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January 30, 2006

Selecting morality

I've been musing a little more about Dr. Paul Bloom's article on the human tendency to believe in the supernatural. (See here for my last entry on this.) The question that's most lodged in my mind right now is thus, What if the only way to have intelligence like ours, i.e., intelligence that is capable of both rational (science) and irrational (art) creativity, is to have these two competing modules, the one that attributes agency to everything and the one that coldly computes the physical outcome of events? If this is true, then the ultimate goal of creating "intelligent" devices may have undesired side-effects. If futurists like Jeff Hawkins are right that an understanding of the algorithms that run the brain are within our grasp, then we may see these effects within our lifetime. Not only will your computer be able to tell when you're unhappy with it, you may need to intuit when it's unhappy with you! (Perhaps because you ignored it for several days while you tended to your Zen rock garden, or perhaps you left it behind while you went to the beach.)

This is a somewhat entertaining line of thought, with lots of unpleasant implications for our productivity (imagine having to not only keep track of the social relationships of your human friends, but also of all the electronic devices in your house). But, Bloom's discussion raises another interesting question. If our social brain evolved to manage the burgeoning collection of inter-personal and power relationships in our increasingly social existence, and if our social brain is a key part of our ability to "think" and imagine and understand the world, then perhaps it is hard-wired with certain moralistic beliefs. A popular line of argument between theists and atheists is the question of, If one does not get one's sense of morality from God, what is to stop everyone from doing exactly as they please, regardless of its consequences? The obligatory examples of such immoral (amoral?) behavior are rape and murder - that is, if I don't have in me the fear of God and his eternal wrath, what's to stop me from running out in the street and killing the first person I see?

Perhaps surprisingly, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett (Tufts University) mentions in this half-interview, half-survey article from The Boston Globe, being religious doesn't seem to have any impact on a person's tendency to do clearly immoral things that will get you thrown in jail. In fact, many of those whom are most vocal about morality (e.g., Pat Robertson) are themselves cravenly immoral, by any measure of the word (a detailed list of Robertson's crimes; a brief but humorous summary of them (scroll to bottom; note picture)).

Richard Dawkins, the well-known British ethologist and atheist, recently aired a two-part documentary, of his creation, on the BBC's Channel 4 attempting to explore exactly this question. (Audio portion for both episodes available here and here, courtesy of onegoodmove.org.) He first posits that faith is the antithesis of rationality - a somewhat incendiary assertion on the face of it. However, consider that faith is, by definition, the belief in something for which there is no evidence or for which there is evidence against, while rationally held beliefs are those based on evidence and evidence alone. In my mind, such a distinction is rather important for those with any interest in metaphysics, theology or that nebulous term, spirituality. Dawkins' argument goes very much along the lines of Stephen Weinberg, Nobel Prize in physics, who once said "Religion is an insult to human dignity - without it you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things it takes religion." However, Dawkins' documentary points at a rather more fundamental question, Where does morality comes from if not from God, or the cultural institutions of a religion?

This question was recently, although perhaps indirectly, explored by Jessica Flack and her colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute; published in Nature last week (summary here). Generally, Flack et al. studied the importance of impartial policing, by authoritative members of a pigtailed macaque troupe, to the cohesion and general health of the troupe as a whole. Their discovery that all social behavior in the troupe suffers in the absence of these policemen shows that they serve the important role of regulating the self-interested behavior of individuals. That is, by arbitrating impartially among their fellows in conflicts, when there is no advantage or benefit to them for doing so, the policemen demonstrate an innate sense of a right and wrong that is greater than themselves.

There are two points to take home from this discussion. First, that humans are not so different from other social animals in that we need constant reminders of what is "moral" in order for society to function. But second, if "moral" behavior can come from the self-interested behavior of individuals in social groups, as is the case for the pigtailed macaque, then it needs no supernatural explanation. Morality can thus derive from nothing more than the natural implication of real consequences, to both ourselves and others, for certain kinds of behaviors, and the observation that those consequences are undesirable. At its heart, this is the same line of reasoning for religious systems of morality, except that the undesirable consequences are supernatural, e.g., burning in Hell, not getting to spend eternity with God, etc. But clearly, the pigtailed macaques can be moral without God and supernatural consequences, so why can't humans?

J. C. Flack, M. Girvan, F. B. M. de Waal and D. C. Krakauer, "Policing stabilizes construction of social niches in primates." Nature 439, 426 (2006).

Update, Feb. 6th: In the New York Times today, there is an article about how quickly a person's moral compass can shift when certain unpalatable acts are sure to be done (by that person) in the near future, e.g., being employed as a part of the State capital punishment team, but being (morally) opposed to the death penalty. This reminds me of the Milgram experiment (no, not that one), which showed that a person's moral compass could be broken simply by someone with authority pushing it. In the NYTimes article, Prof. Bandura (Psychology, Stanford) puts it thus:

It's in our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards, and it helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.

(Emphasis mine.) With a person's morality being so flexible, it's no wonder that constant reminders (i.e., policing) are needed to keep us behaving in a way that preserves civil society. Or, to use the terms theists prefer, it is policing, and the implicit terrestrial threat embodied by it, that keeps us from running out in the street and doing profane acts without a care.

Update, Feb. 8th: Salon.com has an interview with Prof. Dennet of Tufts University, a strong advocate of clinging to rationality in the face of the dangerous idea that everything that is "religious" in its nature is, by definition, off-limits to rational inquiry. Given that certain segments of society are trying (and succeeding) to expand the range of things that fall into that domain, Dennet is an encouragingly clear-headed voice. Also, when asked how we will know right from wrong without a religious base of morals, he answers that we will do as we have always done, and make our own rules for our behavior.

posted January 30, 2006 02:43 AM in Thinking Aloud | permalink


If we develop algortihms that give electronics the ability to "feel" then isn't is also logical that we could develop a program to ensure the happiness of those electronics?

Posted by: jack foreman at January 31, 2006 02:54 PM

That seems entirely possible, but one would have to ask what the utility would be of having a machine that could only feel happy. Emotional feedback is a powerful force among humans (and other animals, for example baboons who lose a loved one) to encourage or discourage certain kinds of behaviors - if machines have that kind of feedback, too, why would we cripple the learning that derives from unhappiness?

Posted by: Aaron at January 31, 2006 10:17 PM

Just finished reading your post... but I have to respond to one thing- you assume that pigtailed macaques are not also experiencing "faith". I'm not sure you can back that up... :)

Posted by: Joanna at February 12, 2006 07:25 PM