11 Oct ’14 ~Question of the Day~ Morality

Is morality hardwired into the brain?

Not exactly, and there are several levels of predilection towards morality that are hard wired into our brains.

It seems we are hard wired to detect and punish injustice.

It seems we are hard wired to cooperate with those with whom we identify.

And it seems clear to me that most of morality is a matter of learning and choice.

In logic, if morality has any meaning at all, then it must involve an element of free choice.

Freedom, choice, is such an interesting idea to contemplate.

If an action is purely a matter of cause and effect, then there cannot be choice, we cannot be free.

If choice is to have any meaning, then it cannot be based solely upon precedent, there must be an element of creation from nothing involved, something of the truly random, yet not random – an element of pure intention.

It seems that our brains are constructed in such a fashion that the combination of hardware and software that we recognise as self is in fact capable of creation and choice. Exactly how it achieves that, I am not entirely certain, though I have certain suspicions.

So in this sense, in the sense that our brains give us the ability to make free choice, one could say that we are hard wired for morality.

[followed by]

Hi Bhatta

Exactly which directions do you want this to go?

For me, all things are connected.

You ask about the link between justice and morality?

Which approach most interests you?

Are you interested in the neural level:

the modes of communication and information processing at the synapse level of the brain?

the modes of information processing at the level of the neocortical recognition units (both within and between)?

the role of the mirror neuron system in recognising other as being like self?

the facial recognition systems of brain?

the social hierarchical systems of brain?

Or are you more interested in higher level systems?

Logical relationships, the sorts of assumptions involved in various types of thinking from antiquity to more modern formulations?

Injustice is relatively simple in a sense. It can be as simple as, “is anyone getting significantly more of something I want than I am?”

It is relatively easy to define injustice in this fashion – neural nets can make such distinctions very easily.

It is much more difficult to define what justice might be.

For that, we have to look much more closely at both wants and needs, their sources and influences.

Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, Rand, Russell, Maynard-Smith, Dennet, Wolfram and many others have all developed significant alternative explorations on the nature of morality. My own particular formulation owes much to each of those mentioned, and many others. It seems to me that all have made significant errors, and all have added to the sum of knowledge in the process (odd how it is often the errors, rather than the truths, that are more enlightening).

There is the whole issue of the extent to which anything can be said to be “hard wired”.

How reliable does something have to be to be “hard”?

What level of unreliability is soft?

What effect does context have on the hard-soft boundary?

What role does culture play in the definition of context in the sense above?

It seems to me that nothing is truly hard wired in humanity, and the boundary between hard and soft varies a lot between cultures and individuals within cultures.

Human beings do not appear to have any hard instincts, and we certainly have very strong tendencies, which is not quite the same thing.

Instincts give the same response to a trigger, almost invariantly.

Tendencies give a default setting, which can be overridden by experience.

It seems clear that our brains have strong tendencies toward detection of injustice, and to punish those who are at the source of such injustice. Such things can evolve, and can form a basis upon which higher level forms of morality can develop within both cultures and individuals.

It seems clear to me that morality, true morality, must involve individual choice.

It is also clear to me that such morality requires an environment that is sufficiently cooperative and secure that it allows individuals sufficient time to develop an awareness of the higher levels of long term self interest that allows them to see that serving the interests of others is in their own long term self interest.

If the risks of living in the present are sufficiently high, then the requirements of short term survival tend to dominate over longer term individual self interest, and morality is one of the early casualties.

Morality needs a level of security to work. If there is a high “discount rate” on future rewards, no system of longer term morality can survive – short term hedonistic survival needs will dominate. That seems to be just the necessary outcome of the incentive structures of the systems – basic games theory.

One of the classical techniques employed seems to have been to extend self interest beyond life, with concepts such as eternal soul. Such ideas deliver a driver of long term self interest that can make morality stable after a fashion. To me all such things survive only because they do in fact work, not because they have any reality (other than the fact that the morality that they enable is in fact socially stabilising).

To me, it is much more stable to actually deliver security to individuals, and to extend individual life-spans indefinitely. Having such a real incentive structure seems to me to enable and stabilise a shift to long term morality as being in the self interest of all individuals (irrespective of their ability to perceive that initially).

Incentives are important.

Neural networks are very good at optimising to the incentive structures they find themselves in.

That is why I have such deep reservations about the deep incentives of the market – those incentives are fundamentally against the human need for abundance of a few basic essentials. The flow of money is optimised by most people existing in scarcity.

We have the technology to deliver abundance of those essentials to every human being, but the incentives of the market prevent it happening.

We have the technology the deliver environmental sustainability, but the incentives of the market prevent it happening.

We have the ability to make moral choices, based in consideration of universals, which are in our own long term self interest as well, yet for the most part, the incentives of the market prevent it from happening.

It is very clear to me that the single greatest threat to human survival is market based values.

It is a threat to the development of high level individual morality.

It is a threat to the development of ecologically sustainable technologies.

‘Tis a strange strange world we live in!

[followed by]

Thank you Andrew and Bhatta,

That is an entirely different perspective from the one I was using.

Young children all do make simple binary judgements. They do in fact live in a world where right and wrong exist.

I left that world a long time ago.

For me, the world of morality exists as choices in a context of infinite spectra of consequences. I do my best to have those consequences be as positive as possible for myself and society at large on the longest time-frame I can get any sort of confidence on.

I disagree with Chomsky’s view that there exists a universal grammar (but understand why it seems like that to him), and much more closely align with Wolfram’s view of the sorts of stable gramatical structures that are easily accessible by a random walk through the possibility space of possible grammars.

Wynne’s conclusion that babies are born with notions of right and wrong isn’t necessary.

All that is required is that babies are born with an ability to mirror their activity on others, which will result in judgements of fairness and unfairness by the neural networks involved.

The most common interpretation of this (coming from interpretive schema based upon notions of right and wrong), is that babies are born knowing right and wrong.

When one is able to stand outside that schema, the view is very different. And certainly it does seem that way from within that schema.

In my understanding, the greatest thing you can do for any child is to meet their survival needs, and to engage with them. Give them love, physical affection (cuddles), acceptance, affirmation. Those things will reinforce the tendencies toward socially cooperative behaviour.

And with any human being, there are no guarantees. The weighting given to particular patterns in the brain is very much a function of the particular chemical environment in that brain at the time (and afterwards – during the medium and long term memory processes). So we can do all we can, and a kid can still be having a bad day emotionally and it can all go wrong from there.

[followed by]

Hi Bhatta

Yes – “listening”.

From my perspective, all the examples given are totally understandable.

From the perspective of neural nets identifying pattern, and then those patterns being reinforced (positively or negatively) by subsequent events.

The things about neural nets is that the effect of reinforcement (positive or negative) is very highly influenced by the emotional state of the individual at the instant.

It may take a thousand repetitions in an emotionally neutral state to equal the effect of one instance in a highly charged emotional state.

The impact on a 2 year old of being abandoned, and then feeling rejected consistently by some individuals, could create a set of patterns that would be extremely difficult to counter.

Such a child is essentially “off the rails”. They can be bought back to a socially cooperative mode, but it will take a lot of very positive and highly emotionally charged influences – in a setting that is seen as being fair at all levels. I strongly suspect that such a setting is unlikely given the brief description you have given.

A single event, that has very high emotional charge, can have lifelong impact on an individual brain.

All learning experiences are far from equal.

That is why people like John Gatto-Taylor in his little book “Dumbing us Down” are so clear that getting students emotionally engaged in a positive sense is far more important than any curriculum content.

A modern understanding of the neurochemistry of synapse junction chemistry and neuroplasticity strongly supports this view – but doesn’t appeal to the dominant political ethos of our time ;(

The logical answers are there.

I strongly recommend Ginger Campbell’s podcasts –
There are a lot of errors in what is said – and I am clear that the people saying what they say believe what they are saying. So I am saying listen to stuff, and do so critically- consider what it might mean if it were true,and also what the probable sources of error of either data or interpretation are. The more experience you have in any particular domain, the more confidence you have to trust you own intuition over the intuition and interpretations of others.

I have followed a few of the subjects to greater depth, and I have listened to all the podcasts (over 100 of them).

[followed by]

Hi Bhatta

Nothing is impossible with people, and some things are more probable than others.

Do not underestimate your ability to provide “highly charged” emotional experiences to individual children.
Where the child has a very strong very early event, you may find that your influence, while significant, is not as consistent as you would like. That is something we all need to accept.

All people need to have their survival needs met, first and foremost.

Meeting basic needs for social interaction is next on the list.

Beyond that, where individuals take their lives is, to my mind, very much a matter of choice; and there is certainly some truth in the observation that certain outcomes are more probable than others given initial trajectories.

I honour you for you efforts.



About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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