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July 11, 2004

Ethical Selector

How do you stack up in this ethical quiz?

Here's how I do;
1. Ayn Rand (100%)
2. Plato (81%)
3. Aristotle (64%)
4. John Stuart Mill (64%)
5. Jean-Paul Sartre (59%)
6. Kant (59%)
7. David Hume (56%)
8. Prescriptivism (51%)
9. Aquinas (46%)
10. Thomas Hobbes (45%)
11. St. Augustine (44%)
12. Jeremy Bentham (43%)
13. Nietzsche (43%)
14. Ockham (40%)
15. Cynics (34%)
16. Epicureans (34%)
17. Spinoza (25%)
18. Stoics (22%)
19. Nel Noddings (13%)

Godless comments:

You can see my results in extended entry. I didn't much like the quiz; in lieu of explaining why, I think (an edited version) of this old post will do the trick, on the biochemical foundations of morality.

This is part 1 of a 2 part series. The second part will directly deal with non-believers who don't take the evidence from neurotheology into account.

This interesting article and Razib's excellent "Blank Slate" review put me in the mood to post on morality. There are many atheists who believe that the notion of "good" is meaningless because there is no "absolute" good. I used to be one of them, but within the past decade or so I've come to a more nuanced view, motivated largely by evolutionary psychology considerations. I now believe that morality is foundationally biochemical, and that the non-existence of "absolute good" does not preclude the existence of a human or relative "good". From one of my earlier posts:

Do I think that morals and ethics exist in some absolute sense, as if we could measure 15 units of "good" as we can 15 kilograms? No. But "morals and ethics" are a useful shorthand for "societal conventions that are to some degree universal and have their roots in biology and game theory". In that sense, as a pragmatist, it's foolish to insist that moral or ethical considerations should never come into play when formulating policy or dealing with people. The cultural and biological apparatus of religiously inspired morality is a way to allow positive-sum communities to emerge and succeed. A biological propensity for religious belief probably encouraged people to stick to laws even when other people weren't watching.[1] In ancient times this likely meant that religiously predisposed communities were at an advantage vs. non-religiously predisposed communities because the latter were less likely to obey laws and rules without enforcement. At some point in the last thousand years or so, strong religious belief became a disadvantage in that it hampered scientific progress, and the pendulum swung back towards secular societies more rapidly than natural selection has accomodated. [2]

In other words, morality is a real thing that is best described in terms of the contract structure of positive sum games. One need not believe in superstition to believe that this structure is useful for civilization.

[1] Other things contributed to this as well; for example, the feeling of guilt is likely a way of chemically enforcing contracts.
[2] Galileo and Darwin are not the only examples; fundamentalists generally oppose the onslaught of technology.

Point in a nutshell: atheists who reject the notion of a universal morality do so prematurely. Moral codes are human universals not because of supernatural agency, but because of natural selection.

Godless clarifies:

I may have been a bit unclear in describing the connection between evolution, morality, and game theory. The point is that these positive sum games are played for survival and reproduction, not for utility per se . "Happiness" only matters from the Darwinian standpoint inasmuch as it contributes to the twin imperatives of survival and reproduction. [2] The quantity being optimized is not an arbitrary function of preference (economic utility), but a reasonably fundamental function of behavior (reproductive fitness). Of course, different environments will result in different selection pressures - meaning that those moral codes that promote the group's survival in a given environment will stick around for the next generation, while others will fail.

Update II from Razib: Put mine below....

Godless' results:

1. Thomas Hobbes (100%)
2. Ayn Rand (91%)
3. Aristotle (79%)
4. Epicureans (75%)
5. Jeremy Bentham (70%)
6. Cynics (69%)
7. Nietzsche (68%)
8. Jean-Paul Sartre (67%)
9. David Hume (67%)
10. John Stuart Mill (66%)
11. Stoics (59%)
12. Prescriptivism (54%)
13. Kant (50%)
14. Aquinas (47%)
15. Plato (39%)
16. Ockham (35%)
17. Spinoza (33%)
18. Nel Noddings (32%)
19. St. Augustine (11%)

Razib's results:

1. Ayn Rand (100%)
2. John Stuart Mill (83%)
3. Aquinas (72%)
4. Jean-Paul Sartre (71%)
5. Cynics (68%)
6. Jeremy Bentham (68%)
7. Aristotle (65%)
8. Kant (63%)
9. Thomas Hobbes (60%)
10. Stoics (57%)
11. Nietzsche (55%)
12. Nel Noddings (48%)
13. Plato (47%)
14. Prescriptivism (47%)
15. Epicureans (45%)
16. Ockham (45%)
17. St. Augustine (44%)
18. David Hume (42%)
19. Spinoza (33%)

Godless comments:

Feeling geeky, I computed Spearman's rank correlation between my rankings and Razib's - it gives .491228. Raw data:

R GC
1. Ayn Rand (100%) 1 2
2. John Stuart Mill (83%) 2 10
3. Aquinas (72%) 3 14
4. Jean-Paul Sartre (71%) 4 8
5. Cynics (68%) 5 6
6. Jeremy Bentham (68%) 6 5
7. Aristotle (65%) 7 3
8. Kant (63%) 8 13
9. Thomas Hobbes (60%) 9 1
10. Stoics (57%) 10 11
11. Nietzsche (55%) 11 7
12. Nel Noddings (48%) 12 18
13. Plato (47%) 13 15
14. Prescriptivism (47%) 14 12
15. Epicureans (45%) 15 4
16. Ockham (45%) 16 16
17. St. Augustine (44%) 17 19
18. David Hume (42%) 18 9
19. Spinoza (33%) 19 17

Posted by scottm at 06:16 PM