Morality Is A Category Of Acts Of Mutual Self-Interest

In my view debates about Morality derive from the tendency of people to attribute and misinterpret intent and intelligence in self-organizing phenomena. To me it is obvious that Morality fits in a category of phenomena that derive from self-organization. Self-organization is commonly spoken about, even by scientists whether they mean to or not, as having some kind of intent or intelligence behind it.

I think we do this because we are used to talking and thinking about objects. So we use those common patterns of speech as pre-made patterns of phrases to express ourselves because it is convenient for the speaker and the listener. It's so embedded in the English language and culture, in the heuristics we use day to day, even skilled thinkers such as scientists speak as though processes have intent.

In a way Morality is like math.
It is a representation of concepts that have natural relationships that exist and must be discovered to appreciate. In fact, in the days of Pythagoras, math was considered mystical, even divine, being objective and having "forms", and "essence". Its legacy in philosophy can be traced to the concept of the "essence" of humans, or "the soul". But that's a topic for another article half-done in my Googledocs.

Math is the process of applying values to representations of objects and intangibles to manipulate the relationships between them to assess different outcomes. The rules of Math are not so much "invented" as discovered. The rules of math are observations recorded for re-use. In the same way that mathematical rules are recorded observations of the interactions of their properties, the interactions between self-interested agents that have common properties can be recorded and given the name "Morality". Does this mean that "moral" acts can be predicted or assessed mathematically? I think the fact that people are comfortable predicting what someone would do in a given circumstance demonstrates that it is done informally on a day to day basis, and should someone take the time to capture that process mathematically, then I think it could be done probabilistically, similar to Game Theory.

- Mirror neurons,
"A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal.[1] Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself acting." Mirror neurons have been shown to have a relationship to intentions, empathy and language.
Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 2008. 04 Mar. 2009.
- An observed event.
One agent observes another agent experiencing some event.
- A Change of State of the feelings of the observer
- The Feeling causes an Emotion
such as "compassion" or "empathy". Additionally, emotion can be stimulated by input from our senses or by artificial stimulation using probes and electricity, or in some cases mirror neurons.
- Desire
The emotion causes a desire
- Thinking
The desire causes thinking processes.
- How do we think about this stuff?
We use mental images, we use language, we use the processes in our brains, and we can only use what we've stored up to the moment. How we think about things is completely dependent on our inventory of thoughts and experiences up to the point. Additionally there is evidence that shows across cultures that people have some parameters for behavior hardwired into the brain. The Trolly Problem demonstrates that people across cultures and categories seem to have a biological algorithm for dealing with situations that distinguishes intentional and unintentional harm during a rescue.

A Theory of Moral Grammar
Harvard University's Cognitive Evolution Laboratory was established to study moral decision making and has a "moral sense test" set up for visitors to test their "moral sense". Marc D. Hauser, a biologist at Harvard, is testing a theory that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their minds by evolution. In his book, “Moral Minds”, he shows that instant moral judgments seem to be generated by the "moral grammar" which are inaccessible to the conscious mind partly because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations.

- How do we capture it for mental storage and transmittal?
We have to have a way to think about all the facets of the event, and how to describe it to some other mind.
- The "Moral" Act
The desire and the self-talk may lead to an action and if it does then the event plus the action could be observed by a third mind and then once its all over, some value ranking goes on, judgments are made, conclusions are drawn, and now there is something to describe, to judge, and store in an inventory of experiences, to share with another mind, and either endorse, reject or ignore.
- Organizing "Moral" Acts
Once there are more than one of these events in an inventory, a way to think about them that reflects their similarities is needed, so we classify them, and we call it "Morality".

From what I can see, "morality" is a category of behaviors that result from the self-interest of many agents. It is a form of self-organization of these agents according to their mental capabilities into groups behaving according to implicit rules that will become explicit in humans and has an analogy in economics. Its like circumstances are being guided by an "Invisible Hand". "The Invisible hand" is "an economic principle, first postulated by Adam Smith, holding that the greatest benefit to a society is brought about by individuals acting freely in a competitive marketplace in the pursuit of their own self-interest."
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 04 Mar. 2009.

The difference between Self-interest and Selfishness
I see a lot of people make the claim that Adam Smith was endorsing "selfishness". Selfish is to Self-interest as Revenge is to Justice. While similar in concept, one is harmful and the other is not. Selfish and Revenge are about gaining an advantage, Self-interest and Justice are about maintaining an equilibrium.

Morality is really just a category of behaviors.
If we say that a behavior that fits in the category of morality is an action by an agent that requires an investment or risk to the benefit of another, then these behaviors can be observed to cross species boundaries and get more sophisticated with the sophistication of the species. All types of animals ranging from Apes, Whales, Dolphins, Birds, Elephants, have been documented exhibiting behavior that could be categorized as a rudimentary form of morality.

The real question is where does the behavior come from?
Lets trace it from its origins in an example taken from one of my experiences. I saw a person walking their dog on a leash. A stray dog attacked the dog on the leash and the person was struggling with separating them and not getting bit. It made me uncomfortable. I felt like I wanted to do something about it. From that feeling rose an emotion that caused me to start a process of thinking. My self-talk was something like "that's not right". I could relate to the person, and I knew how I would feel. I could relate to the dog, it was in danger from an aggressor and at a disadvantage. Through my emotion, self-talk, and narration creation process, I derived a strategy of dealing with the world. So it seems like the feeling came from the stimulus of a situation that was "unjust" or "out of place". The person was doing the right thing, the dog wasn't harming anyone and the stray was loose and aggressive. I made the choice to stop my car, get out and kick the stray dog to make it leave. But it had everything to do with visual and audible stimulus that came in through my biological receptors (eyes and ears) to set some biological process in motion that gave me the feeling, that caused the emotion, that caused me to derive a strategy for engagement with the world that I decided to take action on.

If God, then which God and how much is he involved in "Moral" behavior in non-humans?
If someone wants to inject God into that scenario then one has a lot of explaining to do. Since morality emerges in other species, other cultures and religions, then if God is injected into the situation above then he has to be injected into all the other situations including those of animals and Atheists. Why is God needed to explain it? Where does God Fit? Which god are we talking about? How does one know which god? How can someone else verify that it is being attributed to the proper God? If God has more to do with some situations than others, where are the boundaries for understanding when and how much God is involved and when he's not? Where is the tipping point or turning point when we can say that God is responsible for such and such moral event? And if the claim is "the bible says" then why should anyone trust the bible when the time of origin, the place of origin, the authors, the credentials of the authors are unknown, and there are is a lot of wrong data, even inconsistent data in the bible? The information in the Bible is of demonstrably poor quality when assessed using sound principles for information quality.

Consider these examples of moral behaviors derived from self interest
- I don't hit you because I don't want to get hit back.
- I grow vegetables well, Jill farms animals well, Harry is a good hunter, John makes good pants, and we all trade amongst ourselves for the things we need creating and equilibrium. It is not in our self-interest to allow one of the other participants to feel they are at a disadvantage by becoming selfish.
- I love Jill and when she is sad it bothers me so i try to cheer her up. Cheering her up makes me feel better.
- I trade with harry and he feels bad so he's not hunting, so I try to make harry feel better so I can get more meat
- Momma ain't happy so nobody's happy, so we try to make her happy.

Self-Interest Related to Relations
- We have biological emotional attachments to our children, and families, these are documented in research. Our desires to benefit them are derived in part from our emotions. The initiation of an emotion is not controllable for the most part, but we can do things to reduce the likelihood of their occurrence, or calm down, or work ourselves up, or decide to behave under the influence of the desires brought on by emotion.

It Just Ain't Right!
I don't need the police to do anything with my son when he takes a twenty out of my wallet, and I don't need the church to teach my son that his behavior is unacceptable on many levels.

It Just Feels Like The Right Thing To Do
And what is the origin of the desire to help an "enemy"? An uncomfortable feeling. Helping the enemy helps to resolve that uncomfortable feeling. It just "feels like the right thing to do".

Examples of Aiding the Enemy
- Christmas Truce and Informal Armistice
- Americal Civil War had many reports of aiding the enemy
- The American Underground Railroad for rescuing slaves

Language: Naming, organizing, classifying and categorizing.
Once the agents observe a phenomena and identify what it is they want to talk about, they must give the phenomena names in order to communicate what is going on in their mind. For example they have to give "sharing" a name, give "empathy" a name then they have to define what it is that is going on. The have to capture the phenomena in language so it can be discussed, then they can take steps to refine it and make it better, to set some parameters and boundaries, make some rules. They have to create a mental object from an intangible in order to work with it in a discussion to manipulate it according to parameters to make predictions about it. It's like verbal math working out the details of a moral equation.

The Aggregate Sum Of The Values Of THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS
Over time, the Value of "Pride" has changed in the moral equation. Pride used to be a virtue during the time of the Illiad, then Pope Gregory listed it as a deadly sin, then it re-emerged relatively recently as a behavior with positive and negative characteristics. The process of classification of morality continues to this day. You can see it in the news stories about legislative debates, most notably of late, legislation about the rights of homosexuals. Its a kind of an "Evolution of Morality" similar to the idea of Evolution of Coorperation

Justification For Morality Without God
The Justification for how "morality" came about is its inherent utility. The explanation starts with the feeling that causes the emotion, that creates the desire to act, which causes the action, and the result is beneficial whether it is realized or not by the agent. If it is realized, by humans for example, then we can further organize and classify it as a moral act and manipulate it to create a rule that can be used as a "tool".

The study of "Morality" seems to me to similar to a few other fields of study that I've listed below. I endorse the reader to take some time to become familiar with them. I've used Wikipedia for the links below and throughout not because it is a highly reliable source, but because it is a good place to start.

- Evolution of Cooperation
- Spontaneous Order
- Emergence
- Self-organization
- Game Theory
- Economics
- Harvards Moral Sense Test
- Marc D. Hauser
- Link to all DC's articles on Morality

Anyone that wants to argue that god has anything to do with morality has a very narrow point of view and is ignoring a ton of disconfirming qualifiers.

Morality is just plain good Economics.
Morality is ultimately an act of self-interest.
It Just feels right, and logically creates better outcomes for all agents.


Unknown said...

I'm sure we'd like to evaluate morality on some logically objective method of judgment. However, on an individual basis, morality is simply a matter of an agent's "comfort level." That's the blunt truth in my opinion. I do sympathise with Rousseau-ian attempts to argue for a kind of "General Will" (eleminating particulars in an uncorrupt democracy to reveal the common good), or the various attempts at Kantian imperitives. But they all fall short of providing an unabusive notion of freedom.

I think we can certainly build a reasonable -and yet- synthetic moral philosophy in which to govern society (which we've done), and that's the best we can do. A system that produces a holistic, and relatively consistent comfort level within society. That's probably the best we can do. And as you've stated, self-interest has to be the first premise.

Rich said...

Hi Lee,
I had to take a couple of days to read over all the info here, which I'm still not done searching stuff out, but I have a couple of thoughts that come from the beginning of your post.
First I wasn't clear on how far the similarity between math an morality went for you, but you seem to be saying that it may extend to morality being something that is discovered and not invented. But I'm not sure you agree with that statement.

Next was the trolley problem, which is an intersting delemma. This is a consitant cliff hanger in hero movies and plays itself out in different scenarios all the time, several examples popped into my brain while reading. I'm not so sure I agree with Thompson in the Fat man. Thomson argues that an essential difference between the original trolley problem and this version with the fat man, is that in the first case, you merely deflect the harm, whereas in the second case, you have to do something to the fat man to save the five. Whether you defleck the harm or push the man, you are still making a conscious choice to kill someone to save five. It does seem that almost everyone agrees that if someone willingly gives their life to save others, it is a moral act. Anyway it seems like the trolley problem could be applied to the atonement. If God had his son killed to save many, I think this would be considered by many to be much like the trolley problem, the greater good. But if The son willingly gave his life to save many, does that change the morality of it? To me it should for more people based on what I read in the link provided, but I have been wrong before. I would be interested on your take, and anyone elses for that matter on the last two scenarios.

Anonymous said...

Hi Richd,
my analogy with math related to religion was that like math, we make an observation and apply values to it and the things it has a relationship with and we can manipulate them, make predictions about them, reproduce them.

morality between self-interested agents can be observed and the relationships can be seen. On a day to day basis, our self talk is, "thats not right" to this or that situation, and "they should do this" or "they should have done that" or "because if they did",
which are all assessments, and valuizations. If that could be quantified, then you'd be able to make equations out of it. The point was that in both concepts we make assessments, judgments, and predictions about outcomes.

About Jesus and the trolley problem, there are a few things that i'll list for brevity,

- Its not clear that the story is true,

- its not clear that Jesus was god

- its not clear that paul was right about the relationship between jesus death and our salvation

- its not clear why the master of the universe would put such an odd and convoluted principle in place that deems that a human sacrifice is needed to bring about the context in which he could forgive us for something that he designed into us. He could have just taken responsibility for his "feelings" or "emotions" and just forgiven us the way we expect other people to not hold grudges or expect extraordinary acts from the offending party. Also making a singular person DIE for the BEHAVIOR of others is not justice in any civilized system of justice.

- How and why is it that one person should be punished for everyone? This principle fails in all other contexts.
Lets look at the sentence for a minute
"jesus died to atone for our sins"
obviously there was no other way.
the principle was in place, or it was not physically possible.
- God made the principle and didn't want to change it,
- God made the principle and couldn't change it
- God had no choice because the way he made the world made it necessary by the laws of physics
- Did i leave something out?
The only one that seems to fit is that god made the principle and didn't want to change it. Why would he not want to change it?
What is it about humans having physiogical responses to stimulus that start a process of thinking and action that we have different degrees of control over justifies having ONE singular person punished for something we all have had, have and will have forever?
How does that work?
what is the ratioanale?
If you say we have to have faith in it, then there is not enough substance to warrant faith.

- Assigning intent, valuization, judgment and blame where it doesn't belong is typical human bias. I see it on a day to day basis in the work place.

- and cognitive dissonance and making a narrative to resolve it is typical human bias. I think paul was doing this by the convoluted explanation for how a god-man can be crucified like a criminal if he was crucified like a criminal.

There is no reason to presume any of it actually represents real world events because the source of information is demonstrably poor.

And all other prior similar events have been satisfactorily shown to be mythological, and at least 66% of the world doesn't think that christian scripture is believable.

Even a large percentage of christians say that some parts of scripture are unbelievable, or "are metaphorical", but they won't define the parameters because it will force the process of assessment and valuization in them.

The Jesus Seminar attempted to do that but got as I understand, got criticized for doing too much to "metaphorize" it. My guess is that once someone got down to assessing it according to sound principles of IDQ it didn't measure up.

Assessing the bible the same way one assesses airline safety records and clinical trials (for example) demonstrates that it does not have the characteristics of an authoritative document and should not be treated as one.

Anonymous said...

sorry about the word "valuization" but I couldn't think of the right word so I just made one up.

Rich said...

It's not clear that the trolley problem is a true sory either but we can make a judgement on its morality. Wether the atonement is a true story or not I was hoping you would make some judgements on the two different "atonement" examples as to which, if either, you considered to be a moral choice. i understand that there are alot of things that keep you from believing the atonement, i was just curious of your opinion.

If someone wrongs you, lets say they steal something from you, do you forgive them? I imagine you do. Does the forgiving then do away with the need for a consequence for their action? Should they return the item or repay you somehow? What if they do all of that then steal from you again? Does that mean they really weren't sorry in the first place? What I am getting at is that wehter you are forgiven of a wrong or not doesn't negate the consequence. You still did something that needs fixing. This is the principle of repentance. you first recognize that you have done something wrong, usually you feel bad about it, then you ask to be forgiven. Next you should make a restitution. Then the last part is to never repeat the same offense. You are not judged on the way you were made, you are judged by what you do with what you have been given.

"jesus died to atone for our sins"

It fullfills justice completely, that every single "sin" has had it's punishment doled out. With justice fullfilled, through repentance we can be forgiven and be extended mercy. Thus, both justice and mercy have been fullfilled.

obviously there was no other way.

Actually there is another way. everyone could be forced to do everything 100% right and never be allowed to make a mistake.

Anonymous said...

HI Rich,
i have to be short and sweet so here goes...

I would be interested on your take, and anyone elses for that matter on the last two scenarios.
my take is that the definition of God means there were more and better choices available to him. So no I don't consider either one moral. I consider them, rhetorically speaking, as god playing games.

If someone wrongs you, lets say they steal something from you, do you forgive them?
I don't really "trust" anyone. I give them the benefit of the doubt. Trust is earned, not Given, in my book. Benefit of the doubt is given which is a seed of trust. If they take care of it and nurture it, it will grow into trust.

If They steal from at some point after the trust starts growing, then it get inhibited, or reduced to some degree depending on the violation.
The consequences, depend on the violation. if the steal my stapler, no big deal. If they steal my coat bigger deal, if they steal the birthday present my friend got me from my desk, bigger deal, non-judicial. If they break into my house big deal, judicial. Obviously they should get at least a fine.

but people like that are the exception. To say that those transgressions warrant the death of SOME OTHER INDIVIDUAL as atonement is beyond ridiculous.

You all, who talk about Jesus Death makes sense to get rid of our sin don't seem to have a grip on the scope of the problem.

each person should get punished according to their transgression. simple. elegant. succinct.

Human Sacrifice is never a good resolution to a problem. Happy easter.

Actually there is another way. everyone could be forced to do everything 100% right and never be allowed to make a mistake.
if I make a zero defect product, then it behaves as it was designed to. I don't have to allow it to anything since I've taken care of it all in the design. I performs excellently.

If I make a 20% defect product by design and it behaves poorly, then to atone for that my son takes it on himself to let himself be killed by angry consumers and we all consider it resolved,