Friday, November 14, 2008

Ethics as an Attractor

While visiting my father a couple weeks ago, he talked a bit about what he sees as one of the core ideas of religion: the notion of some kind of "universal morality" or "universal moral force-or-field-or-whatever."

While he's not a big fan of the more superstitious aspects of historical or contemporary religions, he does believe there is a universal sense of right versus wrong. For instance, he feels that killing a random person on the street just because one is in a bad mood, is somehow REALLY wrong, not just "wrong according to some person or group's subjective belief system."

My main initial reaction to this idea was not understanding what it might mean. I'm enough of a postmodernist that absolutes don't make much sense to me.

Even "2+2=4" is only true relative to some specific formal system defining the terms involved. And " '2+2=4' is true relative to formal system F " is also only true relative to some metamathematical system -- and so on ... even in mathematics, you never escape the chain of indirections and get to something absolute.

But in the few days after we had that conversation, I thought a bit about what meaning could be assigned to his notion of universal morality within my postmodernist world-view. This is a topic I addressed in the final chapter of The Path to Posthumanity, but not from exactly this perspective: there I was more concerned with enunciating moral principles sufficiently abstract to guide the development of posthumans, rather than with debating the absoluteness or relativity of such principles.

An interesting perspective with pertinence to this issue is Mark Waser's argument that ethical, cooperative behavior (in some form) may be an "attractor" of social systems. Meaning roughly that:

  • social systems without something like this are unlikely to survive ... except by adopting some form of ethical, cooperative behavior pattern as a norm
  • as a new social system originates and gradually grows, it is likely to evolve its own form of ethical, cooperative behavior

I think this is an interesting perspective, and in the next paragraphs I'll point out some of its limits, and then connect it back to the conversation with my father.

To make the argument more concrete, I'll begin by defining "ethics" in my own special way -- probably not precisely the same as how Mark intends it; but then, in his paper Mark doesn't give a very precisely drawn definition. First of all I'll define a "code of social behavior" as a set of rules, habits or principles that some agent in a society adopts to guide its behavior toward other agents in that society. I'll then define an ethics as a code of social behavior such that

  • it occurs in an agent that has the internal flexibility to plausibly adopt the ethics, or not, without causing some sort of immediate disaster for the agent
  • it occurs in an agent that is capable of counterfactual reasoning regarding the social situations it regularly encounters (psychologists have various ways to test this, that have been used to study animals for example)
  • it involves the agent carrying out behaviors that it reasons (counterfactually) it would not carry out if it did not adhere to the ethics
  • it involves the agent carrying out behaviors that the agent believes will benefit other agents in the society

In short, I define an ethics as a code that agents can optionally adopt, and if they adopt it, they know they're taking actions to benefit others, that they reason they wouldn't take in the absence of the code of ethics.

This reminds of a story one of my great-uncles used to tell about my 5-year-old incarnation. He was watching me play with toys, and then my little sister Rebecca came up and asked for one of the toys I was most enjoying. After a moment of reflection, I gave it to her, and then I commented to him that "Sometimes it feels good to do something for someone else that you don't want to do."

Pertaining to Mark Waser's argument, we can then ask whether ethics in this sense is likely to be an attractor. There are two questions here, of course: will the existence of an ethics, any ethics, be an attractor; and will some specific ethics be an attractor. I'll deal mainly with the first question, because if "the existence of ethics" isn't an attractor, then obviously no specific ethics is going to be.

The main limit I see in Waser's argument (as ported to my definition of ethics) is that the argument doesn't seem to apply in cases where one or more of the members of the social system are vastly more intrinsically capable than the others (in relevant ways).

In societies of humans, it could be argued that unethical behavior is ultimately unstable, because the oppressed underclass (with asymmetrically little social power, but roughly equal intrinsic capabilities) will eventually revolt. But the possibility of revolt exists because outside of the scope of the social system, all healthy adult humans have roughly the same level of intrinsic capability.

One can imagine a scenario roughly like the one in H.G. Wells "The Time Machine," where a subset of society that actually is strongly more capable in relevant senses (smarter, saner, stronger) takes control and oppresses the less capable majority. Perhaps any adequately capable individual among the underclass is either killed or taken into the overclass ... and any inadequately capable person among the overclass is either killed or tossed into the underclass. In this kind of scenario, after a certain number of generations, one would have a situation in which there would be pressure for ethics within each class, but not ethics between them.

Nothing like the above has ever happened in human history, of course, and nor is it likely to. However, the case of future AI minds is somewhat different. All humans are built according to the same architecture and have roughly the same amount of intrinsic computational resources, but the same won't necessarily be the case for all AIs.

I see no reason to believe that existence-of-ethics will be attracting in societies involving members with strongly asymmetric capabilities. In fact, it seems it might be easier to frame an alternate argument: that in a society consisting of two groups of radically different degrees of intrinsic capability, the attractor will be

  • ethical behavior within the overclass
  • ethical behavior within the underclass
  • exploitative behavior from the overclass to the underclass

A related situation is human behavior toward "lower animals" -- but this is a different sort of matter because animals don't meet the criteria of ethical agents I laid out above. Adult treatment toward children also doesn't quite fit the mold of this situation, because the intrinsic difference in capability between parents and children reverses as the children grow older (leading to sayings like, "Don't spank your kid too hard; when he grows up he'll be the one choosing your nursing home!").

One thus arrives at the hypothesis that a restricted form of Waser's argument might hold: maybe existence-of-ethics is an attractor in societies composed of agents with roughly equal intrinsic capabilities (in relevant situations).

As to what specific ethical codes may be attractors, it seems to me that is going to depend upon the specifics of the agents and societies. But the general phenomenon of choosing actions for others' benefit, that one knows one would not take in the absence of the ethical code, seems something that could plausibly be argued to serve as an attractor in any society of sufficiently flexible, intelligent organisms with roughly equal intrinsic relevant-capabilities.

Note what the notion of an attractor means here: essentially it means that if you have a society with the right characteristics that *almost* has ethics, then the society will eventually evolve ethics.

Ethics being an attractor doesn't imply that it must be the only attractor; there could be other attractors with very different properties. Arguing that any society with the right characteristics will necessarily evolve into a state supporting ethics, would be a stronger argument.

Another twist on this is obtained by thinking about the difference between the conscious and unconscious minds.

Let's say we're talking about a society consisting of agents with reflective, deliberative capability -- but with a lot of mental habits that aren't easily susceptible to deliberation. This is certainly the situation we humans are in: most of the unconscious behavior-patterns that govern us, are extremely difficult for us to pull into our theater of conscious reflection and reason about ... for a variety of reasons, including the limited capacity of our conscious theater, and the way much unconscious knowledge is represented in the brain, which is only laboriously translatable into the way the conscious theater wants to represent knowledge.

Then, it may be that ethics winds up getting largely packed into the unconscious part of the mind, which is hard to deliberatively reason about. This might happen, for instance, if ethics were largely taught by imitation and reinforcement, rather than by abstract instruction. And this does seem to be how early-childhood ethical instruction happens among humans. We correct a child for doing something bad and reward them for doing something good (reinforcement learning), and we indicate to them real-world everyday-life examples of ethical behavior (both via personal example and via fictional stories, movies and the like). Abstract ethical principles only make sense to them via grounding in this experiential store of ethical examples.

So, if ethics evolves in a society due to its attracting nature, and is memetically propagated largely through unconscious instruction, then in effect what is happening is that in many cases

  • the reflective, deliberative mind is thinking about the individual organism and its utility
  • the unconscious mind is thinking about the superorganism of the overall society, via the experientially inculcated ethical principles

The voice of the conscience is thus revealed as the voice of the existence-of-ethics attractor that superorganisms (I hypothesize, following Waser) inevitably settle into, assuming their member agents possess certain characteristics.

Where does this leave my dad's notion of a universal ethical force? It doesn't validate any such thing, in quite the sense that my dad seemed to mean it.

However, it does validate the notion that an unconscious sense of ethics may be universal in the sense of being an inevitable mathematical property of any society satisfying certain characteristics.

What does this mean for me, as a reasoning being with an intuitive, unconscious sense of ethics ... and also the deliberative capability to think about this ethical sense ... as well as some ability to modify this sense of ethics if I want to?

Among other things, it reminds me that the deliberative, ratiocinative aspect of the mind probably needs to be a little humbler than it sometimes gets to be, inside us hyperintellectual, nerdy types. The "I" of the deliberative mind is a symbol for the whole mind, rather than constituting the whole mind ... and there may be systematic patterns characterizing which of our mind-patterns get stored in easily-deliberatively-accessible form and which do not. So as frustrating as it can be to those of us in love with ratiocination, if one wants to be maximally rational, one must accept that sometimes "the unconscious knows best" ... even if one can't understand its reasons ... because through observation, imitation and reinforcement, it gained experiential knowledge that possesses a scale and (in some cases) a form that is not ratiocination-friendly (but may yet be rationally considered extremely useful for goal-achievement).

Unfortunately, the unconscious also makes a lot of mistakes and possesses a powerful capacity for tricking itself ... which, all in all, makes the business of being a finite-resources mind with an even-more-acutely-finite-resources deliberative/rational component, an inordinately tricky one.

I personally find these issues slightly less confusing if I view them from the perspective of pattern space. Suppose we consider the universe as set of patterns, governed by a variety of pattern-dynamics rules, including the rule that patterns tend to extend themselves. Different patterns have different degrees of power -- that is, they have differing probabilities of success in extending themselves. The arguments I've given above suggest that ethics, as an abstract pattern for organizing behaviors, is a pattern of considerable power, especially among societies of intelligent entities of roughly comparable capability. In this view there is no "universal moral force" -- the universal force is the tendency of patterns to extend themselves, and ethics as a pattern seems to contain a great deal of this force.

On these issues there are two fairly extreme points of view, which may be compactly summarized (I hope not parodized) as:

  1. there is an absolutely correct ethics, an absolute right versus wrong, which may be imperfectly known to humans but which we can hope to better and better discern through various mental and social exercises
  2. ethics is purely relative in nature: people adopt ethical codes because they were taught to, or maybe because their genes tell them to (i.e. because their species was taught to, by evolution) ... but there is no fundamental meaning to these ethics rather than social, psychological or evolutionary happenstance

Unlike my father, I never had much attraction to the first perspective. The second perspective has bedeviled me from time to time, yet I've always been nagged by a suspicion there's something deeper going on (yes, of course, someone can attribute this internal nagging to my psychology, my upbringing or my evolutionary heritage!). I don't delude myself I've fully gotten to the bottom of the issue here, but I hope that (building on the ideas of others) I've made a teeny bit of progress.


Ted Goertzel said...

First of all, I think 2+2=4 is true in an absolute sense and will be true even if the universe ceases to exist. I'm not sure if ethical absolutes are on the same level, they may be rooted in the structure of the universe in some way, and your ruminations do suggest something about how that might be: if a tendency for patterns to extend themselves is inherent in the universe and ethical absolutes emerge as part of successful patterns. It does seem to be part of human nature (for healthy people who are not psychopaths) to believe in ethical absolutes. And our nature evolved out of the patterns inherent in the universe. I know you well enough (as your father, having known you all your life) to know that you do, in fact, believe in ethical absoutes in your "heart of hearts" (or unconscious mind if you prefer) in the sense that you are genuinely outraged by unethical behavior in a way that a true post-modernist cannot justify.

Mark Waser said...

I'll come back and address a number of your points, but one of the most critical ones seems to be

>> In fact, it seems it might be easier to frame an alternate argument: that in a society consisting of two groups of radically different degrees of intrinsic capability, the attractor will be
- ethical behavior within the overclass
- ethical behavior within the underclass and
- exploitative behavior from the overclass to the underclass

Note that while you say that "Nothing like the above has ever happened in human history, of course, and nor is it likely to", slavery can very much be used as an counter-example. Note that slavery was *not* ended because the "underclass" revolted but because slavery is *economically* less viable than alternative of ethical cooperation (particularly in the long run).

Indeed, much of my hope for the future resides in the fact that it is simply not economically wise in the long run to oppress others when more equitable arrangements can be worked out.

Ben Goertzel said...

Mark: But, slavery is not quite a good example of what I was talking about, because in spite of what racists have thought, the slave class never really did have a drastically lower degree of intrinsic capability....