Recent findings on the neuroscience of human nature.
Some friends of the delightful and brilliant Karen Armstrong recently started a website called Charter for Compassion. The charter is based on the Golden Rule (See Karen’s Ted Talk video at the end of this page). This got me to thinking about the Golden Rule in more detail than usual…
The version most familiar to me is this:
So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
The Golden Rule is the simplest expression of two primal axioms of sociality, empathy and reciprocity. This is the basis of all that we call justice and morality. All that has been written on justice and morality over the ages almost seems to obfuscate those issues when compared directly with the Golden Rule. Maybe that’s why Jesus is quoted as saying this single sentence “sums up the Law and the Profits.”
Without empathy, there could be no kindness or compassion. Empathy, kindness, and compassion are far more primal than religion, philosophy and ethics. Empathy has its own type of brain cell, called the mirror neuron, which is also found in other animals. This suggests that the evolution of empathy preceded human beings.
“The feeling of compassion is the beginning of humanity.”
— Mencius, 372 – 289 BCE
But the Golden Rule doesn’t stop at empathy. It also includes reciprocity. Like empathy, reciprocity has its roots in pre-human evolution. It is involved in the process of natural selection. Empathy and reciprocity are the biological and instinctive forces that make animals social and from which all complex human sociality evolved.
Somewhat like the principles on which it is based, the Golden Rule predates recorded history. It was around long before Christianity or Judaism or even religion. It may even predate language. Of course, it would. It is in our DNA — literally.
The Golden Problem
In practice there may be a bit of a rub to the Golden Rule. What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the way I might want to be treated, but the way in which they wish to be treated is perfectly reasonable and agreeable to me? Then perhaps I should do unto them the way I would want them to do unto me if I were them. This would make the rule somewhat recursive.
Then, what if the way some people wish to be treated is bad for them? All responsible parents and guardians face this problem. The recursive property doesn’t help in this case. Nor can the parent necessarily treat the child the way the parent might wish to be treated if she is perfectly honest with herself. We are all a little too childish and selfish ourselves to follow the Golden Rule to the letter without indulging each other far too much. Another modification is needed.
Golden Solution: Enlightenment
A certain amount of indulgence is good for us, especially as children, but enough is enough and too much is bad for the character (and often for the waistline, too). Responsible parents sometimes attempt to treat their children the way an enlightened person would want to be treated, hoping that such patterning helps a child to develop into that enlightened person. We can apply this to everybody, really, since all of us can stand to become a little more enlightened.
But what is enlightenment? Who is enlightened? What does an enlightened person want? How would they wish to be treated? I guess this is what all the books on justice and morality are about–maybe this is why we need them. They are trying to tell us what enlightened people should believe, what they should want, or how they should behave; and they are written (broadly speaking) by our best and brightest (i.e. most enlightened) minds.
But what good is the Golden Rule if we are still thrown back into this quagmire of disputed and contradictory theories of right and wrong? Is there no simple rule for enlightenment?
According to Emmanuel Kant, the Golden Rule could be formulated in a broad, general way that he called a categorical imperative. It is intended to minimize the subjective variations in what different people consider good behavior by removing the relative advantage of acting selfishly in the pursuit of one’s own personal good:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
In other words, don’t do anything you aren’t willing for everyone else to do right back at you. I don’t think it solves any of the above problems, though. Kant’s deontology still turns upon consequences. What are rules of behavior but after-the-fact consequentialism? Any practical kind of deontology or consequentialism must be derived from experience. What else could we base either one upon, unless we want to base or morality on legend, myth, or superstition; fictions which like Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy are more suitable for ignorant children than responsible adults.
I will propose several corollaries to the Golden Rule, which I hope will fill in some of the blanks and answer some of the questions left hanging by the Rule. To qualify they must be consistent with (if not directly implied by) the Rule, and they must share its simplicity of expression in plain language. The aim of this short list of corollaries is nothing less than to dispense with the rest of the Prophets and the Philosophers of law, which the Golden Rule failed to do on its own.
This corollary helps to answer some of the questions about enlightenment I asked above. I will do unto you what I would have you do unto me if it is also in your best interest and (as much as possible) for the greatest good of the greatest number.
This is the principle that persons “do well by doing good.” This meansthat acting to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serves one’s own self-interest.
When possible, respond to an aggressor without violence. The phrase originates from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament:
38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV)
In the Gospel of Luke, as part of his command to “love your enemies“, Jesus says:
27 ¶ But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, 28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. 29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. 30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. 31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. (Luke 6:27–31 KJV)
“A soft word turneth away wrath…” (Proverbs 15:1 KJV)
“Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes” (Joe South).
Or, to put this another way, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” again from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1). Saint Matthew goes on to say:
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me cast out the mote out of thine eye; and lo, the beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
This is all about empathy and reciprocity, the foundations of the Golden Rule. But lest you doubt me, does Matthew 7:12 sound vaguely familiar:
“All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
Literally translated, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” This is the phrasing of Karl Marx, but the first known description of the principle was given by Étienne-Gabriel Morelly (1717 – ?) a French utopian thinker and novelist, but an otherwise “obscure tax official.” (Wikipedia) Morelly proposed in his 1755 Code of Nature :
I don’t know (or care) much about Communism, but I think I know the Golden Rule when I see it. Who would not want to be treated in such a fashion, from each according to ability and to each according to need, unless they had previously been brainwashed by some cruel and perverse ideology (I won’t mention any names)?
This one is a little more technical, but its not complicated. Decisions and authority should be vested at the lowest practical level of an organization or institution. This is a clear “do unto others” corollary — do you want to maintain your human dignity in your place of work or your community?
Subsidiarity is the idea that decisions are better made where they have immediate effect. The idea is a key because it enables people to make decisions for themselves. Human Dignity demands more than becoming a cog in a wheel.” (Solidarity With Salisbury)
1. (Christianity / Roman Catholic Church) a principle of social doctrine that all social bodies exist for the sake of the individual so that what individuals are able to do, society should not take over, and what small societies can do, larger societies should not take over
2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level
“Solidarity is not a matter of altruism. Solidarity comes from the inability to tolerate the affront to our own integrity of passive or active collaboration in the oppression of others, and from the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest. From the recognition that, like it or not, our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet, and that politically, spiritually, in our heart of hearts we know anything else is unaffordable.” – Aurora Levins Morales
“Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom.” ― D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
I’m going to stop on that note, but please suggest any other corollaries to the Golden Rule that you think should not be left out. The goal is not to include everything but the kitchen sink, but to include essential corollaries that keep the Golden Rule from being overly ambiguous, or from being too silent on important social issues..
Related PRA 2010 Posts
“Real” Reality and “capital T” Truth belong to metaphysics, or perhaps to secret and invisible regions of the natural world, but not to the human mind. We may wish to infer that an absolute, objective level of reality exists, but we must admit that any ultimate reality is largely unknowable to creatures such as ourselves.
The best versions of reality and truth we can capture might be called “Pretty Good Reality™” and “Pretty Good Truth™.” (I’m thinking of the security program called “Pretty Good Privacy”).
PRETTY GOOD will do for most ordinary purposes. It’s usually good enough for the girls I go with.
(BTW, “Pretty Good Reality™”, “Pretty Good Reason™“, “Pretty Good Ethics™“, “Pretty Good Truth™“, and “Pretty Good Free Will™” are copyright by Poor Richard under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.)
What about those who hyperbolically and hypertensively crusade against relativism (esp. “moral relativism“) usually without the slightest understanding of it?
They wrongly believe that relativism means that “anything goes.” Does relativity in physics mean anything goes?
Everything in human life is relative, but morals, well examined, can be the least relative things of all. The passion to be a moral person can come from a place of true conscience, compassion, integrity, and nobility, or it can come from a place of fear and conformity. But if it is the former, the desire or passion to know reality and the passion to act morally are inseparable. In this kind of pragmatism, the fact of relativity is acknowledged, but one struggles through constant practice to achieve one’s highest and best approach to morality and objectivity. The life of the mind, properly understood, is not unlike the athletic life. Excellence comes from practice on the field, not only from books and chalk board talks.
Non-authoritarian, adult, secular morals are based on some version of the “Golden Rule“, which is about empathy and reciprocity, and on utility (the highest good or greatest well-being for the greatest number) both in respect to people and the entire interdependent community of life.
Empathy is a feeling or sentiment that evolution has given us (in part via “mirror neurons“) to make the fundamental law of reciprocity more agreeable to us. But reciprocity (or the “law of reciprocal maintenance” as G. I. Gurdjieff put it) is an essential law of living systems and ecosystems, with or without empathy or consciousness.
Some people find in the law of reciprocity a justification for living things feeding on one another, but I question that. To fully satisfy the law of reciprocity one would have to be willing to be eaten or otherwise exploited in return. If there were a species of creatures that treated us as we treat the cow, pig, dog, etc.–would we be happy about that? The question of pain is only one factor to consider when imagining how agreeable such a reciprocal relationship would be to us. Would we only be concerned about the process and not the end? Because nature may be in some respects a “war of all against all” (Hobbes), does that limit the human imagination from devising less cruel and violent relationships with nature? Of course not, unless one is simply a dull clod.
One aspect of human relativity is perspectivism. This is a philosophical view developed by Friedrich Nietzsche that all ideations take place from particular perspectives. This means that there are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives in which judgment of truth or value can be made. This implies that no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively “true”, but does not necessarily entail that all perspectives are equally valid.
A basic idea of epistemological relativity is that the closest anyone can come to objective reality or truth is some approximation. Each brain creates its own simulation(s) of reality based on its sense inputs, its processing of those inputs, its interpretations, and its own intrinsic characteristics. Since brains can communicate with other brains, multiple perspectives can be combined or merged to some extent.
Wheels within wheels
“…and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” (Ezekiel 1:16)
We are further removed from absolute truth or reality by the possibility that all we know of reality may be part of another level of simulation. Reality may consist of recursive simulations within simulations. This is the “simulation argument” or “matrix hypothesis”.
“A simplified version of this argument proceeds as such:
Then the ultimate question is — if one accepts that the above premises are at least possible — which of the following is more likely?
a. We are the one civilization which develops AI simulations and happens not to be in one itself?
b. We are one of the many (billions) of simulations that has run? (Remember point 3.) In greater detail, this argument attempts to prove the trichotomy, either that:
In summary I’d say truth is probabilistic by which I mean that we might know an approximation of some fraction of the truth which may be fit (or pretty good) for a particular purpose. To paraphrase George Box, all facts are wrong but some are useful.
Update: General Utility 3.0 (10/4/2022)
I brainstorm a taxonomy of wellbeing metrics at the end of my essay “General Utility 2.0”. A complimentary taxonomy of suffering metrics should be possible.
In “General Utility 2.0” I imagine a “graphic equalizer” metaphor whereby we can adjust the weights of wellbeing parameters to achieve the most pleasing combinations. But since writing that essay I’ve come around to a preference for minimizing the suffering parameters instead of optimizing wellbeing parameters. Wellbeing is something we should leave entirely open to requisite variety, which weighs against any single point of convergence towards which we might optimize. Minimizing pointless suffering also has a similar issue, in that suffering is different things to different people, but on that side there is less harm in focusing more on what people have in common than on ways they differ. If we can minimize the most common parameters of suffering we shall have done great good without imposing any artificial conformity on the positive wellbeing side. This is analogous to a negative framing of the golden rule–do not do unto others that which you would not have done to you. There is some evidence that such was the earlier formulation of the maxim.
A Late Period (c. 664–323 BCE) papyrus contains an early negative affirmation of the Golden Rule: “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”
One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self. In brief, this is dharma. Anything else is succumbing to desire.
— Mahābhārata 13.114.8 (Critical edition)
The Mahābhārata is usually dated to the period between 400 BCE and 400 CE.
Stephen J Gould seems to have spoken for many when he proposed that science and religion, or the domains of “is” and “ought”, are “non-overlapping magisteria,” and opined that “science and religion do not glower at each other…but interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity.”
But whether or not the “magisteria” of science and religion overlap is the question, (a version of the demarcation problem) not the answer. In my opinion they do overlap in the following way: religion, philosophy and science widely overlap in the domain of 1) asking questions about the world, and 2) interpreting evidence—although each may specialize in the types of questions it chooses to ask and the kinds of evidence it chooses to interpret.
The problem, and the glowering, arises when it comes to 3) the scientific method and the CRAFT of gathering and validating evidence, regardless of whether the evidence concerns atoms, evolution, or out-of-body experiences. One person’s justified belief is another person’s heresy.
More to the point of this essay, one person’s “ought” is another person’s “ought not”. Curiously, the difference between an ought and an ought-not often comes down to what “is”. My choice to give a panhandler some money or not may depend on whether we are standing in front of a cafe or a liquor store. The more complete our information about people and situations the better we can decide about the “right” thing to do, regardless of our moral framework.
The hypothesis on which this essay is based is this: the more we know about the domain of what is, the smaller the gulf between “is and aught” becomes. I will approach the domain of what is, as it concerns happiness and well-being, through the lens and methods of science, without intending to question or threaten any beliefs that science may be silent about.
Hopefully this will not be dismissed as scientism, positivism, reductionism, or materialism. These terms have various negative connotations but what they may all have in common is a criticism of scientific authority when it violates the parsimony principle. In other words, legitimate science crosses the line into scientism when it takes authoritative positions without sufficient empirical evidence to justify scientific conclusions. A lack of evidence for a proposition (the existence of a God, for example) is not proof of the contrary (negative) proposition. The legitimate scientific position where evidence is lacking is to abstain from drawing conclusions, period.
On the other hand, it is perfectly proper for science to evaluate the conclusions of scientists and non-scientists alike, the methods by which such conclusions are reached, and the evidence on which they are based; and to judge their scientific merit. There are many truth claims popular in modern times that are demonstrably false. I think it is important for people in all walks of life to have the opportunity to learn what science may say about the truth claims we are bombarded with all the time by our authority figures and peers. Even in those cases where science must remain parsimoniously silent, that silence may speak volumes.
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
Are we satisfied with people doing good for the wrong reasons or doing wrong for good reasons? Doing something for a wrong reason increases the risk of bad side-effects and unintended consequences, including but not limited to the consequence of reinforcing the fallacies behind the original motivation. The branch of moral philosophy known as consequentialism emphasizes the results or consequences of an action or rule over the importance of intentions or motives. What I like about consequentialism in general is a concern about unintended consequences because, after all, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It also accords with the aphorism that “By their fruits [i.e. results—not words, reputations, intentions, etc.] shall ye know them.” Results alone may not be sufficient to justify actions, but neither are intentions. Of the two, results may well be the more germane; and they are certainly the more easily quantifiable.
Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of one’s conduct are the true basis for any judgment about the morality of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism “The ends justify the means”.
Consequentialism is usually understood as distinct from deontology, in that deontology derives the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct from the character of the behavior itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct. It is also distinguished from virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences of the act (or omission) itself.
Obviously the glaring problem with that definition is “The ends justify the means.” We have a strong, intuitive, negative reaction to that. But consequentialism makes no such absolute, categorical dictum (in distinction to other schools of thought which might hold the contrary dictum that ends can never justify means). Consequentialism holds that both means and ends have consequences and that a valid utility calculation would include both. Would you tell a lie to save an innocent life? Would you kill someone to save your own life? Would you kill someone to save thousands of innocent lives? If so, you may be a consequentialist. Would you cheat, lie, and steal to win a political election? If so you may be a scumbag, but not necessarily a consequentialist.
The saying “the ends justify the means” is often used to justify means which are actually ends in themselves or which serve ends that are not explicitly stated by those who employ them. Or the stated ends may fail to include various “externalities” or side-effects, by-products, or other consequences which were unintended and/or unjustified.
I can’t prevent the concept of consequentialism from being applied euphemistically and disingenuously to provide cover for special interests and antisocial behaviors, but that is in direct contradiction to the aim of empirically and transparently accounting for all consequences—including side-effects and so-called externalities.
Consequentialism does not hold that results/ends matter more than methods/means but that consequences matter more than intentions. Methods and means are susceptible to empirical evaluation as to their consequences (both direct and incidental) and fitness for any given purpose, but intentions are not.
As goodgraydrab put it in a discussion at The Reason Project Forum, “empirical evidence can significantly alter the notion of support for “justification” and “means,” while at the same time examining the validity and motivation for the “ends,” over unfounded supernatural biblical belief and political greed.”
We often fail to define and justify our “ends” in a full and explicit way. One goal often contradicts another goal. That is why we usually say the ends don’t justify the means. What this really says is that certain implicit goals, such as civil society (the rule of law), or the value of personal virtue, are considered axiomatic and must not be contradicted by the means used to achieve other goals, such as accumulation of personal wealth. The means for achieving one goal may violate or defeat achieving another, perhaps even more important, goal. Means are properly justified (or judged) by all their consequences, intended or unintended; or to put it another way, by their effectiveness and by all their side effects. In consequentialism, no “externalities” can be sanctioned. To recognize one set of consequences and ignore others would be outright hypocrisy or subterfuge, not consequentialism.
The harder philosophical issue may be judging the merit of the desired “ends” or goals.
Goals can be classed as individual or collective. There is a natural tension between these two categories that can be difficult to resolve even by concepts of enlightened self interest and maximum utility. Human beings would not be well served by the deterministic rules of ant society. A model of maximum utility that includes human beings requires a certain amount of capability, freedom, and dignity, as well as some amount of inequality or disequilibrium. But when, where, why, and how much?
General Utility vs The Noble Savage and a Morality based on “Natural Law”
“Jean-Jacques Rousseau…argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a State of Nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer” (and this natural sympathy constituted the Natural Man’s one-and-only natural virtue). It was Rousseau’s fellow philosophe, Voltaire, objecting to Rousseau’s egalitarianism, who charged him with primitivism [see anarcho-primitivism] and accused him of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours. Because Rousseau was the preferred philosopher of the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution, he, above all, became tarred with the accusation of promoting the notion of the “noble savage”, especially during the polemics about Imperialism and scientific racism in the last half of the 19th century. Yet the phrase “noble savage” does not occur in any of Rousseau’s writings. In fact, Rousseau arguably shared Hobbes’ pessimistic view of humankind, except that as Rousseau saw it, Hobbes had made the error of assigning it to too early a stage in human evolution.” (Wikipedia: Erroneous_Identification_of_Rousseau_with_the_noble_savage)
IMO Rousseau actually WAS enamored of the “noble savage” fantasy though he didn’t use the phrase. However, this controversial and highly speculative side-track to his thought is entirely irrelevant. What matters is the present social contract, not vague speculations about prehistory.
“For Rousseau the remedy was not in going back to the primitive but in reorganizing society on the basis of a properly drawn up social compact, so as to “draw from the very evil from which we suffer [i.e., civilization and progress] the remedy which shall cure it.” (Wikipedia: Erroneous_Identification_of_Rousseau_with_the_noble_savage)
Civic/legal/moral equality is a relatively modern idea and derives little from evolution or ancient cultural traditions, with the possible exception of the old canard that we are all equal “in the sight of God.” We need to replace both the legacy of evolution and the “sight of God” with the insight of a humanity which bases its ethics on reason rather than appeals to authority, history, nature, or divine revelations.
All rights (including human rights, civil rights, and property rights) are the products of contract, the most fundamental of which is the “social contract.” Regulation and enforcement of contracts (and thus rights) is a matter of jurisprudence and jurisdiction. Law determines what rights may be inalienable in a given jurisdiction, just as law determines what contracts are legal or illegal. This is all a matter of LAW. Theories based on or derived from “natural law,” “natural rights,” or even on economics are irrelevant to the question of rights and property except to the extent that such ideas have been (and still are) toxic to the evolution of jurisprudence. Rousseau, Kant, and many, many others have tried to settle the rights question on the basis of some “natural law” which remains a speculative and unsettled theory.
IMO “Natural law” is simply a modern facade for divine law. It is a fiction. I do not support morality or ethical systems based on religion or fairy tales. I prefer jurisprudence based on empirical (quantifiable and verifiable) equity, and preferably in a framework of the greatest good for the greatest number (general utility). That is the only proper, objective (non-fictional) basis for morality, ethics, law, or enlightened self-interest. I only wish this were considered self-evident by more people. Instead we constantly debate rights on the basis of philosophy, religion, ideology, or economic theory, none of which provide a sound foundation for rational human rights, civil rights, or property rights.
But where do we get the right foundation for a modern and rational social contract? Not from any form of conventional deontological or consequentialist morality. Deontology and consequentialism are usually contrasted with one another:
“Consequentialism, we are told, judges the rightness or wrongness of an action by the desirability of the outcome it produces; a deontological system, on the other hand, judges actions by whether or not they adhere to certain rules (e.g. ‘don’t censor newspapers’).” (“All Ethical Systems are Both Deontological and Consequentialist” by Noahpinion)
Deontology is really just after-the-fact consequentialism. If not prior experience (and thus appreciation of consequences), what would deontological rules and duties be based on other than some form of moral superstition or conjecture? One answer is that deontology is based on contract theory.
“Contract theory is the whole drama of deontology(intent) and ultilitarian(outcome) mergers. Agential problems are the friction between the crude utlilitiarian measures/systems/incentives and the deontological issues of contracts, and when such problems are insurmountable at any given present, we have tension that can lead to revolution. ” ~Robert Ryan
Yes, the rules and duties of any deontology worth its salt are not merely unilateral assertions–they are social contracts. But the utility of a contract is not merely in its intent. The utility must also be judged by results. Both the intents and the results matter, in the same way that both the ends and the means matter; and both are embraced in the concept of general utility.
General utility (my term for a generic form of consequentialism) is not arbitrary, authoritarian, philosophical, religious, ideological, historical, anthropological, or tradition-bound. Nor is it cruel or heartless. (What kind of madman would calculate well-being or “the greatest good” without taking subjective needs into account?) By general utility I mean much more (and less) than narrow market-based utility functions that are full of externalities.
The so-called “utility function” in economics and the many varieties of utilitarianism and consequentialism have their critics and their historical baggage. In philosophy, economics, and social science utility functions have been formulated in overly vague, reductive, or simplistic ways often rife with primitive, pre-scientific assumptions and externalities. Utilitarianism and consequentialism have countless variants each with its controversies. I assume a priori that any economic or philosophical school has historical baggage and needs to be reformulated to conform with a modern empirical framework. Henceforth I will refer to that scientific framework as General Utility 2.0 (GU2). I call it “general” utility to distinguish it from prior species of utility theory and utilitarianism which I characterize as narrow or “special” versions of utility.
In theory, the GU2 framework is a multi-dimensional matrix of all variables that impact the well-being and flourishing of human life and everything on which it depends, including the biosphere.
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, but I don’t think he is saying that well-being is only a matter of mental states. Things like organic health, economic well-being, and ecological fitness are important, too.
I hope that an empirical approach to ethics can breathe new life and scope into consequentialism and the utility function. In my opinion, “what is” and “what ought” are on a collision course, and Sam Harris may be one of the early pioneers of that convergence.
Objections to utility
The most compelling objection to consequentialism is that consequences are unpredictable or uncontrollable despite our best intentions and our best-laid plans. This is the problem of chaos, complexity, and uncertainty. But as a critique of consequentialism this is simply a special case of the repudiation of science in general. By a similar process of reasoning we would conclude that science is impractical and that reality is unknowable because it is not perfectly or completely knowable. I hope that pointing out this fallacy dispenses with the “unknowability of consequences” objection.
Perhaps the most common objections to consequentialism are those that simply assert a bias for other standards of morality that are thought to be morally superior. I argue that non-empirical standards, whether based on authority, history, or any other unfalsifiable theory, are no longer worthy of serious consideration in today’s world.
I already discussed the objection to “ends justifying means” but here is a particular example I recently came across:
“Utilitarianism cannot protect the rights of minorities if the goal is the greatest good for the greatest number. Americans in the eighteenth century could justify slavery on the basis that it provided a good consequence for a majority of Americans. Certainly the majority benefited from cheap slave labor even though the lives of African slaves were much worse.”
Many objections to utility have to do with the difficulties in weighting, aggregating, and computing individual vs collective well-being. Some methods can produce “repugnant” results for individuals and minorities, and even for the whole population in some instances. These are mostly methodological issues.
The biosphere and well-being of future generations must also be taken into account in GU2, and the means for achieving maximum utility must conform with certain axiomatic constraints such as justice and allowance for prior conditions. For example, if maximum utility prescribes a population smaller than presently exists, the population goal must be achieved via natural attrition rather than mass extermination.
Further, the goal of GU2 is not to force people autocratically into conformity with some computed state of maximum utility. The idea is make information about the consequences of possible choices available in the expectation that such information will affect the choosers. The GU2 model would allow the results of changes to any variable to be distributed across all knowledge domains and the consequences estimated.
As goodgraydrab put it so well, “empirical evidence can significantly alter the notion of support for “justification” and “means,” while at the same time examining the validity and motivation for the “ends,” over unfounded supernatural biblical belief and political greed.”
Since in the end people still have to decide how to weigh variables and how apply GU2 information, the results of maximizing utility should not violently contradict generic, intuitive attitudes towards well-being. The hope is more that such empirical knowledge would SHAPE such attitudes for the better.
The following is little more than a brainstorming effort, but I think its helpful to have some concrete iteration of an idea to work from.
A CRUDE TAXONOMY OF WELL-BEING/FLOURISHING/QUALITY OF LIFE
II. Happiness (mental/emotional state)
Note: possibility of real-time monitoring of some factors
III. Health & longevity (many dimensions)
IV. Safety/security (ditto)
V. Freedom/constraint/capability (ditto)
- Formal education
- Self education
- implicit associations and biases
- conscious values/beliefs
- strengths and weaknesses
- effective/ineffective reinforcement history
D. Beliefs and opinions
E. Cognitive and communication skills
- cognitive deficits
VII. Social matrix
VIII. Skills & abilities (academic, technical, mechanical, professional, athletic, parenting, housekeeping, etc.)
IX. Standard-of-living factors
X. Other quality of life factors
XI. Contributions and Costs to the flourishing of others (including ecosystem impacts: carbon footprint, resource footprint, etc.)
It is important to note that various instruments already exist to measure nearly all the parameters in the above table and thus create well-being “profiles” of individuals and groups.
The next level of developing the GU2 model would be to correlate every species of data in the profile so that a change in one variable would be reflected in any others where a relationship was known. So the GU2 framework is a model of both data and relational algorithms.
The GU2 framework might be thought of as analogous to the control board in a recording studio. All the individual parameters of the sounds on multiple “tracks” can be adjusted and combined in an infinite number of ways but somehow one particular set of levels gets chosen as the most pleasing combination. The old-school theories of philosophy, economics, politics, and social welfare might be analogous to the generic rock/pop/jazz settings on a cheap acoustic equalizer. GU2 encourages a much more granular, eclectic, and empirical approach to altering parameters and measuring results, either as simulations or as interventions in the real world.
What is the goal?
Everyone has multiple goals with some degree of overlap and conflict. The best way I know to express the overall goal of General Utility 2.0 is this: to enhance the process of evolution. What I mean by evolution is the on-going emergence of new and increased capacities and capabilities in the biosphere and its parts, including but not limited to ourselves.
What happens if we maximize the biomass of human neurons on the planet and minimize the mass of human fat cells? This is a far-fetched question even in the context of GU2. But the current impossibility of simulating such scenarios is not a bad reason for investing in GU2.
Utility is actually implicit in everything we do. The goal of GU2 is to make it explicit. This will seem like a bad idea to some. Many may feel, not without some justification, that such knowledge is dangerous. The funny thing about knowledge, though, is that a little bit is more dangerous than a lot.
The brain is a powerful utility-computing device, but it is an analog device with many eccentric, ad hoc methods for doing its job. An increasing number of brains are becoming aware of this limitation and they are developing science and technology to enhance the power and quality of utility computation. These rational cognitive prosthetics, enhancements, and quality controls are vital because the biological brain is not able to evolve rapidly enough to deal with changing environmental conditions.
Some rational utility computations will no doubt conflict with eccentric brain-based computations. Many of our human eccentricities may be relatively harmless. Some may be essential to who we are. Certainly some are beautiful to us and are deeply cherished. Unfortunately, some are also responsible for a great deal of human suffering and environmental damage. Sorting it all out will not be easy or painless but that is the goal of GU2.
I would also say that a goal of GU2 is for humanity to achieve greater moral-ethical maturity–i.e, to put away childish, pre-scientific notions of morality and to grow up.
Health Index: A Hypothetical Index to Assess the Health of a Society w/ Daniel Schmachtenberger, Published on Jun 2, 2021
The articles below are just what I happen to have stumbled across lately–they are more a random sampling of material on the topics than a representative one.
The Brain in Love (BigThink.com)
–Fisher, H., et at., “Romantic Love: And fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice.”
A scientific consensus on human morality (openparachute)
How Neuroscience Is Changing the Law (BigThink.com)
— Langleben, D., “Detection of deception with fMRI: Are we there yet?”
— Jones, O. et al. “The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment.”
The Neurobiology of Evil (BigThink.com)
— Gao, Yu, et al. “Association of Poor Childhood Fear Conditioning and Adult Crime.”
— Davidson, R. et al. “Dysfunction in the Neural Circuitry of Emotion Regulation — A Possible Prelude to Violence.”
— Raine, A., and Yang, Y. “Neural foundations to moral reasoning and antisocial behavior.”
— DeLisi, M., et al. “The Criminology of the Amygdala.”
Neuroethics: The Neuroscience Revolution, Ethics, and the Law (Santa Clara University)
The Neuroethics Project (The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE))
Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, et al. 2009 PLoS ONE 4(10): e7272.
The Neurological Origins of Religious Belief (BigThink.com)
—Borg, J., et al. “The serotonin system and spiritual experiences.”
—Kapogiannis, D., et al. “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief.”
—Urgesi, C., et al. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence.”