Optimized and Arbitrary (part 2)

Optimized and Arbitrary (part 2) August 6, 2010

This post is part of a series on math and morality. You can see all previous posts in this sequence at the index

Looks like it’s time for a clarification for yesterday’s post.

I think David B. is oversimplifying when he says:

If a lot of offspring get genes for cooperation and together they are hard-wired build an equilibrium better for all (i.e. what morality does), that would in fact out compete another population without those genes. 

I think it’s important to remember that two opposite strategies can both succeed in different niches. I don’t think you’re justified in thinking the in-group dynamics prompted by the morality we value would necessarily be sufficient, let alone dominant. Consider our close relatives the chimpanzees. Although chimps have a complex social dynamic, that has certainly been evolutionarily successful thus far; I think we’d hesitate to call it moral. Chimpanzee mating is founded on the routine beating and brutalization of chimpanzee females, to insure they copulate with any willing male while in heat. Nothing about this is automatically inferior to the human social system from an evolutionary perspective.

Hendy added:

Also, relative values don’t mean nothing matters. This is the whole point of society. Many people wish to respond to relativism by slapping the relativist in the face and saying, “So, I don’t believe in not slapping people in the face. What are you going to do about it?” But that’s not how it works. We gather as intelligent beings to decide what best supports the society and enact prohibitions for violations of these rules. 

What I was trying to get at with my discussion of Nash Equilibria was the idea that “what best supports the society” may not actually be desirable. Evolution and relativism as described by Hendy above are both systems that promote stable and resilient societies. Neither of them necessarily optimizes moral attitudes or outcomes, as the chimp example suggests. So what is the basis for our strong preference for our society over that of chimps?

Crowhill is correct that “The hard thing to face is the possibility that there may be no justification for our moral statements.” I’m still inclined to give weight to experiential evidence here that suggests our standards are moral and true. Given that I know that stability/social cohesion is an insufficient criterion for proper action, I couldn’t act or evaluate proposed actions unless I posit some alternate, valid metric.

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  • " I’m still inclined to give weight to experiential evidence here that suggests our standards are moral and true. Given that I know that stability/social cohesion is an insufficient criterion for proper action, I couldn’t act or evaluate proposed actions unless I posit some alternate, valid metric."What is the experimental data again? Stuff like the trolley experiment?Regarding chimps, what about these:- HERE: 87% of Macaque monkeys will starve themselves for up to 2 weeks rather than shock a non-related fellow- Aquinas reasoned with complete sanity that it was permissible to kill heretics because they brought about the possibility of depriving someone else of the ultimate good.Do you hold that we have simply been developing our moral sense during this time? Or could we simply be using our intellects to come up with better and better metrics for the best bases of morality? We've moved from might-makes-right to founding ethics in things like promoting happiness, reducing pain, fulfilling/thwarting desires, and so on. Essentially, we seem to have honed in one what humans value and made systems that support those aims. If we took away the humans, would objective moral values still exist?cont…

  • …contPart of my objection stems from the fact that morality is such a "cloudy" field and that of the senses is not (e.g. your analogy using sight). My objection to this moral "sense" is the same as my objection to those who claim (like WL Craig) that god can "immediately and powerfully be known." I have not known this being and when I pray it doesn't happen either. Is something the matter with me? Is something the matter with all of the others who don't know this being or have even "immediately and powerfully known" some mutually exclusive version of this being?So turn this to morality. What if smoking pot was permissible starting tomorrow. A large number of people would now take part in it while many others would consider to hold it wrong. Are their internal sensors faulty? Repeat this with abortion, nation-wide permissibility of gay marriage, etc. Some would immediately partake and others would still hold that it was wrong.If the moral sense is a human universal, it would seem that we would line up fairly reasonably on these issues because we're using an innate human "sense" to pick up some objective, external signal of what the morally upright action is.If the moral sense is non-existent, it would take various devised moral systems upon which others agree to act to determine the why of morality.I think the latter is a more accurate picture even though each individual "feels very strongly" about their particular choice. These choices don't line up and thus if we have moral sensing capabilities they are broken suspiciously according to geographic distribution, family teachings, and cultural input. Strangely, this is the exact same set of correlating factors for belief in god x!Now, one point of interest is that what we do line up with is precisely what affects survival the most: life/death and sex. This, to me, is exactly what I would expect to see the strongest were embedded evolutionary impulses at work.

  • Hendy, you mix issues that actually have to do with morality with those that don't. Very few people would argue that smoking pot (privately etc etc) is a moral issue in the same way that abortion is. Abortion is also cloudy because pro-choice folks are not in favor of murder, they just value the fetus less than anti-choice people. In fact the whole thing comes down to "which is more valuable?" the woman's right to not half to raise a baby in utero for aprox. 9 months, or the fetuses right to live? – it is not an issue of pro-choice people thinking killing innocent humans is good, it is a weighing of choices and the scale coming out on a different side. This falls right in line with your Aquinas point – the vast majority of modern, western religious would disagree with this, however IFF you believe in eternal salvation, then it makes perfect sense to protect the group from a heretic the same way you protect them from a murdering by killing him! It is not a debate over the objective morality it is once again weighing the choices and coming out with a different result – today we (as a society) value individual freedom of religious choice FAR more than aquinas did, and vice versa for protecting one from being polluted by heresy and going to hell.

  • Hey Charles,I see your point. I don't think I'm putting pot and abortion on the same level by any means, I'm simply saying that if one removes the external prohibition and let the internal compasses run free… there are two possible outcomes:- the compasses show signs that we are in tune to some objective values and thus converge on such a value- the compasses show signs that our cultural, geographical, and family backgrounds have far more to do with what we chooseI wrote what I wrote because Leah raised a point about following the "evidence" and I'm trying to poke around and see what the state of the "evidence" is.Simplify it to this:- god is an objective reality and we have souls that are constantly seeking him, shown by our obsession with the transcendent, beauty, love, the good, etc.- morality is an objective reality and we have internal compasses that are constantly seeking out the true values that exist, shown by our obsession with what is right/wrong, the ultimate good for fellows, etc.I see these two as very similar arguments. In each case we look at a body of humans and say, "Look at how apparently unanimous the focus is on x, y, and z. This must mean that external reality E exists."My illustration was to say that when looking ath the "internal sense" argument for god, some might say:- I think that our desire for comfort, not wanting to die, prior fascination with superstition and causation of the unknown, and so on has far more to do with our "sense" of god than the possibility that a being actually exists. Further more, this sense is not convergent on a particular being, but instead is widely divergent, confused, mutually exclusive, etc. and immensely impacted by geography, culture, and family upbringing.In the same way, then, when instructed to look at thy universal human tendency to say, "Don't kill me or anyone else!", "That's not fair!", and so on… does it align with the data to say that there is an accessible realm of external values that our internal compasses are "dialing in on" or simply that culture, geography, and family upbringing is the source of these values?I tried to bring in current areas where disagreement is rampant to make for easier examples.If one doesn't support that obsession with god throughout the ages is evidence for god outright, then I find it hard to think the same individual can support objective moral values simply because we obsess about those too…Not that there aren't other grounds for doing so, but so far all I've seen from Leah is what I'm addressing above — we think and care about them, therefore they exist (simplification).P.S. I think you might simplify the abortion thing as well. There are tons of reasons pro/con… birth defects, poor family circumstances, whether or not the fetus feels any pain at all, etc. I don't think it boils down to what you suppose which is essentially selfishness (my comfort or a life).