A Musical Guide to How Morality Works

(WARNING: This article presents a significantly simplified taxonomy. Further, there are many meta-ethical views within Christianity; this article is incompatible with some of those views, including Divine Command Theory and moral absolutism.)

Until confronted with moral dilemmas, right decisionmaking — after we untangle our interests — seems pretty straightforward.

Like this guy. One happy fellow, playing his guitar:

musicians_1

And when we’re no longer “in dilemma,” we can forget about the complexity of morality, and revert to this “straightforward” / “common sense” / “plain to see” / “easy” falsity.

But it turns out that our moral practice is — roughly — a trio of three guitarists, all playing at the same time.

musicians_2

  • Red is all about the rules. He represents moral stipulations that you’ve been taught, or that you’ve “red,” or what have you.
  • Green is all about seeking goals in service of all sorts of interests. But that’s not all; he’s also clumsy. Very clumsy. In the day-to-day, we’re rather inadequate at forecasting the innumerable consequences of each action we take. But, Green tries his darndest.
  • Blue is all about intuition; his feelings and gut-reactions to moral situations. His moral force is powered by direct appeals to conviction, disgust, anger, felt affection, etc.

A Beautiful Song…

For the most part, the three musicians play together very nicely.

Even if one musician rests while another plays, it sounds good.

Even if one musician plays a major and another its relative minor, it sounds pretty neat as a minor seventh.

… Usually

But sometimes, one musician plays a radically mismatched chord vs. the other two.

And it sounds terrible.

In other words, sometimes the gut and the clumsy goal-seeking go way against the rules. Sometimes the clumsy goal-seeking goes against both the rules and the gut. And sometimes the rules and clumsy goal-seeking are allied, but the gut dissents.

(Aside: After writing dozens and dozens of plotlines during my career in game development, one starts to notice that when a story’s moral dilemma isn’t about mere interest disagreement — that is, when there is interest consensus — the dilemma is always reducible to Red/Green/Blue interplay. As a fun exercise, surf through TVTropes.org and dissect these “shared interest” moral tensions into their RGB components.)

Judging the Musicians

So when one musician is out of sync, how do we figure out if he’s right to be out of sync?

To explore this question, let’s examine the three out-of-sync dilemmas in the abstract.

Red Out of Sync

This is when a common moral rule seems very counterproductive according to Green (clumsy goal-seeking) and Blue (gut intuition).

musicians_3

  • Maybe Red is wrong. It may be that times, culture, or circumstances have changed so that the rule is no longer useful.
  • But maybe Red is right. It may be that the rule remains good, but the ways by which the rule is useful are very difficult to understand or untangle, and the gut and clumsy goal-seeking fail to ascertain them.

Green Out of Sync

This is when clumsy goal-seeking feels wrong and violates the common rules. The tension here is whether the person can be certain enough in his goal-driven analysis that he can say, “I’ve gotta do it anyway.”

musicians_4

  • Maybe Green is wrong. The forecast was incorrect.

    Example: You live in poverty and your family is very hungry. You see an opportunity to steal some groceries. You do not notice a plainclothes officer nearby, who will arrest you if you do; you will then be put in prison, and your family will be even worse off.

    And this is just considering the interests of you and your family. Ideally our actions are in the best interests of our other relationships and even the world at large. Perhaps you won’t go to prison, but your theft will damage other people irreparably through unforeseen butterfly effects. And perhaps it may do damage to your own conscience, setting you on a dark path that ends in ruin.


    You are not omniscient. You cannot know about every detail of your circumstances and what exhaustively will come of your actions. This is what makes your forecasting clumsy. The rules tell you not to steal, your feelings tell you not to steal, and even though your clumsy goal-seeking says to steal, you’d be best — here — to ignore it.
  • But maybe Green is right. The forecast, though clumsy, is indeed correct.

Blue Out of Sync

The rule says “do it,” the decision analysis says “do it,” but it feels wrong anyway; the gut says, “No, don’t!”

musicians_5

  • Maybe Blue is wrong. The intuition is molded and crafted by experience, but that doesn’t make it impeccable — in fact, it’s largely driven by momentum and unconscious “preprogrammed” feelings of disgust, loss-aversive fear, righteous indignation, and even vengeance without fruitfulness. Good decisions can yet rub it the wrong way.
  • But maybe Blue is right. The rule is counterproductive (perhaps outdated, or should have been regarded as context-constrained) and the clumsy analysis was incorrect. Thankfully the intuition had been molded and crafted by experience to rebel against both the official rules and the incorrect analysis (clumsily performed).

The Common Denominator

Let’s simplify the above to answer our earlier question.

  • When Red is out of sync, Red is right when the rule is useful (beneficial and constructive).
  • When Red is out of sync, Red is wrong when the rule isn’t useful (beneficial and constructive).
  • When Green is out of sync, Green is right when the analysis (albeit clumsy) is correct. (The analysis measured benefit and constructiveness.)
  • When Green is out of sync, Green is wrong when the analysis is incorrect. (The analysis measured benefit and constructiveness.)
  • When Blue is out of sync, Blue is right when the rule isn’t useful (beneficial and constructive) and the clumsy analysis (which measured benefit and constructiveness) was incorrect; thankfully, the intuition’s formative experience and other “preprogramming” raised warning flags.
  • When Blue is out of sync, Blue is wrong when the intuition’s limited formative experience and other “preprogramming” yields a gut-feeling contrary to usefulness (benefit and constructiveness).

See the pattern?

It’s consequence. Consequence is schematically “king.” We know this because it is the common judge against which all the musicians are measured.

  • A rule is bad when it makes things worse.
  • A prospective analysis is bad when it through erroneous forecasting makes things worse.
  • One’s intuition is bad when it bends toward making things worse.

Let’s call “consequence as schematic ‘king'” CASK for short.

The Danger of Pure Consequentialism

As we’ve talked about several times, pure consequentialism can be dangerous. CASK can be true, but Green is still a clumsy analyzer.

We are not equipped for pure consequentialism; we are clumsy.

A practical adoption of pure consequentialism has us pitiful, clumsy humans deferring to Green every time, foolishly hoping that Green is a perfect “oracle” for CASK.

But as we’ve seen above, Green can be wrong.

Conflation of CASK and “always defer to Green” is a modal scope fallacy, and — tragically — fosters doubt in CASK.

The Danger of Deontology

But it’s also horrible to proclaim that the rules are schematically “king,” as if “Do this and not that” is the fabric of moral decisionmaking. It isn’t. Rather, rules are very useful ways of helping to guide us pitiful, clumsy humans to good decisions.

Rules are tools. And Red can be incorrect — or become incorrect over time, as circumstances change.

As Emergent Patterns

These strategies — rules, robust character guides called “virtues,” clumsy goal-seeking, and gut intuitions — emerge when CASK collides with the “real world” of human limitations.

musicians_7

When we recognize them as emergent from CASK — and not “more fundamental” than CASK — things make a whole lot more sense.

  • Deontology, the idea that rules are the schematic “king” of meta-ethics, is misguided; rules emerge as useful under CASK.

    It surprises us that Red and Green can “fight” so much, given this emergence. But it shouldn’t; this surprise is a product only of the aforementioned modal scope fallacy. Red and Green can fight all day; only the referee of true consequence — something to which we humans have limited access — can judge the winner.
  • Similarly, moral intuition is not the schematic “king” of meta-ethics. It likewise emerges from CASK, through both genetic and memetic evolutionary patterns.

    It surprises us that Blue and Green can “fight” so much, given this emergence. But it shouldn’t. Blue is a bit “stuck in the past” due to how it’s made, and Green makes clumsy guesses about the future. It stands to reason they’d be prone to argument.

Retaliation as an Emergent Pattern

There are other patterns that emerge as well.

One of the biggest relates to justified moral reaction.

Under CASK, a justified moral reaction (to some bad thing) ideally has three missions: Repairing the situation, repairing the person, and repairing the institution.

  • The situation was such that the transgressor was free to transgress and hurt others. Attempt to repair that situation by restricting that person.
  • The person needs to learn — convincingly — not to transgress anymore. Attempt to repair the person by whatever means are most feasible and practical.
  • Society as an institution seems to be producing people who behave this way. Attempt to repair the institution by going after institutional cofactors, like domestic abuse, poverty, and lack of education and mentoring guidance. (One very common play at institutional repair is to overpunish people for its deterring effect… but we’d hope to find a better way.)

It goes without saying that if all of these missions were “easy” for us, we’d do them with every transgressor, and with no rational hesitation.

But they aren’t easy for us. They’re really hard.

And thousands of years ago, they were even harder.

  • It’s not easy to restrict a person when you have no secure prisons and a lack of sufficient infrastructure to sustain prisoners indefinitely and humanely.
  • It’s not easy to repair a person. Even to this day, our most common remedial response is “put them in a prison for a long while and see if that teaches them a lesson.”
  • And it’s not easy to repair an institution. It’s especially difficult when people’s views of culpability view institutional repair as “excuse-making” and dismiss the exercise entirely.

So, what happens when the “three missions” are incredibly difficult, but correct under CASK?

musicians_6

For beings that aren’t very developed — either in terms of biology or civilization — this “rough approximation” is remarkably optimal (as compromise between “CASK” & “doable”).

It’s so optimal that we see it baked-in to the intuitions of birds, fish, dogs, and a host of other animals.

(After all, that highly complicated network of causes and effects is vaguely triangle-like.)

But this — purely retributive justice, “just deserts,” lex talionis, etc. — isn’t the schematic “king.” This isn’t really how morality “works” underneath.

Retaliation is just a crayon-drawn approximation of silicon circuitry. It’s an emergent result of CASK being confronted by the complexity and challenge of the real world, which includes our amazing-and-pathetic (depending on your reference point) brains.

And as human civilization “grows up,” we should be graduating more and more toward a more nuanced and difficult understanding of justified moral reaction, even including decisions that come at personal cost for a better, greater good.

More Reading

  • “The Fourfaced Writ.” A thought experiment that shows us how, under Christianity, the New Covenant points us to greater recognition of CASK with the goal of loving others.
  • “The Angelic Ladder.” How one’s place on the “ladder” — the degree to which a person or a people-group is truth-aware, altruistic, and good at forecasting — determines one’s allowed moral freedom (even as this freedom comes with New burdens).
  • “Omniscient Prole Dilemmas.” Certain thought experiments will try to convince you that CASK is untenable by granting you CASK-knowledge in a situation, then watching you squirm with resultant Red/Blue dissension. These hypotheticals are loaded garbage. The answer against these people is, “Give me a hypothetical with Clumsy Green instead of CASK, and I’ll tell you what I’d do.”

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About stanrock

Husband, father. Professional game developer, software engineer, & social product analyst. Armchair theology debugger. Fun theology exercises and games at http://StanRock.net

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