Meditations on morality

John Ohno on 2018-03-19

  1. The universe doesn’t optimize for morality. The moral arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice unless we bend it.
  2. Even ‘good’ people don’t necessarily optimize for morality, unless they are primed by their environment to look at things through a moral lens. We tend to optimize for whatever we’re focused on. That’s not usually morality — often it’s survival, or something we have been told is equivalent to survival (such as money, miliary dominance, or the relative power of our ethnic or political group).
  3. Nevertheless, improving the world (and encouraging others to do so) is worthwhile. The world can’t be fixed but it can be improved. Some improvements are even low-hanging fruit — never performed, because distractions from moral imperatives are so effective.
  4. Optimizing for morality is just like optimizing for anything else: if you don’t keep your model updated with new information, you will end up maximizing something else entirely — something that isn’t quite your goal, and that (at the extremes) conflicts with it.
  5. Morality is hard to quantify, but ethical systems are not. Each ethical system is an attempt at codifying what constitutes moral behavior.
  6. Ethical systems conflict on the margins and in pathological or corner cases. Our familiar moral thought experiments tend to highlight these conflicts, because they are designed to differentiate between systems, as a test of which system is more effective.
  7. Nevertheless, ethical systems tend to agree outside of pathological cases — because they are attempts to approximate the behavior of our collectively-evolved internal compass, which basically does generally agree on what is right.
  8. Moral lapses tend to occur in a domain in which ethical systems are in agreement about the appropriate behavior. They tend to be caused by optimizing for some goal other than morality (or even adherence with some ethical system).
  9. By studying the common features of ethical frameworks, we can determine something about the function of the moral compass. Specifically, every ethical system appears to be a heuristic or set of heuristics about how to scale society beyond the individual or family unit while minimizing damage[1]. So, we can conceive of morality as social scalability.
  10. Knowing what we are trying to do — in other words, optimizing for social scalability, rather than trying to minimize a sense of disquiet that itself slowly evolved as a metric for whether or not our behavior scales to a 150-person group, differs between individuals, and cannot be easily quantified — allows us to more easily determine when particular ethical systems are appropriate tools.
  11. Even without such explicit optimization, our moral compass is effective when it is used. Normalizing looking at things through a moral lens is one way to make use of the moral compass more widespread.
  12. Organized religion once served part of this function: a community would get together, talk about morality, and enforce morality by shunning or criticizing people who performed acts deemed immoral.
  13. However, organized religion has vulnerabilities even in this role: despite the flattening created by the protestant reformations, these structures tend to be hierarchical and authoritarian, focusing on codified virtue ethics, and are isolated to a separate conceptual domain of life.
  14. Because of the hierarchy, a congregation has a single point of ethical failure: since a single individual controls what is and is not considered a moral lapse, that individual exerts substantial amounts of power over the norms of the group. With multi-level hierarchies (such as in catholicism), a single person in a position of power can effect even greater damage to norms. There are various mechanisms intended as checks on this power (which I attribute, both on the protestant and catholic sides, to the criticisms that led to the reformation), but they are often ineffective. The worst case scenario, when the hierarchy goes wrong, is something like Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate.
  15. Because of the emphasis on codified virtue ethics, norms cannot quickly adapt to changes in circumstances. In many cases, the original reasons behind particular rules are forgotten and the rules are applied outside of their intended scope. (For instance, anti-castration rules in the New Testament were intended to distinguish christianity from other, more extreme cults that arose within judaism, many of which required adherents to castrate themselves in order to guarantee celibacy. Such rules have been deployed against transgender people.) It’s easy for virtue ethics to be coopted as political weapons.
  16. The conceptual isolation of moral thinking to a particular corner of life makes it possible for people to perform immoral deeds without thinking about the moral implications, despite having a venue in which they are required to employ a moral lens. Such “sunday christians” do not think of themselves as bad people — they simply don’t consider morals outside of church, and therefore are unable to evaluate their own righteousness.
  17. The very nature of religious framing produces a vulnerability in the form of various reversals. Religious framing claims that what is good for the society will inevitably be rewarded in the individual. This is not necessarily true. When we contract the time-frame — saying that good deeds are rewarded during life and bad ones punished — we end up with something like the prosperity gospel, which claims that behaviors that materially benefit the individual in the short term are necessarily righteous while those who are suffering are necessarily evil. Since the function of ethical systems is to discourage people from acting in their own short-term self-interest when that interest creates greater damage to society as a whole than the benefits accrued to the individual, a prosperity gospel framing actively inverts this and justifies immorality a priori.
  18. Rather than an isolated moral domain, we should encourage people to discuss and enforce moral behavior in their daily lives. When making business decisions, we should ask “is it right” before asking “will it make money”. We may be wrong on both counts, but by asking, we will at least consider the moral dimension — eliminating the low-hanging fruits of obviously-immoral behaviors we engage in because we were focusing too intently on something else.
  19. By talking about morality, we remind people to think about things through a moral lens and we give them the mental tools to consider moral issues — tools that necessarily go beyond virtue ethics, and should include utilitarianism, De Bouvoir’s existentialist ethics, and the moral imperative. People who care about doing the right thing will be more effective at it.
  20. By holding people accountable for their ethics collectively, we force people who don’t care about doing the right thing to nevertheless behave in ethical ways (or spend effort hiding their ethical lapses). Ultimately, it makes life harder for the people who make life harder for the rest of us. It becomes in even sociopaths’ self-interest to contribute to the greater good.

[1] The following ethical systems can be thought of in terms of scalability of different aspects of life:

Virtue ethics: this set of behaviors tends to be found in healthy and well-functioning societies, so it becomes part of a set of “best practices” for individuals. (Different virtue ethics have different rules, and often mix in hygene-related rules or rules that depend heavily on the structure of the society. Aristotle’s virtue ethics has material that only makes sense in a greek-style society with citizen-soldiers rather than a standing professional army, for instance.)

Kant’s moral imperative: can this behavior scale to an entire population? In other words, could what I am doing now reasonably become a part of a future virtue ethics?

Hedonism: is this action producing any good at all?

Utilitarianism: is this action producing a net gain in the happiness of the society?

De Bouvoir’s existentialist ethics: is this action making the world freer? (In other words: am I ensuring that the expressive potential for other people’s decisions grows?)