Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Moral Relativity

Whether or not something is "good" depends entirely upon the level of organization and the environment in which is exists.

You, as a normal human being, are a social organism made up of a lot of other living entities. Large groups of cells, whether organized into tissue or organs, or living in colonies like bacteria, "cooperate" to form your body. In the same way, each cell depends upon even smaller (although still complex) structures, such as mitochondria, ribosomes, membranes, and many others. (In fact, a mitochondrion is really itself a separate organism, living inside your cells...but this story is for another day).

If a cell is "misbehaving" (such as in a cancer or other harmful mutation), what's best for the organ (and organism - you) is to kill the cell. From the cell's perspective, this option really sucks.

But why would a cell risk being killed? Lots of reasons. A lot of what the cell does as a whole is driven by the "cooperative" behavior of all those cellular structures we talked about - mitochondria, DNA, RNA, membranes, and such. If something changes in the behavior of one of these members, then the overall behavior of the cell may also change. And the immediate rewards may encourage such behavior, such as unchecked replication and growth.

But as with most dynamic systems, the surrounding community of cells (or some specialized cells) may take action against the non-conformist cell, perhaps bringing it into line, perhaps just killing it. (Sometimes the cell itself will commit suicide!) Thus a tendency toward the status quo, an inherent conservatism built into a stable organization.

At each level of organization, it isn't immediately obvious to the individual components what "good" behavior is. And good is, obviously, relative. It really depends upon the level of organization, the environment, and the "goals" that determines "goodness" (where I define goodness as furthering the progress of the organizational level toward set goal).

Without defining the organizational level, goal, and environment any concept of "good" or "bad" ascribed to behavior is meaningless. It just is. The cell changed - it now made copies of itself unchecked. Good for the cell. But probably bad for the larger organism/organization in which the cell lived. So the cell was killed. Good for the larger organization. Bad for the cell - no matter what its goal was, it's sure not going to achieve it now. (Unless the goal was death - in which case, Way To Go, Cell!)

The parallels to social theory are obvious, and have been used quite a bit in the last century. The good of the individual human being vs the good of the group has been ripe ground for applications of theories in social structure. The group can be a family unit, a neighborhood, a community, city, a state, even a species.

Benefits can accrue to individuals who attempt to cooperate in a larger group. The level of group "allegiance" can vary quite a bit from individual to individual, and game (and evolutionary) theory has a lot of fun trying to work out the relative cost/benefit equations for these trade-offs.

And humans are well adapted to this sort of group cooperative behaviors. Evolutionary theory would say that's obvious. If working as a group confers advantage to individuals in the group over individuals who are not in a group, then over time individuals who work well in a group will proliferate more than those who don't.

Rogue "cells," such as a terrorist, can produce significant local change. With the technologies being made available, this change can reach quite a bit further than local. Think nuclear, or worse, biological weapons. The cells may think they are doing the right thing. They might not see themselves as cancers - perhaps they think they're mighty immune cells! Their mission is to wipe out the foreign viruses that threaten to change the very DNA of the stable host society!

I'm not the first to wonder about the social parallels. In fact, it was the following quote that made me start thinking about this. What has changed is that it is only recently has science started to get to the point where is was possible to actually do something about it.
I am prepared to assert that there is not a single mental faculty ascribed to Man that is good in the absolute sense. If any particular faculty is usually good, this is solely because our terrestrial environment is so lacking in variety that its usual form makes that faculty usually good. But change the environment, go to really different conditions, and possession of that faculty may be harmful. And "bad," by implication is the brain organization that produces it. - W. Ross Ashby, 1962
I see the battleground of today is being defined as western concepts of progress and individual liberty against the backlash conservatism of religious fundamentalism (typically anti-science, anti-"progress"). I hear questions like: Is globalism and consumerism and what's best for the individual what is also best for the planet? Or do we need to revert to the "good old days," of strong hierarchical (typically religion based) control?

I think we're asking the wrong questions. We need to think of new models of social organization. Ones that provide the best chances for species survival, that better check the rogue individual (be they terrorists, CEOs, or Presidents). But that do so in a way that enables the creativity and progress that comes from free thinking individuals.

It's likely that these new models will require that we take our own brain evolution in hand and modify it as required.

Most of what we think of as "moral judgments" are made as a result of genetic hardcoding produced by evolution. In Moral Minds by Harvard's Marc Hauser, reports of experiments and studies show that moral decisions are made "intuitively," with various rationalizations for the decision produced after the decision is already made.

Interestingly, and perhaps counterintuitive, there don't appear to be any real differences in fundamental moral choices in people of different cultures, or people of different religions. In fact, even people with a religion and those without make the same choices, suggesting that inbuilt morality is independent of learned religious frameworks. We don't think our way through moral decisions - we just react.

So where does this leave us? Our moral decisions are made based upon our selected genetic wiring. That wiring was selected for being "good" for the majority of breeding individuals, given the environment (including social structures) that existed prior to now.

If the environment changes, be that the physical or social environment, those decisions may no longer work. They're no longer "good," regardless of what worked before, and regardless of religious dogmas. And as we see, "good" also depends upon whether we're talking about the individual, the country, the species, or the planet.

Like the example of the cancerous cell, individuals who threaten the planet threaten all species of life that we know of. These threats can be immediate, such as terrorists with WMDs, or more subtle, such as governments who do nothing about resource depletion, global warming, and other "let the next generation deal with it" type of threats.

What could we adjust that make us less likely to follow the crazy leaders, more likely to look at long term consequences?

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