RE: ESSAY: Forward Moral Nihilism

From: Christopher Healey (
Date: Fri May 12 2006 - 18:56:57 MDT

> wrote:
> Why does anyone have morals, or believe that other people/sentients have
> intrisnic worth?

Because when you adopt ethical/moral principles, they serve as predictable attractors of your behavior. And when you're predictable, others are more willing to cooperate with you. In other words, they can count more strongly on your actual choices, which lowers their risk and shifts the cost/benefit curve of cooperation more towards choosing to do so.

And announcing your beliefs in a public forum is a strong reinforcement to this predictability as well, since you've exposed yourself to detailed scrutiny and voluntarily accepted the yoke of your self-imposed limitations. Doing so becomes a statement that one is so dedicated to acting in a specific way, that one is willing to voluntarily incur severe and perhaps entirely disproportionate penalties if one deviates from the described behavior. These penalties usually manifest themselves in the form of reputation effects that can persist for long enough that the total future losses of potential positive-sum gains is far beyond almost any possible incidental gains.

Doing this is rational, in that if you actually intend to behave a certain way, and expect others with dependencies on your actions to trust that you will, then you should be willing to provide strong assurances that you will in fact perform those specific actions. If you were unwilling to do so, your intentions would be suspect.

Contract law makes this process extremely explicit, but the same basic mechanism is at work in all social interaction. When you can reap enough of a positive-sum through cooperation, it makes sense to artificially limit your options (to some extent, and in a strong way) as an enabling factor. *Actually* possessing a belief satisfies this criteria.

Of course, this creates a whole new class of exploits regarding the feigning of beliefs for gain, which would shift particular weight onto beliefs that are difficult to fake. This could mean that the authentic expression of belief is itself complex enough that mimickry is almost impossible, which is generally what we see, although it is in a Red Queen race with our deceiver-detection capabilities. It could also mean that the belief itself directly occurs some negative penalty, which having been accepted a priori suggests the strong level of commitment to that belief.

I think this touches on the roots of fanatical belief, but I'm still surveying the literature, so I'll refrain from speculating.

-Chris Healey

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