In The Armchair

A Mechanistic View of Ethics

Posted in Armchair Ruminations by Armchair Guy on April 15, 2007

What is Ethics? What is the foundation for ethics? Do we need religion for ethics? Can a mechanical (soulless, purely physics-driven) being have ethics? How can ethics be derived in a deterministic universe without free will? The Optimization viewpoint. Can there be an Ultimate Logical Justification for any system of ethics?

Ethics Without Soul

There has recently been a lot of controversy about Atheist ethics. Ethical systems have, traditionally, been tied to religion. Since religions became widespread, the primary motivation for ethical behaviour has been religious. Each religion has its own ethical system. Almost all religions specify carrot-and-stick reasons for behaving ethically. In the Abrahamic religions, heaven and hell are the carrot and the stick. In Hinduism, nirvana and demotion in the “highness” of being are the carrot and the stick. Not all religions insist on the existence of one universal “God”, but Atheists often remain unattached to any of the usual religions in addition to a lack of belief in a “God”. The question then arises: Can Atheists behave ethically?

More generally, the question can be posed for any mechanistic system (a system ruled only by the laws of physics and not by any agent, such as a “soul”, connected to religion). Mechanistic systems include humans, other organisms, robots, and any other objects or phenomena. (Whether humans are mechanistic is a subject of much debate; see Strong and Weak Artificial Intelligence and Gödel, Penrose and Artificial Intelligence — Simplified.) What does ethics mean for a mechanistic system?

The Goal of Ethics

I think ethics can be viewed as a mechanism for preservation or proliferation of complexity. Complexity is precious; the entropy grindstone is constantly trying to destroy it (the second law of thermodynamics). Every ethical principle we have can be seen as ultimately for complexity. Here are some examples.

For example, we prize human life over that of all other animals. This is consistent with complexity preservation: humans are more complex than other animals. We think killing an animal for no reason is unethical; we feel no such thing about smashing a rock. This is also consistent with complexity preservation: an animal is more complex than a rock.

A lot of things are not directly connected to complexity preservation, but come about because we need simple rules of thumb that we can follow easily. Lying is considered unethical. In the long term, this helps preserve social order and thus helps preserve the human species.

Thus mechanistic systems can have ethical behaviour – behaviour which eventually tends to preserve or increase complexity. Atheists can be as ethical as anyone else, as can a robot, as long as their actions are directed towards optimizing complexity.

Thus we have converted the problem of constructing ethical systems to an optimization problem. The objective function (which we are trying to maximize) is overall complexity. Ethics can now be viewed as rules of behaviour following whom tends to increase complexity.

Our Ethical Principles

So this tells us what ethics is about, and what ethics aims to do. But it still doesn’t tell us how a mechanistic individual should develop his/her sense of ethics. A person can hardly be expected to think of some far-off big-picture complexity goal when deciding what constitutes good ethics. How can the above definition be made practical?

First, by recognizing what the eventual goal of ethics is, we have converted the construction of ethical principles into an optimization problem. This is a good first step, since we now know what it is we are trying to do when we talk about acting ethically.

Our solution to the optimization problem does not always rely on the objective function of complexity, but rather relies on the observation that various human institutions (societies, religions, legal systems) have already come up with rules of thumb for this optimization. Once we recognize this, we use our judgment to decide which of the existing rules are relevant to overall preservation of complexity and adopt an ethical system based on these rules. This solution may not be perfect, but it is more important that the ethical rules be easy to remember and follow – what use is a perfect but unintelligible and impractical rule? It is preferable, I think, to find simple and general rules, and avoid special cases and exceptions as much as possible.

What’s more, once we recognize this as a valid scheme for the generation of ethical principles, we can free ourselves from the past. Faced with a new situation, we can find ethical rules tailored to the new situation, rather than trying to search for rules buried in existing religious systems that are applicable. A religious system may be able to help, but the effort of trying to reconcile religion with the new situation is often not worth it.

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