12 August 2016

Your feelings don't determine ethics

I recently started reading the Odyssey by Homer.

Its always fun to see how entirely different cultures view the world, which things are apparently universal and which things we make assume to be universal but actually are specific to our own particular place and time.

For example, we think of empowered female sexuality as a recent invention, appearing only after modern feminism, but in the ancient Greek story, as patriarchal as any culture, the hero is held captive for seven years as the demi-goddess Calypso's personal sex slave (though in his heart, he wanted always to be faithful to his wife back home).  Another time the witch Circe, having turned all his soldier into pigs for future eating, decides, upon learning that he is the legendary Odysseus, not to turn him into a pig after all - on condition that he have sex with her; which he agrees to only on the condition that she turn his companions back into human afterwards.

But what really struck me was realizing how the worldwide human sense of morality appears to have made a fundamental and permanent change following the creation of the League of Nations (the original UN) and the various Geneva conventions.  They date back as far as 1864, but on the time scale of human civilization that is a trivial time span.

Today, a culture which violates certain specific international agreements is considered by the rest of the world to be the very embodiment of evil - using chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, deliberately killing civilians or captives, or taking advantage of an occupation to engage in theft, rape, or slavery.
Oddly enough, shooting people, blowing them up, and restricting access to food and other necessities is considered entirely normal and acceptable behavior...

The Odyssey was written at least 2500 years before the first Geneva conference.

In it, the hero and his compatriots are considered, well, heros.  Odysseus is gracious, kind, generous, and brave.
Upon reaching a new land, Odysseus asks himself "mankind again! But who? Savages, are they, strangers to courtesy?  Or gentle folk, who know and fear the gods?".
In fact, the majority of people in this world are good people - almost every time a traveler or party of travelers comes across a random new civilization, the local leadership invites them in, offers them food and drink, baths and gifts, and a place to sleep, even before asking the names, origins, and destinations of their guests.  This shows their civility, and is spoken of as though it were expected, the default actions to take with unknown strangers.

These actions are in contrast to the Cyclops, who is brutish and uncivilised: "louts, without a law... Cyclops have no muster and no meeting, no consultation or old tribal ways, but each dwells in his own mountain cave, dealing out rough justice to wife and child, indifferent to what the other's do".  They meet a particular Cyclops in person when they get caught raiding his cave, and immediately demand that he fulfil the custom of giving them gifts, to which he responds that he will give Odysseus the gift of eating him last, and proceeds to eat 2 others of the group.
In contrast also is a tale of Aigisthus, who, upon learning that the husband of the woman he has been having an affair with is returning from battle, sets up a feast as a trap, and with his friends murders him and his company while they are unsuspecting at dinner.  He is a "tyrant", making "crooked arrangements", making clear that the author does not believe that "all is fair in love and war".  Using deception to gain the upper hand is a dirty trick.

And yet, despite the diplomacy expected of strangers, and the fair fight expectations in conflict, Odysseus and other's recounting the tale of the Trojan Horse show no sign what-so-ever of remorse, guilt, or shame at the creation of their own sneaky trap to best their supposed enemies.
It is worth noting the context - the people of the city of Troy had done nothing at all to the Greeks. Due to the meddling of a Goddess, the Greek king's wife fell in love with the king of Troy, and then as a result by her own choice, she went to Troy.
As a result the Greeks sent a small army to retrieve her - but when they finally breech the cities defenses, instead of merely "rescuing" (or would that be kidnapping?) the queen, they kill all of the male (civilian) residents of the city, and kill some women and children, while keeping others alive to be slaves.   "we plundered [Troy's] town and tower... At dawn we...stowed aboard all our plunder and the slave women"
After leaving Troy, the group of soldiers led by Odysseus comes across another city, Kikones, and, taking the civilian inhabitants there by surprise, "I stormed that place and killed the men who fought.  Plunder we took, and we enslaved the women to make division, equal shares to all"
No mention is made of why they felt this was appropriate, (though it is mentioned briefly in the prequel that they may have been allies of Troy).

These are the good guys!  The heros of the story, whom we follow and are supposed to sympathize with.  And not in the Sawyer on Lost or Spike on Buffy "anti-hero" sort of way, they, and Odesyus in particular, are portrayed as noble and gallant, righteous and honorable.
Apparently slaughtering innocent people and taking slaves was simply not considered to be in conflict with that.

This, in turn, reminds me of the rules of criminal sub-cultures, and of some economically poor sub-cultures in which crime is so high that even non-criminals begin to adopt elements of criminal culture.
Where is normal society doing bad things is considered bad, in these cultures informing someone that someone else has done something bad is considered bad.  In fact, letting someone with the power to right a wrong know what has been done is usually considered even worse than the initial wrong itself.  So, for example, one might recognize that murder is wrong, "snitching" to the cops is even worse.  And it isn't just an issue of formal (White) authorities - informing the victim themselves, of, say, who was responsible for a theft, is "snitching". Even informing a potential victim before a crime has happened can be considered snitching.  Among sub-cultures that use that word, snitching is one of the worst things a person can do, and anyone known for it is the lowest of the low.  Were this just the take of the perpetrators themselves it would be clearly self-serving and could be merely a practical consideration, but the fact that this sense of "morality" can extend even to people who don't do anything wrong suggests it is more than just that.

What it really is, what both of these examples can be distilled to, is the sense of "morality" of loyalty.

Here it is important to note the distinction between "moral" and "ethical".  They are often used interchangeably, and even sometimes used in each other's definition's, but the etymology of each word gives them subtle but significant differences.
Morals refers specifically to cultural norms, customs and societal norms.  As such, they easily can and do vary from place to place.
The meaning of ethics, in contrast, does not take society or culture into consideration.  Generally this is taken as referring more to individual character, but this should not be mistaken for meaning that each individual can arbitrarily set their own values, relativistic style.  Of the two, ethics is considered to more represent the idea of universal "right and "wrong", "good and bad", as opposed to morality, which tends to be more closely associated with religious or other external doctrine.

So, for example, eating certain foods or marrying certain people may be considered immoral in one place or time but not others, but (outside of war), murder, theft, and rape are considered unethical everywhere.

Underlying the common concept of both, however, is an instinct.
As Psychology Today puts it:

For a topic as subjective as morality, people sure have strong beliefs about what's right and wrong. Yet even though morals can vary from person to person and culture to culture, many are universal, as they result from basic human emotions. We may think of moralizing as an intellectual exercise, but more frequently it's an attempt to make sense of our gut instincts.
They aren't wrong.
This is perhaps the single most important thing to understand about the common human sense of morality and ethics, and yet extremely few people seem to be aware of it - perhaps even fewer fully acknowledge the implications it holds.

Just as our legs evolved to help us move around, our teeth to bite off and grind food into swallowable and easily digestible mush, our lungs and heart to get oxygen to all the far reaches of the body, so to our brains evolved to help deal with specific challenges to existing, surviving, and propagating our genes in an environment which doesn't care one way or another what happens to us.
Our emotions are a product of our mind, which in turn is a product of the brain, and so (unless you happen to be a Creationist), it stands to reason that our emotions themselves must have evolved too; and for some adaptive purpose, at that.

Simply being "good" for the sake of being good wouldn't increase an individual's chances of having their genes survive for the infinite generations to come.
However, like many other species, humans are fairly frail, weak, and defenseless by themselves, and therefore tend to congregate into groups.

Since we naturally live in social groups, evolving a mind suited for harmonious group living is biologically advantageous.

And from that stems all of our "gut feelings" about ethics.

All emotion is a way for the genes to control an individual with free will - especially when the interests of the individual and the interests of the gene may diverge.  Most obviously, getting us to feel "love" for our offspring manipulates us into devoting resources to an individual other than one's self, which has a cost for the individual, but is absolutely vital for the genes.

Similarly, from an individual stand point, the best course of action is always to do whatever is best for one's self, but if everyone does that, everyone loses.
The solution is for everyone to agree to the same set of rules (with consequences for anyone who breaks them).  In a primitive society, with no form of governance, never mind a legal system or constitution, what way is there for the genes to ensure individuals behave in such a way as to allow a complex society to function, other than to manipulate each individual's emotions such that they want to do what is best for the group (even when it isn't necessarily what is best for themselves)?

An easy way to see how the emotions associated with ethics and morality are directly related to the survival of one's genes is to look at how those feelings vary in proportion to how many genes you share with another individual.

At the top, of course, is one's own children.  Not only do they share as many genes with you as anyone else in the world, but they are your gene's ticket to hanging around in the next generation.
Little wonder, then, that most people's top priority in life is ensuring the survival of their own children, and usually making their lives as good as possible.
Following that we tend to prioritize first order family - siblings and parents - as well as grandchildren, followed by nieces and nephews.  While not being as direct a lineage, these people (and their children) still share a disproportionate amount of genes (compared to some random person), and as such, would make sense, from a biological standpoint, to prioritize too.
After family, loyalty tends toward one's immediate neighbors, followed by all members of whatever political unit one considers themselves a part of - the tribe, the kingdom, the country.  In the days before planes, trains, and ships, all these people most likely shared at least your ethnicity, and the closer geographically a person lived to you, the more genes you likely had in common.

But the proportional feelings of morality by relatedness don't stop there.  We naturally feel much more care and affinity for large mammals than small ones, and any size mammal compared to birds, amphibians, or reptiles.  We ascribe more inherent moral value to vertebrates than to insects or crustaceans or worms.  And of the few who give those animals more than zero consideration, even they are unlikely to feel guilty about harming a plant or fungus.

It just so happens that we have a reasonably strong rationalization available to intellectually justify this prejudice toward other living things which have more DNA in common with us.  As far as is knowable, it seems there may very well be a continuum of degree of consciousness.  Having no central information processing ability, in fact no nervous system at all, it is very unlikely that plants, fungus, or bacteria can experience anything like what we would call the conscious experience of pain or pleasure.  Lacking any ability to feel, the terms "good" and "bad" have no meaning, and therefore it may in fact be reasonable not to extend the concept of ethics to these living things.
When it comes to other animals, it becomes much harder to know, but there is some reason to believe that simpler creatures act more on instinct and less on feeling, that in fact it may be possible for them to engage in all of their various behaviors without having any real self-awareness.  If their actions are all instinct, then they would have no motivation to evolve feelings of happiness or sadness (though anything which can reason is likely to at least evolve senses of pleasure and pain)

But just because the rationalization may possibly hold some water does not make it any less a rationalization.  The argument breaks down once you observe the behavior of other mammals, especially social ones, who care for their children, cooperate in groups, and in some species, clearly grieve their dead.  Yet most people, for all of time, are able to extend the same lack of ethical consideration to mammals as they do insects.
The difference isn't just based on whether they can feel.  It is primarily a question of how much DNA do they share with you.

We share 99.9% of our DNA pattern with every other human being. We share 98% of our genes with chimps and have 84% DNA in common with dogs.  It drops to 64% with chickens, about 40% with insects, and less than 20% with plants.
Of that last 0.1% that can vary among humans, approximately 1/2 of that is the same between a person and their parents, children, and siblings (99.95%).  Among 2nd order relatives it is 1/4.
Another person of your own race is genetically 10-15% more similar to you than someone from a completely different population.

If the ultimate goal of the feelings is to direct your actions in such a way to give the best chance that your own gene's will survive, then this would be exactly the best way for us to feel, right down the line from close relatives to neighbors to non-humans.  If you help your cousin survive, and they carry most of the same genes you have, then you have just helped your genes survive, just as surely as if you helped your children.  But since you kids are twice as related, chances are you would risk at least twice as much to help them.  People will sacrifice much more to save their dog than their houseplant, but not nearly as much as their children.
(Well, most people, anyway).

If the feeling of morality specifically, evolved largely to facilitate living in groups, then it shouldn't be surprising that morals are by definition concerned with group behavior and community standards.  And if the way to get individuals to go along with it is to grant them strong feelings, it shouldn't be surprising that we so easily mistake morality for something valid and true about the world.

In fact, this mistake is so prevalent, than even philosophers, who attempt to find the ultimate truth behind things, have, even upon closer inspection, continued to make it: "Ethical intuitionism" is one theory in the philosophy of ethics.

But if our intuitions evolved to guide group behavior for the practical consideration of helping copies of our own genes survive, there is no particular reason to think those intuitions will have anything at all to do with anything which can said to be objectively good or bad.

This (cynical?) view on the feeling of ethics and morality does not imply that there is no such thing as an objective basis for right and wrong.  The existence of consciousness, and the ability of conscious beings to feel happy and sad, pleasure and pain, brings the concept of "goodness" and "badness" into existence,
Understanding that our feelings serve an evolutionary purpose merely suggests that our own emotions can not be trusted to reliably provide us with truly ethical conclusions.

What our intuitions should be expected to make us feel, instead, is exactly those 6 "moral foundations" proposed by Jonathan Haidt:
-care vs harm,
-fairness vs cheating,
-loyalty vs betrayal,
-authority vs subversion,
-sanctity vs degradation,
-liberty vs oppression.
All of these have obvious value in the context of helping create a harmonious society.
But, other than the first one, it would be hard to justify them in an objective frame work of objective ethics.

In order to successfully control our behavior, we have to feel like authority is a "moral" issue, even though following any given order is just as likely to bring more bad into the world than good. Loyalty to a family member or friend who you know is kidnapping and torturing people is clearly unethical, but in terms of creating group unity and promoting your own genes, it would in fact be the "right" thing to do.

When looked at this way, the examples where the rules of ethics don't apply in a military conflict, or where informing about someone doing harm is considered worse than the harm itself, begin to make perfect sense.  These are things which can feel right, because they are advantageous to the group, even if they aren't actually the "right" thing to do in any meaningful sense of the word.

We no longer live in tribes of 100 people.  We humans have developed complex societies, as well as philosophy and logic.  We recognize that some of our own instincts - most notably violence - and desires (for, say, junk food or unprotected causal orgies) are terrible ideas in practice, and should be repressed, both for the sake of individuals and society as  a whole.  We understand that anger, jealousy, shame, and other emotions are sometimes inappropriate, unhelpful, or even destructive. And (at lease most of us) recognize that while prejudices and assumptions may be perfectly natural, they are often wrong, and can be extremely destructive and negative if taken seriously or acted upon.

Unfortunately, relatively few people extend this same understanding of the limitations of human psychology and apply it to their feelings of ethics.

Liberals at least get it closer than conservatives: on each of the six topics which we have evolved to have feelings we mistake for ethics (care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty), conservatives consistently give much more weight to the latter 5 than do liberals.  The overriding principal of liberal morality, compassion, is most similar to the care/harm foundation.
It isn't readily apparent why that is though - it isn't as though liberals start with the idea of consciousness giving rise to "good" and making a series of logical conclusions from that premise.  They just have strong feelings about compassion.  They are doing essentially the same thing as the conservatives, they just happen to have their intuitions weighted differently.
This becomes apparent in some circumstances where they can not see past their own emotions of feeling bad for a particular group or individual to realize that a given proposal may actually do more harm than good overall (for example, "tear down all the prisons" or "disarm the police", minimum livability standards in housing, cash handouts for the homeless, or feeding feral animals without an accompanying spay/neuter program).

One thing that might help bridge the gap in socio-political debates, and help humans make choices that make the world a better place, would be if we, collectively, could realize that our intuitive feelings about good and bad, and what is objectively good and bad, are often to entirely different things.  Then maybe we could start to examine the specific issues point by point, rather than having a knee-jerk response and then looking for ways to justify it after the fact.  If we were able to question our own feelings, consider they might not be objectively valid, it might become easier to stop talking past each other in debates over what "should" be done.

Is it possible?  I don't know.  I'm not the first to come up with these basic ideas, not by far.  The entire branch of ethical philosophy called "utilitarianism" got it long ago, and has plenty of supporters.
Why don't we try it right now?

Go here: http://www.yourmorals.org/explore.php
Sign up (its free and anonymous) and take a few of the surveys on ethics and morals.  In particular, pay attention to when your immediate gut answer says something is immoral which doesn't intrinsically actually hurt anyone.  Look for the conflicts, between your own feelings and whether the real life outcome would be good or bad if that feeling was acted on, between your own sense of "values" and actual harm or benefit.
If you can find any, and recognize it as such, then there just may be hope for us all yet.

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