My comment on https://psyche.co/ideas/moral-molecules ... is-made-of was as follows:
The idea of trying to identify various moral positions as combinations of just a few basic elements is interesting. And it may be useful for understanding where people’s moral positions come from and how to encourage them in other directions (if that is what we want to do). But to conclude that “the theory provides us at last with a scientific guide for how to be good” demonstrates both an unfortunate hubris and (as I see it) a complete misunderstanding of the problem of what it means to “be good” in the face of competing demands whose relative weights may vary from person to person and time to time (and may in the end just be functions of some chemical concentrations in our brains).
But in the light of author Oliver Scott Curry's response (asking me "what do you think it means to be good?"), apparently I need to clarify that the above comment was not meant to imply that I myself have any better idea of what it means to “be good”. Rather, what I do think is that the very theory discussed in his article makes it quite plausible that there is no possible “scientific guide for how to be good” because the various moral elements might be mutually non-comparable (and sometimes in conflict with one another). And I would be very interested in hearing of any path that anyone can suggest for overcoming that challenge.
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Re: Moral Molecules
The authors of the Moral Molecules essay notes that combinatorial systems are everywhere. He is correct. In fact, one could say that all of life is a combinatorial exercise. From that angle it's easy to consider that maybe morality can be mapped with such a system just as astrologers, numerologists, and tarot-card readers regard their mapping. Are astrologers and the others correct in their mapping? That's for another discussion.
The authors proceed re combinatorial systems:
"Could morality be such a system? As an initial test of the idea, we hypothesised possible moral molecules that combined each pair of moral elements, and then tried to find examples of them in the popular and professional literature. In each case, we succeeded."
They then give an example:
"For example, the idea that ‘you ought to defer to your superiors’ and the idea that ‘you ought to love your family’ combine to form the idea that ‘you ought to be especially deferential to senior members of your family’.
I took that example and made one of my own:
‘You ought to be suspicious of your superiors’ and 'you ought to love your family' combine to form 'you ought to be wary of seniors in your family'.
That's a possible attitude toward seniors but you can see how the values start to waver a bit.
'You ought to be sympathetic to King Kong' and 'you ought to love mankind' combine to form, 'you ought to be sympathetic to King Kong and forgive mankind for enslaving and killing him'.
At that point the syllogisms are questionable starting simply with the fact that King Kong is a fictional character. It's all about language, it can be made to indicate this or that while not necessarily being factual about it, i.e., syllogistic approaches are interesting but they are not guarantees of accuracy. Consider the aforementioned tarot-card readers: Each card is tagged with a particular value such as 'The Fool' card representing 'new beginnings, having faith in the future, being inexperienced, not knowing what to expect, having beginner's luck, improvisation and believing in the universe'. That card along with 77 other cards tagged with particular values are considered by many people to be helpful information and that a personal 'reading' addresses their particular inquiry. Do the cards really address the querent, or do the combination of tags (references) set up generalized system that is plausible and acceptable? Same question for 'morals' and 'molecules'.
But is what the author proposes completely without factual merit? I think It would have merit in the case of an AI. You could program rudimentary combinations with their accorded values and then the AI could work through them in various combinations exceeding that of a human's ability. Is that a good thing? Likewise, that is another story.
I'm sure the authors of the essay are aware of all of this because 'theory' is in the title. I wish them well in their research and who knows, just like we have research in proto-language someday we may have research in 'proto-morals'. What will that yield? Let me check my personal horoscope and I will get back to you. (For astrologers who may read this, don't get a wedgie. My Black Moon Lilith straddles the first and twelfth houses.)
There is a well-worn phrase: 'The map is not the territory'. Maps are good, they have helped me on many an occasion especially when I wanted to know what roads will get me to wherever or get an idea of a particular hiking trail. But no map, not even the latest satellite imagery, could ever compare with the actuality of being there, walking the trail, breathing the mountain air, the breezes and winds, the sunlight and landscape.
When I was writing this response I was reminded of a hike a friend and I took many years ago after we graduated high school. It was the Rae Lakes Loop in the Sierra Nevada, California and I was going to include an image of the lakes for illustration in this response. But as I looked around I found a YouTube video and it is an example of a sophisticated 'map' which goes much further that a paper map. As I watched it I smiled seeing scenes of the landscape that I had forgotten or just generalized into remembered 'mountain scenery'. But alas, for all its visual accuracy it was still a video, a representation. Nonetheless, I enjoyed being reminded even if only for a half-hour or so and of course substantiated by the fact that I had actually been on this hike. It's a good video and credit to the maker of it for not adding a hard-rock soundtrack to it as some have done with other nature videos but instead keeping it quiet such as the hike would be. There is some opening music but it fades quickly. Watch it at full screen and take it to 4K in the settings if your system can handle it.
So, enjoy this virtual hike, but of course, there is no substitute for the real thing.
If you want to see a one-hour version of this but with continuous commentary by the hikers, click here.
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