Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Some thoughts about morality

We are machines programmed by our genes to reproduce them. Our ability to feel good or bad is equally programmed by our genes. We will feel good when we behave in the way that would have promoted our genes reproduction in our evolutionary history. I can’t conceive of a more logical choice for such a machine than to try to feel good as much as possible for the longer part possible of its lifespan.

That’s certainly what all animals do, including us. We know however that humans can come up with a large variety of strategies to achieve this goal and that these strategies are not all equally valid. The best guide I can come with for a human is: what course of actions would make the highest contribution to your happiness integrated over your lifespan.

This technically selfish morality does not necessarily translate into asocial behaviors.

Since we are social animals, our happiness directly depends on the quality of our relationship with others.

Which “others” will have the highest influence on your happiness? 1) your kin and 2) your peers. Our natural empathy for our kin, naturally extends to our peers (because in our evolutionary past, your peers were usually exactly the same as your kin). So your happiness will at least depend on your relationships with your kin and your peers.

Now, in our multimedia society, our empathy also gets triggered by other stimuli. For instance, we see suffering people on TV and we feel off course bad (in our evolutionary past, this would have been adaptive). A problem with that, is that your power to do good is not great enough to erase these sad pictures of suffering people from your TV. Hence, whatever you do to help them, you will not increase your happiness a bit. Indeed, there will still always be sad pictures on your screens and the people you helped not being your peers (you have no interaction with them), the quality of your relationship with them will not improve (since there is no relationship to speak of).

Our empathy also extends to anthropomorphic animals. Examples of such animals are those we artificially selected to increase their compatibility with us (dogs, cats, horses,…) as well as baby animals which look similar to baby human (big eyes…). This is a side effect of our natural ability to feel empathy for kin and peers. This side effect is not necessarily contra-productive with respect to happiness. The way you treat your dog/horse will have an impact on your actually existing relationship with him. This side effect might however also be contra-productive with respect to happiness once it extends to all animals, despite the fact that you have no relationship with them. This for the same reasons as discussed above for humans on TV.

The question “which others” requires another answer as above if you become a public person. Since you are known from everybody you better not do things that would have a negative impact on your relationship with everybody. By the way, this includes rat lovers, so you better not do things that would harm rats either. If you are a politician, it is even worse because your impact on others is much larger. In that case, you must be even more careful with the “others” at large (at least within the circle where you are known/active).


  1. What about the "relationship" to one's closest kin or peer, i.e. oneself? According to social psychology, the image we have of ourself is dependant of the actions we do and the way we see them. In other words, if we do something that we consider as a good action, we'll have a tendancy to consider ourself as a good person. Most of the people do feel happier when they consider themself as good persons than bad persons. Therefore, wouldn't actions such as helping strangers (the starving ones seen on TV) or anthropomorphic animals in general improve our "relationship" to ourself by improving the image we have of ourself and make us happier?

  2. I agree that doing what -you think- is a good action (e.g. praying for the sick or bombing an abortion clinic) feels probably better than not doing what -you think- is a good action. I guess you might indeed be happier doing what you think are good actions rather than not doing them and therefore feeling guilty. This is true whathever you think a good action is (even eradicating jews from the face of the earth). My hypothesis is that we should feel the happiest if we do what we were genetically programmed to do to feel happy. In the case of the starving child on TV, most poeple would feel happier if they try to help than if they don't (because it is what they would have need to do in their evolutionary past). I am concerned however that the resources (time, energy, emotions, ...) that we put in doing "good things" that do not have actually a positive impact on your peers and do not improve markedly your concrete social environment are resources that we would have been wiser investing on our peers, for marked improvements in our social fabric. On the long run, investing in the wrong "good things" leaves your worst off than investing on the "right" good thing.