07 April 2015

Morality and instincts

Make a list of all the things that you think are "good."

I imagine that love, home, sex, a great meal will likely be on the list.  A career, living in a safe and beautiful neighbourhood, a happy marriage, and healthy children are likely on that list too.  If you're a bit capricious, you may have a few odd things on your list too; on mine are Lamy fountain pens, my wife’s Phở, Firefly, and wide-brimmed fedoras.

Now make a list of all the things that you think are "evil."

You’ll probably have murder, hate, lying, violence, and unnatural suffering on your list.  Bullying, rage, and jealousy might make your list too.  I also have Justin Bieber, Fox News, and the stock market on my list; but that’s just me.

But WHY are these things good or evil?  Can you explain why you think that murder is evil and love is good?

Well, I can explain all these things using two, simple principles derived from modern conventional science: evolved instinct and socialization.

(I note that I’m not the first to think of this kind of thing.  Many others - some of whom I note below - have written extensively about this.  This post represents not necessarily anything particularly new - although I honestly believe some aspects of it are unique.  This post does represent my current thinking on the matter.)

Let me start by explaining what I think of as "science."  It’s more than just a bunch of guys in lab coats doing experiments.  Science is a way of thinking, and as such subsumes a significant portion of western philosophy, including large chunks of logic, ethics, and morality.  As I've written before, philosophy is version 2.0 of the human project we might call “understanding reality.”  Science is version 3.0, a “new and improved” version of classical philosophy1.  So when I say “science,” I really mean “the sciences,” “the scientific method,” the “body of scientific knowledge,” and “critical evidence-based reasoning” applied to all aspects of reality including society and the mind.
Our instincts are biochemical and neurological responses that have genetic roots and that have been evolving over billions of years.  Those instincts are in us today because they provided survival advantages to our evolutionary progenitors.  These instincts compel us to have strong preferences to make choices in particular ways.  We will choose to survive, to procreate, and to prefer those “closest” to us to anyone else.  Those same instincts compel us to strongly NOT prefer choices that go against survival, procreation, and kin/group2 relations.

These instincts have physical consequences in our bodies and especially our brains. When we are in states that satisfy our instincts, we feel pleasure, peace, and satiation.  Similarly, when we are in states that run contrary to our instincts, we feel pain, anxiety, and privation.  We have all these feelings as a result of biochemistry; dopamine, oxytocin, and other chemicals are instrumental in making us feel good; cortisol and epinephrine influence anxiety and fear; and so on.

When we have an experience, our brain “measures" it with respect to it’s memories of other experiences we’ve had - including all the things we’ve learned from other people in our community.  These measurements result in electrochemical changes in the brain that induce the release of various hormones. These hormones trigger responses that “feel” to us as pleasure or pain, peace or anxiety, satiation or privation.  And all of it is grounded in how our genes evolved.

So if there’s an explanation that is rooted in instinct (plus socialization) that uniformly accounts for perceived “good” and “evil,” then we have a plausible explanation for morality that’s rooted in the physical.

Let’s go through some of the “good" things.

Love: To feel loved increases your sense of security and safety, as well as increasing the odds of procreation.

Sex: Well, that one’s obvious. If our ancestors hated sex, they’d have gone extinct long ago.

A great meal: We need food to survive; that sense of satiation after a great meal is our body telling us we won’t die of starvation. Conversely, when we overeat, we generally don’t feel so good - that’s because overeating triggers physical responses that our instincts mark as risky and dangerous.

Career: Careers are complex; they provide security (money to ensure that we can buy stuff we need to survive) as well as social standing (within the group of our co-workers) that is related to the hierarchical structures in animal groups like herds, prides, etc. Conversely, having a dull, repetitive, menial job reduces the instinctive need to matter to the community, thus creating stress on the individual for having little social standing.  Also, the lack of permanence of such jobs increases a sense of danger (not being able to earn money to keep oneself and one’s kin alive and healthy).

Living in a nice place: This provides security; a “nice” place is less risky, both physically and psychologically, than a not-nice place. Surrounding oneself with things one “knows” to be good is like surrounding oneself with a buffer from all that which is bad.

Happy marriage: Trust is often noted as a key characteristic among happily married people. Trust lessens psychological stress, which the body recognizes as safety, which implies greater chance of survival.

Healthy children: This one’s pretty obvious too: continuation of the line - reproduction. Those who cannot have healthy children will, over the generations and all else being equal, die off.

Now let’s go through some of the “evil" things.

Murder: The wonton deprivation of life is always seen as unacceptable simply because it ends existence and continuation. Notice that murder is often seen as somehow worse when one leaves behind no offspring, or when the victim is demonstrably innocent (i.e., having been “good” rather than “evil”).  The murder of children is invariably seen as abominable because in addition to the factor of innocence, we value children as a continuation of the line.  Physically, awareness of death increases our sense of danger, which causes physical and psychological stress that harms us directly.

Hate: Emotions like hate have neural and hormonal roots; they are responses to perceptions of situations with inherent risk and danger as defined most basically by survival and reproduction.  Hate one has for one’s spouse’s lover arises from the destruction of the trust expected in a union/marriage (see “Happy marriage,” above).  Generally, hate arises when an agent acts with what is perceived to be gross disregard for principles generally seen as “good.”  These hateful actions invariably connect directly to perceived loss of safety, and risk to survival and reproduction.

Lying: Our brains look for patterns; they evolved to do that.  Truth is essential to finding patterns that are reliable. Reliable patterns allow prediction; prediction allows for better decision-making; and better decision-making leads to greater odds of survival.  Lies - the intentional spending of falsehood - strikes at one’s ability to survive by undermining truth.  Lying also undermines trust (see above).

Violence: Violence is just a generalization of murder.

Unnatural suffering: Suffering - indeed, all pain - is the body's way of signalling danger. Danger means risk to survival and reproduction.  Unnatural suffering - suffering at the hands of other humans - induces particularly strong emotional/instinctive reactions because (a) we cannot understand how another human would want to harm us (and lack of understanding = unknown phenomenon = source of risk and stress), and (b) it adversely affects our social standing in the community.

Bullying: This kind of behaviour is intended to lower the social standing of the bullied person and, thus, raise the bully’s standing (relative to the bullied person).  It achieves this end through behaviours that increase the sense of risk and decrease the sense of safety of the bullied. Both these phenomena cause physical and psychological harm to the bullied, as well as undermining communal trust. Because we are social animals and have empathy (I’ll write about that shortly), bullying is obviously detrimental to all parties: even the bully suffers because of the reinforced but nonetheless false sense of superiority that the bully can feel.

Rage: Anger of all sorts is tied to hormonal and neurological processes that limit rationality.  Rationality gives us an evolutionary advantage, and so anger is generally disadvantageous.  Anger can be useful, however, in situations where, say self-defence is required; the physical processes that cause anger are related to those needed to “fight” rather than “flee.”  It was very useful once upon a time; but as we continue to evolve, we need to learn that anger was just an evolutionary trick, and that we can, if we choose, act otherwise - usually to everyone’s benefit.

Jealousy: Wikipedia has a great definition of jealousy: "typically refers to the negative thoughts and feelings of insecurity, fear, and anxiety over an anticipated loss of something of great personal value, particularly in reference to a human connection."  Insecurity, fear, and anxiety all correlate with physical changes that adversely affect survival and reproduction.

Now, things are not quite this simple.  Beyond evolved instinct, there is another key phenomenon that impacts our ability to be moral organisms: socialization - the ability of humans (and many other animals to one degree or another) to interact such that our mental states change as a result.

Socialization allows us to share experiences (albeit imperfectly) through communication and helps us cooperate with one another, which in turn creates a sense of community, which increases trust as well as help ensure the physical well-being (and therefore survival and continuation) of all the members of the community.  If you think of a community (or herd, or flock) of agents as a system, socialization establishes a huge number of feedback loops within the system.  Some of these feedback loops will reinforce certain behaviours; other loops will dampen other behaviours.  This leads to a certain homogeneity within the group - homogeneity of ideals and values, of behaviours and beliefs.  As the homogeneity increases, the relative risk of “outsiders” appears to increase as well.  This accounts for why human groups that spend long periods of time isolated from one another tend to distrust each other. This also accounts for why groups that were isolated and then are brought together can, at least under certain conditions, come to merge, or at least coexist, peacefully.

These feedback loops involve the exchange of information between agents, but not all the information is accurate or even correct.  The quality of the information is not relevant to our instincts.  Evolution is like that. Over evolutionary time, organisms that survive are more able to pass on their genes.  Some cases of survival resulted from using information transferred through interactions with other organisms.  It doesn’t matter if the information was entirely accurate or correct; it only matters if the information increased the odds of survival.  That information would have, over evolutionary time, come to be associated with physical and neurological effects that related to pleasure, peace, and satiation, and so comes to form the basis of the values and ideals of the group.  As a result, that information is passed on from generation to generation, regardless of its quality, either explicitly in the form of teaching, or implicitly in the form of social norms and “acceptable behaviours.”

The feedback loops also help distribute or dampen new behaviours.  A new behaviour that is seen as generally beneficial will be communicated quite rapidly through the community via the feedback loops.  Similarly, new behaviours that are seen as generally detrimental will be damped out more quickly because of those same loops.  However, the determination of whether a new behaviour is beneficial or detrimental is rarely made in an objective and rational way. (e.g. How in the world did planking become a thing?)  Since feedback loops interact in highly non-linear ways, we cannot innately determine whether a behaviour really is beneficial.

We see the, then, that socialization can both help and hinder progress and well-being, depending on whether the information shared in social processes is accurate or not.  This helps explain why some groups (cultures, nations, etc) seem to hold dear behaviours and beliefs that are demonstrably incorrect and harmful.

It’s easy to see how some people might find this kind of explanation superficial and dissatisfying.  Surely the deep, visceral feelings that instincts cause must be correct and good!  Of course they feel that way; evolution made sure of that.  But that doesn't mean that they're "correct."

The classic problem of the Tragedy of the Commons is a great example of how incorrect information interacts with instinct to lead to poor outcomes.  In these situations, a small increment in common resource consumption by one individual leads to a benefit for the individual, but as more individuals each use incrementally more resources for their own benefit, the common resource becomes more and more scarce - to the point where the resource stick collapses and all individuals then suffer.  Compared to the risk of losing the common resource, the benefit to the individual is quite tangible and immediate.  We see this happen when an “invasive species” enters a new ecosystem.  The invasive species, unrestrained by other forces in the ecosystem, will consume all available resources to the detriment of the ecosystem - including themselves in the long run.

Humans have an advantage here: we can reason and learn in ways no other animal can.  We can discover the long term effects of our actions.  This information is more robust than that available to other animals.  This is all that many people need to recognize that behavioural changes are needed to mitigate long-term risks.  Notice that our instincts are still operating in that case, but reach a different conclusion because we used more and better information.

Ironically, it’s only our ability - our evolved ability - to learn and reason that has allowed us to understand this "superficiality" of evolutionary processes.  That same ability to learn and reason also helps us overcome behaviours that we can determine now are actually detrimental to overall well-being of both individuals and the communities that they constitute.

Another feature I’ve not yet mentioned is dysfunction.  There are all kinds of reasons why an individual may come to believe in things and behave in ways that run contrary to established group norms.  Genetic variations can give rise to malfunctions in neural circuits that predispose individuals to behaviours we generally see as harmful or “evil."  Other genetic variations can give rise to “disabilities” that would, in primitive days, have likely resulted in lack of reproduction and premature death.  Fortunately, today, we can see past these superficial variations - thanks to science - and recognize that real “value” (if there is such a thing) rests not in whether a person can see, or hear, or think as the group expects, but in other measures of “goodness.” (This in itself is another point worthy of it’s own separate discussion, so I won’t pursue it here.)  Genetic variations aren’t all bad, though.  They are responsible not only for the features of individuals that might have, in the distant past, prevented them from surviving; they are also responsible for features of individuals that “improve” them - make them smarter, stronger, faster, more kind, more honest, whatever.  If there is any hope for human evolution beyond our current state, it resides (for now at least) within that variation; but unless and until we understand genetics well enough, we will have to accommodate both the “good” and the “bad” variations.

I want to come back to the matter of socialization for a moment, and mention an important psychological feature that helps us immensely in this regard: empathy - the ability to "put oneself in the shoes of another" and in some way understand the experience of others.  Empathy is why we feel pain when we see others suffer and joy when we see others thrive.  But it’s more than just direct observation.  Empathy is clearly intimately connected to communication, for without it, we would have very limited ways to share the experiences of others.  We can get drawn into the emotions of others simply by sharing stories.  Emotions connect with physical and hormonal changes that connect to those basic instincts of survival and continuation, but they are mitigated and possibly bent entirely out of shape as a result of socialization.  Empathy is a key mechanism by which the feedback loops connecting the members of a group operate.  But since feedback loops may operate using incorrect information, it is possible for empathy to exist between agents that appear to act harmfully (e.g., terrorists can empathize with one another).  Again, empathy is not “good” or “bad.”  It’s just another way that evolution works.  But because of our evolved ability to reason and learn, we can now examine those empathic behaviours and the feedback loops so tightly connected with them, and assess in surprisingly quantitative terms whether they actually do or do not promote well-being.

So, we can summarize it all like this: I contend that morality can (and indeed should) be grounded in an evidence-based, scientific framework, and that evolved instincts and socialization can provide all the necessary foundations needed to make moral decisions.

Let me remind you that this is not a scientific theory.  It’s not even a hypothesis.  It may not even be completely correct; after all, it’s just a blog post.  But I would suggest to you that what I’ve described here is a very useful way to think about morality and ethics.

It’s useful because it allows one to make more informed moral decisions.  When we attend to a moral decision, we will have certain preferences about the options before us.  With a little practice, one can learn to distinguish how those preferences are connected to instinct, and how they may have resulted through empathy, socialization, and feedback loops.  We can question the assumptions implied in those feelings, and we can - situation permitting - defer making a decision till we have determined the degree to which we can trust the information, perceptions, and preferences that we have and experience in the moment.  The result will be more reliable and justifiable moral decisions; this cannot be a bad thing.  No pun intended.

My description is also parsimonious: it does the most with the least.  Based on only a few phenomena that are known to exist, I’ve derived a framework for making moral decisions.  No need for special appeals to deities or non-natural forces or spirituality or any of that stuff.  Because the evidence-based nature of this description is central to it, I recognize that it would be invalidated by contrary evidence.  Such evidence may well exist; I’m just not aware of it, and I welcome anyone to provide it.

It also appears to me that my description is internally consistent.  That is, assuming I’ve got the fundamentals right - evolution, instinct, socialization, feedback loops, empathy, etc. - then the whole thing hangs together without generating any obvious flaws. Again, if someone sees a flaw, I would appreciate them bringing it up.

Since this description appears internally consistent, parsimonious, useful, and consistent with conventional experience, I think it’s pretty good.

  1. Yeah, I know that may well upset many philosophers.
  2. Yeah, I know; lots of scientists who know much more about this say that "group selection” is a dead theory.  I have yet to read that much about it, but my (possibly naive) take is that group selection may be a broader explanation that covers kin selection as well as other phenomena.  Someday, I’ll write about that, but not here/now.  In any case, what I’m saying here applies regardless of whether kin selection or group selection is the most accurate theory.

No comments:

Post a Comment