Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, October 02, 2006


In response to my last post on free will, Nato writes:

As a matter of fact, the kind of compatibilist view of free will covers the general, day-to-day moral usage, since we generally want to know what people will do, ceteris paribus, to assign moral qualities to that person. Put another way, what we learn about a person from their actions depends on external factors that would tend to coerce that behavior.

When I differentiate moral analysis from strategic analysis in a reply, he says:

Knee-jerk assignment of moral content is first order, "natural" strategic analysis.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that moral and strategic analysis are at odds with each other, almost opposite ways of thinking. Moral analysis asks: "What is right?" Strategic analysis asks: "How can I turn this situation to my advantage?" In both cases, I am interested in the character of others, but for quite different reasons. In moral analysis, I feel indignant, or I admire. In strategic analysis, these feelings are luxuries I can't afford: I can't let my disdain for an unscrupulous trader blind me to an advantageous deal; I must resist the urge to make an alliance with a player that I admire for his principles, but who I foresee is doomed.

More fundamentally, it is the hallmark and the proof of ethical thinking that it sometimes calls for self-sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice of giving one's life. By contrast, in strategic analysis, at least as conceived as an extension of evolutionary survival-maximization, self-sacrifice is precisely what will never be done. (I'll put the issue of self-sacrifice for the sake of one's kin-- the "selfish gene"-- to one side for the moment.)

Now, it's true that moral analysis sometimes is also good strategic thinking. If I despise unscrupulous traders, it may help me to avoid being cheated by them. I suppose this is what Nato means when he calls "assignment of moral content" "`natural' strategic thinking." Ethics has sociobiological foundations: "conscience" evolves because it helps us to survive, by giving us instinctive aversions to people whose traits are not conducive to the development of cooperative relationships.

I don't buy it. For one thing, I dislike explanations that involves our "subconscious" or "instinct" or "socialization" playing tricks on us and making us think we think things for reasons other than the real reasons. I question whether there are really any grounds epistemically sound enough from which to launch a skeptical attack on introspection.

Even if our consciences are playing tricks on us, however; even if there is no real right and wrong, just sociobiologically-derived instincts that seem to us like transcendent ideals, surely the distinction between moral and strategic analysis still holds. Moral analysis serves sub-conscious forces impelling us towards patterns of behavior which benefit the species, i.e. our "selfish genes", which enter our thoughts as "moral principles" and emotions like indignation or admiration. At the level of deep programming, perhaps, it is strategic analysis, but not at the conscious level. Strategic analysis occurs at the conscious level, and we adopt more narrow ends-- "selfish individual" ends-- and then judge people's characters and likely courses of action so as to advance our own goals, and it is best if we prevent moral analysis from getting in the way.


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