The Virtue of Stubborn Conviction, lecture notes

The Virtue of Stubborn Conviction:
Ethics Through the Lens of Emergence

I am interested in dissecting conscience using the language of emergence. How do the beliefs of individuals affect the dynamics of their communities at the macro level? If you could design a society and stipulate the moral values held by each of its members, which values would you choose? How should we translate the answers to these questions into our actual beliefs and behavior?

I'm proposing: The content of people's consciences should be whatever produces functional societies (whatever makes it safe for us to trust each other).

The Problem:

The Tragedy of the Commons
Four farmers, each owning two cows, share a plot of grass that can sustain nine grazing cattle. The week of the Village Cow Sale, Farmer Becky gets another cow, thinking, "our plot can support one more cow, and I could sure use the milk." Unbeknownst to Becky, her three colleagues each bought another cow, thinking the very same thing. Subsequently, the field is ravaged and all thirteen cows die of starvation.

Buying a cow appeared to each farmer to be the rational thing to do. The same reasoning endorses great deal of immoral behaviors:There are a lot of things which common sense says we should do, but which these ways-of-reasoning repudiate:This method of reasoning (naive preference maximization) has the (emergent?) effect of generating dysfunctional communities.
A naive economist might justify good behavior by reference to conscience. We should do the Right Thing (tm) because we know that the pangs of our consciences will make the immoral choice unbearable, and so its marginal rewards are outweighed.

Can we construe conscience as normative, rather than descriptive (and accidental)?

Let's look at the prisoner's dilemma (a two-player Tragedy of the Commons):
Traditionally, economists have said that in a one-shot prisoner's dilemma, defection is the rational strategy. This puts players in the fourth cell. It should be clear that the first cell is more utilitous, both for the individual and the group. But, the economist will protest, the first cell is unstable: each player is tempted to defect.My goal is to find a way to stabilize the first cell.
Speaking more generally, I want to find the set of beliefs (S) which, when committed to by all (or most) individuals in a society, produces a functioning social system (where people serve on juries and don't commit fraud).

My Proposal

Suppose we recast the situation as follows:
To act in some way, X, is to affirm the statement, "For any person in a situation identical to mine, it is rational to do X."
More, even--- to do X is to affirm the statement: "For any person in a situation sufficiently similar to mine (one that differs only in irrelevant details), it is rational to do X."

If players in the prisoner's dilemma thought this way (and could trust their opponents to do the same), they would ignore the second and third cells:With the question reframed this way, players could settle in the first cell, and (knowing that their opponents in the PD are not tempted to defect) they would need feel no temptation to defect either.

I'm curious about finding ways-of-thinking that produce this kind of good behavior. Let us use "S" to refer to any belief set that produces socially healthy behavior.

Some candidates for S:

How do you get people to believe in things like that?
> Convert them to some mainstream religion ...?
> Make them read Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals ...?
> Embed them in a society that brainwashes them with anti-hypocrisy rhetoric ...?
> Explain this whole story to them ...?

Advantages of my approach:

  1. It's intellectually therapeutic.
    Our consciences are no longer irrational or arational, but (in Douglas Hofstadter's terminology) superrational. According to this story, is not only acceptable, but actually mandatory to behave cooperatively.
  2. It gives us a reason to care about other people's beliefs.
    Since we're both locally and globally better-off living in a society with lots of people who believe in S, we should try to convince other people to believe S.
  3. It gives us a fairly concrete framework through which to make decisions:
      Should I buy antibacterial soap?
      Does the marginal benefit of (probably) reducing my disease-spreading potential outweigh the marginal harm of (possibly) producing resistant strains of bacteria? Is my situation importantly different from most people's in this regard (for instance, am I a butcher? A doctor? Do I have an immunological problem?)
  4. It carves out a research program for Ethics.
    1. It motivates interesting questions.
      For instance, it opens up a lot of interesting research programs for psychology and meme theory. What kinds of belief systems can we fit S into to make it catchier? To give it more holding power?
    2. The story gives a mechanism for its own modification.
      • The contents of "S" are not set in stone. They can be modified with their emergent properties in mind.
      • Neither, for that matter, are contents of the contents of "S".
          Consider the Categorical Imperative
          My story gives us a way of finding out whether something like "never lie" should count as a maxim. (Basically, we would ask whether a given rule or level of analysis fruitfully discriminates between socially helpful and socially hurtful behavior, and look for the one that does so best.)

Bugs & Features:

Some objections that could be lodged against my solution:

Variations on "it won't work":I'm willing to let those objections stand. Although I don't think they're fatal, they do seem to weaken my analysis somewhat.

Objections that I find more interesting:

Links & References:

NY Times Article: The Evolution of Cooperative Behavior

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on the Prisoner's Dilemma

The SEoP's article on Evolutionary Game Theory

Hardin, Garrett. "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, Vol. 162, December 1968, pp. 1243-1248.

Hofstadter, Douglas. "Dilemmas for Superrational Thinkers, Leading Up to a Luring Lottery," in Metamagical Themas, New York: Basic Books, 1985.