman. The several years of this physical and social dependency, which is in turn full immersion in cultural practices (including language use), along with the enormous development of the infant’s brain during this time period combine to form the intensely social habitat of the young human. Evolutionary history does not move from solitude to sociality and an individual’s life trajectory does not move from insular to gregarious. These social conditions are necessary preconditions for the development of unique human individuals.

The second half of the 20th century saw a deepening conviction on the part of biologists, psychologists, and others, that behavior as well as morphology has effective ties to hereditary material. Once simple behaviors are understood as causally connected to genetic inheritance, and if these behaviors are subject to the winnowing effect of natural selection, then it makes little sense to divorce the organism from its behavior and specify the first as subject of evolutionary forces and exclude the second.  But if some behaviors are considered as “part of the package” that is the subject of natural selection, then why would we not include the products of those behaviors as well, if the products conduce to differential reproduction?  We would likely take the characteristics of the lion’s claws as the result of natural selection. Is the spider web (to use an example from Richard Dawkins[ii]) different in any significant way? Both the claws and the web are extruded from the body of an organism and both perform the function of food procurement. Why does the web seem less an integral element of the organism than the claws? The difference seems one of the “evanescence” of the web relative to the claws. But this seems more a matter of an unexamined commitment to the priority of bodies as locus of attention than a matter of what is logically entailed in the analysis.

This perspective shifts the boundary of the identity of the organism in 2 directions. On the one hand, we could see bodies themselves as the ephemeral “vehicle” built by the genes, so the body as no more and no less a means of food procurement in helping to ensure the reproductive success of the genetic material than the lion’s claws or the spider’s web. If we take as belonging to the organism its internal organs, the integument surrounding those organs, the behavior engaged in by the organism and the natural products of the organism’s behavior as causally linked to the organism’s genetic inheritance, then predicating organismic identity on the integument and what’s inside it seems at best analytically arbitrary. But if we accept the spider web, considered as a system of food procurement, as an extension of the organism then why not extend our understanding of a beaver “system” to include the pond that results when dammed?

What this suggests is a very concrete notion of the interdependence of organisms and environments, as well as their co-constitution. This is so not only in the sense of organisms’ dependence on the environment for food, protection, and so forth and the organism serving as food, and so on for other organisms. We can also see, with this change of emphasis in the way we usually think of genotype and phenotype, an enlarged scope of the individual organism and a tremendous overlap in the effective scopes of organisms. The notion of the extended phenotype recasts our image of independent, sharply bounded organisms exchanging internal products for external necessities from an environment distinct from it. Instead, the image is of an organism whose boundaries are not sharply delineated, one that is intertwined in deep ways with an environment that cannot be understood as over-against the integrity of the organism.

            Robert A. Wilson notes the “dissipative concern” regarding the extended phenotype model, or

the worry that extended phenotypic effects, unlike their bodily bounded kin, will be unsuited for systematic study, since the effects of the genes on the world at large are infinite in number and various in strength…once we move beyond the boundary of the organism the phenotypic effects such study would require dissipate into the world at large.[iii]

Wilson hypothesizes instead “wide” systems that incorporate individual organisms and organismic artifacts (shells, webs, ponds, and so forth) as proper parts. These extra-individualistic systems might themselves then be thought of alternately as the units of natural selection as larger and more complex “vehicles” constructed “for” the propagation of genetic material.

            Wilson goes further, into human cognition, in order to argue against psychological “individualism.” The “metaphors” of this, he claims:

create a certain overall conception of what sorts of things mental states are: they are encapsulated in individuals, located in the brain, buried away from direct impingement from the world. Thus they can be investigated as self-contained entities causally insulated from—yet reflective of—the world beyond the organism.[iv]

Thinking of cognition as a “wide” rather than a “narrow” system would take fully into account what Wilson calls the “cognitive loop extending into the world beyond” as an integral feature of the cognizing subject. In this way, public, symbolic accumulations of human thought would be understood as extensions of cognitive powers outside the skull, at one and the same time a feature of the organism and a feature of the environment. In an important sense then, cognition happens “in” the world, it is not some sort of interior modeling “of” the world. 

            With the extended phenotype as Dawkins writes of it, or wide systems as Wilson has it, the shift is from atomistic individuals, bounded by an unbroken integument, exerting control of external environmental variables to a more pervasive agency with a nebulous boundary that itself can be seen as having significant overlap in its very constitution with what we usually consider as environmentally distinct from the organism. We have a picture of organisms as much more closely knit with their environments than we generally consider.

In Christine Skarda’s work on visual and olfactory perception we see a similar repositioning of analysis that highlights the continuity of the organism and its environment. For her, the seemingly intractable “binding problem” (how does the brain unite into a single representation the disparate bits of information from individual receptor neurons?) is an artifact of a “neurocentric” framework.[v] Skarda empirical evidence supports the notion that the retina itself, in visual perception, provides a “phenomenal fabric” that is “shattered” or “articulated” by the functioning of receptor neurons. In this view the percept is a product and not a cause of visual or olfactory processes.

[T] he perceptual problematic is inverted from that of integration [binding] to a situation in which perceivers generate percepts in which the world appears to the perceiver as a collection of objects and events independent of the observer which are available for manipulation. Perception is a process in which perceivers use the seamless state of their embeddedness in physical reality as if they were independent of it by creating percepts.[vi]

Here again we see the premise of an organism independent in essential ways of its environment denied. Rather than an interior organismic space finding a way to trade what’s inside with what’s outside or to transform the tiny bits of discrete information gathered through sense detectors into unified internal representations of what is external and foreign, we have organism/environment with no pre-formed boundaries. As we saw with Wilson’s description of “wide systems” of cognition, we see the central problematic facing the organism is not that of matching up what’s “inside” with what’s “outside” in some meaningful and/or accurate way. The central problematic for the organism, instead, is constituting an effective distinction between these, as the fundamental condition of the organism is utter continuity with larger environmental contexts.


            I would like to suggest that any account of morality worth taking seriously must consider at least two features of human existence, both illuminated in essential ways in contemporary life sciences. The first is the fact of evolution through natural selection—for all life forms and deeply implicated in at least some behavior patterns and products of that behavior. The second feature is the ineradicably social nature of existence, a sociality so pervasive that the contour of an individual organism over against an environment is difficult to specify. In this paper I will describe briefly a current account of morality that address the first of these considerations, and make brief comments regarding the second.

Owen Flanagan, in The Problem of the Soul, addresses the first of these issues in a very direct way, calling his ethical theory one of “human ecology.” He uses an Aristotelian conception of flourishing, and links moral theory with other practical sciences—engineering, for example—that include norms as essential components of the inquiry and practice of the science. Flanagan contends that especially the reactive attitudes, such as guilt, gratitude and resentment, can be seen as normative claims and not merely as signs of subjective states of affairs. Basic emotions and reactive attitudes, especially as these are expressed facially and through body postures can be seen as at least “proto-moral” means of communicating norms. Flanagan writes:

What is a norm? Nothing mysterious. Roughly, norms express evaluations and make appeals that create, protect, or maintain certain desirable practices…. [E] thical expression…involves emotional expression, but it is not simply a matter of my hurrahing and booing and getting things off my chest. I am communicating with you about our interaction.[vii]

Furthermore, the work of Ekman[viii] and others substantiates Darwin’s speculation that certain emotions, with the attendant facial expressions and body postures, are species-typical and recognized nearly universally. This is not to say that the same states of affairs elicit the same emotional judgments universally, or that the strength of expression of these emotions is universally the same. However, if we take seriously the notion that our facial musculature and expressive emotions are adaptations that aided in regulating social relations in our evolutionary past, then it makes a great deal of sense that whatever cultural differences we might find, there is also a solid core of stable similarities across cultures and through history.

            To say that the moral sentiments, for example, are closely connected with our evolutionary heritage is not to say that these sentiments are somehow immutable, unavoidable, or automatic. Flanagan uses as an analogy the human propensity to use induction when solving problems. We know that in certain situations induction is easily misapplied. But through attention paid to the strengths and weaknesses of induction, through millennia of its use, we can, and have, codified principles of induction to mitigate our blind spots in making sense of the world. Reflecting on this natural capacity allows us to understand under what circumstances we are likely to fail in its application.[ix] Flanagan points out that reflection on our normative reactions can also modify and extend these in ways that are more conducive to our flourishing as social creatures in our contemporary environments. This does not mean wholesale rejection of these norms, just as we cannot jettison altogether our propensity to use inductive reasoning—though we can clarify and modify these as our experience facilitates judgment.


While moral theory that takes seriously evolution through natural selection is finding some expression,[x] the second issue articulated above does not seem to be finding a strong contemporary voice. This is the issue of the fundamental and ineradicably social nature of existence; this appears to be the case in perception, cognition, agency, and so forth—why not in the moral sphere as well? Implied is that at least in some respects there is significant overlap in the ontological scope of individual organisms as well as an arbitrariness in drawing a bright and distinct line of separation between an internal, subjective, private sphere of agency and symbol constitution and an external, objective, public sphere of items that may either be transformed and imported to the inner sphere or kept at bay.

How might this picture of human being play out in moral theory? In part, this sort of analysis will act as a sieve that casts doubt on several serious contenders for moral authority. For example, if cognition is not private, personal, and disconnected in a fundamental way from the contingencies of embodied, historical existence, then it appears highly unlikely that an individual engaged in solitary reflection could discover a categorical imperative that applies regardless of particular circumstances while also having overwhelming relevance to those particularities; though species-typical attributes and desires may be discovered, truly universal moral laws would be altogether too abstract to provide significant guidance in moral choice.

As well, if human being is understood as socially or relationally constituted in a wide variety of spheres (perceptual, conceptual, historical, and so on), then it seems very unlikely that the “good” for human beings can be reduced to one—pleasure—regardless of the multidimensionality of our measure of the single good. For similar reasons, we would expect that a moral theory hypothesizing a unity of virtues would fall short. If fundamental needs and desires are in some sense incommensurable, it seems unlikely that they are nested within some hierarchical structure that “merely” needs clarification. Instead, we would expect that moral reflection would uncover deep and perhaps unresolvable conflicts as well as great opacity in regards to just what must be brought into consideration in that reflection.

What positive attributes might we expect to find in a moral theory that acknowledges both the evolutionarily situated nature of human being as well as the fundamentally multiply social contexts of human individuation? Identified above is the idea that such a moral theory would recognize the typical errors we are likely to exhibit in our moral judgments. That is, if the evolutionary background of moral sensibilities primarily concerned those in close proximity then these considerations must be carefully extended as our actions become wider, temporally and geographically, in effective scope. Another kind of error to which we are likely prone is a confusion in moral judgment and its aftermath—that punishment of transgressions of mutual exchange may have maintained social order in a long-ago past, and while perhaps still legitimate, must be carefully moderated given the fact that it is no longer shouts and sticks and stones used to exact the punishment, but guns and rockets and guided missiles.

Another error to which we are likely prone is seeing our “own” communal habits of sanctioned satisfactions of basic desires as necessarily better than others. One prophylactic to apply in avoiding these arbitrary judgments is claiming that all such institutions (structures of marriage, for example) are equally contingent and any insistence that one community’s form is any better than another’s is illegitimate. This view may foster a sense of tolerance for cultural differences and eliminate the sort of bigotry fostered by parochialism. However, such a commitment leaves us with no leverage when we contemplate forms of marriage that seriously disadvantage women, for example, by sanctioning violence against them to ensure they remain bound to a spouse. The alternative to a moral position based on cultural relativity is not insisting that there is a best form of marriage with all others falling short, but that like many other natural (species-typical) behaviors, marriage is an expression of deep-seated needs, having a variety of forms, many of which can be understood as legitimate, even if not to our taste. But in saying that this is a species-typical desire and a feature of our natural behavior patterns, we can criticize forms of marriage that produce deep conflict with the satisfaction of other abiding desires. An institution that prevents women from satisfying her desire for physical well being (or for life itself) can be legitimately criticized if we believe that though forms of marriage may be indefinitely variable (and their “goodness” relative to particular cultural traditions), some forms may exert such a powerful countervailing force on the satisfaction of equally profound desires as to warrant condemnation.[xi]

Related to this would be an examination of the ways in which we can be blinded to our own deepest desires through implacable social institutions. Sen and Nussbaum do this through what they call a “capabilities” account of human flourishing.[xii] Some conditions may preclude fulfillment of natural desires by effectively extinguishing them, while under other conditions we would expect individuals to seek satisfaction of them. For example, customary practices that exclude girls and women from schooling may over time convince them that they are uneducable and make them resentful of any attempts to show them otherwise. Under other conditions, the natural capability of intellectual development would flourish, and therefore, we can legitimately criticize such customs—even though those disadvantaged do not.

Another feature of this moral perspective would echo Aristotle’s notion the study of ethics is subsidiary to the study of politics, as flourishing individuals are dependent on the health of a social habitat. But this insight needs to be broadened as we recognize that the human habitat is much richer and more multi-layered than just our human social communities—though these are, of course, fundamental features of human existence. We are also creatures embedded in richly diverse climatic niches, for example, many of which are now threatened. A moral view that understands not only that we are likely very short-sighted problem solvers in temporal terms, given our evolutionary inheritance, but also that we are shaped in profound ways by our immersion in such niches—such a moral view might lead us to commit more fully to safeguarding some important parameters of climate change.


In this essay I have pointed to some features we would expect to find in a moral theory that takes our evolutionary inheritance seriously into account and incorporates consideration of a broad notion of the social constitution of human selves. I have also indicated a few contemporary philosophical analyses that are consonant with such a view. Whatever shape moral theory takes in future work, I expect it will be more fruitful if we pay close attention to the novel accounts of human nature coming out of scientific communities.

The interest in the content of contemporary sciences for ethical inquiry seemed obvious to some American philosophers in the later years of the 19th century and into the 20th. Dewey wrote in 1918:

Human nature exists and operates in an environment. And it is not “in” that environment as coins are in a box, but as a plant is in the sunlight and soil. It is of them, continuous with their energies, dependent on their support, capable of increase only as it utilizes them…Hence physics, chemistry, history, statistics, engineering science, are a part of disciplined moral knowledge so far as they enable us to understand the conditions and agencies through which man lives, and on account of which he forms and executes his plans. Moral science is not something with a separate province. It is physical, biological and historic knowledge placed in a human context where it will illuminate and guide the activities of men.[xiii]

How rich and hopeful a view on how we ought to live our lives is this. It provides no guarantees, but it does present a human-sized path.

            However, if there is no other positive take-home from entertaining the perspective I propose, there is this: Seeing ourselves as all members of the same species brings our continuity with each other to the foreground and deflates the often exaggerated differences.



[i] I have argued elsewhere that this is much too narrow a view of Mead’s conception of social constitution, and need not rehearse the argument here.

[ii] Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

[iii] Robert A. Wilson, “The Individual in Biology and Psychology” in Where Biology Meets Psychology,  (Boston: MIT Press, 1999), p. 362

[iv] Wilson, p. 365.

[v] Christine Skarda, The perceptual Form of Life” in Reclaiming Cognition (Bowling Green: Imprint Academic, 1999), p.83.

[vi] Sara, p.81

[vii] Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p.302.

[viii] Paul Ekman, Emotions in the Human Face (New York: Pergamon Press, 1972).

[ix] Flanagan, pp.306-310

[x]  See, for example, Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: SUNY Press), 1998 and William Casebeer, Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press), 2003.

[xi] See Arnhart, for example.

[xii] Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, eds, The Quality of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

[xiii] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (New York: Modern Library, 1957), p. 272