The Biology of Moral Systems (II)

There are multiple really great books I have read ‘recently’ and which I have either not blogged at all, or not blogged in anywhere near the amount of detail they deserve; Alexander’s book is one of those books. I hope to get rid of some of the backlog soon. You can read my first post about the book here, and it might be a good idea to do so as I won’t allude to material covered in the first post here. In this post I have added some quotes from and comments related to the book’s second chapter, ‘A Biological View of Morality’.

“Moral systems are systems of indirect reciprocity. They exist because confluences of interest within groups are used to deal with conflicts of interest between groups. Indirect reciprocity develops because interactions are repeated, or flow among a society’s members, and because information about subsequent interactions can be gleaned from observing the reciprocal interactions of others.
To establish moral rules is to impose rewards and punishments (typically assistance and ostracism, respectively) to control social acts that, respectively, help or hurt others. To be regarded as moral, a rule typically must represent widespread opinion, reflecting the fact that it must apply with a certain degree of indiscrimininateness.”

“Moral philosophers have not treated the beneficence of humans as a part, somehow, of their selfishness; yet, as Trivers (1971) suggested, the biologist’s view of lifetimes leads directly to this argument. In other words, the normally expressed beneficence, or altruism, of parenthood and nepotism and the temporary altruism (or social investment) of reciprocity are expected to result in greater returns than their alternatives.
If biologists are correct, all that philosophers refer to as altruistic or utilitarian behavior by individuals will actually represent either the temporary altruism (phenotypic beneficence or social investment) of indirect somatic effort [‘Direct somatic effort refers to self-help that involves no other persons. Indirect somatic effort involves reciprocity, which may be direct or indirect. Returns from direct and indirect reciprocity may be immediate or delayed’ – Alexander spends some pages classifying human effort in terms of such ‘atoms of sociality’, which are useful devices for analytical purposes, but I decided not to cover that stuff in detail here – US] or direct and indirect nepotism. The exceptions are what might be called evolutionary mistakes or accidents that result in unreciprocated or “genetic” altruism, deleterious to both the phenotype and genotype of the altruist; such mistakes can occur in all of the above categories” [I should point out that Boyd and Richerson’s book Not by Genes Alone – another great book which I hope to blog soon – is worth having a look at if after reading Alexander’s book you think that he does not cover the topic of how and why such mistakes might happen in the amount of detail it deserves; they also cover related topics in some detail, from a different angle – US]

“It is my impression that many moral philosophers do not approach the problem of morality and ethics as if it arose as an effort to resolve conflicts of interests. Their involvement in conflicts of interest seems to come about obliquely through discussions of individuals’ views with respect to moral behavior, or their proximate feelings about morality – almost as if questions about conflicts of interest arise only because we operate under moral systems, rather than vice versa.”

“The problem, in developing a theory of moral systems that is consistent with evolutionary theory from biology, is in accounting for the altruism of moral behavior in genetically selfish terms. I believe this can be done by interpreting moral systems as systems of indirect reciprocity.
I regard indirect reciprocity as a consequence of direct reciprocity occurring in the presence of interested audiences – groups of individuals who continually evaluate the members of their society as possible future interactants from whom they would like to gain more than they lose […] Even in directly reciprocal interactions […] net losses to self […] may be the actual aim of one or even both individuals, if they are being scrutinized by others who are likely to engage either individual subsequently in reciprocity of greater significance than that occurring in the scrutinized acts. […] Systems of indirect reciprocity, and therefore moral systems, are social systems structured around the importance of status. The concept of status implies that an individual’s privileges, or its access to resources, are controlled in part by how others collectively think of him (hence, treat him) as a result of past interactions (including observations of interactions with others). […] The consequences of indirect reciprocity […] include the concomitant spread of altruism (as social investment genetically valuable to the altruist), rules, and efforts to cheat […]. I would not contend that we always carry out cost-benefit analyses on these issues deliberately or consciously. I do, however, contend that such analyses occur, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, and that we are evolved to be exceedingly accurate and quick at making them […] [A] conscience [is what] I have interpreted (Alexander, 1979a) as the “still small voice that tells us how far we can go in serving our own interests without incurring intolerable risks.””

“The long-term existence of complex patterns of indirect reciprocity […] seems to favor the evolution of keen abilities to (1) make one’s self seem more beneficent than is the case; and (2) influence others to be beneficent in such fashions as to be deleterious to themselves and beneficial to the moralizer, e.g. to lead others to (a) invest too much, (b) invest wrongly in the moralizer or his relatives and friends, or (c) invest indiscriminately on a larger scale than would otherwise be the case. According to this view, individuals are expected to parade the idea of much beneficence, and even of indiscriminate altruism as beneficial, so as to encourage people in general to engage in increasing amounts of social investment whether or not it is beneficial to their interests. […] They may also be expected to depress the fitness of competitors by identifying them, deceptively or not, as reciprocity cheaters (in other words, to moralize and gossip); to internalize rules or evolve the ability to acquire a conscience, interpreted […] as the ability to use or own judgment to serve our own interests; and to self-deceive and display false sincerity as defenses against detection of cheating and attributions of deliberateness in cheating […] Everyone will with to appear more beneficent than he is. There are two reasons: (1) this appearance, if credible, is more likely to lead to direct social rewards than its alternatives; (2) it is also more likely to encourage others to be more beneficent.”

“Consciousness and related aspects of the human psyche (self-awareness, self-reflection, foresight, planning, purpose, conscience, free will, etc.) are here hypothesized to represent a system for competing with other humans for status, resources, and eventually reproductive success. More specifically, the collection of these attributes is viewed as a means of seeing ourselves and our life situations as others see us and our life situations – most particularly in ways that will cause (the most and the most important of) them to continue to interact with us in fashions that will benefit us and seem to benefit them.
Consciousness, then, is a game of life in which the participants are trying to comprehend what is in one another’s minds before, and more effectively than, it can be done in reverse.”

“Provided with a means of relegating our deceptions to the subconsciousness […] false sincerity becomes easier and detection more difficult. There are reasons for believing that one does not need to know his own personal interests consciously in order to serve them as much as he needs to know the interests of others to thwart them. […] I have suggested that consciousness is a way of making our social behavior so unpredictable as to allow us to outmaneuver others; and that we press into subconsciousness (as opposed to forgetting) those things that remain useful to us but would be detrimental to us if others knew about them, and on which we are continually tested and would have to lie deliberately if they remained in our conscious mind […] Conscious concealment of interests, or disavowal, is deliberate deception, considered more reprehensible than anything not conscious. Indeed, if one does not know consciously what his interests are, he cannot, in some sense, be accused of deception even though he may be using an evolved ability of self-deception to deceive others. So it is not always – maybe not usually – in our evolutionary or surrogate-evolutionary interests to make them conscious […] If people can be fooled […] then there will be continual selection for becoming better at fooling others […]. This may include causing them to think that it will be best for them to help you when it is not. This ploy works because of the thin line everybody must continually tread with respect to not showing selfishness. If some people are self-destructively beneficent (i.e., make altruistic mistakes), and if people often cannot tell if one is such a mistake-maker, it might be profitable even to try to convince others that one is such a mistake-maker so as to be accepted as a cooperator or so that the other will be beneficent in expectation of large returns (through “mistakes”) later. […] Reciprocity may work this way because it is grounded evolutionarily in nepotism, appropriate dispensing of nepotism (as well as reciprocity) depends upon learning, and the wrong things can be learned. [Boyd and Richerson talk about this particular aspect, the learning part, in much more detail in their books – US] Self-deception, then may not be a pathological or detrimental trait, at least in most people most of the time. Rather, it may have evolved as a way to deceive others.”

“The only time that utilitarianism (promoting the greatest good to the greatest number) is predicted by evolutionary theory is when the interests of the group (the “greatest number”) and the individual coincide, and in such cases utilitarianism is not really altruistic in either the biologists’ or the philosophers’ sense of the term. […] If Kohlberg means to imply that a significant proportion of the populace of the world either implicitly or explicitly favors a system in which everyone (including himself) behaves so as to bring the greatest good to the greatest number, then I simply believe that he is wrong. If he supposes that only a relatively few – particularly moral philosophers and some others like them – have achieved this “stage,” then I also doubt the hypothesis. I accept that many people are aware of this concept of utility, that a small minority may advocate it, and that an even smaller minority may actually believe that they behave according to it. I speculate, however, that with a few inadvertent or accidental exceptions, no one actually follows this precept. I see the concept as having its main utility as a goal towards which one may exhort others to aspire, and towards which one may behave as if (or talk as if) aspiring, which actually practicing complex forms of self-interest.”

“Generally speaking, the bigger the group, the more complex the social organization, and the greater the group’s unity of purpose the more limited is individual entrepreneurship.”

“The function or raison d’etre [sic] of moral systems is evidently to provide the unity required to enable the group to compete successfully with other human groups. […] the argument that human evolution has been guided to some large extent by intergroup competition and aggression […] is central to the theory of morality presented here”.


June 29, 2017 - Posted by | Anthropology, Biology, Books, Evolutionary biology, Genetics, Philosophy

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