Universal Morality And The Morality Of The Universe

Introduction

In "What kind of car would Jesus drive to take his girlfriend to an abortion clinic?" Dr. Phillip Jackson argues that "a common set of moral values is installed, recognized, and perpetuated within each individual and the human race as a whole... It must either involve a purely physical explanation (such as culture, society, genetics, etc.), or a metaphysical one; which is to say a morality based on the existence and purposeful actions of God." It is probably not surprising that Dr. Jackson argues for the latter case.

It's an interesting, if lengthy, read.1 I believe that much of it is wrong, but wrong in an interesting and instructive way. And what is right is interesting as well. A central theme is the example of a violent rape and murder of a five-year-old child. This, Dr. Jackson contends, is clearly wrong to all but a vanishingly small percentage of all humans throughout history2, and I of course agree. He then explores where such a conviction could come from, but I believe his conclusions on that score are unjustified.

Eliminating Physical Explanations

Perhaps it's best to let Dr. Jackson speak for himself regarding the strategy his argument employs:

The only way a metaphysical explanation can stand is if all possible physical explanations do not fully account for an activity. Then, a metaphysical explanation at least becomes plausible.

It's worth considering, before we proceed, the difference between these two kinds of explanation, 'metaphysical' and 'physical'. What separates them? So far as I can glean the author's intent, he means 'the metaphysical' to be that which is 'supernatural' - "beyond the grasp of human understanding". A metaphysical mechanism to accomplish something (e.g. implanting a moral code in humans) would be not merely an unknown means of operation, but an unknowable one, something forever removed from human ken.

Epistemologically, this is a troublesome concept. How does one, in practice, distinguish between something 'currently unknown but comprehensible' and something 'forever unknowable'? (One might also add other categories like 'knowable in principle but impractical to discover' and 'knowable and practical but, just by bad luck, will never have the explanation stumbled upon'.) From a practical perspective, the only way to tell which category something falls into is to try to understand it; if you succeed, then it was knowable. The problem is, if you fail, you can't conclude that it's unknowable. It might be, but it might also be the case that you just didn't happen to figure out something knowable, and you or someone else might have better luck on a subsequent attempt.3

Ruling out physical, 'mechanistic' - in other words, knowable - explanations has a long but less than auspicious history. Once it was widely believed that lightning was a direct expression of divine fury - so much so that Benjamin Franklin's proposal of lightning rods was considered hubristic, even heretical.4 Meteors were felt to be obviously supernatural - what besides magical forces could have held a rock suspended in the sky? - until orbital mechanics were understood. Consider this quote from a prominent physician, J. S. Haldane, close to a century ago, discussing the "mechanistic theory of heredity"5:

On the mechanistic theory this [cell] nucleus must carry within its substance a mechanism which by reaction with the environment not only produces the millions of complex and delicately balanced mechanisms which constitute the adult organism, but provides for their orderly arrangement into tissues and organs, and for their orderly development in a certain perfectly specific manner.

The mind recoils from such a stupendous conception; but let us follow the argument further... This nuclear structure or mechanism must, according to the mechanistic theory, have been formed within a very short period by the union of two others - a male and a female one. How two such mechanisms could combine to form one is entirely unintelligible, and the observed details of the process tend only to make it, if possible, more unintelligible. When we trace each nuclear mechanism backwards we find ourselves obliged to admit that it has been formed by division from a pre-existing nuclear mechanism, and this from pre-existing nuclear mechanisms through millions of cell-generations. We are thus forced to the admission that the germ-plasm is not only a structure or mechanism of inconceivable complexity, but that this structure is capable of dividing itself to an absolutely indefinite extent and yet retaining its original structure...

There is no need to push the analysis further. The mechanistic theory of heredity is not merely unproven, it is impossible. It involves such absurdities that no intelligent person who has thoroughly realised its meaning and implications can continue to hold it.

Reading this passage, it's striking how clearly he recognized the functional requirements that a mechanism for inheritance would have to meet. But he could imagine no physical arrangement that could satisfy those conditions, and concluded that therefore such a mechanism was impossible. Indeed, he insisted that a spiritual explanation was the only remaining option. Laborious work by Watson and Crick (and Wilkins and Franklin6) has since discovered DNA, however, greatly illuminating that which was previously obscure.

As an aside, with this distinction between 'metaphysical' and 'mechanistic' - between 'unknowable' and 'knowable' - in mind, we can perhaps more clearly understand the divide Dr. Jackson notes:

I realize that to some scientists, allowing for God as an independent variable is like asking them to include space aliens or an undersea civilization in their hypotheses. This is no more bizarre than to those on the other side who can't understand why God must automatically be excluded because He can't be observed directly.

Science is philosophically biased towards the 'knowable' - the word itself comes from scientia, the Latin word for 'knowledge'. An explanation that makes use of an unknowable-by-definition element is, ipso facto, not a scientific explanation. "Then a miracle occurs" might be valid in theology; but in science, it's cheating.7 It's not that God is ruled out because It could not be observed, should It choose to act in an amenable manner. Rather, science cannot assume that such a being would be forever unknowable. Science certainly acknowledges unknowns - for example, exactly how the gravitational field could work at a distance was unknown in Newton's time, however well his laws worked - but it is structurally incapable of addressing the unknowable.8

Now, it may be true that there exist subjects that actually are unknowable, and therefore not amenable to scientific inquiry, but the above examples would seem to urge caution before making confident pronouncements on that score. Personally, I'm not convinced there's ever a time to declare something 'unknowable'. If one decides that something is 'unknowable', one will stop trying to understand it. Perhaps if Dr. Haldane had decided to try a bit harder, the structure of DNA might have been elucidated earlier.

Before Benjamin Franklin's famous experiments, when someone asked, "What causes lightning?" the proper answer was not "Zeus", or "Thor", or "Seth", or "the Thunderbirds", or "God". The proper answer was, "We don't know. Perhaps one day we will." And now, of course, we know far more about lightning because of the inquries of people like Franklin.

In any case, after dismissing politics and culture as potential sources of "universal moral truth", Dr. Jackson goes on to attempt to dispel any remaining possible non-metaphysical explanation for morality by a reductio ad absurdam:

The best way is to assume that a physical mechanism to provide morality does exist (i.e. genetics), and then explore the logical implications of it.

He then goes on to show that genetics cannot "[give] morality its content". But I believe a key mistake was made at this point - by using the phrase "i.e." (id est, "that is", "in other words") instead of "e.g." (exempli gratia, "for example"). If there existed other possibilities besides genetics as sources for 'universal morality', they remained unexamined. I argue that there exists at least one other possibility at least as plausible as the metaphysical explanation Dr. Jackson proposed.

Divinely-Imposed Morality

But before I elaborate, I'd like to examine the morality that Dr. Jackson proposes in more detail, one "explained on a metaphysical level". It's contended that "all possible physical explanations do not fully account for" universal morality. In other words, it's not possible to deduce its existence from within the universe. Only something 'outside', on the metaphysical level - i.e. God - imposes such a morality. (It's not directly stated, but implied, that other notions that might count as 'metaphysical', such as "logic", can't be used to discover these morals.) This is called, in philosophy, "divine command theory".

The key problem with a divinely-imposed morality, untied to any other principle, was recognized long ago in Plato's dialogue 'Euthyphro'. To briefly summarize, Socrates is concerned with what is 'pious'. He and a noted expert on piety, Euthyphro, agree that the pious is that which is loved by the gods.9 However, Socrates presses on to the key question - is there something about the pious that causes the gods to love it, or does the love of the gods cause something to be pious? In other words, sacrificing animals to the gods is pious, and loved by the gods. But is there something about sacrificing animals that is intrinsically pious, or is it just something that, for no particular reason, the gods just happened to love? Does the piety cause the love, or does the love cause the piety?

The extension to morality should be obvious. It is, of course, generally held that God approves of moral behavior. But the question now becomes, is moral behavior approved by God because it's inherently good and deserving of approval? Or is it simply the case that whatever God just happens to approve of becomes, by that very fact, moral and good? Not to put too fine a point on things, we must ask this question: Could God have created a universe identical to this one in all respects... except that abortion was morally obligated?

Note carefully the structure of the question. I am not proposing a universe where, say, for some reason all children always grew up to be serial killers without exception. Or a universe where any child born would inevitably suffer unbearable agony. I am proposing a universe completely identical to ours on the physical level, and differing on the metaphysical level only in one respect.

The objection might be raised that actions like abortion or rape violate the innate moral principle of "not harming innocent life"; that God could not make a special exception for one specific case like abortion while maintaining the immorality of rape. A solid case could certainly be made for this. So, let's go to the limit, and rephrase the question. Could a God have created a universe identical to this one in all physical and metaphysical respects except that it was a moral imperative to harm innocent life?

Of course our moral intuitions rebel at the idea. But, allegedly, that's only because we weren't given an "innate moral code" that lined up with such a moral system. Had God chosen to implant in us the moral code that we should always harm innocent life, it would seem perfectly right, indeed noble, to do so. And, if nothing beyond divine whimsy makes something moral10, attacking babies would actually be right and just.

If morality is simply a matter of what God commands, then saying that "God is good" becomes a vacuous, or at least tautological, claim. Essentially, we simply have the ultimate case of Might Makes Right. A logical corollary of this idea is that, for example, the people in France and Poland who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers did have the right principle in mind. Their mistake was picking the wrong bully to submit to. I find this proposition to be somewhat unsatisfying, certainly, though it doesn't seem to bother everyone. I'd now like to propose an alternative source of morality that doesn't rely on the direct command from a God.

Deriving "Ought" From "Is"

David Hume is generally credited with describing the so-called "is-ought problem". As in Dr. Jackson's essay, the claim is something like "it's impossible to determine 'how things ought to be' from 'how things are'", or "morals cannot be derived from simple facts about the world".

This may at first seem plausible, but consider the game of chess. There are certain fundamental structures of chess that define it - the 'rules of the game'. We have an 8x8 board, 8 pawns per side that move in certain ways, two rooks per side that move in other ways, castling, the initial configuration of the pieces, etc. Now, when playing chess, there is no rule that you can't sacrifice your queen in the first few moves of the game. It's illegal to move your king to a threatened square, but it's perfectly acceptable by the rules to stick your queen in front of a pawn at the start of the game.

However, if you want to win the game, you shouldn't do that. There are almost no situations (at least, assuming evenly-matched opponents) where giving up your queen at the start will lead to your victory. Similarly, it's rarely a good idea to move your king out to the center of the board before the endgame. It's usually a bad move.

Note words like 'shouldn't' and 'bad'. They are value judgments. They prescribe 'oughts'. But they are not part of the 'rules' of chess. From where do they come? They arise from the combinations of two things - first, the rules and structure of chess, and second, from the player's desire to win the game. They are strategic rules. A player is free to disregard them, but they do so at their peril - it's unlikely to further their goal.

Hopefully the parallel to wider life is obvious. We have 'rules of the game' in life, too - the laws of physics, for example. We are not free to violate these strictures. (Well, technically, if we find a case where they are violated, we reformulate the laws and our theories to take into account the anomalous case. Should we find a rock that fell upward, our understanding of gravity would be wrong, not the rock!11) Many of them are so well established that it's difficult to see how they could be wrong to a significant degree. Unless you can produce a flying rock or a magic carpet, I think we can expect to have to obey the laws of gravity, for example.

As humans, we have desires and goals as well. Some are very basic and inborn and apparently universal (air, water, food, sleep, shelter, etc.) and some are so common that only extremely rare individuals seem not to need them (e.g. the company of other people), and some are deeply personal and not common at all (a desire to write a novel, say). But like chess, might there be strategic rules that arise in the real world from physical laws and conditions, combined with our desires?

Game Theory

Game theory attempts to analyze interactions among competing and cooperating agents in the context of systems of rules governing the options available to them. It's a rich and interesting field, and some of its results have bearing on the topic of morality.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

One useful model in game theory is the Prisoner's Dilemma. Basically, two players have the option of cooperating with, or betraying, each other. If both cooperate, there is a moderate payoff, e.g. 3 points. If one cooperates and one betrays, the betrayer gets a large payoff (say, 5 points) and the cooperator gets nothing. If both betray, there is a small payoff (e.g. 1 point each).

What's the optimal strategy in this case? On average, betraying pays 3 points (5 * 50% + 1 * 50%), while cooperating pays only 1.5 points (3 * 50% + 0 * 50%). Rationally, if you're playing the game it's in your best interest to betray.

The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma

But what if we change the situation slightly, by repeating the game over and over with the same opponent? Only a few stable solutions exist, assuming remotely sensible players. If you both betray all the time, your payoff is 1 point per game. If you both cooperate all the time, your payoff is much better, 3 points per game. What about more complex situations and strategies, such as varying opponents?

It turns out that an extremely simple strategy is also among the best. It is called "Tit For Tat". It starts out cooperating, and simply repeats the move that its opponent played the last time. Note that if the other player cooperates, TfT will be friendly, but if it is betrayed, TfT will retaliate. In the rules given above, it is very difficult to beat TfT's usual score.

If we vary the rules a bit, and allow for imperfect players - where there can be occasional 'accidents' when someone mistakenly betrays when they 'intended' to cooperate, or vice versa - things get even more interesting. It is possible for even a pair of TfTs to get caught in a loop of 'mutual recrimination', with both betraying over and over. Their payoff per game plummets from 3 to 1. In such situations, a more 'forgiving' strategy actually does better.

The Conspiracy Of Doves

Another model is worth noting; the "Hawks and Doves" game. Hawks always fight for resources, until seriously injured. Doves run away instead of fighting, and split resources 50/50 if working with another Dove. Imagine that each 'resource' is worth 100 points. If a Hawk fights a Dove, it gets 100 points and the Dove gets nothing. If a Dove encounters another Dove, each gets 50 points. If a Hawk fights another Hawk, it either gets 100 points if it wins, or -300 points (from being injured while losing the fight).

Given these ratios, everyone should be a Dove - everyone will average a 50 point payoff. But a lone Hawk among Doves gets a hugely disproportionate payoff; the "Conspiracy of Doves" is not stable. In the above situation, the stable state of the population is 1/3 Hawk, 2/3 Dove, and the average payoff is only 33 points. (Note that this still applies if really there's only one kind of bird, but it has varying chances of acting like a Hawk or a Dove.)

But Chess Isn't The Real World

There is a key difference between games like chess and games like the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. In games like chess, there is a winner and a loser; one player has a positive outcome, the other negative. Such games are called 'zero-sum'; the benefits one player receives are equal and opposite to the penalties the loser suffers. Games like the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, on the other hand, are 'non zero-sum'; it's possible for all players to lose, or all to profit, or a mix of both.

I think we can agree that, overall, our lives in the real world are 'non zero-sum'. We have the option of cooperating with others, fighting, betraying, helping, lending and borrowing, and so forth. We can see analogs of Hawk, Dove, and Tit for Tat strategies in daily life. For example, I would suggest that the Israelis and Palestinians are stuck in a loop of mutual recrimination that results in an overall worse situation for both groups. But neither side is willing to forgive the other, and they've been at it so long they can't even imagine forgiving each other.

Other results of experimental work and game-theoretic computer simulations illustrate additional general principles. In an extremely large group, the effect of any one defection is diluted, but the longer the players expect the interaction to go on, the less attractive antisocial behavior becomes. A player's willingness to cooperate is affected by their estimates of how many other players around them are cooperating, as well.

At this point we know that fixed 'rules of the game', combined with desires of agents constrained to follow those rules, can give rise to 'meta-rules', useful strategies that the players can choose to follow - rules just as real as the basic rules of the game, though existing on another level. Can moral precepts be examples of such strategies? It would need to be shown that following such morals led to advantages for those who followed them. And these would have to be intra-universal advantages - not ones based on metaphysical, outside-the-universe considerations.

Morality Can Be Selfish

Fortunately, Dr. Jackson acknowledges that moral behavior can and does pay off in the real world, and gives an example, though he relegates that admission to endnote 15. This is an important datum, which serves to undermine the contention that morality can't be derived from within the universe itself.

We don't have to rely on Dr. Jackson's admission, however. A bit of reasoning and research can make a fairly solid case for the benefits of morality. One very useful item of support comes from those who most vociferously exhort others to follow their moral precepts. While they frequently cite the alleged supernatural repercussions of vice, they also tend to devote plenty of time to its more worldly consequences. Violence, greed, gluttony, sloth, and so forth don't tend to bring about optimal outcomes on a regular basis. Indeed, who doesn't argue that life would overall be better for everyone, if everyone behaved morally as a matter of course? (A real-life "Conspiracy of Doves", if you like.)

The history of moral behavior also seems to make sense within a game-theoretic framework. As noted by Stephen Pinker12, violence in real terms has been decreasing for centuries - decreasing by huge amounts. E.g. "24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s". It's difficult to argue that religion had much influence on this; indeed, not many people argue that we're more religious now than in the 1300s. Just the opposite, in fact. It seems that technology and economics and medicine have had a far greater civilizing effect than religion. Longer, safer lifespans encourage more extensive cooperation - the longer you can expect yourself and your neighbors to be around, the more important it becomes to treat your neighbors well.

But if moral behavior has real-world benefits - if people living in moral, cooperative, stable societies have advantages over those who don't - then it would seem we no longer require a metaphysical justification for morality. Morality apparently doesn't have to flow from divine command. Given what humans are, and what kind of universe they inhabit, some types of behavior and some courses of action are wiser choices than others.

Let's now return to our previous thought experiment, a universe identical to our own except that harming innocent life was metaphysically 'moral'. If 'divine command theory' were correct, perhaps such a universe would be just as 'moral' as our own. But would it work? How well would humanity get along if, say, the current situation in Darfour were commonly accepted to be noble and just? Remember, the inhabitants of this prospective universe are just like us physically and mentally - the only difference is 'spiritual'. Parents would probably find it difficult to fulfill their duties of torturing their children, since their animal instincts would argue against it. By that universe's rules, a society that protected and cared for its children would be 'evil'. Would it prosper?

The game-theoretic conception of morality seems to handle this thought-experiment much more handily. It would contend that no, God could not create a universe that closely resembled ours but possessed radically different morals. Either the physical laws or else humanity - or most likely both - would have to be quite different to make harming innocent life 'moral'. (This general idea, BTW, is analogous in many ways to the Catholic Church's notion of "Natural Law".)13

The In-Group

Another bit of evidence is contained within Dr. Jackson's paper. Consider this passage:

The truly interesting thing about God-given morality is that even individuals and dictatorial governments who act in the most outrageous, barbaric manner - and who may even reject the notion of a universal morality - still end up drawing their guidance from these same moral principles. Anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who rejected all social norms and set off bombs that killed hundreds of innocent people, nevertheless did not believe that they should settle disputes among themselves by just getting up and shooting the other guy. It's one thing to set off a bomb that kills Mary Jane and her little daughter Alice who happened to be walking by, and another to pull the trigger on Comrade Serge because his definition of "alienation and the means of production" differs slightly from yours. You may ridicule and belittle him, and in extreme cases kick him out of the collective, but he doesn't deserve to die. Mary Jane and her daughter on the other hand, by refusing to join the revolution, have in essence allied themselves with the evil bourgeois forces that make life miserable for the ancestors of future Wal-Mart employees. According to this convoluted logic, they are part of the problem.

If one is part of the 'in-group', if one counts as a full person, then one becomes subject to the fundamental morality under discussion here. Indeed, it's very hard to see how any group could effectively operate without such rules governing interpersonal dynamics.

But that in-group's membership has fluctuated throughout history. In the earliest past, it may have been as limited as "the male members of my tribe". It certainly didn't include women as full persons in their own right - consider how recently women acquired the right to vote in the United States, and how many countries do not have full legal equality for women today. Slaves didn't count, and people from outside one's own tribe (and then city, and then country, and then 'race') didn't make the cut either. To a large extent, the increase in general moral behavior described by Pinker and others is a record of the gradual expansion of that 'in-group' to encompass more and more people.14 But the point remains that, however the in-group is defined, so long as it is composed of humans certain basic strategies will be necessary to manage it.

The "Moral Sense"

Both Dr. Jackson and I agree that there is a moral framework that humans inevitably work within, and we would even appear to agree on much of its content. (We certainly agree that slavery and terrorism, along with the rape and murder of five-year-old children, are in violation of that morality.) There's some disagreement regarding exactly how that morality is constituted (perhaps we could call my position 'universal morality', while his might more accurately be called 'extra-universal morality'...) but another thing we agree on is that genetics does not, by itself, form a justification for morality.

However, genetics does have another role to play in addition to forming part of human nature. I've hopefully established that morality, properly understood, is advantageous in the world. We have been living as groups of humans (with no significant change in what it means to be 'human') for around 200,000 years, and our near ancestors were living in groups for millennia before that. Other people have formed a critical part of our environment for our entire existence. Would it be surprising to discover that evolution had helped adapt us to living and working with others?

Another interesting model from game theory provides some evidence for this. The Traveler's Dilemma is a variation on the Prisoner's Dilemma. The setup is a bit complicated15, but in this game, people - all kinds of people, from countries around the world - routinely and apparently instinctively behave in a way that is not strictly rational but leads to a better outcome than if everyone was playing in a ruthlessly rational manner. There may be an explanation for this besides a divinely implanted impulse to be good.

Much work has been done investigating human moral intuitions and behavior. A few illustrative examples may serve to clarify some of the findings. Let's take a pair of quick cognitive tests, freely stolen from Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea:

Test Number One

You have a set of cards before you. Each card has a letter on one side, and a number on the other.

 ----- ----- ----- -----
 | D | | F | | 3 | | 7 |
 ----- ----- ----- -----

Now, let's say there's a condition that you're asked to check for. The condition is, "If there's a D on one side of the card, then there is a 3 on the other side." Which of the above cards do you need to flip over to see if that condition is met? Take your time, reason it out, and then move on to the second test.

Test Number Two

You have a set of cards before you. Each card has information about patrons in a bar. On one side is what they are drinking; on another side are their ages.

 ----------------- ----------------- ---------------- ----------------
 | Drinking wine | | Drinking soda | | 25 years old | | 16 years old |
 ----------------- ----------------- ---------------- ----------------

Now, let's say you're the bouncer at that bar. Your job is to make sure that no one under the age of 21 is drinking alcohol. Which of the above cards do you need to flip over to see if that condition is met?

The Answers

The answer for both tests is the same. You need to flip over the first card and the last card. Most people have a hard time with the first test, and most people have very little trouble with the second test. But the structure of both tests is exactly the same - logically equivalent conditions are being checked for. Why would one be so much easier than the other? A great deal of research, with many variations of tests like this, seems to point to a definite answer: the second test asks people to detect if a social contract is being violated - in other words, it asks people to spot cheating. And it turns out almost everyone has a built-in knack for such things. We all have a positive, built-in talent for spotting cheaters.

I believe I've established that moral behavior has practical consequences and practical justification, or at least have shown that such a notion is plausible. People willing to cooperate and behave morally with each other - willing to trust and work with one another as part of a group - have a powerful advantage over those who don't, in a very wide range of situations. This would imply a perfectly reasonable evolutionary reason for a "moral sense" to exist.

We have other examples of such systems in the brain. Figuring out what babies are thinking is difficult, but experiments seem to indicate that babies have instincts for understanding basic physics - at least, the kinds of physics humans typically encounter. They seem to express surprise when seeing an object float apparently unsupported, for example. We also appear to have built-in systems for understanding the minds and emotions of others and ourselves. This may be more obvious by its absence - autism seems to be a case where development of this 'mental understanding system' goes awry to greater or lesser degree. If there were useful, general strategies for interacting with other people, then inbuilt support for recognizing and applying such strategies would be a reasonable thing for evolution to produce.

Such a moral sense would also include warnings when one contemplates doing something contrary to morality - since moral actions, by this model, are sensible and useful strategies. Additionally, it would be important to realize when one is doing something that others would frown upon.16 Sometimes people violate these warnings anyway - the lure of short-term gains tempting them more than a long-term payoff. That doesn't mean that it's a wise choice.

Recent research17 has indicated that damage to the brain can actually affect how people make moral judgments. If our sense of morality is implanted by a supernatural means, then the details of that experiment are difficult to explain. Dr. Jackson, in making an unrelated point, uses the example of an automobile - even if one doesn't fully understand all of its workings, one can "make predictions about its operation and functioning". If altering the function of the brain alters moral judgment...

It might be advanced that, given how complex the world is, 'discovering' such principles would be too complex for evolution to manage. However, we have plenty of documented examples of evolution developing complex novel features despite its inherent lack of foresight. (My personal favorite is the essentially complete fossil record of the development of our inner ear bones from the redundant extra jawbones of therapsid dinosaurs.) Over long periods of time evolution is able to adapt to, and optimize for, even slight advantages.18 And moral behavior has more than slight advantages.

So genetics does not explain morality in this model; it does not, to use Dr. Jackson's words, "[give] morality its specific content". But it can "influence the expression of morality in an individual human being". Of course, genetics couldn't be expected to do so perfectly. Our physical intuitions break down badly when attempting to deal with objects moving close to the speed of light, or with very small particles.19 Our moral intuitions seem to work serviceably enough when dealing with groups up to about the size of a large tribe; beyond that, there can be complications. Our intuitions are certainly highly polished and useful instruments that we should do well to make use of as far as possible. But how should we extend them to the complex societies of today?

Moral Engineering

The real world - and hence, real-world morality - is very complex. No simple moral code will work everywhere. Sane individuals realize this - it's the fanatics who follow the letter of every single rule they receive that, for example, blow themselves and other people up. Difficult moral quandaries that require effort and thought and care - quandaries that may not have any optimal solution - arise constantly. When they involve large numbers of people, we can't hope to have rules that give specific guidance in every situation. But there are techniques we've developed anyway. Some principles of morality are universal, but they need to be put into practice. So we've developed legal codes.

Engineers have an even more complex job than physicists, putting together working mechanisms in the face of many uncertainties and unknowns. They frequently have to resort to 'rules of thumb', approximations, and techniques that have historically worked, even if why they work isn't always fully understood.20 Engineers generally have to design conservatively, and build in redundancy, and add margins for error. Engineering moral (and legal) codes is similarly complicated... but that does not imply that it's impossible. Engineering continually improves and finds new ways of doing things, sometimes better than the old, sometimes merely applicable in certain special cases. There may never be an Ultimate Engineering that can accomplish all possible things... but that doesn't mean we should abandon engineering.

Still, we can take some lessons from game theory and psychology when crafting such codes. If there are conditions that help encourage cooperation (long horizons of interaction, clear and fairly-enforced punishments for violating rules, etc.) we should make sure to arrange for them as much as possible. Sometimes we may have to settle, like the Hawks and Doves, for a less-than-optimal situation in exchange for stability. But the fact that humans can plan and coordinate (and the fact that we do have built-in capacities for trust and cooperation as shown by the Traveler's Dilemma) gives us some hope that we can do better than armed truces and Mexican Standoffs.21

Legal codes and societal norms may similarly never be perfect, and certainly don't approach ideal today. But that doesn't imply progress can't be made. Though perhaps not for all the same reasons, I agree with Dr. Jackson's basically Libertarian style, where he advocates education and persuasion to work to end abortion instead of force and violence. I agree more with the practical justification he gives for this than the spiritual one, but our conclusions are essentially identical. Taking a cue from evolution (see below), diversity in the marketplace of ideas is a very good thing.

Genetic Moral Engineering

I've already pointed out the difference between genetics reflecting morality and genetics causing morality, but I'd like to take the chance to address a side issue: some apparent misconceptions on Dr. Jackson's part about using genetics to justify policy decisions. In particular, he argues that if morality were solely "the product of man's genetics as influenced by his environment", actions like exterminating those with genes predisposing people to alcoholism or pedophilia would be justified, or even required. But the conclusion does not follow from the premise.

One of the (many) reasons eugenics is wrong is that it assumes that it's possible to identify genes that are bad, and eliminate them. Genetics is more complicated than that, and traits that are 'bad' in one circumstance can be literally life-saving in others. For example, a person with two copies of the sickle-cell gene will suffer from sickle-cell anemia and die young. But a person with only one copy does not suffer such ill effects and has a significantly increased resistance to malaria. In a region where malaria is endemic, the risk of having babies die from sickle-cell anemia is offset by the improved chances of other babies surviving malaria. Cystic Fibrosis is another recessive trait where only one copy of a mutated gene apparently affords some protection from Typhoid and perhaps Tuberculosis. A further example is RH-negative blood; there is some evidence that, while RH-negative women are at increased risk of miscarriage, they have an easier time getting pregnant.

There aren't genes "for" alcoholism or pedophilia in the same way as there are genes "for" red hair. Mental development is more complex than that, and at most genes may put someone at increased risk for such things. And we don't know what positive traits such genes might help to enable - perhaps the stereotype of the artist susceptible to drug abuse has a basis in fact, and by working to eliminate alcoholism we would devastate the art world. There has been quite a bit of speculation as to Charles Dodgson's (Lewis Carroll's) possible pedophilia; if he was a pedophile, he apparently was able to direct his energies away from harming young girls, and toward entertaining them (and adults) with fantastic stories, as well as mathematics.22

The penalties for actual drunk driving or child molestation should be severe enough to act as a powerful deterrent, and someone who has acted on a propensity for this should be treated differently than one who hasn't. But there certainly isn't now, and very probably will never be, a test that can look at someone's genes and precisely predict their individual future behavior. Lacking that, pre-emptive and involuntary measures are unjustified. Punishment and/or treatment for actual behavior is the only reliable course. Objective examples of people who have been able to overcome such propensities supports this regardless of whether one believes their resistance came from a supernatural origin.

This leads into another evolutionary argument against such eugenic practices. Diversity in a population is a very good thing. It helps a population cope with all kinds of threats - disasters, disease, variations in environment, and more. If a trait really is "bad", it will be eliminated in due course without - even in spite of - our intervention.

Sacrificing The Queen, Part One

Chess masters may occasionally spot an advantage to sacrificing their queen in a game. The strategic rule that "one should not sacrifice one's queen" is a simplification. More precisely, it should be stated that "one should only sacrifice one's queen for substantial positional and/or material advantage". Such cases do arise, but they are fairly rare. Still, this does raise an important question about moral strategies - in what cases (if any) do they cease to apply?

One can imagine hypothetical cases where an action that would ordinarily be immoral might become moral. I alluded to a few debatable justifications for universal abortion above, in the "thought experiment". Indeed, even Dr. Jackson notes that abortion per se is not immoral in absolutely all circumstances ("...having an abortion to save the life of a mother is a valid exception"). The real world is, as I have said, complex, and very strange circumstances can obtain at times. When there are two innocent lives at risk, there can be genuine debate about the correct course to follow. But I can't really imagine circumstances that would make the rape and murder of a child 'moral'.

The more fundamental the principle, the less common are the possible exceptions. "Not harming innocent life" is a fundamental principle indeed, and exceptions are correspondingly difficult to find. Tens of thousands of people, many of them women and children, died in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it is likely that the bombings ended up saving lives by averting a devastating conventional invasion of Japan. On the other hand, others (such as Generals Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Nimitz) judged the use of the bombs unnecessary. As noted before, some moral quandaries have no easy answer.

Sacrificing The Queen, Part Two

What about a chess grandmaster who can beat any and all comers? One who can't even play an interesting match without handicapping themselves dramatically, such as giving up their queen and both rooks? They can violate strategic rules that others need to follow and still win the match. Are there equivalents in the real world of moral strategies?

How about a Stalin, someone who can take over and dominate an entire country for decades? One who can 'get away with' riding roughshod over anyone, or any group, who dares oppose them? What, if anything, constrains them? Why should they care about the kind of morality that the vast majority are concerned with?

I'd like to relay a story I first read during the 2003 invasion of Iraq23:

When one of the most secure and luxurious of his palace-and-bunker complexes was completed in 1984, at a cost of $70 million, Saddam Hussein moved in right away. But even protected by enormous layers of concrete, sand and steel, behind zigzag corridors and blast doors made to withstand a Hiroshima-size explosion, and guarded by men who knew they'd have to be ready to die for him, or be killed by him, Saddam apparently could not sleep.

"All night long he heard a sound like the cocking of a pistol," remembers Wolfgang Wendler, the German engineer who supervised the project. Wendler was summoned by angry officials to find out what was wrong. He discovered a faulty thermostat.

Saddam, of course, deserves no pity. But this is the kind of life he led - literally jumping at shadows, because there was no one he could fully trust. Stalin became so suspicious of doctors that later in life he refused their treatment and consulted with veterinarians instead.24 These dictators had plenty of purely material comforts, but in the process of acquiring them they'd given up any chance of enjoying them untroubled by fears of assassination, let alone the pleasures of sharing them with loved ones. They could literally never afford to fully relax. Perhaps there are a few individuals for whom that would be worth the trade, but I wonder if they ever regretted the situations they'd locked themselves into.

This is an example of why morality is so fundamental: there are inevitable costs for violating it, particularly on a massive and regular basis. People are a diverse bunch, and there do exist sociopaths that might not mind (or even notice) those costs, but that doesn't mean the costs aren't there. As Dr. Jackson himself notes, the fact that exceptions exist doesn't mean the general principle is invalid.

The Foundation Has Changed - What About The Conclusions?

As I've noted, while I disagree with Dr. Jackson as to the source of morality, we broadly agree on the content of morality. Harming innocent life is wrong, for example. Unnecessary restrictions on liberty are wrong as well. What about his conclusions regarding terrorism and abortion, the major focus of his treatise?

Regarding abortion, we're actually in fairly close agreement. For reasons outside the scope of this paper, I'm unwilling to restrict abortions before the end of the first month of pregnancy,25 but after that our positions appear to be identical. Abortion is not justified for the sake of convenience, or even in the case of rape or incest; but when there is a threat to the life of the mother, it's her decision whether to proceed with the pregnancy.

As to terrorism, I agree that it is also immoral. But I think Dr. Jackson engages in a bit of sleight-of-hand when he conflates terrorism and abortion as arising from identical mindsets. Justifications for abortion tend to deny humanity to the developing fetus; but as he acknowledges, Islamic terrorists don't claim their victims are not human, they claim they are not innocent. Of course they dehumanize their enemies as much as possible to help psych themselves up for violence, but this is hardly unique to terrorists. Even our own troops have done this ('gooks', 'hajis'); it's a human coping mechanism, though a dangerous one.26

Dr. Jackson's paper covers a great deal of territory, and I don't intend, or pretend, to discuss it all here. My key thesis in this discussion is that the conclusions he reaches about the origins of morality are incorrect, or at least that he has not met the standard of evidence he set for himself. I welcome constructive discussion, corrections, and criticism.


1. Unfortunately the overall tone of the essay puts me in mind of George Orwell's apology for his "objectively pro-fascism" remark: "To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel." I cannot claim to be free from this inclination myself, but fortunately Dr. Jackson himself in his paper acknowledges that one can "condemn a harmful or immoral action" even if one's past isn't "pure as the driven snow."

2. Of course, some of the exceptions have been historically significant. E.g. 1 Samuel 15:3, Joshua 10:40.

3. "Is knowledge knowable? If not, how do we know this?" - Woody Allen

4. http://www.tektonics.org/lp/norods.html

5. J. S. Haldane, Mechanism, Life, And Personality, 1913

6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosalind_Franklin

7. http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/gallery.htm or http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/gallery/math/math07.gif

8. It's true that there are principles in science like the "Uncertainty Principle", which states that it's impossible to know with total precision both the position and velocity of a particle. However, this is because in Quantum Mechanics, a particle literally does not have a definite position and velocity.

9. Of course, their polytheistic framework was less efficient than a monotheistic one, so it took them some discussion to reach the conclusion that the pious was, in fact, that which was loved by all the gods.

10. Perhaps one might argue that a God that created the universe would have the right to do whatever It liked with that universe. But the question would immediately arise, "On what basis does the principle that 'the creator of something owns it' rest?" Is that an unchangeable, logically necessary moral principle - or is it imposed by divine whim?

11. When Dr. Jackson, commenting on the 'natural laws', alludes to the "question... of who, exactly, created those natural laws", he betrays a confusion about the nature of natural laws and legal or moral 'laws'. Legal/moral laws are prescriptions for how one should behave; natural 'laws' are descriptions of how things do, in fact, behave. Legal laws of course have creators, but natural laws are not legal laws.

12. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

13. It's worth noting that framing morality in this way allows a creator God to be 'good' in a significant sense again. It even allows It to be the ultimate author of morality, in the limited sense that the morality inherent in a universe would flow from the type of universe created and the kinds of beings placed within it. Of course, it does limit the kinds of morality that such a God could impose, but it seems generally accepted that an inability to create logical contradictions is not a significant limitation on omnipotence. There's even a role for revelation to play. Such a God might be aware of ramifications of the system - of moral precepts - too difficult for limited humans to deduce, and be able to relay them.

14. Consider how dumbfounding the notion of a Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State would have been at the dawn of the 19th century.

15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveler%27s_dilemma and http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&articleID=7750A576-E7F2-99DF-3824E0B1C2540D47&pageNumber=1&catID=2.

16. "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H. L. Mencken

17. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/21/health/21cnd-brain.html?ex=1332129600&en=aa03e4a1c7a9ffd3&ei=5088& and http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2005/10/the_moral_brain.html and http://www.reason.com/news/show/35014.html are popularized examples.

18. Orgel's Second Rule: "Evolution is cleverer than you are."

19. The famous physicist Richard Fenyman once remarked, "You don't understand Quantum Mechanics. You just get used to it."

20. "Engineering does not require science. Science helps a lot but people built perfectly good brick walls long before they knew why cement works." - Alan Cox

21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nash_equilibrium

22. http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/classics/story/0,6000,582828,00.html

23. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3068650/site/newsweek/from/RL.3/

24. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=10053223&dopt=Abstract

25. Essentially, I agree with Dr. Jackson that "If free will is a byproduct of nature, then it is a byproduct of intelligence, because it isn't the heart, or the legs, or the fingernails or the toes that formulates this expression of free will. It's the brain..." Before one month, the brain hasn't formed or differentiated.

26. I am not, of course, equating the moral standing of U.S. troops with Al Quaeda terrorists. But they are all human beings, and will inevitably have things in common.