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Project for a Progressive Ethics Message Board Working Out Loud › Current Model for the Ethical Framework (Multi-part)

Current Model for the Ethical Framework (Multi-part)

Dil G.
Group Organizer
London, GB
Post #: 47
This post will be pinned, and will contain material describing the clearest statement we can devise of the current underlying model of the ethical framework the Project intends to deliver. This will always be provisional thinking, and thus no doubt rife with inconsistencies, unexamined assumptions and other wrong-headedness. Please message me to point out anything like this!

October 8th 2017

Yuval Noah Harari succinctly states that; "Modernity is a deal"; that with this deal, "humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power." [Homo Deus, 2015 p199].

The suggestion is that by allowing the smashing up of religion, of public morality, of social relations, the way was opened for all sorts of new connections and relations to be formed (what Bruno Latour calls 'hybrids 'in 'We Have Never been Modern']. That these hybrids would give us (material) benefits - which I suggest can be most clearly described as freedoms of all kinds (freedoms of action, of belief, of imagination, of association, of fulfilment of desires).

The experience of this deal has not been without pain, and is so far, to use William Gibson's wonderfully laconic phrase, 'unevenly distributed'.

Nevertheless, across the world, the impact proceeds. And Modernism is not done with us yet. Having (in the West, at least) largely disposed of religion, of public morality, of the family, it currently has its teeth firmly into race and gender identity.

There is no stopping this process (at least, not without embracing some ISIS type return to mediaevalism); Modernism is Janus-faced - one side promising freedom and adaptability, relaxation of constraint, the other side rampant selfish individualism, and the combination of these two feeds perfectly into consumerism - so that capitalism too lends its considerable push to the advance of the Modern project in furtherance of its own ends.

The impact of Modernism on Ethics has been profound. One post '60s philosopher after another has pointed to the way that Modernism cuts away any ground of certainty from our ethics, laying us all open to charges of moral relativism and various forms of self-deception as our ethics become free-floating - practically indistinguishable from what it might serve us (either psychologically or materially) to believe [see, for instance, Alasdair Macintyre, 'After Virtue'].

This is the setting in which this Project clearly understands itself to operate. On this understanding, the mission is quite simply, to re-establish ethics on a Modern basis.

What are the conditions that must be satisfied in taking on this challenge? Most saliently, the lack of solid foundations. Under Modernism, these do not exist, and any attempt to re-establish them (the apparent aim of many contemporary ethical philosophers) is a direct challenge to Modernism - a reactionary move, condemning us either to set our face toward the past or be swept away by the tide.

The challenge is to build an ethics which has some social meaning - one which can be reliably useful outside the orbit of a single mind, that can form the basis of constructive, purposeful and trusting social relations, and yet makes no pretence at unshakeable firmness or consistency - and more, which actively partakes of change and dynamism, without losing coherence or utility.

Clearly, such an ethics must accept the charge of moral relativism head on. For if there is no eternal foundation, if change is to be internalised, then no particular ethical position, be it never so deep, can be anything other than subject to change, even if such change may be highly unlikely, or imperceptibly slow.

And yet, change must be resisted to some degree - a social ethics cannot be a weather-vane, flicking wildly with every contradictory gust. If change is to be accepted, it must be at a rate that humans can integrate.

This observation, coupled with another, gives us our starting point: the other observation comes from Paul Verhaege in 'What About Me' - that despite ourModern feeling that, in the final analysis, our ethics are strictly personal - finally private and incommensurable, studies show that the large majority of people in fact share a huge part of their ethical positions.

The Ethical Framework of this Project will be built on ethical input collected from (self-identifying) progressives. It is conceived of, not as a product, but as a continuing process - forever offering itself to the world and accepting information from the world, continuously assessing for coherence - both internal self-coherence and congruence between the model represented by the framework and the information it receives.

In this way, it is proposed that the Ethical Framework will at the same time have a distinct inertia - held to the weight of its accumulated, embodied 'wisdom' by its cleavage to internal coherence (the weight of previous input acting as a 'sea-anchor' - limiting both speed and direction of change), while remaining at all times responsive to consistent and significant shifts by virtue of its commitment to congruence with current pushes and pulls.

Such a condition is unprecedented for an ethical framework - which have heretofore been considered to require some claim to timeless certainty as a necessary bedrock. However, a few seconds' historical consideration is all that is required to understand that such certainties have always been mythical (or, at the very least, wildly disconnected from any particular contemporary moral or ethical code in any society ever). Situations which have been iron moral law in one century, on one continent, have been comprehensively up-ended in a few generations, by crossing a national border. And yet, from one human to another, the recognition - 'this is a good person' - has been generally possible and fairly easily made throughout, using evolutionarily identical hardware and (largely subconscious) tooling.

Of course, the very idea of a 'dynamic' ethics that balances consistency on the one hand, and open-ness to change on the other, even if accepted on a theoretical basis, requires particularly well-tuned and sensitive instantiation and tooling - a tall order.

But when the alternative is an inoperable mess, a situation in which no important social issues can be satisfactorily debated, in which major shifts occur , or don't occur, via mysterious means, largely unexamined, or are the subjects of 'gun-to-the-head' mass referenda on binary questions, why not try for something better?

For the second part of this, read the following Reply.
Dil G.
Group Organizer
London, GB
Post #: 79

As people with little choice but to be Moderns, we have incorporated into our conception of the world a wide range of freedoms that were unimaginable a few short centuries ago. Freedoms which we take for granted, until they are impinged upon - at which point we are mightily surprised, and then, once the shock wears off, mightily affronted.

Freedom appears to be a one-way street. Loss of some established freedom always feels like being forced into reverse - like losing ground. We resent it.

We look on in bemusement or awe at those few people who voluntarily submit themselves to some religious or other discipline which requires them to accept significant curtailment of their freedom. Nevertheless, we remind ourselves - they made this choice freely, and can always back out if they change their mind.

So any Ethics which understands itself as compatible with galloping Modernism must be an Ethics of freedom - not one of constraint - let alone of curtailment.

On the other hand, any ethics that functions must be capable of inhibitory messages - of urging restraint on the satisfaction of desire.

How to square this circle?

The answer to this comes in two parts; one psychological, the other structural.

The psychological part is to be clear that the principle purpose of this Ethics is a thoroughly modern one - to free individuals from any ethical consideration at all, apart from that which they themselves consider relevant. To present an Ethics which has no overtones whatsoever of Public Morality, with which compliance is always a personal choice.

That the one fundamental commandment of the Ethics is as follows:

"Do what you wish, unless of course you experience some doubt about the ethics of what you intend. In this case, consult the public Ethical Framework and see what it has to offer in the way of considerations you might bring to bear in resolving your concerns.".

Of course, those who are pessimistic about 'human nature' will shake their heads in (according to choice) disbelief or cynical laughter at this point. But we can simply congratulate them for having read this far - this is, after all, the Project for a Progressive Ethics - we are by nature optimistic about human capacities. Maybe they'll stay with us for the ride, maybe not, but we can move right along, leaving them with an encouraging smile.

[This is also the point at which some people may get upset or angry; "Are you telling me that I'm not a Progressive, then?". I have to say, I think that I am. There is deliberately no definition of Progressive anywhere here - typically the formulation '(self-identifying) progressives' is used - but this issue of the conception of humans as innately nasty or not seems to be impossible to get away from. It isn't a judgemental thing - it's simply a structural implication of this direction of travel. I'd be very interested to discuss it should you disagree.]

The corollary to this fundamental commandment, of course, is that the more one has explored the Ethical Framework already, the more likely it is that one's desired behaviour will already have been influenced by what one has found there - and thus the more likely it is that one can simply get on with whatever was planned, serenely confident that no offence to ethics is likely.

The implicit message being that prior ethical study increases ones freedom to satisfy one's desires (and indeed there is all sorts of good scientific evidence that suggests that people who have spent time considering ethical statements tend to have more ethical impulses).

The structural angle goes like this - that because the Framework has been built upon the the shared views of progressive Moderns like yourself, the chances are that something you think is acceptable will not meet with a negative treatment if you do investigate - that if you do have doubts, you will likely find some helpful thinking.

Further, the intentionally open structure of the Project to engagement offers you a route to satisfaction. If you do discover a generally inhibitory set of opinions / discussions / recommendations around the action you'd like to take, and, even after examining your conscience carefully, you don't agree, than of course, you are positively encouraged to engage - to raise the issue, with all the particulars.

Behind the web interface will lie a variety of human organisations who maintain each aspect of the Network. In the nature of such situations, these groups will likely be only too happy to hear from a customer who wants to talk about their pet subject, and will be more than happy to discuss your problem with you. At the very least, you will experience some thoughtful interchange with people who care deeply about the issues that concern you.

And of course, you have relinquished no legally or socially sanctioned freedoms in engaging; if you still want to do whatever it was, no-one's going to stop you.

For the third part of this, read the following Reply.
Dil G.
Group Organizer
London, GB
Post #: 80

Where the preceding sections were largely theoretical, this section will be rather specific about what exactly we will be doing as we build the Ethical Framework. It will thus probably be largely wrong - everything described here is provisional and experimental as of now - the 'starter for ten' version.

NOTE: all of the images can be accessed from the PHOTOS tab of the Meetup interface if you want to download them / see them enlarged (choose the 'original' size option) / whatever.

First, an overview of a fully-realised Project:

This diagram shows the framework as a heterogeneous lattice of Ethical Propositions - linked in accordance with connections that have been made evident from public input as it was developed. A web interface makes engagement with the framework possible and navigable for all sorts of public uses - personal, educational, investigative, exploratory. Behind the network lies another network, of (we devoutly hope) social groups of all kinds, from social ethics debating clubs to student organisations, to civil society groups, to professional ethics committees.

Second, some detail on imagined use cases and operational modes:

Third, the base level of consideration/reporting/investigation/an­alysis - individual Ethical Situations, as reported:

These are mapped as interactions of Agents through a variety of Relations, and each is considered as itself, unique.

Fourth, the pattern recognition stage:

While each ethical dilemma will be unique, in the nature of things many will be members of recognisable recurrent types of situation. Recognition and analysis of these is a key stage in building the network - pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is will be used to identify both broad, deep recurrencies and sub-patterns which may occur in a wide variety of situations.

Fifth, development of the Ethical Propositions:

Recurrent situation Patterns can be further analysed in terms of the patterns of Opinions submitted around the situations - whether people were generally encouraging or inhibitory, and in what circumstances.

These Opinion Patterns are considered in conjunction with the full range of existing ethical thinking (on the basis that, whatever the status of the ethical edifices which have been tumbled by modernism, fundamental human conditions have not altered so much as to make all ethical thinking obsolete) to develop Ethical Propositions which form the nodes of the network.

Sixth, construction of the Ethical Framework:

Of course, this will be a piecemeal rather than a revelatory process - the Framework will grow from very simple, provisional linkages of a few nodes and be subject to continuous revision and reconfiguration from then on.

Previous Model description superseded as of Oct 8 2017.
Reason for supersession:
- this model was built around the idea of the network as a 'recommendation / advice engine - generating, whether rapidly as an 'automatic' judgement of 'easy' cases, or more slowly after referral to humans for consideration in the case of 'novel' cases.
- although the analysis / understanding of the Ethical Framework as a metaphorical immune system, with an idea of measures of 'coherence' have not been abandoned (and will probably be returned to), discussion of the determination that the network should not be usable (either intentionally, or through habit) as a 'public morality' which could be used to 'judge' resulted in significant doubt. Anything that can be used to get 'answers' to moral dilemmas which come with some apparent 'authority' seems likely to fall into this trap.


We are aiming to build a network of linked ethical propositions - of all kinds, and with a variety of relationships. This network will be in a state of dynamic equilibrium. Analysis of this will clarify sub-networks, nodes which are more and less fundamental, and may even reveal surprising counter-intuitive connections.

Presenting ethical issues will be implemented as some sort of perturbation of this equilibrium,
[for the archived version of this content, please click here­]
Ted H.
Kaikoura, NZ
Post #: 4
Hi Dil & team,

I have a suite of issues with the proposed ethic of "Do what you wish, unless of course you experience some doubt about the ethics of what you intend. In this case, consult the public Ethical Framework and see what it has to offer in the way of considerations you might bring to bear in resolving your concerns."
It is not responsible.

The universe is not devoid of rules.
Gravity exists, as do the other 3 fundamental forces, and all the systems that evolve from them and the fundamental uncertainties present.

Evolution seems to have assembled us by a process of differential survival.
What few people seem to get is that every life form alive today (from viruses to us), is equally the result of that same evolutionary process - just that the contexts and timings of events have been different in the life histories of the different populations.

Evolution hasn't preferentially selected us.
Evolution has selected all life now living - equally.

It is now clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that we human individuals are very complex entities, involving the instantiation of some 20 levels of cooperative systems (both hardware and software).
Within each level, and between each level, systems influence each other, and have operational limits beyond which they cease to retain coherence (and we become unconscious or die).

This seems to be the physical reality of our existence.

Yes - there certainly is a sense in which we can act in any way we choose, and there is also a very real sense in which most possible actions have negative existential outcomes (lead to death in the short to medium term).

If one is choosing to optimise anything at all, and one is in a situation where technology seems to be delivering more powerful tools, and greater opportunities and greater security with time, then whatever it is one is trying to optimise, one is more likely to do so by continuing to exist. Thus existence, continued life, is foundational to all other things.

Thus one can derive an ethical foundation that is below choice, which is existence itself.

Thus - one gets to the ethical premise:
1/ value individual sapient life (human and non-human, biological and non-biological), and take all reasonable steps to mitigate any unreasonable risk to any sapient entity.
2/ value the individual freedom of all sapient entities, provided such expressions of freedom do not pose an unreasonable risk to the life or liberty of any.

Given that our existence as thinking entities with language is predicated on developing language and technology (and all other such abstract modes of thinking and or communication as we manage to instantiate) in social and ecological contexts, then our existence in such social and ecological contexts demands of us a level of responsible action in these contexts.

The evidence is clear (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt) that there are not, nor can there be, any hard and fast rule sets that work in all contexts.
The evidence is that at all levels there exists fundamental uncertainty, randomness, and novelty.
We exist in an open complex system, which has components that are far from equilibrium, and are infinitely extensible into novel territory.

So promoting the idea of simply "doing what you wish" is not responsible, not ethical, and not sustainable.

Sure we all have our wishes.
Sure there is no absolute standards of anything (other than existence itself, whatever that may be, and no guarantees of it continuing).

And the evidence is beyond all reasonable doubt, that the default systems we inherit from genetics and culture have been tuned by survival of our ancestors to the conditions of our past, and are not necessarily applicable to our exponentially changing present and future. So simply following our default "feelings" is not any sort of guarantee of survival.

And there is a really complex balance here.
None of us has perfect information.
All of us, however deep and abstract our understandings, have those understandings based in necessarily simplistic heuristics (reality is far too complex for any human mind to deal with in anything other that contextually useful simplifying heuristics).
So it doesn't pay for any of us to get too hubristic, and be too overconfident about what is possible and what isn't, what is safe and what isn't.
We all have to be conscious of the very real uncertainties present - always.
We need to be prepared to have conversations about risk, and not necessarily accept any particular set of rules as being contextually relevant, but don't dismiss them lightly either - an art, a responsibility required.

So there must always be an aspect of art, and an aspect of "best guess" to all our decisions - however much logic and computation and systems knowledge we employ.

Sure, we have to leave the absolute certainty that our ancestors craved in history, and accept profound uncertainty as our constant companion.

And accepting that uncertainty does not absolve us from a moral responsibility to care for life and liberty.

Ethics is, always has been, always will be, a whole lot more than simply "do what you wish", and what we wish has to be a very important part of it; along with the existence of ourselves and others, and all the uncertainties, unknowns, and unknowables of existence.

Ethics must involve an aspect of social and ecological responsibility in all choices.

The more we know, the more we know we don't know, and the less confident we become of the things we were once absolutely certain of.

The thing I am most confident of, is that the lack of absolutes and the presence of uncertainties does not mean that "anything goes". If "Ethics" has any meaning at all, it means that we need to be even more responsible in making our best guesses at the likely long term outcomes of our choices; and we need to be responsible for the likely social and ecological consequences of those choices (short, medium and long term).

No system of rules can do that. It will always involve individual choice, individual responsibility; and that is a very different thing from an unqualified "what you wish".
Dil G.
Group Organizer
London, GB
Post #: 81
Hi Ted,

This is great. So many important points, that are only 'obvious' after careful trains of thought down diverse pathways have converged, diverged, re-converged into a mesh that achieves a level of coherence, are limpidly and analytically stated here. Thanks.

I agree with your analysis.

There is something I was trying to do, though, with the 'universal operational ethic' formulation I proposed, which I have failed to achieve.

This is bound up in some (for me) key characteristics of the project outcome, and attempts to encode those into an attitudinal 'meta' statement about the practice of the ethical social tooling we want to build.

These characteristics are:

  • That ethical frameworks which have even a tendency towards a coercive character (ie are capable of being re-framed as a Public Morality) are functionally inadequate to the requirements of a human society which wishes to continue to exist with some degree of continuity along the evolutionary pathway which has brought it to this moment.
  • That the circle must nevertheless be squared; that we have to find ways of building coherent, sustainable human purpose which can achieve high levels of resilience, consistency, effectiveness and open-ness in addressing complex issues that have no dependence upon coercive relationships (note, I distinguish 'coercive' from 'power' - power relationships are part of the structure of reality. The social movements at the moment that attack any and all power relations are understandable, but miss the point. In fact, one sign of a productive result of this project should be an increasing ability to analyse and defuse attacks on power qua power by clarifying that coercion is the real issue).

So, the formulation I arrived at intends to do two things: to emphasise individual freedom, but at the same time to point to a requirement on us to develop our own ethical nous.

Several paragraphs later, I point out that the corollary to this top-level ethic is that, in order to be free for as much of the time as possible, from twinges of conscience, investment of time in engaging with the Ethical Framework is necessary.

Thinking this through, the statement of the top-level ethic is utopian as formed (it also has too many echoes of the infantile Crowley line: 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law' ), and the later statement about the requirement for personal engagement with the Ethical Framework needs to be melded with the freedom aspect.

Taking your last paragraph, what I hope from this project is that individuals who engage with it will find that, as a result, 'what they wish', increasingly aligns with the coherence of a larger social ethics, in a way which to them is experienced as entirely voluntarist, and that this experience comes as a liberation - a liberation from doubt, a liberation from selfishness as the 'safe' option, as a liberation from having to be potentially prepared to justify everything, at any moment, from one's personal first principles. Crucially, though, a liberation which does not operate by displacing personal responsibility onto some external authority.

I don't think that such a hope is 'pious' or wishful thinking - a range of experimental results supports this notion.

Does this make sense to you?

I have resisted any urge to attempt a new formulation - getting to a position of clarity about this is fundamental, I think, and well worth spending time on.
Cedric K.
London, GB
Post #: 6
Hi Ted and all

I have a suite of issues with the proposed ethic of "Do what you wish, unless of course you experience some doubt about the ethics of what you intend. In this case, consult the public Ethical Framework and see what it has to offer in the way of considerations you might bring to bear in resolving your concerns."
I broadly agree with your reservations about the proposed 'top-level' ethic. All actions and choices have an ethical dimension, it's just that often we don't think about ethics explicitly, because of habit - sometimes good habit, but in important cases, bad habit. Even 'To thine own self be true' as Polonius said, maybe in a modern or post-modern way, requires honesty, authenticity and consistency, and ethics and values are an inalienable part of one's own self. I like what you say about social and ecological responsibilities - in my view, these are omnipresent, but satisfying one own's basic human needs is of importance within them, and something I hope one has agency over.

I can see why Dil phrased it this way to inhibit coercion (which I see as a form of 'power'), but how someone might use or abuse a 'public ethical framework' is more down to social conditions than a statement of intent by the designer. Say the project resulted in one or more websites or apps, as these things currently work, someone would most likely only consult it if they were experiencing a moral doubt. Now it could be used by someone questioning another's action. Would that form of consulting the oracle be a bad thing? Maybe it would help understanding the other's perspective. Maybe it wouldn't, because the circumstances of the other have been misunderstood, or there's a flaw or omission in the framework. In which case the framework can grow. So that's all good.

Ted's other comments remind me of a few comparable landmarks. I'm not well-read, but hope a bit of philosophical name-dropping is OK. The questions of both freedom and 'free will' may or may not be important. Schiller sees our free will as a reason to seek freedom and use it well, but in fact that's a kind of naturalistic fallacy, obtaining an 'ought' from a putative 'is'. Determinists, such as Ted Honderich, could equally value liberty and/or humanitarian values. In this context I mention the late David Smail, a psychologist whose contribution to philosophy has not yet been fully appreciated. In several books, he describes how notions of 'free will' and individualist responsibility are used to blame people in a way convenient to society, when in fact 'unconscious' social and economic forces that lie beyond a 'power horizon' are almost irresistible determinants. You can read one of Smail's publications here.

Honderich's After the Terror starts with the kind of facts that Ted mentions about a good life (not in an Aristotelian sense) necessarily being a reasonably long life. Being a consequentialist, Honderich sees 'sins of omission' (my phrase) being in some ways as bad as 'sins of commission', and this is a challenge to a formulation of only considering ethical implications under certain conditions. I heard Habermas tell of a train driver who did his duty well, without question or wanting to question, and was widely regarded by his peers as virtuous. Only the train was going to Auschwitz. By self-examination, the ancients believed we could improve virtues - as moderns, there's still a role for examined habit as we can't question everything all the time.

As for Ted & Dil's discussion 'absolutes', I think both Honderich and Jonathan Haidt have something to say here. There may be no easily-expressed moral rules of behaviour that have no exception (the nearest for me would be honesty or enhancing freedom). The 'greatest happiness of the greatest number' is ambiguously formulated and flawed. But there may be ubiquitous moral foundations, all of which bear to an extent on general rules and particular decisions. I'll post my summary of Haidt's The Righteous Mind here shortly.

'Modern', Enlightenment principles include truth and justice, as well as arguably liberty, egality and solidarity. Slowly an ecological awareness is being injected in there too - I recommended the film Tawai to Dil on Saturday, a quest to find what hunter-gatherers can tell us about the ethics of sustainability.

BTW, I note a distinction Dil drew between 'ethics' and 'morals' - that ethics is an internal, personal, private mental representation, whereas morals is a matter of convention in the public sphere, sometimes codified into imperfect laws. Often I see 'ethics' and 'morals' used interchangeably, so if we're going to adopt that terminology, the distinction should be explicit. That probably isn't quite what he meant anyway!

For conservatives like Roger Scruton, the fundamental ethical question is 'who is to blame?' For progressives, it is 'what should I do?'
Cedric K.
London, GB
Post #: 7
Here's a summary I'd previously written of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, particularly as regards Haidt's view is on the origin of political
differences, although he doesn't quite approach it in terms of 'cause' in the book. Plus a postscript on climate communications.

Haidt first presents results (including
those of as a correlation, namely:
* 'liberals' (left-wingers, progressives and socialists) respond most to
triggers to their 'Care/harm' 'moral foundation', partly to
'liberty/oppression' and a little to 'fairness/cheating'.
* conservatives respond equally to those three as they do to 'loyalty',
'authority' and 'sanctity'
* 'libertarians' (meaning economic libertarians who are socially
liberal) are like 'liberals' but without worries about care/harm and a
particular belief in economic liberty.

In the final chapter (pp 323-335) he does give an account of causality:
genes produce personality 'dispositional traits', which are then shaped
by life experiences into 'characteristic adaptations' and a later
conscious construction of a 'personal narrative' - each of which when
related to current political grand narratives and adoption of these by
parties, predict voting intention. On personality traits, left-wing
people typically have more 'openness to experience', and lower 'harm
avoidance' and 'conscientiousness'. [These are partly 'big 5' traits
generally seen as innate by personality researchers - I'm assuming his
claim is that moral foundations largely mediate the effect of traits on
political and religious affiliation.]

The central position in the book is 'Moral Foundation Theory' (the
existence of evolved mental 'modules' that provide each of the six moral
'taste receptors' above, not all of them equally strong in all
individuals); plus 'social intuitionism', that moral reasoning is mostly
just part of the dominant tendency to post hoc justification and
'blinding', although it can have an effect over time on others with whom
you have sympathies. [I could argue against intuitionism, in that we do
develop moral theories and norms from moral perceptions, but there has
to be a certain amount of self-consistency in those viewpoints as there
is in theories in the domain of facts. I do think he's right when]
Haidt also argues for group selection and multi-level selection being
the evolutionary origin of a 'groupish overlay' in H. sapiens (we are
'90% chimp and 10% bee') and of cultural and genetic co-evolution of
religion and religious predisposition [and 'connectedness'] - Richard
Dawkins thereby comes off badly. Haidt speculates 'shared
intentionality' evolved before language in H heidelbergensis c 900ky
BCE, and (controversially) that genetic 'self-domestication' has
actually accelerated in the last 50,000 years; he also includes a
worthwhile note that competition between groups does not necessarily
imply inter-group warfare, and indeed he mentions that experiments using
oxytocin (and possibly mirror neurons) induce more pro-in-group
behaviour, but not particularly bad feelings about the out-group. The
conclusion is only four pages from p 367.

Haidt describes his own turn from progressive to 'moderate' in, first
spending months in India coming to understand 'divinity' and 'community'
(two ethics that Haidt's mentor, Richard Shweder, put alongside the
middle-class Western dominant ethic of 'autonomy'), secondly
appreciating that conservatives have their own version of utilitarianism
[in fact a kind of consequentialism] based on the idea that social
structures and 'moral capital' are fragile and need to be preserved (he
repeatedly refers to the 'ring of Gyges' demonstrating that
accountability is necessary to avoid 'free riders' and abuse, also to
Durkeim's anomie as a danger); he's also keen on markets provided
externalities have been corrected through regulation and 'corporate
superorganisms' have been reigned in.

The political descriptions are very focussed on US 'culture wars', which
he partly puts down to Democrats abandoning socially conservative values
under LBJ and Carter; relevance to the UK might be similar neglect by
Labour of conservative moral foundations (that he finds are much more
common in working-class people than intellectuals). His prescription is
for greater social contact and understanding between individuals with
different moral outlooks. The only real mention of left-libertarian or
ecological viewpoints are that (a) the 'hive switch' (that activates
pro-group transcendence and behaviour) can be activated by 'awe in
nature' and (b) that some of the left's limited 'sanctity' foundation is
invested in nature.

There are some interesting incidental results on
countering bias: Tom Gilovich finds that when [social pressure means] I
want to believe then I ask 'can I believe?', when I don't then I ask
'must I believe?', looking for contradictory evidence [perhaps the
former questions can be triggered by encouraging supposition in self and
others]; and Phil Tetlock finds accountability increases exploratory -
as against confirmatory - thought only when people know before forming
an opinion that they will be accountable to an audience with unknown
views who are well-informed and interested in accuracy [which maybe
argues against representatives using polls or focus groups, and may explain the success of science]. Studies show the right understands the left's moral concerns better than the
left generally appreciates authority, loyalty and sanctity (which simply
aren't going to go away for half the population), so the general message
for the left would be to at least acknowledge these [and assess risks of
things like tolerance and inclusion to the moral fabric].

Haidt doesn't mention political psychology research by Dan Kahan that
seems along the same lines of groupish moral intuition:
I'm not totally convinced by Kahan, as his findings are probably highly related to the current mass media situation in the US.

On environment there's a bit of debate about importance of expressed values:

Here's George Marshall on conservative climate narratives:
[If we have to explain the science again, the 'balance' motif might be
invoked by both talking about balance between carbon sources and sinks
and top-of-atmosphere energy balance.]
Ted H.
Kaikoura, NZ
Post #: 5
Hi Dil, Cedrick and team,

Interesting points both.

I spent and hour yesterday in a skype chat with Daniel Schmachtenberger. We both have a long history of enquiry into existential risk, and effective risk mitigation strategies, and the discussion got quite abstract quite quickly.

We both agreed the general thesis that given that narrow (ish) artificial intelligence has now beaten the best human player at Go, that any competitive system that can have an outcome specificied can now be gamed more efficiently by AI than by any human "player". This applies to all existing financial, political and "sales" (advertising) systems (abstract to any level desired).

Apparently there have already been active agent models scenarios run that have a rather short (less than 2 decades) existential threat level outcome on all competitive scenarios.

That doesn't surprise me in a sense, and I am surprised that someone has already done the modelling and run it (median 12 years).
I have been consistent about the threats from competitive systems for some time.
My major focus has been on effective transition strategies, and the urgency of their implementation.
I hadn't realised just quite how urgent that is.

From a games theoretical perspective, Ostrom et al have catalogued a suite of examples of stable systems in practice; and while I find her 8 principle insufficient, they do point in the general direction of something.

I have been thinking about and investigating existential risk and risk mitigation scenarios (with all the epistemological and ontological intertwinings therein, for a little over 55 years).
Crowley, particularly his intersection with Machiavelli has been a concern, and there appears to be only one semi-stable solution "eternal vigilance".

I am clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that our survival as a species requires the adoption of a cooperative framework that is strategically structured in a way that is not gameable or captureable by any single entity (or group of entities). With the instantiation of narrow superhuman AI, any primary competitive game structure poses existential level risk.

We are a cooperative species.
A new level of strategic cooperation is required.
It cannot be naive cooperation, that is capturable.
It cannot be centralised.
It must balance all dimensions of tensions, while leaving room for reasonable freedom.
Recurs this structure as far one chooses (potentially infinite).

It is clear that one cannot use rule based systems based in any approximation of lowest common denominator, as that imposes unacceptable risk in and of itself.

So we are, as Jordan Peterson so masterfully shows, back on the eternal boundary between order and chaos. As a society we have gone too far into the domain of order and that order itself now poses immediate and immense existential level risk (transition to near total chaos).

All of the points that Dil and Cedrick raise are real and valid, and they pale in the face of the current existential level threat posed by competitive systems and super human narrow AI.

We need to have systems that do in fact work to mitigate the risks from the twin tyrannies (majority and minority), that empower both individuals and communities - and that is a non-trivial issue in terms of strategy and complexity.

It seems beyond reasonable doubt that viable solutions will involve trust, openness, integrity and reasonableness; and there must by real systemic solutions to the real systemic risks (naive solutions are not viable - any level).

Transition strategies are also going to be a major issue.
It was great to see Ray Kurzweil coming out in favour of a Universal Basic Income, two months ago, and I can only ever see that as a semi-stable transition strategy with a relatively short life.

We do definitely need to go far beyond that, and David Snowden has many important insights in that area, as does Jordan Peterson, and to my taste both stray a bit too far in direction of religion, and I can certainly understand why that is so.

The sorts of "implicit heuristic knowledge" that are deeply encoded in the genetic and cultural aspects of our being need to be seen as what they are - heuristics that worked in our past, and are not necessarily relevant to our future.
We ignore them at our peril.
We are at peril if we rely upon them too heavily.
There is a very deep, and very delicate balance that we must achieve, and soon.
And it is one that must be ongoingly instantiated, it is not something that one can set and forget (that is something that Friedman and the rule based guys got terribly wrong).

So yeah - interesting times.

And I come back to the simplest possible formulation:
Life and liberty, in a context of uncertainty and humility and responsibility and non-naive cooperation.
Cedric K.
London, GB
Post #: 8
Thanks, Ted, for a stimulating and well-written description of our predicament.

I introduced myself to PfPE as having an interest in existential risks, and a nostalgia for when nuclear was was the only one we had to worry about. Others in the small group on Saturday touched on 'societal collapse', and the North Korea/Trump situation. David Wood is doing a series of events on AI for Futurists London, and the possibility of a 'Terminator' (or '2001' or 'Colossus') scenario is something that could be taken more seriously: I mentioned autonomous (land and air-based) killer robots on Saturday, but don't have the references handy. To me, raw game-playing power is unlikely on its own to enable machine superiority over humans and nature, partly as it may be unable to anticipate human response, but machines are also gaining huge amounts of data on human behaviour, plus presence in the real world in IoT and robots.

Climate change, overshoot and unexpected tipping points in our disturbance of the biosphere are also conceivable existential threats. There is also an enhanced level of risk from natural events, including asteroid impact and reversal of the magnetic field, to us as a single technology-dependent global civilization as Ronald Wright points out - see Surviving Progress, so even those have some ethical component. Finally, cheap and simple genetic modification is advancing in a way that may be hard to control and there's a worry of a 'lone wolf' producing a pathogen in their kitchen with both high R0 (infective reproduction) and fatality rate.

These types of scenario by definition have not happened during the course of our civilisation, and so the scale is hard to visualise and internalise - in our narrative imagination, there's always someone left standing at the end of a crisis to make an ethical assessment and learn the lessons. 'Life and liberty' are under threat in ways our dominant value systems make hard to appreciate. As you say, Elinor Ostrom may have had partial solutions - these are perhaps influencing polycentric collaboration on climate, and are partly incorporated into Kate Raworth's 'Doughnut Economics' (I saw her speak on Sunday, and mentioned the difference between macroenomic-scale ecological damage and other, micro, existential threats from technology).

So, ethical and responsible use of technology is something we might like to bake-in somehow. There's an organisation in the UK, Scientists for Global Responsibility, that as the name suggests helps raise awareness, and maybe things relevant internationally, like the Pugwash Group. A value that I am hearing from many places including yourself is 'humility'. It seems this is partly to counteract a dominant hubris about technological progress, without addressing concomitant ethical progress. Science by its nature is humble, but those seeking to use it are not.

I think as well as progressives, we can involve traditional conservatives in caution about directions in C21. Social conservatives may think porn or drugs (which have technological components) or some other eternal flaw in human nature are going to be the downfall of civilisation, while fiscal conservatives worry about excessive state control. What is most dangerous in my opinion is the uncritical and fetishisation of GDP growth requiring accelerating technological progress, which is a deranged mutant response to technology by a minority of neoliberal conservatives (paradox intended) typified by Matt Ridley's so-called 'rational optimism' and unintended and incorrect corollaries of Smith's invisible hand that permit jettisoning public discussion of ethics. Ridley is regarded as intelligent and persuasive, yet his historical argument basically comes down to 'we're still here, aren't we?' and treats life on Earth with the same attitude that he did to savers in Northern Rock. End of rant.

What exactly do you mean by 'naive solutions', and how would we recognise one?
Ted H.
Kaikoura, NZ
Post #: 6
A naive solution is any attempt at cooperation that does not include active (open) strategies for the detection of cheats, and with sufficient power to remove all advantage gained by cheating, plus a little bit (but not too much more - a fairly narrow band there that actually encourages individuals to rejoin the cooperative).

The really difficult problems then become around distinguishing real novelty from cheating, as they may be indistinguishable from the old paradigm, and require transition to the new paradigm for evaluation - and that can get highly recursive and have hidden risks.
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