Thursday, 28 March 2013

Morality as Playing Games

In the series of articles preceding this one, I have built a case for a morality which could reasonably be expected to develop via evolution.

In The Moral Animal, I introduced the concept of moral agency and argued that even non-human animals demonstrate it.

In The Prisoners and The Farmers and Zero Sum Games, I discussed the moral aspects of two classic game theory scenarios.  I extended that discussion further when introducing the Siamese Emperor.

I have discussed the problems associated with trying define meaning into morality or imposing a level of Divine Command onto it.

In Towards A Rational Origin of Ethical Structures, I harked back to the idea of Ethics as Winning Games and also the concept of Supreme Indifference.  In this article, I touched briefly on the concept of an “ethical structure”, explaining what it does, but I didn’t explain fully what I mean by an ethical structure, or what an ethical structure is.

I want to pause for a moment before explaining my concept of an ethical structure in order to highlight something which might not be readily apparent to the reader approaching this for the first time, even though it may seem to be obvious in hindsight.

Things, acts, words, world views, perspectives and so on are all right or wrong, good or bad, in terms of your ethical structure.  Note that while the term “moral framework” is preferred by some and “ethical framework” is also occasionally used, I shall be using the term “ethical structure” exclusively to denote the concept that will soon be explained more fully.

No matter what it is called and no matter what the preferred method of constructing it is, an ethical structure is not a valid subject for assessment in terms of itself.  An ethical structure is not good or bad, nor is it right or wrong.  An ethical structure is inherently amoral – if someone thinks they can make an ethical assessment of, or moral judgment on their ethical structure, then they’ve left something out of that ethical structure (the values and the methodology on which they base that assessment or judgment).

Note that an ethical structure is not amoral in the usually pejorative sense that people are said to be amoral when they appear unconcerned about or care little for determinations regarding morality and immorality.

An interesting concern arises when considering the argument that an ethical structure cannot be reasonably assessed in terms of itself.  Is assessing the morality of another person’s ethical structure justifiable?  It seems that once the argument that ethical structures are inherently amoral has been accepted, it is unreasonable to assess the morality of another person’s ethical structure – which would be inherently amoral from their perspective.

What can be justified is assessment of the morality of decisions that flow from another person’s ethical structure in terms of your own ethical structure, although such assessments will be subjective and relative.  It is also justifiable to contest decisions made by someone who ostensibly shares the same ethical structure.

An assessment that may be more profitable, and is entirely justified, is the assessment of a competing ethical structure conducted on the basis of evidence and reason.

An example might be useful here, since I appear to be straying very close to the form of moral and cultural relativism that is better labelled as “moral cowardice”.

Imagine a scenario that plays out in a village not too far from yours: a well-fed male walks up to a starving female who immediately cedes her food.  The well-fed male accepts the food and eats it, leaving none for the starving female.

Within your ethical structure, this is probably wrong – maybe because you have a concept of assigning resources according to need, rather than gender.  In that village, however, food might be distributed according to eye colour and the female (having blue eyes) would only get food if there was enough available.  This is a rather deliberately arbitrary distinction – the point being that the decision to distribute resources based on eye colour is not really a moral failing, it’s irrational.  When critiquing the ethical structure of others, we are justified in assessing their decisions as morally deficient (in terms of our own ethical structure) and their ethical structure as lacking a sound, rational basis.

When we begin, however, to accuse others of having irrational ethical structures, it behoves us to ensure that our own ethical structures are rational.  To that end, it is should be noted that it is not rational to attempt construction of an ethical structure on the basis of what is good and right.  If you can make such a determination then you already have an ethical structure.  Similarly, when assessing whether an ethical structure is rational, it is necessary to delve more deeply than preconceptions of good and right.

This brings us to a question which many people are reluctant to raise, let alone address.  What is an ethical structure for?  What is its function?

In Towards A Rational Origin of Ethical Structures, I argue that the (emergent) function of an ethical structure is the promotion of survival.  The idea that the function of an ethical structure is to promote personal survival would probably be considered by many people to be quite cynical but this is based on an incorrect assumption that an ethical structure itself should be moral, rather than serving to guide our morality.

There are some who would argue that their ethical structure is based on religious convictions rather than any consideration of survival.  These people, however, are merely putting more focus on their legacy survival rather than their physical survival.  They are labouring under the misapprehension that they are the embodiment or earthly vessel of some eternal aspect, the survival of which is more important than their physical survival.  Their ethical structure is still based on survival, survival of their immortal soul, rather than their mortal body.

In the next article, I will more fully explain the concept of an ethical structure, the function of which is to promote survival.


I just want to cut one other argument off at the knees.

I’ve already touched on Divine Command Theory, but there is another argument which some might raise; the function of an ethical structure has something to do with pleasing god.

This pleasing of god is not due to altruism on the part of theists, it’s a contractual arrangement.  The followers of a god that I am most familiar with (i.e. Christians) have made it abundantly clear that if you obey the laws set down by their god, then eternal bliss awaits.  If you fail to obey the laws, then it’s eternal torment.

Theists are merely obeying the terms of an implied (and imaginary) contract.  They reveal this when they argue that without (their) god there is no good.  In other words they are asserting that if they themselves did not believe in god, they would recognise no obligation to be moral.

The gossamer-thin civility exhibited by some of our fellow travellers is truly frightening.

Since we have evidence of people losing their faith, even when it has been quite firmly held, the development of a robust basis for morality that is independent of belief in a god should be a priority.


As mentioned earlier this article is one of a series. It was preceded by Physical Survival and Legacy Survival and we reach the penultimate article in An Ethical Structure. It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.

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