Re: Ethical theories

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun Feb 01 2004 - 18:40:08 MST

At 02:59 PM 31/01/04 -0500, you wrote:

>I've been thinking a lot about ethical theory, and I'm wondering if anyone
>knows of an ethical theory that has the same kind of structure as Imre
>Lakatos's theory of "research programmes" (in the philosophy of science).
>What I'm thinking of would be a theory of "ethical systems" rather than
>ethical acts. It would agree that any one act may be ethical or not
>depending on the ethical system within which you view the act. But it would
>give some high-level criteria for judging ethical systems as wholes.

At the risk of sounding like someone with a new hammer . . . . I would look
into the basics of evolutionary psychology and biology to analyze
ethics. That area has resolved a lot of questions to my satisfaction,
though some of the answers are extremely unsettling--like the discovery
that evolution has put no limit on irrational behavior in wars.

The genes which lead to our feelings about what are thought of as good
ethics/morals were shaped by our long evolutionary history in small tribes
where the tribe members were mostly relatives. Positive ethics and morals
are actions that promotes survival of your genes, particularly in
Hamilton's sense of "inclusive fitness."

Sometimes personal survival was "contraindicated" as it was for Leonidas
king of Sparta who commanded 300 Greeks in one of the most important
battles in human history: Thermopylae where his small force held up over
100,000 Persians for six days while the Greeks mustered the forces that
eventually won at
Marathon. Sometimes as in the
story of Horatio at the Bridge they took chances and survived.

You can see at once where the (shared) genes of the relatives of these
heros did better than they would have without their sacrifice.

Turning to less drastic situations, a major drive for humans is seeking
status. We have genetically build brain reward systems that are switched
on by attention following actions such as killing an animal large enough to
feed the whole tribe. Status the residue from many such episodes of

But status is more complicated than just being a good hunter. It indicates
a person who can be trusted, who can be counted on to do what they say they
will, who will not be the first to defect ("nice" in the terms defined in
Evolution of Cooperation). Status and power more likely accrue to those
willing to delay gratification.

It is easy to see why the reward circuits behind these traits evolved in
cooperative social primates, as Henry Kissinger said, "Power is the
ultimate aphrodisiac."

Unfortunately, non-zero cooperative situations--such as cleaner fish--can
be exploited. There is a fish that looks like a cleaner and takes
advantage of larger fish by biting a chunk out of them when they are
expecting to be cleaned. Even though this has nothing at all to do with
human ethics, humans react to it with disgust.

So while I have not worked out a framework for ethical theories, this might
provide a pointer to a possible solution.

Keith Henson

PS as a complete coincidence, I was looking to talk to Ben today before I
saw his postings here.

PPS As a goal for friendly AI, seeking status (good opinion) in the eyes
of humans and other AIs might be one part of the design.

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