Saturday, January 30, 2016

Where do Morals Come From?

Objective, or subjective? And why are we having this argument?

What is good? What does it mean for something to be good? When you judge something to be good, do you look it up in a book? Many philosophers and especially theologians insist that what is good is not a personal judgement, or subjective, but is an objective state: a fact. Whether we properly recognize such facts is the main problem of humanity, thus they strain to train children in systems of "proper" objective morality.

It seems fair to say that most philosophers have promoted an objective view of morality, from Plato onwards. Religion has a great deal to do with this, as it posits an invisible world from which these objective facts flow, despite their unobservable and apparently non-objective nature. It also posits, in some versions, law-givers such as gods who are the identifiable source of objective good, whose commands we have but to follow to be and do good.

So a great deal of one's view of morality is going to depend on one's view of religion, and the plausibility of supernatural realms which somehow undergird reality and influence us, or at least the occasional prophet and teacher. One can also mention the social virtues of objective theories of morality, for if the ethical system is given and immutable, then the social system derived from it is likewise well-founded, and revolution becomes unthinkable.

On the other hand, the decline of religion and the rise of evolutionary theory to explain life and our own formation leads to drastically different theories of morality. It becomes a genetic/psychological mechanism for group sociality. And what we think of as its (our) flaws do not come from the interference of Satan, or insufficient attention to revealed scripture, but rather from a diversity of strategies that are cleanly and clearly modelled by game theory. Cheating may at first be rewarded, but then punished by policing, in order to attain a stable cooperating society with low, but inescapable, levels of defection and badness.

But even given an evolutionary theory, are morals subjective or objective? It is an interesting question. Optimal game theory strategies are not a matter of subjective choice- they just are, like mathematics (whether you regard mathematics as objective discovered systems or not). On the other hand, our personal judgements of value, while often agreeing with the findings of game theory, (hiring police, regulating vices, rewarding virtues), never originate there. They originate in our feelings about what is good, and what would be good for us in the future.

Prohibition is a classic example, when the US experimented with total abolition of alcohol. Alcohol was causing, and still causes, great harm, personally and societally. Yet it has positive moral and hedonistic functions as well, which turned out to be so strong that a vast criminal & popular underground developed to evade its prohibition. While unintended consequences destroyed Prohibition, the original policy (and moral stance) was born out of a great deal of pain, and the reasonable judgement that overall, we would be better off as a dry country. (Muslim countries are putatively dry today, for instance- for better or worse.) Would that the harms from global warming were as immediately apparent. The lesson is that morals are at base utilitarian, with respect to our perceived/estimated future happiness.

And game theory, while documenting strategies that evolution has time and again put into practice in our moral (or amoral) natures, does not say anything about what these strategies are actually aiming for. What is good to aim at comes, evolutionarily, from the axiomatic conditions & purposes of life: survival, flourishing, reproduction. That is why things that make us happy are so carefully engineered to also be good for us or for making more of us. The system has gone a little awry in our altered industrial & hypersocial environment, but the fact that there are 9 billion humans, swarming all over the earth, is testament to its success, at least in Darwinian terms, if not in moral terms. We are continually challenged to relearn and retrain ourselves, morally and otherwise, to accommodate this new world.

So does that mean that the evolutionary axioms are objectively good, and that our moral natures boil down to the "objective" goals of greed and power? Well, a funny thing happened along the way to biological complexity, which is that morality became intrinsically complicated, including quite a bit of cooperation, empathy, and other positive elements that allow societies to arise from individuals. Our moral natures are also implanted as intuitions and instincts, and whatever the underlying axioms might be, these natures function autonomously. That is our resource to judge and teach what is good, not a theoretical axiom of evolution, however explanatory that is in retrospect. Thus if we feel like adopting a foster child, in flagrant contravention of Darwinian selfishness, that is what we will do and judge good into the bargain.

This fundamental aspect of our moral instincts- the intuitive atoms of morality, as it were- means that whatever their origins, their expression is, to us, subjective. Moral judgement is not read from a book, or from the stars, but from our hearts. This applies to the objectivist argument as well. For when do people do (and think right) what others tell them, what game theory tells them, or what scripture tells them? Pretty much never. Divine command theory has never worked. While god may judge us in some morbid fantasy of the afterlife, we judge god the rest of the time, and the judgement has not always been positive (see the Book of Job). Scriptures, parents, and other cultural influences have their role, but it is to shape our instincts so that we become better judges, not to supplant them.

What remains is to explain why moral objectivity is so attractive and so common, including among philosophers. Firstly, it is simply operationally advantageous to decare that your judgements are not just an opinion, but objectively correct and factual. Talk about a successful power-play! States, upper classes, and religions have been playing this card from time immemorial, to great success. Nothing creates genocide quite as rapidly as a full-throated propaganda campaign about how execrable, subhuman, and depraved the target group is, given as fact. Or how divinely favored, deserving, and unquestionably righteous the perpetrating group is. The more objective the framing of each of these judgements is, the more powerful.

Secondly, like our cognitive illusion of a disembodied soul, we likewise have a moral illusion of being right for objective reasons. Our apparatus of feeling right about something, like a technical solution or math problem, extends to the rightness of moral judgements. Killing is simply wrong, right? Who could possibly doubt this? Yet what happens when killing becomes the highest calling and honor in a military situation? How objective was that after all? We then come up with caveats and legalistic rules / rationalizations that make great sense from an intuitive and utilitarian perspective. But we are simply exploring our feelings, not mapping an objective territory. Something that could be said about religion generally.

  • Calculations of cooperation & morality.
  • Democracy is fragile, is perishable, conflicts with capitalism, and needs help. Great talk by Yanis Varoufakis.
  • How about making corporations pay taxes in the form of stock?
  • Corporations as net savers ... a disaster for the future.
  • Wall Street OK with Hillary, not so much with Bernie.
  • The Taliban is still "negotiating".
  • On idealism. FOX news hammered away at its ideals for years and decades, and it moved the needle on the whole political system. Sanders is FOX for the other side- agenda for the 99%.
  • Screwing workers = "economic gains".
  • Apotheosis of Republican "small government" in Flint ... if it was not already clear during Katrina.
  • Zombie policy at the Fed.
  • Tax cuts are Keynesian policy, done regressively and inefficiently.
  • Fossil fuels were a unique economic multiplier of growth and living standards.
  • Megafaunal overkill hypothesis gets more support.
  • Bernie and (lack of) religion.
  • This week in the WSJ: Peggy Noonan finally sort of gets Bernie. But can't bring herself to say the word... Occupy, which is when the 99% realized the game was rigged.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to adopt a rather Utilitarian moral, for example in the "trolley problem". However, there are moral problems that are not answered satisfactory in a plain Utilitarian moral. For example, is it Moral to kill one healthy human for taking organs to save 5 dying humans? Strictly Utilitarian it should be acceptable, but it contradicts our deepest moral intuitions.

    I guess we still need some Kantianism, in the sense that any chosen moral approach should function well if promoted to an "universal law". Hunting people for taking organs for saving others is not likely to produce a flourishing society, but more like a society when each will rise an army to protect it's back.

    I guess we can be Utilitarian if we optimize for a longer time in the future. This should include a bias to simple rules rather than complex, because they are more economical to apply in the long run, both juridically and for the human brain.

    I say the moral might come from... Space Colonization. It is moral whatever makes the human society to have higher odds in colonizing space before Earth will become inhabitable for humans. See more details here: