Atemporal Ethical Obligations

[All the trigger warnings, especially for the links out. I’m trying to understand and find the strongest version of an argument I heard recently. I’m not sure if I believe this or not.]

Edit: This was partly a hidden argument ad absurdum. I thought it was weird enough to make that obvious, but I forgot that this is the internet (and that I actually have people reading my blog who don’t know me IRL).

It is no longer enough just to be a “good person” today. Even if you study the leading edge of contemporary morality and do everything right according to that philosophy, you are not doing enough. The future is coming, and it will judge you for your failures. We must do better.

This may sound extreme, but it is self-evidently true in hindsight. Pick any historical figure you want. No matter their moral stature during their lifetime, today we find something to judge. George Washington owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln, despite abolishing slavery in the United States, opposed black suffrage and inter-racial marriage. Mary Wollstonecraft arguably invented much of modern feminism, and still managed to write such cringe-worthy phrases as “men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue [than women]”. Gandhi was racist. Martin Luther King Jr abetted rape. The list goes on.

At an object level, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Society has made and continues to make a great deal of moral progress over time. It’s almost natural that somebody who lived long ago would violate our present day ethical standards. But from the moral perspective, this is an explanation, not an excuse; these people are still responsible for the harm their actions caused. They are not to be counted as “good people”.

It’s tempting to believe that today is different; that if you are sufficiently ethical, sufficiently good, sufficiently “woke” by today’s standards, that you have reached some kind of moral acceptability. But there is no reason to believe this is true. The trend of moral progress has been accelerating, and shows no signs of slowing down. It took hundreds of years after his death before Washington became persona non grata. MLK took about fifty. JK Rowling isn’t even dead yet, and beliefs that would have put her at the liberal edge of the feminist movement thirty years ago are now earning widespread condemnation. Moral progress doesn’t just stop because it’s 2020. This trend will keep accelerating.

All of this means that looking at the bleeding edge of today’s moral thought and saying “I’m living my life this way, I must be doing OK” is not enough. Anybody who does this will be left behind; in a few decades, your actions today will be recognized as unethical. The fact that you lived according to today’s ethical views will explain your failings, but not excuse them. Thus, in order to be truly good people, we must take an active role, predict the future of moral progress, and live by tomorrow’s rules, today.

Anything else is not enough.

Two More Weird Moral Rules

In my previous post I unpacked a number of moral rules I’d developed as a child trying to be clever and hack adult morality. What I didn’t quite realize when I published it was that the list incomplete – now that I’m actively paying attention to my moral intuitions I keep running across additional things which belong on the list. Here are more things that are still part of my psyche in some way.

Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. I’d originally just edited this into the previous post after the fact, but now that I’ve found more rules it deserves a proper write-up too. This one is really interesting because in practice I’m sure I still hyperbolically discount my choices a lot of the time. However it has led to some weirder personal choices which I’m still not sure are entirely wrong. For example, I don’t drink coffee for largely the same reason I don’t do heroin: the long-term costs of an addiction seem to outweigh the temporary benefits. Clearly most people don’t think this way (or at least don’t bother to think this way), and the cost-benefit analysis for coffee is not as clearly one-sided as it is for heroin, but… it still makes sense in my head. It’s also worth noting that I do drink coffee occasionally, as a tool to stay awake when e.g. driving long distances late at night. But this is reasonable because caffeine is much less addictive than heroin, so it can be more safely used as a tool in certain situations without developing a habit.

Another weird one this short-term-long-term rule has affected is how I listen to music. I’ve noticed that I tend to listen to my music at a much lower volume than other people, I never use earbuds (in-ear headphones) if I can avoid it, and if I’m in an environment that is noisy such as an airplane, I tend to prefer turning my music off rather than turning it up to compensate. My brain tells me I do this because I strongly value my future hearing much more than whatever marginal enjoyment I’d get from slightly louder music. I imagine this is mediated in part because, as a fairly musical person, half the music I “listen to” is entirely in my head anyway.

Never seek status or be seen to be seeking status. My brain argues that it’s a waste of resources since it actually lowers your status among the people who do the real work. I need to get my hair cut right now (it is getting sufficiently shaggy to start being a problem) and I was avoiding it because it felt wrong. Digging into this made me realize that the barber I’ve been going to was “too fancy”, and that I was actively making myself feel guilty for spending money on “status” services that weren’t “practical” enough. There’s a clear kernel of truth behind this one; “shallow”, “vain”, etc. are all pejorative for a reason. And I’m sure a lot of it can be traced back to this Paul Graham essay which I have probably referenced way too much in the history of this blog now. But still, I’m clearly taking this rule too far. A haircut is a haircut.

Beyond those two additions, I want to leave one more thought on a group that showed up in my previous post: don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t double down, don’t learn things the hard way. These four rules are all underpinned by a pretty fundamental intuition which is: you are not as smart as the system. Other people know what’s what, and if you try and cheat them (or even just ignore their advice) it will go badly for you. What’s weird about this one is how false it seems to be in practice now. It was certainly true when I developed it (I was a kid, my parents are both very smart, and my mother at least is also very perceptive (hey dad!)) but now I’m fairly certain that I could lie and cheat circles around most people without getting caught. I don’t. And anyway the people I actively spend time with tend to be just as clever as me and unlikely to be fooled. But it’s weird to think of an alternative evil version of myself that has a very different social circle and is a creepy manipulative bastard, and gets away with it. I don’t want that life, but it seems achievable, which is scary enough.

A Meta-Morality Tale

As a child, you hear a lot of fables and morality tales. Most stories aimed at children have a moral of some sort, and even stories that aren’t explicitly aimed at kids typically have some sort of morality baked in. It’s hard to avoid when writing.

As a child, I noticed this and thought I was being very clever by trying to pattern-match my way from the collection of these morality tales to “general rules for life”. I didn’t frame it in quite this way at the time, but it seemed obvious that adults were trying to teach kids certain things about the world using repetition and variation on a theme, and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just formulate the rules into English and tell me them already. But I liked puzzles and so if they wouldn’t tell me I’d just figure it out myself. As I formulated my rules, I promised myself that I would follow them unconditionally. After all, I was being clever and unlocking the secrets to life “early” somehow, so if I just always did the right thing that should clearly be an advantage. Spoiler: it wasn’t.

Considerably rephrased for clarity, this is what I remember coming up with:

  • Always put the tribe first (I was later delighted when I found out that Star Trek did in fact state this explicitly as “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few”).
  • Always default to trust. Many more problems are caused by good people not trusting each other than are caused by bad actors.
  • Never try to cheat any system, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never lie, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never double down on a sin. Fess up and accept the smaller punishment instead of having to deal with the bigger punishment that inevitable comes when your house of cards collapses.
  • Never learn things the hard way (In other words always trust other peoples’ tales of their own experiences and lessons learned. If they say it was a bad idea, it really was a bad idea).
  • Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. [edited to add, then just moved to a whole new post]

Seeing them written out like this I’m still kinda impressed with young me. Some of these are actually pretty solid and most of them I still follow to some degree (I was and still am more of a deontologist than a utilitarian). But I’ve run into enough problems with them that of course I was not nearly as clever as I thought I was. In particular the issues I’ve run into most are:

  • “Put the tribe first” has led me down a fairly guilt-ridden self-sacrificing route a few too many times. If I had to pick a better alternative I’d hazard a guess that “Always cooperate” would address the same kinds of morality tales and prisoner’s dilemmas without casting as wide a net.
  • “Never lie” hasn’t caused me so many direct problems, but mostly because I did figure out pretty early that in fact there are higher ethical concerns. I’d still wager that I lie a lot less than the average person, but I am capable.
  • “Never learn things the hard way” has been a big problem in practice, though fairly subtly. The problems are that a) Not everyone has the same set of values, so what may be a bad idea for you might be a good idea for me, and b) Second-hand knowledge may substitute well for first-hand knowledge in abstract decision making, but it really doesn’t substitute at all in terms of life skills or self-actualization.

In summary: ethics is hard. If my parents had known this was going through my head at the time they probably could have saved a lot of trouble by just giving me Kant and Hume to read.

P.S. Now that I’ve given this a title I wish I had the energy to go back and rewrite it in the actual structure of a morality tale. Alas it is late and I am lazy.

Me-nies and We-nies: The Relative Merits of Individualism vs. Collectivism

Hi folks, I’ve got some very smart offline friends with things they occasionally want to share, so I’m giving some of them access to this blog to write posts. Their opinions are not my necessarily opinions (and vice-versa!) so the typical caveat lector applies. I likely won’t add this prefix in future, so if you’re not sure, please check the post author!

Scientists love playing with slime molds. One of their favourite games is arranging oats on a surface in such a way that maps the geographic locations of populations, and then watch the little goobers replicate our transportation networks. Despite being single-celled, brainless organisms, slime molds solve problems of population networking about as well as we do – if not better.[1]

While it was the media coverage of slime molds as tiny, gooey, civil engineers that first drew my attention to them, it was another characteristic of theirs that really piqued my curiosity: “When all is well, the slime mold thrives as a single-celled organism, but when food is scarce, it combines forces with its brethren, and grows.”[2] And it’s not just food scarcity that tempers the slime mold’s individualistic behavior. Physical threats, such as exposure to electric shocks or hot, dry air, slow the slime mold’s exploratory behavior.[3]

What struck me about the slime mold was how much it reminded me of what I was studying at the time, which dealt with differences between liberals and conservatives. Jonathan Haidt (‘The Righteous Mind’, et cetera) suggests that while liberals are more individual-oriented (“progressive” policies, focusing on personal rights and freedoms), conservatives are more collectivist-oriented (maintaining cultural traditions and protecting social order). I couldn’t help but wondering (in a half-joking kind of way) if people weren’t just complex slime molds, using elaborate post hoc rationalizations to explain a far more primitive set of responses to stimuli in our environment (real or perceived). After all, liberals are notoriously more open to new experiences, and conservatives are more sensitive to perceived physical threat. But if people really do behave like slime molds, then we should be able to do more than explain individual differences within the population. If humans truly fit the  slime mold (sorry), it is predicted that when exposed to threat, individualistic liberals would become more like their collectivist conservative cohorts – and research suggests that they do!

The political arena, true to its namesake, is a combative one, with liberals and conservatives constantly vying for dominance. If either had their way, this dominance would become permanent, as each side believes themselves to be the correct side – not just today, but always. If there is any truth to the idea that liberalism and conservatism are essentially fancy-pants versions of slime mold behavior, the implication would be that neither side is ultimately and forever right – only conditionally so. When times are good, resources are plentiful, and society is secure, an individualist approach may be the best one. However, when times are bad, resources are scarce, and society is threatened, we may be better served by a more collective approach. The question that should guide our actions then is this – to what extent is our current situation either one of plenty and security, or scarcity and threat?

Unfortunately, we are not necessarily accurate interpreters of our reality. Through some combination of innateness and socialization there are, at any given time, those of us who see the world through very different lenses. So, if we want to behave in a manner consistent with the realities of our world with more regularity, then liberals are going to have to start seeing the gorillas in their midst, and conservatives are going to have stop seeing death around every corner.


[1] Of COURSE there’s a TED Talk about them…
[2] Article
[3] In fact, if you zap the wee beasties at regular intervals, it will actually slow its roll in anticipation of the coming shock!