A Test of Moral Progress

We treat each other differently than our distant ancestors treated each other.  In particular we are “nicer”, at least by our lights, to a wider circle of associates.  For example, we enslave, rape, and murder each other less.  The two main explanations offered for this change are:

  1. Moral Progress – We have long wanted to act morally, and some of us have long pondered moral issues.  Relative to what we had thought, these experts have slowly discovered via reason that morality demands that we be nicer to a wider circle of others.  Experts told others, who believed them and wanted to act morally.   So we now more do what reason demands.
  2. Conditional Morality – Our evolved moral intuitions are context dependent.  We are built to be nicer to each other when times are good, to invest in an attractive reputation.  We are also built to form alliances with some in order to counter threats by others; the further in social distance are the threats we perceive, the wider a circle of allies we collect in response.  Since we are now richer and have interactions with more distant others, we are nicer to a wider range of allies.

These theories make different predictions about futures where we become poorer and our interactions become more local.  In their simplest forms, the moral progress theory predicts that we would continue to be as nice to as wide a circle of creatures in this situation, while the conditional morality theory predicts that the social circle to whom we are nice would narrow to the range of our ancestors with similar poverty and interaction locality.  Of course we might expect some inertial or momentum in moral attitudes; so it might take several generations of poverty and local interactions to really see the predicted difference.

My best guess is that cultural selection has produced real progress in institutions for keeping the peace, and perhaps in cultures to promote cooperation, but that any changes in our personal moral intuitions are due primarily due to an inherited conditional morality.   I expect we will actually see a future of much lower per-capita wealth, after the em transition, but it is hard to see a narrowing circle of interactions until there is substantial space colonization.

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  • Grant

    Weren’t murder rates in ancient tribal societies extremely high, on the order of 30%? A tribe is a environment where we’d think cooperation and forming moral institutions would be easy, because tribes tend to be small groups. If murder rates were still high in that scenario, I’d expect other causes for our increasing levels of peace (including genetic ones?).

    I would guess we have many non-moral institutions which promote peace. For example, in a hunter-gather environment, a man did not have many options to claim higher status than his peers. Nowadays people in market-oriented economies have a plethora of options, and because of the size of our society they can even change who their peers are.

    Children in school are still very violent towards each other. We generally keep them from raping and murdering, but despite having the same or similar moral institutions as others they engage in behavior that would not be tolerated in the rest of society. If I had to guess, I’d say the biggest contributor to this is that they cannot choose their peers.

    • George

      Your last paragraph about children in school is very thought provoking. “Moral progress” would explain children’s behaviour nicely. But it “Conditional morality” were true, then that would reflect quite badly on schools and the education system.

      It also makes me wonder why we tolerate children being violent to eachother so much?

  • Jef Allbright

    Robin, you might consider reframing the notion of a widening or narrowing “circle of interactions”, not in classical terms of the circle of interactions among a population of (for the most part) independent agents, but rather, in terms of increasing scope of increasing *dimensions* of interaction, tending to ratchet forward as a propensity toward (neg)entropy.

    On this view, “morality”, or assessment (from within the system) of the direction of actions perceived, in principle, as increasingly right, inheres not in the (fictitious) individual agent, but in the effective agency of the larger system. In this light, any narrowing of the circle of agents would be orthogonal to any question of “morality”, but any loss in scope or dimensionality of interactions would, all else equal, imply moral degradation.

    And it is this tendency which we observe to be encoded in the heuristics of our nature and our culture.

  • Jef Allbright

    @Grant: Consider the relatively limited dimensionality of the interactions within the close-knit but primitive tribe. This reinforces my point that the tendency toward interactions assessed as increasingly moral is not a function of the circle of inclusiveness among its individual agents, but rather, a function of the scope (and coherence) of synergistic, positive-sum interactions supported, in principle, at the increased level of agency of the group.

    • Grant

      I certainly see the difference in dimensionality of interactions between modern society and an ancient tribe, but I’m not sure I see anything which could cause societies with less dimensionality to be more violent?

  • I think it goes beyond even this.

    The cultural/social evolution of our ability to police ourselves, whether it’s through guns or bow and arrows, produces social stability and social coercion.

    In fact, I reckon that technological advancement of mechanism of force, and the widespread distribution of said force produces more peaceful societies. It seems backwards at first, but it makes sense.

    • Robert Koslover

      I agree with you, but I’m not a social scientist, so feel free to tell me I’m being naive here. I would add that: (1) law and order (especially the fear that one may be arrested, tried, prosecuted, and punished), and (2) fear of God (in particular, a religious belief that one will be judged if one does not obey God’s laws, even if one is not caught by one’s fellow man) might have something to do with this “moral” behavior? Add to that, (3) the “great equalizer” (see http://www.factmonster.com/biography/var/samuelcolt.html) and (4) the relative minor importance/economic value nowadays of human slave labor (heck, we don’t even enslave oxen all that much, in modern societies), and I think you might have much of the explanation for our “moral progress.” In contrast, societies run by despots (e.g. North Korea, Cuba) demonstrate, I think, that modern humans have not advanced at all biologically, in any moral sense. Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin are hardly fundamentally different from us in their genes. Rather, they were not subject to (or overcame) moral constraints on their behavior. Woe to any society that fails to constrain these ambitious, clever, and utterly ruthless monsters. Let us not delude ourselves that humanity has advanced beyond them. And remember, “good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” — George Orwell

  • Jef Allbright

    @Grant: It is not the higher dimensionality of interactions per se, that leads to less violence. Rather, it is that the process supporting the emergence and persistence of such structures entails, via selection for efficiencies at multiple levels within an evolving environment, a significant degree of hierarchical coherence (functional mutual interdependence of its parts), and for elements (or agents) embedded within such a structure it is less and less within their nature to do violence to it.

    • Jef Allbright

      In response to a query off-blog, perhaps I should emphasize that the foregoing is not a guaranteed prescription for the prevention of catastrophic “Black Swans”, but the factors of coherence (for efficiency) and hierarchy (for adaptive resilience) are probably key to an optimum approach within an inherently uncertain and evolving environment. Lather, rinse, repeat…

  • I think the term “moral progress” just muddies the waters. “Less violent” does just fine. I don’t know the scientific standing of dual inheritance theory (both behavioral genetic AND cultural selection) but I think this would be a natural place to consider it. It seems plausible to me that more violent people (or people with less impulse control) have been selected against genetically over generations from pre-agricultural periods to today.
    As for ems, who knows what the fuck will happen, of course. Slavery progress is an interesting question because while capital may have become less overtly coercive to labor, it seems to me to have become better at extracting productivity from labor. Slavery/autonomy seems to me to be more of a spectrum than violence, and I can see situations where coercive labor improves algorithmic persistence odds for a society as a whole (although perhaps there are situations where violence, state or non-state sanctioned, does so as well).

  • so do we spend a lot of resources preparing for bad times that never happen? I’d venture that all hyperbolic time discounting falls under this category (you never know when your resources will be stolen and you murdered, so enjoy them while you can. go ahead and buy that car if it will help you mate tomorrow, who cares about 10 years from now.)

  • Psychohistorian

    Breaking the rather complex development of cultural morality into, “Experts told us,” vs. “We got richer, so we could afford it,” may more than slightly oversimplify the issue.

    At the risk of committing that same mistake, most of the change in Western morality appears to develop from a refinement of the concept of personhood; it used to apply to tribesmen, and has over time expanded across nations, races, genders, and numerous other dividing lines to include most humans. I’m under the impression that most acts of rape, violence, etc. were between rather than within tribes, so this would represent more of a change in how we view the world than a change in how our morals work. Of course, this more of a description of what happened than a reason why; the answer to that is that I don’t know enough to provide a succinct reason, if such a reason in fact exists.

    • I think it’s a feedback loop; becoming wealthier allowed our ancestors to bring more people into “personhood”, which in turn by increasing the returns of dealing with them more closely and reliably increased their wealth; which lead them again around the loop, a “virtuous circle” as it were.

  • Psychohistorian

    “Since we are now richer and have interactions with more distant others, we are nicer to a wider range of allies.”

    There’s a very strong argument that we are richer because we are nicer in our interactions with distant others. The fundamental problem of exchange and its effects in primitive economies is pretty well understood, and one effect of improving our treatment of distant others is that it can significantly improve the collective outcome of a multi-period prisoner’s-dilemma type problem. The fact that I can trust some store in Germany to have my credit card number, use it only to pay for the transaction in question, and actually ship what I’ve ordered, plus trust all the middlemen in between not to steal it, makes a great deal of profitable exchange possible that otherwise would not be. This may even be a mechanism by which morality expanded; trade with others required the development of trust, and the development of trust was paired (in one causal direction or the other) with a belief in the humanity (i.e. moral relevance) of distant others.

  • I would note that people’s ideas towards “maturity” are much the same – the change in behavior is largely because of a change in circumstance rather than actual development. Adults who are already established have little need to act brashly out of insecurity. Likewise married adults no longer need deign to deal with the messy realities of mate selection.

  • I expect we will actually see a future of much lower per-capita wealth, after the em transition

    I find that unlikely. Because, well before ems are technically possible, we will have huge intelligence-amplifying tools, which is a much simpler problem. This will lead to giant leaps in per-capita productivity, and thus large increases in per-capita wealth.

    I suspect that the entire human population will be hugely wealthy, well before ems are sufficiently good to merit the status of “personhood”.

    Now, if you think that after that point, per-capita income will plunge … well, maybe so. But also maybe, it won’t matter, since per-capita net worth will be so high. Labor income will no longer be a significant part of the human story.

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  • jimrandomh

    You’ve left out an important explanation: biological evolution of humans. For most of recorded history, societies have branded many of those who treat others badly as criminals and killed, imprisoned, and otherwise lowered their genetic fitness. While this process is imperfect, in that some groups manage to escape notice or deflect blame, it is nevertheless sufficient to produce steady moral progress with no other explanation needed.

    • Torben

      Uhm, tell that to Genghis Khan. One bad guy can upset quite a lot of social selection for good behaviour.

      Also, do you have any evidence to indicate social pressure to be effective at such relatively short evolutionary time scales?

  • Technology is good at concentrating weath in the hands of an elite few. The rest of society just has to be kept rich enough not to stage a rebellion and seize power. So far, that has meant that a majority of voters do OK – and a trailing edge falls into the poverty gutter.

    More resources will probably mostly make the rich even richer. General quality of life might rise a bit – but there will probably still be a poverty gutter.

    As to what will happen when most minds live inside computers – then we will probably have brains of many different sizes with different roles – and then the whole concept of “per-capita wealth” won’t make much sense – except as a meaningless average.

    • TGGP

      Being rich doesn’t prevent the bottom from rebelling, its more the opposite during a crisis of rising expecations. Read “The Economics of Repression” in Luttwak’s Coup Detat. He uses Papa Doc as his case study, but Kim Jong Il’s North Korea is a good example today.

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  • Re: I don’t know the scientific standing of dual inheritance theory (both behavioral genetic AND cultural selection) […]

    I made a video about that topic recently (http://youtube.com/watch?v=w_6rPOiFhps).

    Synopsis: 1 textbook – subject explicitly excluded; 1 textbook – subject not mentioned; 1 textbook – subject covered in a few paragraphs. Coverage was generally appalling.

    Here’s what the textbook that got it right said:

    “In short, humans have two unique hereditary systems. One is the genetic system that transfers biological information from biological parent to offspring in the form of genes and chromosomes. The other is the extragenetic system that transfers cultural information from speaker to listener, from writer to reader, from performer to spectator, and forms our cultural heritage.”

    – Evolution, Strickberger, 1996.

  • conchis

    We are built to be nicer to each other when times are good,

    This seems to fit the story Benjamin Friedman’s tells in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, where he

    contends that periods of robust economic growth, in which most people see their circumstances palpably improving, foster tolerance, democracy and generous public support for the disadvantaged. Economic stagnation and insecurity, by contrast, usher in distrust, retrenchment and reaction, as well as a tightfisted callousness toward the poor and—from the nativism of 19th-century Populists to the white supremacist movement of the 1980s—a scapegoating of immigrants and minorities.