Saturday, July 10, 2010

Kantian moral sense and social evolution

A social "game" such as driving is a Prisoner's Dilemma game: If everyone drives safely, everyone is better off, but if everyone else is driving safely then there is an additional benefit to driving dangerously (and the costs of driving dangerously are externalized to the other drivers). Even if they prefer to drive safely, and even if they drive safely because that's supposedly the "right thing to do" in a Kantian sense, the negative consequences of driving safely while others are driving dangerously with no immediate consequences tend to select against safe driving.

Adding surveillance and enforcement (traffic tickets, governors on cars) changes the driving game to a win-win game: even those who would prefer to drive dangerously drive safely to avoid the immediate negative consequences, which should outweigh the positive benefits (e.g. getting to one's destination more quickly).

On the one hand, adding surveillance and enforcement would seem to undermine developing a Kantian moral sense, i.e. driving safely because it's the "right thing to do" rather than because it's beneficial, or driving safely because one directly prefers the mutual benefit to an exploitative benefit. Once we implement surveillance and enforcement, we cannot determine if any individual is driving safely for the "right" reasons (duty or mutual benefit) or the "wrong" reasons (avoidance of immediate consequences). In one sense, we simply don't care why anyone is driving safely; we'd rather have people driving safely for the "wrong" reasons than not driving safely at all. But in another sense, a surveillance and enforcement mechanism tends to develop a Kantian moral sense by selection.

Assume that one's preferences about driving exhibit heritable variation. Therefore, there will be three "memes" present in the population with some distribution:
  1. Directly prefers to drive safely (Kantian good)
  2. Directly prefers to drive unsafely, but indirectly prefers to drive safely because of enforcement (selfish good)
  3. Directly prefers to and actually does drive unsafely (bad)

It should be clear that variation in these memes is step-wise: It takes one "variation" to move from 1 to 2, 2 to 3 (or the reverse direction); it takes two "variations" to move from 1 to 3 or 3 to 1.

Without enforcement, there is of course no case 2, and thus there is no direct selection pressure against preferring to drive dangerously. Furthermore, since there is no direct selection pressure against driving dangerously, there will be selection pressure against driving safely: if there are enough people driving dangerously, driving safely just slows you down without reducing the risk of accident or injury. (Driving dangerously externalizes the risk of accident to all the drivers, not just oneself; accident or injury thus does not differentially select against driving dangerously.) Since there's a differential selection pressure against safe driving, we could expect that without enforcement almost everyone will drive dangerously. Anyone who'd driven in a country without strict traffic enforcement will immediately empirically confirm this prediction.

Adding enforcement, then, creates an immediate selection pressure against actually driving dangerously (assuming that traffic tickets exert a mimetic selection pressure), and one must of course first prefer to drive dangerously to actually drive dangerously. Therefore, the meme for preferring to and actually driving dangerously will be selected against.

Directly preferring to but not actually driving dangerously will not, of course, be selected against. However, this meme will vary in two directions: directly preferring to drive safely, and preferring to and actually driving dangerously. Assuming that variation is uniform (the probabilities of each meme varying to either adjacent meme is the same), then we will end up with an equal number of Kantian and selfish good drivers, with a smaller number of bad drivers.

If the variation is even a little bit non-uniform (i.e. selfish good drivers are more likely to become Kantian good drivers than bad drivers, and Kantian good drivers are less likely to become selfish good drivers) then the prevalence of Kantian good drivers becomes proportionally higher. We can expect non-uniform variation, because internal rational consideration itself acts as a selection mechanism.

In a non-Prisoner's Dilemma type game, however, selection pressures do not act so obviously.

In win-win games (where there's no tension between mutual and selfish benefit) we cannot distinguish between a Kantian and selfish moral good; everyone will do the right thing, and we can't determine if they do so because it's because "the right thing to do" or because it's in their immediate "selfish" benefit. In lose-lose games, a preference for mutual benefit does not apply, and it's difficult to make the case that everyone always losing should ever be a Kantian moral duty.

(Consider, for example, a proposed Kantian moral duty to express one's sexuality only by heterosexual intercourse. The detriment to some homosexual person who suppresses his natural sexuality to conform to this Kantian ideal seems obvious, and not only is there no benefit to me — I don't care how or with whom some stranger has sex — but because I value other people's happiness, this ideal poses a loss to me. The game is lose-lose; the opposite game — have safe, sane and consensual sex in any manner and with anyone you desire — is win-win. One reason I dislike Kantian ethics (even though it can be "fixed up" by reinterpreting a Kantian moral duty as preferring a mutual benefit over an unstable exploitative benefit) is precisely that the discourse of the "right thing to do" independent of any benefit lends some credence to the establishment of lose-lose games as Kantian duties. Indeed if the "right thing to do" really were independent of any sense of benefit, then there must be at least one moral duty beneficial to no one.)

Where we get into some complexity in a evolution/selection analysis is where — as in academic ethics, or professional football — we have a more abstract game which decides between two different zero-sum games. In this case, we must not just select against those who play the "wrong" game, but also not select as strongly against those who play the "right" zero-sum game and lose. Or, better yet, transform the game into one of mutual benefit, or create a more abstract game where the mutual benefits outweigh the losses from the less abstract game.

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