Morality is what other people want you to do

This is morality from a game theory perspective.

Let’s say Person B and Person C are playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma. We ask B, “What is the moral thing for C to do?” A of course responds, “Cooperate! If C cooperates, we get highest net utility!”

Now we ask Ayn Rand, “What should C do?”
“Defect,” she answers. “Defection gets C more money than cooperation, and C doesn’t have any obligation to care about B.”

B then responds, looking a bit nervous, “I think C really should cooperate. Caring about others is moral.”

Rand: You’re just making a deontological argument with no backing. Morality, hah! You just want C to do what’s in your interest instead of his interest.

B: But obviously this kind of thinking leads to everyone defecting, and then utility is crap! Trustworthiness makes society function!

Ayn Rand: Look, what if C just lost his job? He has a dozen children to feed, and cooperating will not get him enough money to survive. If he doesn’t defect, he and all of his children will die.

B: Well… I guess then it’d be okay…

Ayn Rand: In that case, by your own reasoning, you ought to encourage his defection, because that saves lives!

B. Well… Um… But wait a minute! What if I also have 12 children to feed and no job? My first obligation is to my kids, not C’s kids. C should cooperate so that I can defect!

And, in fact, in extreme cases like famines, people sacrifice their own lives–go without food–to save the lives of others. And people have been known to literally kill and eat other people. It’s gruesome, but it is generally agreed that saving lives trumps most other concerns. (See previous post on morality for why.) People in wartime will also go to extremes, though this may be less justified.

But most of the time, we are not in a famine. B and C aren’t facing death if they cooperate–C’s life will just be marginally better if he defects, (and vice-versa).

B wants C to always cooperate–this is the best possible thing for B, even if B has secret plans to defect. So publicly, at least, B will always insist that the most moral thing is for C to cooperate–even if it harms C.

Some people actually care about the greatest possible good. Many just care about encouraging people not to defect on them. The net effect, of course, is a general message that the “Most moral thing possible” is to completely sacrifice oneself for others. People who, say, run into burning building to rescue people, or give up their lives for their children, or donate kidneys to strangers, or spend all of their time helping disabled orphans, are generally hailed as heroes, the epitome of morality.

We might shorthand this to “Morality = the greatest good to society.” (The cost to you be damned).

Obviously a society that manages to convince people to cooperate in no-famine situations will be better off than a society that fails to do so. In fact, this is the kind of society you want to live in–the alternative would be kind of awful.

The downside to this kind of morality is that people who take it too far tend to weed themselves out of the gene pool, leaving society less moral in their wakes. We might laud people who give up their fortunes to help the poor, but try announcing your plan to give all of your excess money to starving third worlders and begin sleeping in a cardboard box to your parents at [holiday of your choice] dinner, and see how it goes over.

We might even argue that there are two kinds of morality at play, one mitochondrial, the other viral. Mitochondrial cares about the survival of your genes, and people who don’t share your genes be damned. Viral morality cares about the well-being of society, and your particular genes be damned. The connections to liberals and conservatives should be obvious.

If a conservative says, “X is moral,” and it makes no sense to you, they likely mean, “X is in my genes’ interests.” If a liberal says, “X is moral,” and that makes no sense to you, they likely mean, “X is in society’s interests.”

The correlation is not absolute, though, as the vast majority of people employ both sets of morals, and not just hypocritically.

If you want to live in a nice society, you need both approaches. You need people to basically cooperate most of the time, so that you can do business with strangers or live remotely near them. You also need to exert a little interest in your own self-interest, so you don’t die.

Some people lean too far in the self-interested direction, and need to be reminded to cooperate.

This is one of religion’s good points–almost all religions generally try to encourage people to cooperate and make sacrifice for the common good, and religion tends to be effective at doing this because it can say, “Do it because GOD SAYS SO,” which has historically been pretty effective. So in a religious ceremony, we vow, “Until death do us part,”–promising, before god, not to defect on each other, which probably makes people actually less likely to break their marriage contracts than merely promising before a gov’t bureaucrat. Likewise, in many of the most destitute parts of the world, (like the DRC or your local homeless shelter,) the only people doing anything to help are mostly religious folks.

Even many of the world’s most successful “communist” ventures were religious, because “god says so” is an effective motivator to get people to share–but more about that later.

By contrast, some people lean too far in the societally-interested direction, and need to be reminded that it is okay for them to look after their own interests, too. Women who’ve become the primary caregivers for elderly relatives, for example, often end up sacrifice excessively, nearly killing themselves in the process. They may need to be reminded that it is okay to value their own lives, too.

Aristotle posits his virtues as the middle between two extremes–Bravery between Cowardliness and Rashness, for example. I suggest an optimum morality as taking the middle path between these two extremes of social and genetically-interested morality, so that you can have a nice society without all of the nice people dying out and being replaced by jerks.


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