Society According to Kevin: Part 1
How Our Moral Compasses Fail Us
From the comments on my Introduction to this series, it appears I have discovered a controversial topic. Good. My first objective will be to illustrate why we cannot rely on moral compasses to guide society. After some thought, I have decided to break the topic of moral compasses into two posts: how they fail and why they fail.
During this series, I will use the term “society” to mean a group of people with a common set of explicit and implicit rules living in the same geographic region . Obviously, there is a loose hierarchy where a larger society may include smaller societies. As you move up the hierarchy, the number of common rules diminishes as the geographic area increases. Eventually, we reach the “Global Society”. The members of a society also share a significant number of resources and some kind of semi-stable identity.
The number of people in a leaf-level society varies with their economic interdependence and communication channels. Less advanced societies require fewer members to sustain coherence. In areas with high mobility and mass media, the smallest unit I would consider a coherent society contains on the order of a million people. So Palo Alto is not a society. Silicon Valley may be one. The San Francisco Bay Area definitely is.
I’ll start by outlining my position in contrast to three points brought up in the comments to the Introduction:
- People have moral compasses. I absolutely agree. They appear to be a combination of evolutionarily directed hardwired behaviors and childhood indoctrination into the social group.
- Moral compasses are useful. I absolutely agree. We wouldn’t have a civilization without them. However, they are useful in a limited set of situations, few of which apply at the society level.
- The moral compass point of view is as legitimate as the incentive structure point of view. I’m sorry, but… no. Rather, the moral compass is an extremely narrow and coarse approximation of incentive structure.
The moral compass is an internal voice that, when faced with a choice, answers the question, “What’s the right thing to do?” People might describe it as a “feeling, “instinct”, or “belief”. The good things about moral compasses are that they are fast and cheap. If you need an answer in seconds or the amount of value in question is small, your moral compass is pretty much the only reasonable tool.
However, at the level of a modern society, where we have time to consider and the value in question in large, the moral compass breaks down. There are five major flaws with trying to apply moral compasses at this scale.
- They return mostly binary answers. Is “it” right or wrong, good or bad, safe or dangerous? Our brains want to categorize rather than measure. So we get discrete rather than continuous output.
- They vary significantly among people in a society. For example, in California, we have fairly even splits on important questions such as gay marriage, gun rights, death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia. Water rights, welfare, and environmental policy top the list of contentious economic issues.
- They are opaque to introspection. Most people have difficulty articulating any reasons behind their position. Those that do frankly end up sounding like they’re rationalizing. In fact, there’s evidence that people decide things before they have conscious reason to.
- They are sensitive to framing. “Undecided” people often respond differently to controversial questions depending on the framing. Is gay marriage a fairness or a moral issue? Are gun rights a safety or a freedom issue? Is the death penalty a life or a punishment issue?
- They are hard to change. My experience is that, on controversial issues, people are very unlikely to change their minds once they’ve firmly staked out a position. They will blatantly ignore evidence in favor of a view anecdotal data points that confirm their pre-existing belief. This experience is backed up by the research behind cognitive dissonance: your beliefs change to match your actions.
The only thing that allows us to get overcome these barriers is trust. Humans are hardwired for cooperation. Unfortunately, this trust and willingness to cooperate usually only extends to a relatively small “in group” with whom we have tight social ties (for an excellent series of blog posts exploring this topic, go to the first one at Life with Alacrity).
The exact limit is debatable, but it is on the order of 100, so four orders of magnitude less than a modern society. That means it will be impossible to coordinate a modern society using moral compasses. Once you reach a certain number of people the chances of reaching an impasse on any but the most fundamental issues approaches certainty. Moreover, the number of people is too larger to rely on social trust to overcome entrenched positions.
In the next post, I’ll examine why moral compasses break down. As a result, I hope you will see that moral compasses are really an approximation of a more general approach that we can employ more directly.