The Rube Goldberg Machine of Morality

by AllAmericanBreakfast5 min read6th Jan 20211 comment


World Optimization

1. Mathematics and morality

One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic. - Joseph Stalin

To a mathematician, it's equally obvious that 1 + 1 = 2 and that 3 * 5 = 15.

A kid might treat 3 * 5 as a repeated addition problem. The answer isn't obvious, and even if they get 15, they're a little worried they might have miscalculated. I've taken a year of calculus and I'm still never confident when I multiply 7 * 6 in my head.

A math proof breaks a complicated procedure into a sequence of obvious steps.

Math is emotional. When you're working on a problem, you might feel confident at times, anxious at others. I feel about as much confidence and anxiety these days trying to understand a linear algebra or computational theory proof as I did when I was doing times tables back in elementary school. Math gets more complicated, the feelings stay the same.

However, math does not depend on emotion to be correct. You can be anxious, and still check your work and discover that you're right. You can also feel confident in your proof, and still find that it was inadequate.

Some people find it equally obvious that murder is wrong and that failing to optimize charitable contributions is wrong.

For most people, murder is obviously wrong. Failing to optimize charitable contributions is not. Even if they think the argument through, they're worried that it went sideways somewhere. Or that accepting it would have other secretly bad implications.

We can use math to describe morality. But this can lead to repugnant conclusions. I can make statements that are mathematically moral, like:

It's more wrong to murder two people than one person. In general, it's worse to murder more people than less. Each additional murder adds the same amount of wrongness. For example, it is ten times worse to murder ten people as to murder one person.

These statements hold only for cold-blooded murder, and only for positive numbers of murders.

If I also accept the statement:

Terrorism is a form of cold-blooded murder.

Then a terrorist attack that killed a million people would be a million times worse than a single murder.

The word "a million" doesn't look much bigger than the word "one." Let's do the moral equivalent of one of those diagrams showing the relative sizes of the earth and the sun.

If a city block represented how bad a single murder is, then you'd have to walk around the earth several times to represent how bad a million murders is.

If the word "evil" represented how bad a single murder is, then even if you replaced every word in the Bible with the world "evil," you still wouldn't have nearly enough "evils" to represent how bad a terrorist attack killing a million people is.

Most people physically cannot feel a million times worse about one thing than another. They cannot feel a million times worse about a million murders than they feel about one murder.

If feeling determines morality, then really isn't a million times as bad to murder a million people as to murder one person.

On the other hand, if mathematics determine morality, then not only can we say "a million murders is a million times worse than one murder," we can also say "one murder is one millionth as bad as a million murders." That doesn't sound very nice, does it? It sounds as if it's minimizing how bad a single murder is.

If feeling determines morality and we want to focus on issues of mass murder, then we might find ourselves attaching those moral feelings to a different scale of murder. With apologies to Stalin, we might feel that "a million deaths is a tragedy, but one death is just something that happens." It might seem insane to focus on the details of one murder, or one death, when we observe ongoing catastrophes on scales far more vast.

On the other hand, we might believe that even the greatest feelings of moral outrage over a single murder are still not enough to represent the injustice.

2. True believers

If these two sides were having an intellectual debate over moral philosophy, they might recognize that the problem is just that human emotion seems like an important part of morality, yet doesn't scale very well. We might blame evolution and call it a day.

But if we're debating politics, each side is trying to awaken moral feelings in order to motivate sustained action after the debate. They might be using moral feelings to punish their enemies and reward their friends.

If morality can be essentially political, perhaps calls to disentangle morality from politics can also be essentially political. Creating the pretense of neutrality can be politically useful, but there is no neutral ground.

That's strange, because even the most partisan person, the truest of true believers, had to develop their view of the world sometime. If it was OK for them to have had unformed moral beliefs, why is it not OK for another person to have unformed moral beliefs?

From the perspective of the true believer, it wasn't OK that they had unformed or different moral beliefs in the past. Someone is to blame: themselves, their parents, society, their ancestors, the boundary conditions of the universe.

It is also not OK for other people to have unformed or different moral beliefs. A good math teacher uses the methods that work best for educating children about math. A good true believer uses the methods that work best for moral persuasion. Those methods might be very different from those that work best for educating children about math.

Math isn't so different from moral persuasion. A math teacher doesn't have children write thoughtful essays on what they think the answer to 3 * 5 ought to be. They give them times tables. There's a right answer, and the math teacher's job is not only to present the proof, but to make students believe in it with their whole heart.

The key difference between a math teacher and a moral true believer is that the math teacher really has a definitive proof; the moralist does not. The math teacher has a justification for their fanatical confidence that 3 * 5 = 15; the moralist does not.

We don't have a proof-based justification for our moral confidence. Yet if we feel influenced to act as if we do, and know that everybody else does too, then what? Do we accept this state of affairs and strap on our armor? Even to call for a reflective pause, a zone in which to step out of the emotional intensity of our political battles, is itself a political statement. It's also a political statement to reject characterizing this as a political statement.

3. Morality as a Rube Goldberg Machine

If everything is a political statement, nothing is neutral, and nobody has a perfect mathematical justification for their moral views. Morality comes from somewhere else. It's a Rube Goldberg machine of pressures, opinions, memories, symbols, poetry, activism, and, yes, science and mathematics.

In molecular biology, we get these long sequences of one molecule phosphorylating another, which binds another, which triggers a signaling cascade, which methylates some DNA, and 15 steps later something meaningful happens as a result. The first step in understanding these mechanisms is just to describe them. In molecular biology, we're lucky, because we can experimentally observe each step in the process.

The psychological nature of human thought prevents this. But if you were to study morality properly, I think you'd be doing it from a psychological perspective. You'd look at how reading a post on the internet triggers a memory, which unleashes a comment, which raises an emotion, which leads to walking away from the computer, which later on that day causes a conversation with friends, and so on. It's a Rube Goldberg machine not only of justifications, but of actions and feelings.

Why isn't that a conventional way to think about and study morality? Why is it normal for a moral philosopher to do an in-depth cross-textual analysis of Immanuel Kant, when his literal words would seem to bear little direct causal relationship to the in-the-moment moral thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of most people?

In fact, why is it more normal for me to think of morality in terms of an abstract argument than as a psychological Rube Goldberg machine with gigantic consequences?

If morality is best understood as a Rube Goldberg machine, a weird kludgy psycho-social phenomenon rather than a clean, abstract argument - closer to biology than to physics - then how do we interpret the way we currently engage with morality?

Maybe it's about how we try to manage this moment. A debate about morality is also about calming or stoking emotion, vetting our friends, assigning status. Prayer is about managing emotions of fear, disgust, anger, and sadness.

For any specific moral act, we can ask how it counterfactually influenced our decisions. What would I have been doing if I hadn't been writing this essay? What would I have done if I hadn't gone to that march? What if I'd yelled and cursed at that person whose T-shirt made me angry rather than Tweeting about it in the grocery store line?

Unlike in biology or engineering, we can't hope to observe how all the parts fit together in this Rube Goldberg machine. Some parts are psychological. Some parts are private. Some parts we lie about, exaggerate or hide. Some parts we misinterpret.

What we can do, whether or not we should, is envision an outcome we would like to have, and fight for it. We can't predict precisely how that will play out in the long run. But we gain information along the way by acting and observing reactions. That's politics.

I suspect that successful politicians are people who have more or less accepted the "Rube Goldberg hypothesis" of morality. They're not interested in perfect outcomes, and they recognize that their arguments need not be academically rigorous to get results. They move fast and break things. I don't know how much productivity comes out of that, but certainly they do seem to be good at the breaking part.


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