Ethics, Game Theory and Biology

21 Aug 2023 12:14

One of the ideas I'm very fond of is that virtue isn't its own reward, it's a dominating strategy. More precisely, I am interested to see how far one can go towards showing that behaving ethically is actually a very good bet if one wants to come out ahead materially. Obviously there are times when nice guys lose, but it is an ancient observation that even a band of robbers must observe certain principles of morality among themselves, or perish. (It goes back at least to Plato's Republic.) How far can we go with such reasoning?

The experiments of Robert Axelrod seem to indicate that a stance of "Be nice to everyone, but if someone hits you, hit back" is a very good bet. (When The Matrix came out, one reviewer, I think it was Stuart Klawans in The Nation, described the hero as "a Boddhisatva with compassion for all living things and the firepower to back it up": just so.) Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis have worked up from Axelrod's Tit for Tat to "strong reciprocity", explored in many technical papers and a great non-technical essay (below). This leads to a kind of social contract: we all agree to wallop the first guy to wallop anyone else. They would go further, and add a clause about agreeing to help each other out, until we catch someone cheating, at which point we wallop them, too.

Nice if we can get it to work; but why should we want to say, go out of our way to punish cheaters? Why should we want to cooperate? Clearly, we need some emotion which pushes us in that direction; to steal a useful phrase from Adam Smith, moral sentiments. Why should those evolve? Part of the answer, to my mind, comes from the work of Robert Frank, who showed, pretty convincingly, that sentiments like loyalty, honesty, love, and, yes, vengence have important material functions. They provide solutions to coordination and commitment problems, which make certain kinds of profitable undertaking possible in the first place. But they only do this if they are compelling (so you can't back out), and they are hard to fake. There is still a puzzle about how they could have evolved in the first place, but that's much more tractable.

Two biological questions suggest themselves. One is how the moral sentiments are implemented in the body, which they plainly are. It is conceivable that some people are physically incapable of feeling moral sentiments; it would be interesting to revisit brain-lesion studies in neuropsychology with this in mind. The other biological question is the evolution of the moral sentiments, and more particularly the evolution of dispositions to learn certain sorts of morality. (Whatever physical basis they have, it is plainly very flexible.) There are obvious free-rider problems here, as I said, but not insoluble ones.

(Incidentally, I find it vastly amusing that people like Bowles and Gintis, who are personally very nice and politically very perfect gentle bleeding hearts, find themselves arguing for things like egalitarianism and reciprocity on the grounds that people like to pull down those who are high and mighty and oppressive. This is, after all, pure Nietzsche, only with all his values transvalued. But if that's a dominating strategy, will-to-power considerations themselves tell us to adopt it...)

Some people object to this kind of explanation of ethics on the grounds that it cheapens ethical behavior and the nobler emotions. Indeed, some go so far as to make the Nietzschean syllogism "This offends my pride in my own morality; therefore it is false." (I have heard this done by Buddhists.) More serious is the objection that, even if it is true, it is impossible to belief it and act morally, virtuously, etc. This seems dubious; I can testify that it is possible to believe Frank's explanation of love and still fall head-over-heels in love.

Of course, none of this really solves the is-from-ought problem. At best it would show that ethics is a good strategy for material success, and we have therefore evolved to find it admirable and attractive. But maybe material success is utterly, unspeakably vile, and our attraction to modes of behavior which look altruistic but have our interests secretly calculated into them is not just vile but hypocritical. Less Gnostically, since we know we have inherited dispositions to make definite errors in logic, statistics, visual perception, etc., it's hard to rule out the idea that we have inherited dispositions towards finding the wrong sort of ethics attractive.