Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ideology versus Morality?

Barefoot Bum put up a thoughtful post that quoted my preference for rationality then went on to expound how reality is not enough because we all have ideological values, such as the notion that stealing is wrong or that we want to punish rapists by hunting them down. And I agree with that notion in general, I just don't think of ideology when I think of such things, I think of morality. Maybe they are the same thing, but in my mind, there is a difference.

I think particular ideologies include certain views on morality, but I think of morality and ideology as two distinct things. When I think of ideology, I think of religion, I think of politics, I think of political pundits and talking heads, I think of priests and politicians. I think the main reason I don't think of morality is because I don't associate morals with any of those things and I don't buy the bullshit claim that all morality comes from religion. I think morality came first and religion just took credit for it after the fact, just like it takes credit for everything else in existence after the fact.

I recall having many an argument in my undergrad days and beyond (online and off) with theists who insisted that morality could only come from religion and thus those of us who were "godless" were amoral monsters. When I'd point out my lack of serial killer credentials, they'd just claim I'm benefiting from the moral structures put in place by the majority religious population and that I got my morals from osmosis from that.

My counter to that was always a basic thought experiment that if you just dumped a large population of humans on the earth, randomly shuffled with some who cooperated and acted what they would consider moral and some who would not, who would be total sociopaths, and the vast spectrum in between, that in the end, you'd end up with a population of mostly "moral" cooperators, simply because they would, by their nature, cooperate, form cooperating groups, and by that cooperation, out compete the amoral ones, who would go mostly extinct. Of course, there would (and are) free riders, who only pretend to cooperate, but in the end, many of them will be found out and ejected (or arrested) as their activities got them into trouble with the cooperators. Of course, the whole point of the exercise was to demonstrate how it is possible that evolution could select for morality and why one doesn't need a god to explain it.

On a more personal level, people don't like having their stuff stolen, or being raped, or even having this happen to a relative, so right there you have people wanting to protect their property and persons, and add that with a willingness to cooperate that is built into us (at least to some degree) and you have agreements that 'thou shalt not steal, kill, rape' and so on, again, with no god in sight. It is simple common sense. We agree not to steal from each other. We agree we will find any punish those who do because that protects all of us from stealing. To me, that's not ideology - that's common-sense morality.

Of course, there are layers on top of that - one group competing with another, wars, etc. But even then, if you have within-group cooperation, those same values can spread wider than just your small tribe - they are already established, you can already see the benefit, so eventually someone will see the benefit of extending this 'contract' of cooperation to a larger group.

The whole reason I got into this was to demonstrate to the theists that there was a basis for morality that didn't get handed down in stone tablets from a mountain. I'm sure someone with the relevant expertise in evolutionary biology, psychology, or whatever, could do a better job than me, but at least it showed the basic idea.

So to me, morality, the basics of it, the things such as "stealing, murder, rape, and so on are wrong" to me isn't ideologically based, it is morality based, of the base sort of morality any rational person would want enforced simply out of selfish self-interest. And even that has a rational basis for it - enforcing such rules means I won't be robbed, murdered, or raped, and neither will my wife or my children or friends. Well, at least the chances of that happening are reduced. Obviously there are no guarantees in life.

Now, I can already hear the counter arguments - what if I just have a big gun and I can steal and rob and murder all I want and no one can stop me? Why should I go in for such an agreement, then? Well, there'll always be someone else who comes along with a bigger gun. I'd have to sleep with that gun under my pillow all the time. And I'd have to find other people who favor guns to cooperation. And those people all would be gunning for me so they could be at the top of the pyramid. Huge resources are wasted in doing this and nobody sleeps well at night. In the end, such a system will eat itself because non-cooperators who favor guns to cooperation will be drawn to it. Those are the rational arguments I'd make against a gun-based rather than cooperation for mutual interest sort of society. Plus, people don't like being under the boot, so they will eventually rebel.

Ok, this is all just bullshit from my head, but that's my thought process on rationality, morality, and ideology.

To add one more distinction for ideology - for me, ideology isn't about morality, it is about issues that really aren't moral questions - like should teachers be unionized or are unions bad in general - questions that actually have empirical answers but that aren't exactly simple answers and that are answered with ideology rather than facts. There is probably some overlap there with morality at the fringes, or some overriding of morality because of some higher purpose for ideology (like we need our ideology in charge, so we override the whole murder thing to kill to get there). But then such groups don't really try and claim that we should end the whole 'no murder' rule, they just claim, on ideological grounds, that they need to break it for some specific purpose.

Now I've really wandered far. I'm basically thinking outloud here. I generally never have time to sit down and plan out an essay - nor am I much inclined to for a blog, though I have on occasion. I save my organization for work, where I spend all day researching and writing. So in other words, I hope this makes some sense, but if not, well, at least you got a tour of the inside of my brain.

Back to BB's posting, I agree with him. You need more than rationality. You need morality. Though I think we can get to morality through rationality. I mean, how else did we get morality in the first place? Given that there are no gods, that means we got there on our own. And I think we got there through the evoloutionary advantage given by rational cooperative self-interest. That seems the most rational explanation, in any case.


The Barefoot Bum said...

I think your fundamental premise is oversimplified. I don't think you'd get a society of mutual cooperators just by dumping a bunch of ordinary people at random.

All of our social structures have socially evolved; they didn't just spontaneously self-arrange at the snap of a finger. Social cooperation is too complex to be completely determined by individual rational deliberation: There are too many short-term local opitma, most of them odious, oppressive and exploitive to most of the population.

But what, precisely, is evolving? It's not individual people; there's not nearly enough time for genetic evolution, and individuals don't live long enough to provide the requisite stability.

Whether you call them "morals" or "ideologies" or "ethical systems", what evolves over centuries or millennia are social constructs. And these social constructs are preserved and promulgated by precisely those institutions you name as "ideological".

(Of course, I'm no fan of religion; religious institutions have become entirely obsolete. But just because one "species" is headed for extinction is no reason to damn the whole "ecology".)

We can (and should (and do)) criticize the specifics of any ideology. But merely applying a different label doesn't change the fact that ideolog... er... moral ideas — written down, sold on their merits (or otherwise) and adhered to — play a critical, ineluctable role in social evolution.

DBB said...

I'm sure I have oversimplified in search of a general point.

Thinking of random starts, I think of computer simluations where they have different "people" with different strategies, from cooperators, to cheaters, to tit for taters, and what happens after you let such a simulation run for a while. (As I vaguely recall, eventually cooperators win out in the simulated population, but only after first having the tit for taters weed out the cheaters).

But as part of my oversimplification I left out another important point, which is that people did not start out as a random population, we started out as previous species, primates, who were also social creatures, and built into being social is a certain degree of cooperative tendencies (along with a lot of other stuff). So some of that evolution of cooperation happened before we were a species, but then, that is not the same thing as a full social institution, that's more of a tendency. Social institutions evolve faster, and have different rules than biology.

I can see ideologies promulgating morality - but I think I have ideology too conflated in my head with politics and religion - so I see the ideologies as more a 'do as I say not as I do' thing and the moralities as 'do this' - and with going for the 'home team' regardless of the facts. I.e. you say your morality has you value X, yet you vote for a candidate who doesn't support X over one who does becuase the one who doesn't is part of your ideological "team" (the GOP, for instance) and the other one isn't. Or maybe I'm confusing ideology with authoritarianism.

In any case, terminology aside, I think it is an interesting question - where does morality REALLY come from, what makes for "successful" morality - i.e. what really works as an idea on its own, what works where insulated with layers of "tradition", and what needs to be enforced at the point of a gun.

Which is another way of asking why do people choose to follow a particular morality? Is it just because we are brainwashed into it as children, is it because we see the social utility? Is it because we are forced to at the point of a gun? I like to think I go for the utility angle (and my own self-interest). My parents did not religiously indoctrinate me, so I was an atheist from fairly early on. And I really don't respect being forced to do something at the point of a gun. Though I follow even stupid laws because well, I'm a lawyer.