Re: Basing Morality on Emotions

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Sun Apr 22 2001 - 18:00:41 MDT

Lee Corbin wrote:
> John Marlow wrote:
> > Morality seems to be a human construct; certainly not inherent
> > in the universe, which clearly couldn't care less.
> Morality is NOT a human construct! ... To a great degree, our
> morality is in our genes. (See Matt Ridley, "The Origins of Virtue",
> and other recent works...

Yes, but it's still **contingent**, in the larger scheme of things.
Human beings occupy an evolutionary niche characterized by aggregation
into highly interdependent social groups. There are certain
strategies which are good for getting along in such a situation
(which, I suppose, are inherent in the universe to the extent that
they are universal characteristics of life in such groups, and can
be abstracted in the mathematical discourse of game theory).
To some extent, learning about the politics of living in such social
groups, about the things you need to pay attention to and the rules of
thumb you need to follow to avoid pissing other people off too much, has been
genetically "streamlined" in humans, just like language acquisition has
been genetically "streamlined". And, in fact, the folks with disabilities
in this regard get a fair amount of press -- some of them we call
"autistic", and others we call "psychopaths".

However, note that people are also all-too-easily inclined to cheat whenever
the benefits outweigh the costs, or the likelihood of getting
caught is low, and to put the best face on their behavior by deceiving
others **and** themselves. Even a single individual has multiple latent
strategies for making hay in the social group, which are active or
suppressed depending on one's position in the social hierarchy. What
one is willing to put up with, or willing to inflict on others, is
heavily influenced by one's rank in the dominance hierarchy, as is well
documented in fiction and folklore.

And **of course** the particular instantiations of whatever
universal moral precepts are built into the human condition
are also heavily influenced by the circumstances of particular
societies -- especially the physical circumstances. Groups
living under conditions of great physical hardship, for example,
are known for customs that are likely to shock us "soft" Westerners --
like Eskimos leaving grandma to die on an ice floe when her teeth are
too worn down to chew the blubber anymore.

Now, it's arguable whether the kind of tool-making and language-
based intelligence that humans have developed on
this planet **needs** the kind of social matrix it had here
on Earth, and therefore also goes hand in hand with the
kind of morality we're used to. Questions about what kind of
morality an advanced extraterrestrial civilization is likely to
have are as controversial as similar questions about artificial
intelligence. Take your pick -- you can have the somewhat
saccharine view of the likes of Carl Sagan, who was sure that
any ET civilization greatly superior to us technologically
would also have to be greatly superior to us morally (if only
to have been able to survive its own technology), **or**, you
can pick the more interesting and realistic (IMO) view of
somebody like Gregory Benford (in _Eater_) or David Brin (in
his Uplift books) that an ET civilization is just as likely
to have a seamy underside as our own (*).

We wouldn't call what a cat does to a small animal it's
found "immoral", even though most of us probably find such
a scene distasteful. It's interesting, though, that cats
are often symbols of evil, along with bats, snakes, and
spiders -- the animals images used for Halloween decorations.
I was also amused to see that in _The Book of Lost Tales_,
the posthumously-published predecessor of J. R. R. Tolkien's
_The Silmarillion_, the forerunner of Sauron in the
earliest version of the Beren and Luthien story is Tevildo,
Prince of Cats. So cats are creatures of the Devil, whereas
dogs are friends and servants of the Valar (e.g., Huan,
the Hound of Valinor). However, the salient ethological
distinction is that cats are solitary hunters, whereas
dogs, while also carnivores, know about the protocols of
living in packs, which makes them more endearing to human

Jim F.


"Like most species derived from wholly carnivorous forbears,
the Tandu were difficult clients...

The Tandu have remarkably low empathy for other sapient life-
forms. They are members of a pseudo-religious alignment
whose tenets propose the eventual extermination of species
judged 'unworthy'. While they observe the codes of the
Galactic Institutes, the Tandu make no secret of their desire
for a less-crowded universe...

While waiting for this millennium, the Tandu... join in any
war of enforcement declared by the Galactic Institutes,
whatever the cause, and are often cited for the use of excess
force. 'Accidental extinction' of at least three spacefaring
species has been attributed to them...

The Tandu are under long-term investigation for excessive
genetic manipulation in making the two [client races] totally
dependent instruments of their love of the hunt...

'Nice people, these Tandu,' Gillian thought...

Of course, Gillian already knew some things about... these
secretive, brutal enemies of Mankind. This report only
reinforced her feeling that there was something terribly
wrong with a universe that had such monsters in it.

Gillian had once spent a summer reading ancient space-romances
from pre-Contact days. How open and friendly those old-time
fictional universes had seemed! Even the rare 'pessimistic'
ones hadn't come close to the closed, confined, dangerous

-- David Brin, _Startide Rising_

I know I've seen even pithier passages than this in which Brin
takes pot-shots at the Saganesque sweetness-and-light view
of ETs, but I can't find them :-( .

I was corrupted at a very early age with the taint of moral
relativism ;->, by a scene in the old _Outer Limits_ episode
"A Feasibility Study":

LUMINOID AUTHORITY: ... We elders sit here doomed, immobile,
unable to do anything but think. And there is our compensation.
Since no single fraction of life energy is wasted on meaningless
movement, all energy, all the mad monstrous force of it is
made available to the mind. Can you comprehend the scope
and skill of minds that are never drained, never dulled... ?

DR. SIMON HOLM: I cannot conceive of such minds sanctioning
the abduction of innocent people.

LUMINOID AUTHORITY: Ha, ha. Nothing is so modifiable as
morality. Until recently, our youngsters produced the end
products of our dreams. But now they rebel, and we are helpless,
and there is so much work to be done...

I'm surprised that bit of dialog got past the ABC censors.
Ah, the corrupting influence of television on the youth of
America ;-> .

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