The Axiological Treadmill

The obvious reason that Moloch is the enemy is that it destroys everything we value in the name of competition and survival. But this is missing the bigger picture. We value what we value because, in our ancestral environment, those tended to be the things that helped us with competition and survival. If the things that help us compete and survive end up changing, then evolution will ensure that the things we value change as well.

To borrow a metaphor: Elua cheats. The hedonic treadmill has nothing on the axiological treadmill.

Consider a thought experiment. In Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander dreams up a dictatorless dystopia:

Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.

Even if this system came into being ex nihilo it probably wouldn’t be stable in reality; a population that spends eight hours a day receiving strong shocks isn’t going to be able to feed itself, or reproduce. But assume for a moment that this system starts out economically and biologically stable (that is, people can still eat, and reproduce at the rate of replacement, despite the electric shocks, and that there are no outside countries ready to invade). What do we expect to happen over the long run?

Well, obviously there’s a strong evolutionary pressure to be tolerant to electric shocks. People who can tolerate those shocks better will do better on average than those who can’t. However, there’s another more subtle pressure at play: the pressure to ensure you shock yourself. After all, if you forget to shock yourself, or choose not to, then you are immediately killed. So the people in this country will slowly evolve reward and motivational systems such that, from the inside, it feels like they want to shock themselves, in the same way (though maybe not to the same degree) that they want to eat. Shocking themselves every day becomes an intrinsic value to them. Eventually, it’s no longer a dystopia at all.

They would be aghast at a society like ours, where Moloch has destroyed the value of receiving electrical shocks, all in the name of more perfect competition.

Where the Magic Happens

A quick follow-up Q&A to some comments received (both publicly and directly) on this post. The comments and questions have been heavily paraphrased.

But what actually is moral capital? That doesn’t seem to be what those words mean.

I’m using it per Haidt, and I agree the definition he gives isn’t quite in line with what you’d maybe intuit based on the words “moral” and “capital”. In The Righteous Mind he defines it fairly precisely but also fairly technically. I won’t quote it here, but this link has the relevant pages. Better yet, the New York Times has a decent paraphrase: “norms, prac­tices and institutions, like religion and family values, that facilitate cooperation by constraining individualism”. Between the two of them those links do a pretty decent job sketching out the full idea.

But is it really true that societies with more moral capital are healthier, happier, more efficient etc? What specific claims are you making?

I am unfortunately running off of intuition and some half-remembered bits of Haidt’s book (now returned to the library), but I can at least gesture in the right direction. There’s lots of work showing that belonging to a tightly-knit social community is good for happiness and mental health. Think religious communities, or very small towns; the most stereotypical examples in my mind (combining both religion and small town) are an Israeli kibbutz, or an Amish village. If I remember correctly, Lost Connections by Johann Hari has a good summary of a bunch of this research and related arguments.

Similarly, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence in the business world (it’s a more recent phenomenon there so I don’t know if it’s been formally studied yet) that the most competitive and efficient businesses are the ones that can foster this kind of belonging in their employees. It’s certainly working for Netflix and Shopify.

Being highly aligned and high in moral capital doesn’t prevent conflict or “bad politics” though?

It definitely doesn’t prevent conflict. It definitely does help prevent bad politics. In a high-moral-capital political environment, the conflicts that arise will be about means, not ends. It might be instructive to look at, for example, progressive and conservative opinions on safe injection sites. Progressives tend to believe in reducing harm. As such, two progressives debating safe injection sites will be able to have a well-reasoned and fairly trust-based debate about whether safe injection sites, or harsher penalties for possession, or this, or that, will have the best effect of reducing harm. They have different means, but the same end, so they ultimately feel like they’re on the same side.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are worried not just about the individual harm of drug use, but also its effect on moral capital. To a conservative, safe injection sites are likely a non-starter because while they do reduce harm, they have the net effect of enabling drug use and the concomitant erosion of moral capital. A conservative and a progressive debating safe injection sites are looking for fundamentally different things, a gap which is much harder to bridge with social trust.

Isn’t there a middle ground between a perfectly aligned but un-free society, and one that devolves into anarchy?

Of course there is, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. We are, quite literally, living it. But since I was writing for a primarily progressive audience who wants to move towards more personal freedom, I tried to emphasize the conservative side of the argument more. There are dangers in too much personal freedom, and advantages in requiring some conformity from a group.

How exactly is this a utilitarian argument for conservative politics? Your argument missed a step somewhere.

Yup, sorry, I over-summarized. To be a bit more explicit:

  • Societies with more moral capital tend to be happier, healthier, more efficient, etc. than their counterparts with less. This is what utilitarians want.
  • Conservative policies tend to focus on creating moral capital, at the expense of personal freedoms and preventing harm.
  • Progressive policies tend to focus on personal freedoms and preventing harm, at the cost of destroying moral capital.

(Obviously utilitarians tend to want to boost personal freedom and prevent harm too. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s a matter more of priorities than of absolute preference.)

Progressives want as few people to suffer as possible even if it inconveniences the majority, while Conservatives want to promote sameness and fairness as much as possible even if some people slip through the cracks.

Not actually a question, but a really good paraphrase of part of the argument I’m presenting here, and part of the argument Haidt makes in his book. It misses some dimensions (e.g. weighing personal freedom of choice into the mix for progressives, not just the avoidance of suffering), but very broadly Haidt is pointing out this distinction and then saying roughly “either side is terrible when taken to its ultimate extreme; we must find a balance”.

Applying Genetic Principles to Memetics

Fortunately I don’t have to write much for this particular post, since I’m tired 🙂

When talking about genetics we covered a bunch of interesting ideas and principles: lethal genes, timebombs, diversity, competition, stable strategies, and the so-called “selfish gene“. We’ve just spent some time discussing the interesting principles of memes, and surprise (surprise!) all of the above ideas/principles that we covered in genetics apply as well (sometimes with a bit of tweaking) to memetics.

Beyond pointing that out, there isn’t a lot else I wanted to say. Genes and memes have their differences, but as units of mutation and selection they have way more in common than a lot of people tend to realize.

Diversity, Competition, and Stable Strategies

Having covered a couple of conceptual building-blocks, we can start putting them together and seeing what effects they have.

Through the combination of random variation and inheritance, we know that sometimes children will have new or different genes from those of their parents, but that most of the time they will have very similar genes. Since genes are connected to actual properties of living things, this means that sometimes children will be born with new, different or unusual properties not shared by their parents. Over grand time scales, this leads to diversity, even if the starting population is relatively homogenous. Some people will end up with blue eyes, some with brown; some people will end up with red hair, some with black hair.

Now note that in general, living beings are in competition with each other for resources (human beings count here too, though the competition is much more subtle in modern society; I will deal with this point more in later posts). Survival of the fittest comes into play here, and we know that genetics has an impact on physical properties. Together, this means (for example) that a giraffe with a gene for extra tallness may be able to eat off taller trees that the other giraffes can’t reach, thus surviving and passing on that gene.

Putting those two points together, this leads to an interesting situation. Random variation provides natural diversity, and survival of the fittest trims that diversity so that only the best genetic variants survive. The result tends statistically into what are called “stable strategies“. After some period of time, a combination of genes naturally occurs which produces properties that make the animals particularly well-suited to their environment. They don’t just survive, they begin to thrive. Their offspring may have random variations on this set of genes, but effectively all major variations end up being worse than the original. As such, the same set of near-optimal genes gets passed down stably, generation after generation.