Friday, 1 March 2013

Ethics as Winning Games

Note that this is part of a series.  Links are provided to where earlier topics were discussed.

One of the most intriguing issues in the field of ethics is the fact that while we may have what we consider to be morals (an understanding that something is wrong, possibly universally wrong) – we transgress against moral injunctions repeatedly.  We cheat, we steal, we kill and we lie.  Despite this, we insist that we are moral creatures and continue to hold our morals in high esteem, no matter how many times we do the opposite of what those morals tell us is the right thing to do.  Why should this be so?

We have discussed game theory, and hinted at the possibility that ethics derives from a form of ‘game’ playing.  One aspect of this should be clarified.  Game theory is not just about playing games – it is invariably about winning games.  Some might argue that for that very reason game theory, like a decision made in a war-like context - all being fair in love and war, has little to do with ethics and morality.  Ethics and morality, as the argument would run, is about what is right and what is wrong.

This is true enough, but when we specifically looked at the framework behind ethics and morality as it currently stands we ran into problems.  What was right was right because it was moral, what was moral was moral because it was right.  We thus got nowhere.  Divinely inspired morality also has inherent problems.  We are therefore left seeking a mundane basis for determining right from wrong.

What cannot be argued is that we each of us have an ethical structure of some sort.  By an ethical structure I mean a framework, or system, by which we determine what is right and what is wrong, ethically and morally.  Note that this is about determination, not identification.  Unless one is intellectually lazy, or dishonest, one can always explain why one thing is right, and another thing wrong.  It is agreed that sometimes this process ends in an axiomatic "it just is" statement, for example the Christian bible lists ten commandments that just are, having been provided by a god who just is, if one uses the bible as the basis of one's morality then one's ethical structure could be said to be based on the bible.  While "killing babies is wrong" is reasonably obvious to anyone bar a psychopath, we can still explain why it is wrong, even if we don't have to resort to books of questionable provenance.  When thinking ethically it is not sufficient to identify something as wrong, it is important to also be able to say why it is wrong.

It must be stressed that while we can make decisions about what is right or wrong within an ethical structure, the ethical structure itself has nothing to do with right and wrong.  In other words, an ethical structure itself is entirely amoral.  When generating an ethical structure one cannot call upon knowledge of right and wrong because until the ethical structure is at least partially assembled, there is no right and wrong.  The ethical structure tells you what is right and wrong.  If one attempts to build an ethical structure based on knowledge of what is right and wrong, it is not needed – because what is right and wrong is already known and you therefore already have an ethical structure.

So, what purpose does our ethical structures serve?  Many argue that ethical structures exist so we may know what is right and what is wrong.  This is hardly cogent because without the ethical structure, there is no right and wrong.  It is akin to saying that the television was invented with the express purpose of being able to watch television programs.  True, we can use the television to watch various fascinating programs, in the same way as we can use our ethical structures to determine what is right and what is wrong.  However, without the invention of the television, there would be no television programs to watch.

I suggest that our ethical structures help us to win a very special game, the only game in town - "survival".  Some may argue that winning the game of survival has nothing to do with ethics, but one cannot logically argue against the importance of the game.  There is no person alive today who has a direct ancestor who played the game of survival so poorly that they failed to produce at least one child.  The vast majority of Europeans, for instance, have relatives who survived successive waves of the Black Death.  Our ancestors have survived drought, famine, war and pestilence.  They managed to co-operate sufficiently with others in their societies such that they were not cast out to die beyond the city’s gate, executed for crimes or murdered – at least for a period of twenty to thirty years or so until they produced viable offspring. 

Furthermore, when the chips were down and it came to the survival of our ancestors and their circle of kin, or outsiders – our ancestors prevailed.  Our ancestors won and they won because they were consistently adequate at whatever ‘games’ they were faced with – they might not have won every single ‘game’, but they never lost one that really mattered.

Our ethical structures are extremely useful when it comes with interacting with other people, as can be seen with the benefits to Prasopgarn and Sukhum (see The Siamese Emperor) - their survival may depend on the efficacy of the imperative to keep one's promises (or the injunction against betrayal, or more simply against lying). 

There is more to an ethical structure than making up a list of things that are right and wrong, telling the world and leaving it at that.  There is good reason to believe that our ethical structures consist of not just arbitrary rules, but rather very special lies which we tell others so often that we effectively begin to believe the truth of them ourselves.  Consider the morality of theft.  This could be blandly stated as “Stealing is wrong.”  But why?  When it comes to most moral and ethical questions, most of us are really more concerned about the actions of other people rather than about imposing limits on ourselves.  We might say “I think that stealing is wrong”, but what we mean primarily is “I want you to think that stealing is wrong”.  We also mean “I want you to think that I think that stealing is wrong”. 

It’s clear that if you have a real moral injunction against stealing, then I do not have to invest effort in protecting my belongings from you.  However, there is a more insidious reason why an ethical structure with regard to stealing might benefit me.  If you truly believe that I have a moral injunction against stealing, you may trust me with your property.  This means that if I see an opportunity to take your belongings without detection, and I can be quite sure that you believe I would not have taken them even if I had the opportunity, due to my declared moral stance “I think that stealing is wrong”, then I may steal from you with a better chance of getting away with it than would otherwise be the case.

From the standpoint of our ancestors this makes considerable sense.  During times of plenty, no-one needed to take from anyone else – little was to be gained from stealing from each other.  At such times, though, our ancestors would have made an investment in the future by being overtly trustworthy and ostentatiously respecting other people’s property.  When times got bad, however, our ancestors cashed in on that trust to prevail over those who were overly trusting.

Those who failed to play the ‘trustworthiness’ game sufficiently well did not survive when recurring games, such as bartering at the local market, segued into an end game, such as during war or an extended period of famine.  Therefore, as a species, we have become extremely adept at convincing others that we have an ethical structure and moral values which we hold dear.  The more successful among us are also, however, quite adept at jettisoning those moral values when conditions change, when we are outside our normal social milieu, or when we think that no-one is watching.


This article is one of a series.  It was preceded by The Siamese Emperor - Part 2 and will be followed by Supreme Indifference and Inhumanity.  It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.

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