Monday, September 27, 2004

Morality Matters

I've been dealing with moral relativists lately, and thought I'd opine. Their essential argument is that there's no right or wrong, no objective values, etc. You know the drill.

I basically agree. In abstractio, that is. Practically speaking, I think it's about as nonsensical as the polar opposite, that there are perfectly objective a priori analytic moral imperatives that can guide our action.

Ultimately, human beings and morality go hand-in-hand; in a sense, it's what we're built to do, and without it, things get unpleasant and we cease being human as we know it.

Starting from the top, human beings need society. Let's speak of society as being pesistent patterns of cooperative behavior. We're given our language, a perspective, meaning, values, etc. Without socialization, we simply don't develop properly - take a look at the wild children such as Victor and Genie, who at best were able to function as children throughout their lives.

Society itself requires cooperation. Just to be clear, a predatory relationship doesn't constitute social interaction of itself. Now cooperation is where things get really interesting.

Stripping it down to its bare essentials, game theory does a fair job of helping us understand the process. Robert Axelrod's contests evolved a number of stable strategies that relied on a iterative system in which agents learned how to behave in order to maximize their benefit. Cooperation, in the form of a strategy of cooperating with cooperators and punishing non-cooperators (tit-for-tat, or TFT) emerges as one of the most successful strategies.

One way to make cooperation more reliable is to inject a normative control into the system. That is, let an interacting community accept certain behaviors and reject others, responsing to the latter with non-cooperation. Norms stablize the cooperative network by decreasing the chances of an unforseen response. For example, I can cooperate with nearly anyone, but if they're self-interested, I need to know that their interests align with my own, or else I can count on their defection. If they cooperate not because they think it will most satisfy their needs, but because it's the right thing to do, the anxiousness of uncertainty is ameleroated somewhat.

Of course, a general consequence of morality and predictability is future-orientation, as time-preferences shift downward, creating a larger supply of present goods by deferring present consumption. This is a good thing, friends.

I'm not going to say that X is right and Y is wrong - but I can't imagine a human society that doesn't do this to some degree. Even modern liberal tolerance imposes itself on others no less than the intolerance it was generated in response to; their essences are fundamentally the same. They're both normative.

Norms can change, via drifting or outright revolution, but the fundamental fact remains the same: Morality really does matter.

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