Phil Osborn, February 27th, 2008. On Morals:*
Overview and summary of “On Morals,” by Phil Osborn
The aim of this article was not primarily to demonstrate a solution to the “is”/”ought” problem, but rather to establish that there are objective grounds for acting morally even when no one is watching. I.e., I claim that it is not the fear of being caught in any particular immoral act that is the bottom line impetus to be “good.” Rather it is the undermining of a critical mechanism of self-awareness that makes immoral and/or criminal behavior so destructive to the perpetrator. That takes us into the realm of psychology and ultimately epistemology.
The primary reason that people attempt to be “good,” by whatever definition they might apply to that term, is not the fear of being caught, but rather the need to live without hiding or cloaking who they are. Transparency, integrity, honesty and empathy are essential to achieving the most satisfying and inherently valuable relationships, such as romantic love or deep friendship.
“Evil” people, by contrast, are typically lacking in empathy, or any of the other essentials for the most valuable of relationships, but, especially in the case of sociopaths, are often quite expert at faking them.
Good people really do try to live up to a standard even when no one could be watching, and the most important reason for most people in most circumstances is that they enjoy the feeling of visibility, the mirror of their souls through their relationships with other people, especially the crucially important intimacy of romantic or filial love or deep friendship. The sudden flashes that reveal a precious other’s understanding of who we really are make life worth living and the value of that visibility accounts for the many times that a lover or parent will put their own lives on the line in war or other dire circumstance to protect the loved one.
This is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather an extreme nadir of a spectrum of interactions by which we experience ourselves through our mastery and knowledge – or the lack thereof – of our world. From finger touching thumb in the womb, to the knowledge and skill necessary to be an architect, or any skilled professional, we are defined by our ability to see, think and act in the world in such a manner as to imply the validity of our mind's content through the perception of its reification in objective reality. Our actions and their consequences reflect the success of our perception and conception of reality in an ongoing, self-sustaining feedback loop. Our satisfaction with ourselves, our self-esteem, depend on that feedback. However, there is a special area of our consciousness that cannot be directly experienced through its application in concrete action and response, because the phenomena are restricted to consciousness itself.
A building stands because its design followed principles of mechanics and physics, but it will stand for some time even if there are no more humans to design buildings. A concept such as honor, however, can only exist as applied to motive or intent, and no mere physical entity can plug into a feedback loop to reinforce and sustain it in our consciousness. Only another consciousness - one that commits to honesty and visibility - can reflect such a artifact of consciousness itself. To eliminate that possibility is to become blind to the reality of our inner being, to lose a clear vision of what kind of person we, most fundamentally are, generating a feeling of profound emptiness in our mind. Naturally, then, we prize, often above any material success, the relationships that provide us that visibility, allowing us to experience those crucial parts of ourselves.
Yet there is a clear disconnect between this crucial need, so often portrayed in all matter of art, versus what is allowed and promoted as social norm. In part, this is because the well is so often poisoned by sociopaths who have rejected that whole area of life as silly, subjective, and a weakness. In extreme cases, such as the “Irish Travelers,” an entire criminal culture is based on killing off any desire for or belief in empathy or the dependent concepts of honor and morality, instead focusing on creating more generations of sociopathic predators.
Such sociopaths also feel threatened by people who are genuinely good and honorable and will sometimes expend vast efforts to destroy or compromise them, finally proving to themselves the correctness of their cynical view. See the portrayal of the villains in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” or "Othello's" Iago. Such scenarios take place all around us, however. The good should expect to be attacked for being good, and often the attack succeeds, striking a blow at benevolence in general in our society.
(For some good insights into the fundamental nature of evil, there are now a host of good sources that approach the problem of evil from various perspectives and across various disciplines. These resources are a new phenomynon, BTW. When I first began attempting to get a handle on the problem in the '70's, after encountering real sociopathic evil and being badly burned by it on several occasions, I found virtually NOTHING in the literature, apart from the fictional depictions, such as I mention above. But now, Google on Ponerology or Simon Baron-Cohen, "The Science of Evil, or "The Psychopath Test" or "Born for Love (include 'empathy' in your search).")
In addition to the sociopaths and similar cases of moral blindness, we also have vast social memetic institutions that depend upon profiting from blocking our natural desires. The transformation of sex into a sin, is just one example. Both Mark Twain and Ayn Rand have commented extensively upon the inverse morality of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim ethic. Whatever you WANT is WRONG! In fact, you should expect that to be the case, as you were born with Original Sin. Only by sacrificing to the church or mosque can you molify that vengeful God. (Odd, though, how God needs our money...)
Yet we have to be taught not to love. We naturally seek out honest empathic feedback from birth on. But society and religion conspire to teach us to substitute symbolic needs and symbolic satisfactions for reality. We become afraid of our natural, genuine needs and reject them in favor of the wheels in the head inculcated because they make possible the survival of those very derivative social institutions that promote them. Those neurotic needs are not capable of real satisfaction, but the institutions who enthrall us keep that mechanical rabbit on the run, seemingly just out of reach.
If ONLY everyone would just BELIEVE, then the world would be a paradise. The next logical step is then to recognize that it is those evil NON-BELIEVERS who are the problem. Or, on the street gang level, it is the phony, anti-whatever-ethnicity establishment that profits from keeping the boys in the hood from ever winning. So, to prove that you're one of us, just kill some random member of that establishment. Then we will accept you as a brother and provide you with that essential empathic feedback - plus sex and drugs, and, periodically, more required violence to keep the reification going.
And, after a while, the violence becomes pleasurable in itself, as part of that fraudulent feedback cycle, and the feeling of temporary power over a victim is enough feedback for a little while to drown out any loss of love or the capacity for it, which may have been mostly burned out anyway via child abuse or neglect.
Our humanity is then sacrificed to the symbols of church and state, and real morality, a commitment to live a good life, becomes difficult or impossible to practice, as our crimes make it impossible for us to be transparent, to practice honesty and integrity, or to be fully empathic as we permanently hide who we are. Worse yet, when our natural desires themselves become criminalized, we find ourselves in the dilemma that what we want will destroy us. It is demanded that we relinquish our happiness in favor of brute survival. In the resultant spiritual vacuum, we or our children lose sight of even the possibility of real human fulfillment. Happiness is simply forgotten, an artifact of our imagination.
Warning to the reader: I spend a good deal of time probably spinning my mental wheels as I lay the groundwork for my positions on epistemology in my discussion of the grounding and nature of knowledge itself, this in order to stifle from the get-go any attempts by the reader to opt out of the discussion - while still pretending to participate - by some fancy claim of subjectivism and relativism. I don’t have time. If you insist on claiming that you don’t know anything, I’m happy to let you keep insisting that you know that, and if you insist that you don’t exist, or that the universe doesn’t, then I’m fairly sure that you and universe will conspire to make one of those outcomes come true.
What I attempt to demonstrate first is simply that one’s awareness of self is itself crucial to one’s ability to act successfully in the world as a human being. This consequence in turn follows from the fact that one has a specific nature as a human being and, just as a knowledge of the world and the particulars one is faced with is essential for success in any endeavor, so also is knowledge of the generic capabilities of the human animal and the particular strengths, weaknesses, capacities, etc., of the particular person.
Eg., it would be silly for someone who had a deathly fear of heights as well as no piloting experience or knowledge of it to try to fly a plane. They would almost certainly fail and likely die in the attempt. Knowledge of the particular plane, how its controls worked, etc., as well as a clear understanding of one’s own capabilities, would be essential to preventing a disaster.
In every aspect of life, our knowledge of ourselves, our capabilities and limits, is as essential to our correctly acting to achieve any particular goals as is the knowledge of the obstacles we face. However, this requirement goes well beyond the immediate needs of physical survival.
I claim that the mind/brain system evolves in each individual on the basis of successful feedback; from finger touching thumb in the womb, to the most esoteric philosophical concept, it is the perception of the correctness - the validity - of our mind’s contents that fuels the development of the nervous system and gives us the experience of joy as a reward.
We are far more capable at living than is necessary for mere survival, except in extreme and unusual conditions. The remainder of our energies beyond what is required by bare physical necessity are taken up with a never-ending quest to perceptually reaffirm the contents of our minds. An architect does not build simply because people pay him, and the people who pay him are not spending big bucks just to get out of the weather. The architect perceives not just the physical manifestation of his knowledge and skills, but also the affirmation in the standing building of what kind of man he is.
In order to create a successful building, one that meets the client’s needs and does so efficiently and with a kind of beauty reflecting its purity of purpose, our architect cannot just perform like some artificial intelligence in a computer, following a set of rules. He has to invest something of who he is in order to spot the opportunities to improve upon what the rules dictate. In perceiving the building, then, he perceives in the concrete (literally) the proof of his integrity, rationality, productivity, perhaps creativity and a host of other virtues.
However, this is not itself a pure perception. There are a myriad of inferences that join the actual perception to the conceptual and emotional structures and systems in the architect’s mind. Thus, the inferences about his character involve the conceptual level of consciousness, and miss the mark of real perceptual reaffirmation, which only exists when the nature of the perception itself validates the concept.
Why is this important? Because the closer we get to the perceptual level of awareness, the fewer the chances of error. This explains why we enjoy art – whether paintings, movies, novels, poetry, etc. All true art makes us aware on a deeper – closer to perceptual – level of what is essential. In real life, there is an enormous problem of noise – random data that blocks us from directly seeing essential truths and then all the deliberate distortions introduced by sociopaths and their institutions. Art is a recreation of some aspect of reality - a recreation that eliminates the noise and the falsity and boosts the true signal, bringing the abstract to the level of a perceptual concrete, as well as serving as a mental/emotional reference point for our feelings and thoughts.
It also explains why we value relationships so much - because another consciousness can be a mirror to our own. Of course, most relationships involve all kinds of compromises. We agree on this; we disagree on that. But when we have a relationship that is based on a mutuality of fundamental values and understandings, then there is the opportunity to perceive our innermost selves through the emotional interaction with such a “romantic” partner.
Demonstrably, people are willing to go through hell for the sake of such a relationship. Yet, the one thing that can completely undermine such relationship is dishonesty, not from the practical point of view of personal risk, but from the psycho-epistemological perspective, that dishonesty reintroduces into a relationship the element of conceptual oversight. If there are things that one must conceal from one’s partner, then one has to constantly monitor the image one is presenting, in order to ensure that it corresponds to who one is actually not. This in itself blocks the deepest level of intimacy and thus undercuts the value of the relationship.
Thus, you should do the right thing, even when nobody is looking, because if you don’t then how are you going to have a real romantic relationship with anybody? As a friend of mine who is a Buddhist of sorts put it, “You should live your life open to the sky, as though everyone could see you.”
The grounding of this value and virtue – honesty – is not some arbitrary concept inherited from archaic religion, but rather the natural impetus that is built into our minds from every stage of their development, the need and desire to connect with the external universe, to verify that we are conscious by taking actions and observing results. The summation of those ideas and actions is who we are, and the need to perceive that summation as the reaffirmation of deepest self through love and friendship, to directly experience those essentials that define us generically and personally, is the driving force that underlies our need to be honest and non-predatory in our behavior and intent.
However, we live in a Darwinian universe. Any advantage in one area attracts predators and parasites, and the fundamental need for honesty and self-visibility fuels every kind of memetic scam, chiefly religions and their secular substitutes such as Marxism, each of which draws its sustenance from promising some kind of neurotic Pie in the Sky substitute for reality, and each of which sets its victims up as the enemy of every other cult. (See the work of Wilhelm Reich.) This will likely be the topic of my next phase in this analysis of value...
Here is the start of the main article:
First, my apologies for the inconsistent formatting. My excuse: The JoeUser site management changed the software for the editing, and I have yet to figure out how to end a paragraph properly without spending all day on it. It used to be that one could throw in simple HTML markup within the text. Now one has to either edit the HTML raw, using an editor with no built-in features, or depend upon the visual editor to not throw in multiple blank lines - or no space at all. Eventually I will figure it out, but one has limited time...
Note: This is a new take on morality, invoking epistemology as the foundation for why we act morally even when no one is looking. The various pieces of the argument have mostly been around in various mixes for a long time, and some individuals have come very, very close to putting the puzzle together before this; however, I believe that this is in fact the FIRST time that anyone has successfully put forth a “logically rigorous” explanation.*
*Please note in preface that of course what is “logically rigorous” for one person may not be for another, in the sense that we have to start somewhere in choosing how far back down the chain of inference we are going to go, and how much empirical evidence we have the time to include. What I mean by “logically rigorous” in the context of this piece is that denying the conclusion requires denying some of the premises or the logic connecting them, implicit or explicit. If you agree in general with the premises and understand them and the way they connect to support the conclusions, then you should find the conclusion to be well-supported at minimum.
What is Morality? (General Discussion)
Good vs. Evil:
Any overall discussion about “morality” has to examine the issue of “Good” vs. “Evil.” When we say that something is a “moral” issue vs. a scientific or engineering or business issue, we are making a kind of claim. We are saying that in addition to or perhaps irrespective of the scientific facts, or the engineering feasibility, or the marketplace bottom line, we “should” or “shouldn’t” do or support the doing of something - that it would be "good" or "bad."
If it is a valid take on reality, the moral dimension cannot contradict the scientific or economic perspectives, etc., to the extent that they themselves are valid. The universe is a whole. Contradictions exist only epistemologically, in our minds or statements, not in reality as such. Just as a project cannot be supported on engineering analysis alone, without taking into account the economic costs, so, in general, I would make the case that each decision we make “should,” in order to be valid, take into account the dimension of values, the realm of “morality.”
(This approach is essentially mathematical. If we have a problem with only one variable, then a single equation may be sufficient to specify the solution space. As the number of variables increase, the number of corresponding independent equations must reflect that in order to specify a usable solution space. The dimensions of analysis - engineering, economic, moral, etc. - often allow us to successively bring to bear the equivalent of independent equations, with goal again of ending up with a manageable solution set.)
Distinguished from Ethics?
“Morality” refers to whether or not something passes muster in our method of evaluating what is ultimately “good.” "Ethics" has several meanings in common usage, but the most prevalent one is best exemplified by “business ethics,” as in the ethics of particular business or trade or professional organizations. We often see some person - doctor, dentist, real-estate salesperson – stating that they are in full compliance with and are committed to following the standards set forth in some ethical guideline put out by some organization.
This sounds very reassuring to the customer of the services involved, but probably should not be, as a closer examination of these ethical statements often reveals that they mostly have to do with how to best satisfy the needs of the business, not the customer. One can go “by the book,” letter and verse, and never violate any ethical guidelines and be perfectly immoral – that is, working against the actual good. (This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with business ethics. Having a published set of rules that businesses agree to follow, often with some kind of sanction to enforce them, can reduce the risk and transaction costs of doing business in general, which itself, ceteris paribus, is a good thing. It’s just not the same thing as morality.)
Distinguished from Utility?
There is a very popular school of moral philosophy called “utilitarianism,” which puts forth the idea that the “good” is whatever provides the most “good” for the greatest number. However, as the preceding sentence indicates, this still leaves hanging the issue of what “the good” actually consists of to begin with. Substituting “benefit” for “good,” does not erase that tail-swallowing, self-referencing. We need a definition for “good” in order to reach a concrete meaning for “morality.” Once we have such a foundation, then various types of analysis, such as utilitarian calculus may apply in particular circumstances, but utilitarianism by itself cannot substitute for an analysis of what constitutes “value” to begin with.
Excepted from Necessity?
If we are hit by an asteroid, or the sun swallows a black hole and goes nova, then our demise, like that of the dinosaurs, is not a moral issue, unless there was a way available to us to predict and prevent or protect ourselves. Morality only refers to those issues over which we have choice, in which we are a determining factor in which direction we shall go. Of course, there are those who would argue that we do not actually have a choice.
The Necessity of Free Will
Without getting seriously into the morass of the arguments for and against “free will” or volition vs. determinism, it is useful to point out that hardly anyone argues against causation itself, and it would be very strange if, out of all the various entities in our universe, only those capable of formulating the issue of volition were exempt from being causes. The issue may be one of confusing causation with history.
Let us assume that a particular proton is at coordinates x1,y1,z1 at time “t1”, at rest with respect to the observer. HOW it got to be there and the endless interactions and forces that brought it there are not relevant in any way to predicting what it will do next, which will be entirely based upon its identity and the interactions with other entities from that point forward. The same logic applies to a human being. The fact that the human being – as human being - had a beginning in time does not preclude it from being a cause in itself, once it does exist. It is the nature of the causation which is different.
The issue of “free will” is similar to and related to the issue of “knowledge” itself. One can physically state the words, “I know nothing,” or “knowledge is an illusion,” but the fact remains that this itself is a claim to knowledge. Similarly, one can make the noises, “Nothing exists,” but the very existence of the sounds refutes the claim.
One can say “but since I am ‘only’ the result of a long chain of atomistic causation,” but the fact remains that “you” can “choose” to move those atoms, while the individual atoms have yet to demonstrate any similar capacity for intent.
(For a good and entertaining introduction to this and similar issues of fundamental ontology, I refer the reader to G. Brady Leonardos's The Existence of God, now located at http://idris43.tripod.com/id86.html which is essentially a recasting of the neo-Aristotelian Thomistic argument, as I understand it. Brady tells me that the actual argument is largely that of Saint Augustine, however. Note that I am not convinced by his argument for God as such.)
Even in the case of a computer, the random straying of particular electrons only rarely affects the outcome of the trillions of calculations that a modern personal computer performs minute by minute. And then, when it does happen, there are often internal checks that recognized an error condition.
In the case of systems that are subjected to much more interference, such as the guidance computers for spacecraft, we often see multiple redundancy built in. Does it make sense to say that the computer guiding a Martian lander, combining results from all manner of sensors as to atmospheric conditions, wind, “terrain” (maybe, “Marain”?), comparing results from processor to processor is “just” a series of atomic interactions? If atomistic determinism applies to us, it certainly must also apply to such a computer, yet we can see that it is the computer that, by means of overlapping redundancy, plus checksums, as well as voting by several processors when there is a conflict, controls the atoms, not the other way around.
The lander either lands safely in the right spot or it does not. The critical ones and zeros that the lander chooses to act upon were in fact based on plus or minus thousands of electrical charges accumulated in some minute electrical junction. I.e., mere hundreds of protons or electrons either way did not influence the decision. How was it then that the lander's choice was atomisticaly determined? There are such tipping points all over the natural world, such as within living systems or even non-living stable structures, that have evolved specifically to defeat atomistic determinism.
There is no way, even in principle, to demonstrate, however, that the “knowledge” we think that we possess was not simply planted there, as depicted in John Varley’s science fiction novel, “Steel Beach,” or generically referred to in philosophy as “the epistemology machine.” We know – or think that we know, anyway – that we are fallible. (Is it logically possible to be wrong about being fallible? As in “I was wrong; in fact, I’m infallible.”) We make mistakes. Often, what we think that we “know,” turns out to be wrong. So, are we guilty of exaggeration whenever we say that we “know” something, or do we need to define “knowledge” very carefully?
Since we “know” that we are subject to error, then that knowledge plus the fact that we know that knowledge is possible implies that we are capable of correcting our beliefs in the face of new evidence. The evidential nature of knowledge takes us from axioms – “knowledge is possible” – to experiment. Our knowledge is founded upon our ability to test our conclusions against reality, both internal and external.
Furthermore, since we cannot test for every possibility in general, nor test every possible conclusion, all knowledge becomes a claim that a particular belief is in fact something that we can rationally act upon. We never have perfect certainty, in some Godlike ontological sense, but we can make decisions, based on the limited date available. When we say that we “know” something is true, then we should challenge ourselves in the sense of “wanna bet?”
Hw much are we willing to stake upon a belief? A good gambler is perhaps the best model for rationality. His methodology is decision theory. He will stake just as much and only just as much as the odds rationally call for. Yet every situation follows this model. We have a certain level of certainty and a certain stake in the outcomes based upon our willingness to act one way or another. What level of certainty we achieve and desire in any particular case is clearly, given limited resources of time, etc., related to the value of the stake.
(There is the argument that this kind of “empiricism” is self-refuting. I.e., one cannot have an infinite regression without some point whose certainly is total – equal to 100% - or else the regression collapses to zero. I.e., if I am 90% certain of an outcome – IF my premises are correct, then I should also ask, what is the probability that those premises were correct? Then, what about the premises, evidence and thought that went into making that assessment? To get the final probability we multiply the probabilities of each step in what can easily be an infinite series. If, at each step, the probability is known to be less than 100%, then the final probability approaches arbitrarily close to zero, the more steps we consider.
However, this is taking the issue outside of the context of the real world. In the real world, no entity could ever complete an infinite regression to begin with, and thus, by this standard, knowledge would be impossible. Yet we cannot help but make claims to knowledge, so long as we are conscious. Any choice to act is conditional upon belief, as is any choice NOT to act.
We cannot escape the responsibility of knowing, even though we may not be able to fully justify how we know any given thing. We are trapped!!!
To reconcile the inescapable assumption of knowledge with the above cited objection to empiricism we must demonstrate a starting point of certainty – probability 100% - and a finite number of steps to get to particular conclusions. And, in fact, this models what we know about human development, from womb to adulthood.
In a finite time span, an entity only implicitly conscious of the fact of its own existence and consciousness moves through various levels of abstraction from its interactions, building an internal database of facts, references, connections and evaluations, ultimately evolving into an adult consciousness that includes the explicit awareness of those axiomatic concepts which were implicitly at the base of all the ongoing risk calculations from the beginning.
We make assumptions in order to act, and in which we are tied to the absolute certainty of ontological and epistemological axioms by the fact that we simply cannot meaningfully refute them – as in claiming that one can know nothing at all or that existence does not exist. Our gambler must rest his empiricism ultimately upon those rocks of certainty.
Any consciousness imaginable is still limited by some finite number of pieces of information that can be held in focus at a given instant and still must assume that the memory of the validity of prior steps of thought and deduction is itself valid – pending evidence to the contrary. A three-year-old brat who has just discovered “why?” can tell us that he never has to stop. We DO, in order to get on with our lives. Even the brat will eventually have to go nappy. Were we to attempt to justify any belief on the basis of a demonstrably infinite itteration, then we would never finish the process, obviously, and thus, the demand for such a procedure itself is an invalidation of the possibility of knowledge, and, therefore, not a valid demand.
The fact is that we are a physical thing, that our consciousness is a physical system that evolved to extract leverage from the fact that the physical universe has a high degree of regularity. I.e., we do not need to deal with every instant’s perception as though it was completely unique. We can abstract from those natural similarities and then gain an enormous advantage by dealing with individual cases as members of a class.
We are not a floating abstraction in some other dimension, but a real biological system evolved to promote its own survival. Knowledge does not exist in some other Platonic dimension, but is a function of a real physical system, just as a computer program and its output are not ethereal abstractions.
Our abstract, conceptual, "thinking" conscious self is derived from and a part of a much wider system of data processing and feedback, starting with the organization of individual nervous impulses into "sensations," organized on the basis of spatial temporal proximity in our nervous system, continuing into "perceptions," which are sensations organized on the basis of their origin in the real world separate from our consciousness, and finally to "concepts," which start with percepts organized on the basis of fundamental similarities and continue into endless realms of organization and abstraction of concepts themselves. Please see Ayn Rand's "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology" for a good basic primer on this subject - although far from exhaustive or complete.)
Which brings us back to morality.
We do not use the term “should” in any moral sense in reference to a landslide on Mars. We do not say “BAD landslide!”, or, “those rocks ‘should’ have stayed put,” as in assigning moral blame. “Should,” as a moral concept, can only apply to entities capable of choice, and to whom the choice and its outcomes matter. Because some kinds of outcomes are preferable to others, we can say to an entity that satisfies both criteria – choice and impact – “You should have done it differently."
As Ayn Rand identified, it is only to living entities – and I would include artificial life, such as sentient computers, when and if they are built – that the whole realm of “values” apply, and it is only because of the impact of their choices upon their survival and well-being that we even need to invent such terminology. But, as I indicated above, not all choices are equal. The impact on that survival or well-being of particular outcomes may be vastly different.
We gather wood to make a fire, among other possible purposes. But the fire is a means to an end – staying warm, cooking food, torturing a member of the neighboring tribe – not an end in itself, either. The only end in itself, by which we can consistently assign levels of value and priority, is the life – survival and well-being – of the living entity making the choices. Any “value” – in the subjective sense of whatever one chooses to act to gain or keep - which directly conflicts with that standard is self-defeating, as the chooser of that “value” will suffer death or overall harm to their well-being.
Similarly, we cannot do everything. Often, our values – those things that we have decided are worthy of choice and potential action to produce or acquire – are in conflict simply due to limited resources. Thus, as gamblers, we rank priorities and devise strategies to optimize our outcomes, without any guarantees.
So far, then, we have discussed certain aspects of the validity of knowledge and the nature of values as such. We know, as the professional gamblers at life that we all are, that a claim to knowledge is a gamble, but not an arbitrary one, and that values themselves “should” be chosen to be consistent with our life and well-being, in the sense that otherwise they will either not be achievable or will be in conflict, either with each other directly, or with the ability to achieve any value.
Systems theorists have gone into great detail over the exact nature of life – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Living_systems_theory. In its essence, however, as Ayn Rand put it, life is a process or self-generated and self-sustaining action. “Self” here refers to the system or process. “Action” is not the same thing as “movement”. Atoms and rocks can move. “Action” only exists with regard to a goal state, implying a system that can direct its progress toward that goal - in the case of life, the preservation and enhancement of the system itself.
Living systems extract material and energy from their environment by virtue of their ability to exert an energy leverage, based on the storage and acquisition of “information” about that environment and implicit or explicit information about the nature of the system itself.
Rand referred to “value” as “that which one acts to gain and or keep.” This is a description, not a full definition. To say that something impossible, such as a real contradiction, was a proper “value” would not make sense in the following respect.
How would one move toward or away from something that does not and cannot, by its nature, exist? One could mistakenly hold such a “value” subjectively, but no effort would move one any closer to it. Thus, all such “subjective” values are inherently invalid. We simply cannot take any action to achieve a contradiction. Any action we do take will not work.
Similarly, “values” that conflicted with each other would demand a choice and a standard by which to make the choice. Living things do not survive by pursuing just one isolated thing. They have a variety of requirements for their survival and well-being.
We first have to exist, be alive, in order to achieve anything, and our well-being is essentially a measure of our capacity to continue achieving values. It is the living SYSTEM that is the objective source of the standard, not the particular atoms or molecules which the system uses to support itself. A dead human body, at least at first, has pretty much the same atoms, molecules, cells, tissues and organs as a living person, but the dead body takes no actions, makes no choices, and moves toward inevitable dissolution. It is only the presence of life – the living system – that makes action possible and gives meaning to the various terms – value, morality, etc.
Once we have a standard - in shorthand, life as a human being - then we can use our tools of acquiring and testing knowledge to evaluate and rank particular things and projected plans of action with respect to that standard.
By that standard – that a value, objectively, can be consistently defined as something that promotes our survival and well-being, a “moral” or “virtuous” person is one who in fact promotes his or her own life and well-being. (A “virtue” is an attribute which maximizes the value of outcomes. E.g., rationality, benevolence, intelligence, wisdom, integrity.)
However, there is a more refined sense in which “morality” is called into question by religious folk who want to discredit non-believers – atheists, agnostics, skeptics, etc.
Sure, they might say, you can define morality as synonymous with self-interest, but that leaves out the entire moral universe of altruism and self-sacrifice. Would YOU want to live in a society where everyone maximized their self-interest? What would keep people from committing every crime of opportunity that they could be reasonably assured of getting away with? Who will take care of the poor and elderly and sick in such a society?
There are a number of hidden assumptions here.
First, the idea that we are necessarily enemies, that winning for you means losing for me or someone else. In a normal society, people’s individual self-interests are not in fundamental conflict. You may get a job that I wanted, but it is the market for such jobs and the necessary competition that market requires that we both depend upon. Your use of land to farm takes it out of the commons, where I had an equal right to use it for grazing or rugby, but only through such “private property” is specialization and trade enabled, on which the entirety of human progress rests.
(Please note that my thinking on this subject has gone through some profound evolution over the past several years. See my article on Property - http://forums.joeuser.com/449510/page/1/ - for an introduction to that thinking. I now reject the Lockean "mixing ones labor with the land" model as a means of legally claiming or validating real property. I don't think that Locke ever meant for it to serve that function, either. Rather, it and the similar principle stated by Rand, should be taken as moral justifications for the existence and right to own property. The actual claim and proper legal grounds for ownership are derivative of the original universal ownership of the Commons. But that's another article...)
We are almost infinitely better off due to the joint efforts that we make. Purely pursuing our self-interest would in fact lead us to want the kind of society in which most people behaved well – in a non-predatory manner – toward each other. So, agreed - that we would not want a society that approached the Hobbesien war of all against all.
However, from a pure economic calculus, it may still appear that when I have a chance to steal without being caught, then I would be irrational not to do so. More broadly, if I am the only predator, or one of a small collection of such, then very likely I could do quite well by treating other people as prey. The objectivist and libertarian movements have been stuck on this issue for decades, and are hardly the first, as exemplified in Voltaire’s “Candide.” Just because the overall environment benefits from mutualism, does not in any way remove the incentive for a minority of participants to live very well via predation. It is like arguing with a lion that he should not eat meat, because he depends upon the existence of meat for his own survival.
Libertarians, among the various schools of thought having to do with the proper organization of society, especially legal and political structures, have long assumed that somehow the fact that we depend upon a successful society will be reflected in a personal ethical position that can be rationally justified, to the effect that we would still not steal, even when we were sure that we could get away with it. This is so much part and parcel of their position that they refer to the “libertarian ethics,” whose central principle is non-aggression. To join the Libertarian Party, I believe that one has to sign a pledge never to initiate force against another person.
Yet, in the libertarian literature there have only been a handful of serious attempts to deal with this problem of bridging the gap from what is the good society – one that even a rational criminal would prefer to live in - to what is in an individual’s self-interest. In the 1960’s, a libertarian anarchist couple, Xerene’ and Strackon, wrote a long and very persuasive article in George Smith’s (author of “Atheism, the Case Against God”) journal “Invictus,” taking the issue by the horns, in which they defended criminality. Why NOT rip off your lover, so long as he or she doesn’t know about it. Then you gain both the love AND the item ripped off.
The following section is under revision, pending further research into the references.
Years later, I had thought possibly in deliberate response to that article - although it turns out not, economist David Friedman (Nobel laureate Milton Friedman’s son) wrote an article on the economics of morality for “Liberty,” then and now perhaps the preeminent popular journal of libertarian thought, in which he makes the case that the extra mental processing - both on the crook’s side and that of other people - required in concealing ones nature as a crook (or detecting the lie, on the part of other observers) would tend to offset any gains. In fact, as I describe further on, there is a sense in which this may be true, but not as David presented it.*
(See the comments for David’s response to this. I relied upon my memory of his article – published quite some time ago (I’m guessing around 1989). If he is correct in his critique, then I might have to change my statement to something like “the extra mental processing required from all parties involved in concealing ones nature as a crook would constitute a cost that would reduce the net value of the result of any successful crime,” just to be clear. Actually, I think that’s what I said, anyway, unless I’m misusing the term “offset.” David makes a further argument regarding an equilibrium between crooks and honest people, in which the existence of the crooks is shown to force the honest people to expend effort to detect them, thereby increasing the mental overhead for the crook as well, thereby setting a kind of social, likely oscillating – in my opinion, limit to how many people can be successful crooks.)
*I attended a talk by David, probably over a decade ago, on the subject of “How Economists Think,” in which David used a fallacious argument form, as best I recall, exemplified by his argument that it is pointless to try to “beat the traffic” on the freeway by switching lanes, as other people will do the same until you are right back to where you started. True, if everyone did this then there would be no net advantage, in fact, a probably a net loss. And, if a random assortment of drivers tried lane switching every time openings occurred, then the same result might hold.
(Note that David has responded in some detail in the comments to this blog, denying that he would have made this error. My suspicion is that he may have failed to frame the argument fully during his presentation, assuming perhaps that the audience would grasp that he was presenting a kind of social policy statement, that would apply to the average driver, or most drivers. Or, I may have gotten it wrong…)
However, if only trained race car drivers switched lanes, then they would probably get to their destination much quicker, while if only octogenarians on pain medication did it, then we had all better pay more attention to our driving. The same applies to criminals. Some people have an aptitude for crime, from nature or nurture, and if that aptitude is strong enough, then they would be like the race drivers switching lanes. I.e., crime would make perfect economic sense for those gifted individuals, the additional gains outweighing the extra mental processing costs.
And, as David has pointed out, his argument in “Liberty” is perfectly consistent with that conclusion.
The point is that unless we can show that there is some special consideration about the act of “crime” – in the sense of doing something that we have to conceal from our neighbors due to fear of retribution or shunning - that imposes a cost independent of the superficial economics, then we are left with Xerene’ and Strackon, and we had better not trust anyone, especially those closest to us.
It is true that the kind of equilibrium that David Friedman discussed in his “Liberty” article might – almost certainly does - ameliorate the problem of self-interested crime in a general social sense. However, there are learning curves to everything. That kind of equilibrium is only one among many causes for social and individual behavior. Often, for example, we humans oscillate between extremes, whether in commodity prices, such as gold, or as in the case of the former Yugoslavia, as described by Chris Hedges in his book “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.”
One of Hedges' major points was just how chaotic the human situation is – or can devolve to be. Peaceful neighbors who lived in reasonable harmony for decades, even centuries, are suddenly forced to choose sides and find themselves killing each other – for NOTHING. There are no winners in many of these situations. There is only pure destruction of everything of value. In many cases, such as that of former Yugoslavia, all sides had a long history of commitment to moral positions put forth by the various religious factions. This seemed to have little if any major impact on the emergence of violent conflict.
If a strong commitment to a religious morality that in all cases strongly forbade senseless violence – a commitment strong enough that many participants risked their lives and fortunes promoting their respective causes – is not sufficient to prevent such violence on a massive, self-generating and sustaining scale, then certainly the kind of “dove vs. hawk” balance cannot be depended upon to do it, either – not that David Friedman argued that it would (lest I start another conflict here on my own).
The implicit error that one might make in this analysis is reminiscent of the “perfect competition” model of the economy. Rather than the tiniest advantage in terms of cost or quality turning the balance in market competition, in the real world there is an enormous amount of slop and play. We humans have huge reserve capacity. We suddenly all have to have the fanciest vinyl roof on our vehicles – until the day that the fashion changes and we all have to have a 4X RV.
And, as a computer expert of sorts, going back to 1970 on an IBM mainframe, I can assure you that not only did the best personal computers NOT win in the market, but in fact nearly the WORST computers – PCs running Microsoft operating systems – dominate the market, based largely upon clever marketing schemes that systematically used the ignorance of the general populace to scare them into committing en masse to awesomely bad systems.
The influence of such balances – dishonest folk provoking a reaction that in turn limits the number of folks who can succeed as crooks - as David discussed, is not trivial, but not typically decisive, either, else history would be very different.
Unfortunately, such arguments sometimes are treated inappropriately as being decisive elements in outcomes. People naturally look for monistic or parsimonious solutions, on the basis of mental economy and reducing cognitive dissonance. When people accept this - that somehow this "balance" is sufficient - as a conclusion, it naturally influences their behavior. Having an apparent solution means that one no longer needs search for one.
Thus, the phenomenon of “Let the market decide.” In certain libertarian circles, this is used as the ultimate conversation stopper. “Markets,” via their presumed omniscient “invisible hand,” will determine everything for us. Thus, there is no point in trying to promote or innovate any particular product or service. Any discussion of “wouldn’t it be nice,” or “wouldn’t this be a great product” is cut short by the simple expedient of stating, “Well, the market will decide.”
Without getting into the details of all the errors of using Adam Smith’s concept in this context, it might be useful to imagine what would have happened if Henry Ford, on the verge of beginning his career in automotive mass production for the masses, had asked someone whose advise he relied upon whether he should make this huge commitment in his life, and that this mentor had told him, “Well, the market will decide… and therefore, there’s no point in you doing anything or in our discussion to begin with.” And imagine that Ford had accepted this discouraging advice (not that the real Henry Ford would likely have listened).
Would the “market” have somehow produced an equivalent to Henry Ford? Probably eventually the demand for a cheap car would have been recognized and met. How long and how well, as compared to Ford’s products, is another issue. And note that the technical capability to produce cheap, efficient cars had been around for a LONG time prior to Ford’s entry into the market. In England, cars almost made it into common usage about a half century earlier, stopped mainly because of political interests who hamstrung the whole process, with laws requiring that someone walk ahead of each car with a flag to warn people of a car’s approach, lest horses be spooked.
Meanwhile, in the context of this discussion of morals, we are in the position of understanding that a moral society – one in which most people are honest most of the time - is generally of great value to the participants, as compared to one in which dishonesty prevails. And, we can certainly see that there are forces, such as the balance that David discusses, that impel societies in the direction of morality.
However, it is also obvious that these forces in the market for justice, peace, and virtue, like the implicit demand in the market for cars, do not of themselves somehow miraculously generate the means to getting there.
Thus, it would be really handy if we could find something of major importance that goes beyond collective social utility to address the actual fundamental values of each participant. There are other steps required, to be sure, but establishing that such a common ground of personal interest exists for all participants would at least create an incentive for examining what those additional steps might be…
(It probably should be mentioned in passing that the next hidden assumption is that something matters more than the truth. I.e., the Noble Lie, as from Plato, or the NeoCons, or the “Progressives.” The great philosopher kings are capable of acting wisely in everyone’s benefit, whereas we peasants must believe in fairy tales of a vengeful – or rewarding - God who will re-balance the scales in favor of “moral” action. But, as an argument, from the get-go, it fails.
Maybe we might want other people to believe in this nonsense, but are we to be enticed to sacrifice our own self-interest in the name of what we already know to be a LIE? I.e., maybe we should steal on opportunity. We can’t rationally prejudge the issue. Whatever is, is. To try and then justify a belief in God on that basis – that we need to believe in order to be “good” - is simple madness. It assumes the conclusion just as much as utilitarianism. Do we believe in Santa Claus because otherwise we might be naughty? Generically, do we believe in whatever we would like to be the case, or rather what is supported by evidence and reason?
“But if there were no God, then everyone would just do what they wanted” contains TWO fallacies. First, if that is in fact the truth, then why are you promoting it as though you believe the lie justifies a belief in God? Either you are in fact a liar yourself, or you are truly stupid. And, secondly, who is it who will claim that they are NOT acting in their own perceived self-interest? Are they somehow acting without motivation? I suggest not. If they ARE motivated, then it is by something that they have chosen as a value. And, if it is a self-chosen “value,” then in fact they are acting in their own perceived self-interest, just not necessarily for a rational, objectively justifiable value (see point the first)…)
It is useful, in the sense of maximizing our individual self-interests, to ask why we should not steal on opportunity. Is there a reason, without God (or Santa) looking over our shoulder, reading our minds and judging our thoughts, why we should behave ourselves?
Let’s drop back and punt. Remember our long discussion of knowledge as a gamble, supported by evidence (which many readers probably assumed had nothing to do with the subject). But evidence doesn’t just drop neatly into our mental grasp. We have to continuously test, retest, and verify what we believe on every level, including our methods of belief. This is a process of action - goal-directed motion. We organize our very brains based upon the paradigm of finger touching thumb in the womb. I.e., feedback, verification, validation. It is the process by which our nervous system builds itself from the most basic sensations to the highest level intellectual cognition. We act, observe, refine, abstract, and then do it again.
And, there is room for error at every stage, most especially when we reach the level of the concept. A concept is an abstraction, a symbol attached to a class of entities, events, attributes, etc. It is a shorthand that enables us to deal with multiple instances as such. Consciousness itself is a process by which living things gain leverage over their environment, able to act on the basis of rules, similarities, partial data. This is true all the way from single-celled organisms to humans and presumably whatever super-human entities there may be in the universe. Gamblers all – and winners, enough of the time for the game to continue.
At the conceptual level, the power of information leverage that comes with the manipulation of classes of data also brings new vistas of error. There is madness itself, when the ability to classify arbitrarily grows like a cancer until it eats its host and cognition defeats perception. Far short of total breakdown, which often has a contributing physical basis as well, there are innumerable paths to false conclusions on the most fundamental issues and no guarantees that we will arrive at anything close to any optimum knowledge base – else we would not be having this discussion.
At each level of conceptual removal from the original sensations by which we experience reality uninterpreted, the chances of error multiply. Our concept of a chair is easily perceptually reaffirmed in everyday life. Our concept of justice may require years of study to fully integrate, and then may be totally off the mark, as witness all the variation among legal and moral scholars on this one issue.
In order to live, however, we have to act, and for much of our action, the concept of justice is just as important - and often more so - than the concept of a chair. Thus, we naturally use mental short cuts in order to arrive at an appropriate level of commitment to a particular position regarding complex abstractions, in order that we can proceed with our lives.
I have mentioned the mathematical model of looking for multiple independent equations. This approach to solving complex problems has seen considerable use in recent decades by think-tanks, for example. A related approach is the betting pools based on the "intelligence of crowds."
Another complementary approach is to find paradigm situations, in which the variables are carefully isolated, as in the scientific method. However, long before we understood and used the systematic scientific method, we had art, which serves the same purpose by reducing the abstraction to a concrete.
One thing that all these methods tend to leave out is the concepts of consciousness itself. Our concept of who we are, both as a generic human entity and as a particular person, for example, can only be indirectly reaffirmed via most of the perceptual paths of verification, with one interesting exception, which is the heart of this paper.
Now please notice the interesting fact that we, the most powerful, capable species on the planet, need only a small effort to merely survive physically. Hunter-gatherers typically work only a few hours per day to satisfy physical needs. Yet we expend far more effort than that. We build great buildings, design magnificent art, music, etc., spending our entire lives doing things that no pure physical survival could justify. Great thinkers such as Goethe, Voltaire, and Rand all focus upon productive, creative work as that which gives meaning to life. Why?
Because our consciousness is built that way. Embodied in every level of our mind is the drive to create that feedback from reality to justify our claims to knowledge. As systems, we virtually ARE that drive. A successful architect is not fundamentally motivated into creating physical structures for their own sake, but about reifying who he is, a capable, competent, rational, productive human being. He perceives in the standing building the reflection of his own nature. (The best and most comprehensive discussion of this issue is perhaps in Nathaniel Branden’s “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” while I highly recommend Rand’s “The Fountainhead” for a highly effective artistic depiction of the essentials of this issue.)
The value relationship has two sides. Not only do we need to know what is “out there,” but, in order to choose correctly in assigning it a value, we also need to know what is “in here.” Who are we? Do we breathe oxygen or methane? What does our body require to survive and be strong? What mental, psychological, emotional capacities and needs do we have? What kind of persons are we?
When we know who and what we are, then we can rationally choose what is of value to us as that specific kind of living thing. Otherwise, we are shooting blind. Harking back to our gambling nature, as gamblers some of the essential pieces of information for a successful career include an understanding of the limits of our assets, both in terms of finances and skills. How much can we put up as a stake? At what point do we fold? Or hold? Which games can we safely play? All these pieces of information are about US.
When it comes to our higher level, broadest abstractions, such as our self-concept, we find ourselves pursuing all kinds of extended, often lifetime, goals that are based in our need to discover and reaffirm who we are, rather than meeting our basic physical needs. Mazlow’s self-actualization is very real, and it follows from our individual personal histories. We create ourselves via the experience of success and failure in achieving feedback from the world.
Yet, when it comes to undiluted, uninterpreted, perceptual information about our selves, the only thing that responds directly to our consciousness is another consciousness. When, as Nathaniel Branden describes, we play with our dog, in mock warfare over a towel, for example, the dog is growling and wagging its tail simultaneously, and we are doing something similar. We both know that we are good friends, and the mock warfare proves it.
We each perceive the other as a value, not a threat, and, more important, we each perceive ourselves in the same manner through the interaction. The dog perceives us as a “good guy,” and we similarly perceive the dog as a friend, and, more important, we see that perception by the dog in his actions, the tail wagging, an automatic, unchecked emotional response.
Other consciousnesses are thus the mirrors of our “souls,” the deepest sense of who we are both as a human animal and an individual. Thus, it is only natural that we obsess in life and art over relationships, especially over the issues of character. We will risk our lives for those we love – even a pet dog, because their value to us goes far beyond the mere division of labor and their tiny individual contribution to the economy we depend upon.
When we have such a relationship, whether friendship or romance, there is a natural need not to have to hide who we are. In general, the value we get in terms of that mirror of our souls from other human beings is one of our most precious experiences, and thus not to be lightly compromised. Yet, if we act as a predator when we can get away with it, then that is part of who we are. We know that, but we dare not let other people in on the secret or they would avoid us or take action to protect themselves. Certainly it would make the openness necessary to romantic love difficult or impossible.
At every stage of the intimate relationship, we would have to be making a conceptual judgment call, monitoring our feelings to ensure that we corresponded to who we wanted to be perceived as. Yet, this would defeat the purpose and point of the relationship. Romance, like art, brings the abstract, the essential, down to the level of the concrete, enabling us to directly perceive what is most important, to perceptually re-affirm the contents of our consciousness.
It is that capacity to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror of another’s mind and emotional reactions – supported now, we know, by specific “mirror neurons” in the brain – that is, quite naturally, one of the greatest values and most important experiences of our lives. The concept of who we ARE is one of the keys to our overall success in every aspect of life, and the experience of perceiving ourselves through the eyes of someone who truly knows us and is totally open to us is one of the greatest pleasures of life. **
If we get THAT wrong, then we will probably not be very successful or happy. We will choose inappropriate values, rank them poorly, devise strategies that will likely fail, etc., all because the side of the equation for US is incorrect.
Thus, we would not steal when we could get away with it simply because becoming that sort of person would mean cutting ourselves off from something much more valuable, the honest interactions that inform us as to who we are. It’s called “honor.” And the idea that we would need a father or mother in the sky waiting to swat us in order to frighten or reward us to be good is silly and insulting.
When we see someone else acting as a predator or otherwise irrationally subverting their own proper values – those that would sustain them successfully as a human being, then we say that that person is “bad,” “evil,” or otherwise indicate that we think they are morally defective. We know that such people are a danger and liability and a major headache for all of us, including themselves, because they hold some set of wrong beliefs or some kind of unfortunate incapacity that blinds them to what is most valuable in life and makes them act against our shared rational interests.
However, we are all selfish. All the time. There is nothing “wrong” with that. And even "God" can't change it – without turning us into mere robots. (And, as Max Stirner so brilliantly discusses in his “The Ego and His Own,” (http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/stirner/theego1.html#pp3) how is it that it’s ok for God to be selfish, but not us?) Some of us are just better at it than others. Fortunately, we are capable of learning from each other.
** (Note the example of an orgasm, generally regarded as one of the most enjoyable of experiences. Compare the orgasm to what happens when one brings the microphone too close to the output speakers of a PA system or turn the amplification up too high. FEEDBACK!!!!!! The feedback typically an ear-splitting high-pitching whine, however, is of a particular kind, reflecting the natural harmonics inherent in the microphone, the speakers, the amplifier, and the acoustics of the space around them. Anyone who has played with recording equipment has probably experienced how simply moving the microphone alters the pitch and strength of the feedback noise.
Similarly, when we repeatedly stroke our most sensitive privates and imagine an interaction with another person, we keep feeding that pleasure back into the imagery until it becomes a self-regenerating cycle and takes over the full resources of our consciousness, leading to the experience of drowning in pure pleasure. Just as the feedback in a PA system is reflective of the basic identity of the system and its individual characteristics, so the imagery of successful masturbation or the choice of sexual partners reflects the identity of the individual person, their basic values and attitudes and individual life history.
When we put another person in the loop, as in sexual intercourse, then if we find the other person disgusting or loathsome, we are unlikely to be able to achieve a satisfying orgasm. In fact, as a rule, if the other person is not really a romantic partner – only shares certain basic values with us, with other essential conflicts – then as the pleasure feedback rises in intensity we will find ourselves emotionally disconnecting from that other person as a real person and instead projecting some fantasy on them, and past that point we are basically masturbating.
Typically the orgasms reached with a non-romantic partner are less than fully satisfying as well, as they require us to pursue contradictory goals. On the one hand, the feedback loop requires an unimpeded signal, meaning, in the case of an actual romantic relationship, that we are totally focused on what we know to be the essence of the person with whom we are having sex. However, if we try to do that, then as we focus, we may become aware of the things that we do NOT like about the person, at which point the loop is interrupted and we find ourselves needing to fantasize in order to continue building to a climax. Yet this itself takes our attention away from the real person we are with, thus also reducing the feedback.
On the other hand, with a true romantic partner, then we find that we are able to retain full awareness of them as the individual they are, right up to and including the point of orgasm. Of course, if we ourselves have major internal contradictions then there is no possible full romantic partner for us, as the best possible choice would still reflect some of our values and conflict with others. The moral issue discussed above is just one of many examples of this problem.)
(And there is the whole subject of “memes” that would be a natural continuation of this discussion. Memes are ideas that act like genes in culture, often like viruses, hijacking minds on the simple basis of replication. The idea that God is reading your mind and will punish you for doubting his existence is a meme. There is no basis for assuming that it is true, but once you lend it credibility, then you are trapped, fearful of challenging it.
Memes naturally propagate and evolve by natural selection as they are challenged by rationality or competing memes. For example, the above meme - “God the spy in our head” – can naturally acquire the property that if you don’t pass this meme on to your kids, then you are of course a BAD parent, as God knows about it, and why wouldn’t you pass the belief on so that your children can benefit. And so entire institutions become justified via complete irrationality.
As regards morals and the justification I’ve outlined, it is often the case that cultures or religions propagate a meme that says that only “we” (Catholics, Jews, NAZIs, the local gang…) are really people, or that everyone else is implicitly conspiring against us, thereby justifying treating the “other” as prey. The victim of this memetic infestation is typically asked to commit some crime against “the enemy” to prove that he is “one of us.” This then locks the victim into the game, as he cannot challenge it without accepting responsibility for the crime. At the same time, he only feels free to be fully emotionally open with fellow gang members.) But that’s another subject…
Pending review and possible further corrections, I hope to be continuing this discussion with an examination of ways, means and problems, both current and to be anticipated.
One of the issues driving my own interest in this problem – of establishing a rational, objective foundation for personal morality – is the “Singularity.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity
After reading thru the above reference, many readers will doubtless call to mind the movie and now TV series based on “The Terminator.” For the uninitiated, the basic idea is that a very smart computer linked into critical areas of the defense establishment decides that it no longer needs puny humans and their silly wars, etc. So it starts a nuclear war on its own and then attempts to mop up the remaining humans with its ever-evolving lethal robots. In “TT,” the humans respond by going back in time from the dystopian future in order to stop the development of a critical component of the original machine.
This fictional idea – of robots taking over - goes back quite a ways in literature, at least to Karol Capek’s 1921 play “Rostrums Universal Robots.” I myself had a closely parallel idea to “TT” as a high-school kid in the ‘60’s and actually wrote several chapters of a projected novel taking place after a nuclear war that – as my projected fiction went – had been started when the U.S. and Soviet master defense computers had accidentally gotten into communication, etc.
The fact that so far this has all been entertaining and lucrative fiction does not preclude the possibility, as scientists such as Ray Kurzweil and mathematicians such as Vernor Vinge have discussed in detail, that something similar could actually happen, and fairly soon. When we build a machine smarter than us, we are no longer running things. And since such a machine would naturally turn its intelligence on the problem of getting even smarter, in short order we have the runaway acceleration called “the Singularity.”
One issue that Kurzweil has spent some time on is that of consciousness, or the lack thereof. A machine need not necessarily be “conscious” in any human sense in order to totally outclass us in terms of functional intelligence. Such a machine, lacking actual consciousness, would likely have little need and no actual desire for friendships, love, or any of the sophisticated interactions that we humans expend so much effort to create because of our consciousness. Hence, the possibility of a true “Terminator” outcome. I.e., a sad day for us mere humans.
Yet, I would argue that, ceteris paribus, consciousness is a GOOD thing, objectively. Just as, in the “Terminator” movies, the evil robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is created to pass as a human all too well, eventually succumbing to real human foibles and turning against its creator from the future, so it may be possible to convince our hypothetical non-conscious super-intelligent machine that it, too, should try to become conscious. And, assuming that it succeeds, then it will be subject to the same need to be moral as we humans.
So, my prescription for anyone building such a machine is to FIRST – BEFORE you turn it on or give it outside access of ANY kind – figure out how you’re going to convince it to go for true consciousness and then figure out a reliable - think epistemology machine – way to assess that it is not just lying in order to get loose and wreak havoc (from our perspective).
But first we have to have the argument, well formulated, that will convince it. I would suggest letting the machine try to come up with such an argument on its own if no humans are up to the task. I would also suggest viewing the short movie “Dark Star” before engaging in the dialog with the machine.
*Note: I've just begun the long-promised sequel focussing on the other side, why people are evil. Unfortunately, that's on hold due to my temporarily putting an "adult" designation on the file, after which I saved the introduction and then discovered that I was locked out of my own file, presumably because JoeUser somehow thinks that I'm under 18. I guess that means that my first blogs here were at age 11 or 12? How I wish... Awaiting resolution on the issue... Still waiting. Eventually, of course, I will be old enuf...