perjantaina, syyskuuta 09, 2005

Virtue as induced rationality

As someone who espouses libertarian principles, I naturally tend to grant individuals broad latitude in their choice of culture, lifestyle and behavior. I'm not quite sure whether my libertarianism follows from my individualism and tolerance or vice versa, but in any case none of it really rhymes with traditional restrictive morals.

Still, morality is clearly valuable. To me it is an integral part of a continuum leading from law right downto mere custom and elementary manners. All of it makes life a whole lot easier. Thus one of my prime tasks as a libertarian who values morality as separate from law, and also as a follower of an enlightened, Benthamite hedonism, is to find some rational basis for the distinction between public law and private morality on one hand, and good and bad private morality on the other.

Until recently I thought that proper mores consist of the positive obligations left out by the concept of negative rights employed by classical liberalism and libertarianism. In this framework, certain economic reasons like incentive compatibility and the principle of revealed preference forbid one from imposing duties on others in excess of the right to be left alone, evenwhile such duties would help solve clear economic problems. Morality proper is composed of rules designed to promote economic efficiency in social interactions where mere injunction on outright lossy interactions like theft or physical violence does not suffice. The law stops societal loss and guarantees that interactions are Pareto-improvements; morality gives us all the rest of the gain achievable above the returns of a purely egotistically motivated market, which are substantial but also by definition amenable to selfish manipulation and destructive exploitation. All of morality is interpersonal, and we can use game theoretical analysis to justify its limited mutual altruism as a means to the simultaneously higher welfare of all. The analysis relies on full consumer sovereignty and rational choice, and thus neither explains nor leaves any room for traditional concepts of intrapersonal virtue.

Lately I've begun to wonder, though. Just about every historical source on morals stresses an axiology which makes few distinctions between self-directed and other-directed positive traits. The sheer consistency with which such private virtues as moderation, patience, open-mindedness and benevolence appear suggests that Character can not be just a figment of conservative imagination. There has to be some reason why having one is so highly valued, and not just a hallucinatory misstep of ratiocination or vulgar habituation.

From my starting point of morality equaling positive sum games with the strategic benefit to defect, this is only possible if nasty games are ongoing right within the individual or individual rationality for some reason fails to fully hold. This is thoroughly at odds with the concept of a fully integrated Rational Man as employed in neoclassical economics. But as I've looked into it, the idea seems less and less implausible from the viewpoint of evidence from psychology, sociobiology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral game theory and finance, experimental microecon, or in fact the rest of the pantheon of newer empirical social science. All of it tells us that people both behave less than rationally and exhibit contingent, situational forms of behavior which, while individually boundedly rational or outright irrational, are still more or less expected or even beneficial from the broader point of view.

In this sense intrapersonal conflict can happen, and multiple separate levels of cognition may exist which might well be served by assumed modes of mutual interdependency and modulation. Game theory in its various forms can well be applicable within a single individual.

For example, if we take for granted the idea of a reptile inheritance as a coexisting structure within our whole brain, it might be that the immediate, primitive satisfaction felt by it sometimes has to be suppressed by the more highly developed neonatal cortex. It might be that continuous bliss also calls for conscious planning and purposeful restraint emanating from evolutionarily newer parts of the brain than the pieces responsible for elementary good vibes. That, at least, seems a plausible interpretation of what Aristotle, the Sophists, Bentham, Mill jr., Hazlitt, et al. were saying about patience. And similarly, there might well be a sort of tug-of-war between the right and left cortical hemispheres . They certainly seem to possess a broad division of labour. In this case the precise manner of integration might even influence the way biological sex manifests itself to us externally. It seems unfair to presume that underintegrated faculties of this kind couldn't benefit from assumed modes of thought and behavior, variously aimed at harmonizing the independent thoughts and/or neural processes going on within the separate parts of the brain. It seems that there is plenty of scope for enhancement of rationality within our neural tapestry.

Still, what is even more striking is that once we stop thinking about individuals as rational wholes, suddenly the very rationality of an individual might well depend on societal influence. It might be that a number of the conditions we associate with being rational are actually the result of learning and experiencing social interaction.

To illustrate, empirical evidence suggests that individuals do not discount future payoffs in a time-consistent, exponential manner, but rather go with hyperbolic discounting. They experience a particular kind of short-sightedness, or a variety of perspective illusion. Still, in a society people will face the fact that such time-inconsistency is not profitable, they can and will be Dutch booked for it, there are people who'll have experienced it and can advise differently, and there are tons of institutions which will transform any expected time-inconsistency on your part into powerful current incentives to avoid that option. In the end even the people who discount in a hyperbolic fashion in isolation will abide by the efficiency rules within a society, or otherwise will perish and make room for more sensible folks. In the end the presence of other people -- the market -- induces individuals to behave more rationally than they otherwise would.

In essence I think this idea defines virtue and intrapersonal morality. Such morality consists of the entire set of rules which can help us avoid inborn economic inefficiency. Ideal private morality would in no sense rid us of our choices, but rather would cause our preferences to be fully transitive, our choices to be the best rules of thumb they can be despite the many occasions of limited computational resources, and so on. Private morality would perfect us as rational beings to the limited degree that that is actually possible. This is also why such valuations exist and have survived the tooth of social and cultural evolution: in a society, you would do well by not being inherently contradictory or exploitable.

From this starting point, the ancient quest for a perfect, balanced, wise, happy, not the least unindulgent man once again makes ample sense, evenwhile it also makes sense that we can't attain the ideal by mere birth.

1 kommentti:

Finnpundit kirjoitti...

Stop thinking so much and start making money. You automatically accomplish all your social significance that way.