Resolving moral paradoxes

Assuming the rationally unobjectionable utility function of ‘ensure continued co-existence’ one must assume it to be at least the implicit guiding principle of at least every human being. But who is running around chanting ‘Must. Ensure. Continued. Co-existence.’? Not many. It follows that the implicit utility function Fi(i) generally diverges from the explicit utility function Fe(i) in humans and that those whose Fe(i) best approximates Fi(i) have the best chance for ensuring continued co-existence.

Fe(i) can be best understood as an evolved belief in regards to what should guide an individual’s actions while Fi(i) is what rationally should guide an individual’s actions.

Not long ago Eliezer proposed two philosophers with the following statements:

Philosopher 1: “You should be selfish, because when people set out to improve society, they meddle in their neighbors’ affairs and pass laws and seize control and make everyone unhappy. Take whichever job that pays the most money: the reason the job pays more is that the efficient market thinks it produces more value than its alternatives. Take a job that pays less, and you’re second-guessing what the market thinks will benefit society most.”

Philosopher 2: “You should be altruistic, because the world is an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the strategy that fares best is Tit for Tat with initial cooperation. People don’t like jerks. Nice guys really do finish first. Studies show that people who contribute to society and have a sense of meaning in their lives, are happier than people who don’t; being selfish will only make you unhappy in the long run.”

Philosopher 1 is promoting altruism on the basis of selfishness
Philosopher 2 is promoting selfishness on the basis of altruism

It is a contradiction – a paradox. But only in thought – not in reality. What is actually taking place, is that both philosophers have intuitively realized part of Fi(i) and are merely rationalizing differently as to why to change their respective Fe(i).

The first one by wrongly applying the term selfishness on the fallacy that a higher paid job contributes only to his personal continued existence by giving him more resources while in reality it contributes to ensuring continued co-existence because he is taking the job that is considered to benefit society the most.

The second one by wrongly applying the term altruistic on the fallacy that his recommendations are detrimental to his personal continued existence due to loosing resources by being Mr nice guy while it actually contributes to ensuring continued co-existence as it not only benefits him but other people around him as well.

The solution thus becomes that the intuitive concepts of altruism and selfishness are rather worthless.

An altruist giving up resources in a way that would lead to a reduction in his personal continued existence would be irrationally acting against the universal utility function thus being detrimental to all other agents not only himself.

An egoist acting truly selfish would use resources in a way that leads to sub-optimal usage of resources towards maximizing the universal utility function thus being detrimental to himself and not only all other agents.

It follows that in reality there is neither altruistic nor egoistic behavior – just irrational and rational behavior.

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Reflections on an altruist’s suicide

George Price was a theoretical biologist who committed suicide after haven given all his possessions to the poor. Why you ask? Because he could not deal with the fact that:

Price formular for altruism

One wonders what might have been so terrible about this formula that the man who through his work provided a general way in which to measure the direction and speed of any selection process would felt compelled to kill himself.

Examining the background one uncovers a truly tragic story. For the reason Price started dabbling in the field of theoretical biology in the first place lies in the circumstance that after stumbling over a set of equations that were discovered ten years earlier by William Hamilton he was so disturbed by them that he attempted to disprove them. Yet instead of disproving them he ended up reworking them into a more elegant form and for wider application.

Price had reformulated a set of mathematical equations that show that altruism can prosper in a world where it seems that only selfishness is rewarded. While he showed that true self sacrificing behavior can exist among animals and humans he also proved that there was nothing noble about it – altruism merely is an evolutionary stable strategy. When his work was completed he went mad.

I can empathize with the longing for goodness in the absence of a reason for doing good. How selfless is it to give something only to expect something in return? Are we not touched by stories of self sacrifice and bravery – gallantry and noblesse? Sure we are – exactly because of said equation we evolved to feel that way.

We have evolved to feel warm and fuzzy when we give something without expecting something in return because it increased our fitness. We are fitter because of it. Proving that mathematically would have filled me with great joy. Knowing that one has to do good to others in order to avoid going extinct. By knowing and understanding the altruism equation one can free oneself from having to belief in a fuzzy difficult to grasp concept of goodness without justification and can embrace the mathematical inevitability.

People are not punished for their sins but by their sins in the absence of everything except the mathematical proof. How great is that? It is not only good to do good but it is advantageous – don’t do it and go extinct. Who wants to argue with that?

Follow up 2007/11/12: Having reflected more on Price’s equations it turns out that the implications of the Price equation are further reaching then I initially understood them.  For not only is it beneficial to cooperate and be what is conventionally called ‘altruistic’ but egoism is just as viable a strategy and depending on the pay-offs will result in an evolutionary equilibrium of altruists as well as egoists. More here.