Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Evolution of Virtue 6

Former student and friend Miranda has been putting me to the task in a long running exchange appended to this post.  I will address two general questions she poses at various points in this and a subsequent post. 
First, if virtuous behavior is selected for, then why does vicious behavior persist?  Why are some of us still tempted to do immoral things and why are some persons so inclined toward immorality that they become tyrants? 
I reply that selection works by favoring traits that are reproductively fit within a distinct environmental context.  The usual term for this is a niche.  Several distinct sets of organisms may be found at different altitudes on a mountain because temperature, moisture, etc., form distinct niches.  Niches may be geographically separated or they may overlap and more than one may be found inside another.  An environmental niche will usually include other organisms in such roles as predators and prey, mates and partners.  Thus, in adapting to a niche one species will often create a niche for another, as a large animal, in making a home in the forest, makes a home for his load of parasites.  Finally, different individuals within the same species will sometimes occupy slightly different niches.  The reproductive interests of male and female are rarely identical. 
The simplest model for understanding how distinct niches can favor both morality and immorality is the infamous prisoner’s dilemma.  This is a simple game in which two players have each the choice to cooperate or defect.  Here is the payoff matrix:

The game produces a paradox.  In a single round, each player does better by defecting regardless of what the other player does.  In an extended series of rounds, both players do better by cooperating.  That is the logic of justice. 
In a famous tournament involving computer programs that consisted of strategies for playing the game, the most successful strategy was called Tit For Tat.  This program always begins by cooperating and then on each subsequent move it mimics what the other player did on the last move.  TFT wins by forming cooperative partnerships with any player inclined to cooperate and by punishing defectors (as well as limiting they damage they can inflict).  TFT is the simple logic of righteousness in exchanges.  The unrighteous, always-defect hawks fare poorly against a population of honest cooperators. 
TFT also creates a niche for the saintly, always-cooperate program, which prospers when it is playing with TFT.  However, this in turn creates a niche for the occasional hawk who makes out like a bandit when he encounters a saint. 
Replace points with offspring and this provides a model for the evolution of virtue.  Honest cooperators are stronger, collectively, that dishonest defectors.  However, the more successful that an honest community becomes, the more it leaves a niche for the conman who can effectively exploit the trust that the cooperators have achieved.  That is why most people are not very good at cheating and why no human community is free from cheats. 
Christopher Boehm argues in the second chapter of Moral Origins that, while our moral emotions keep us in check most of the time, the temptation to cheat when we think we can get away with it is also selected for.  This seems to me to be right. 


  1. Here's my take... Virtue-based ethics tends to be overly-simplistic by ignoring competing and complementary virtues and vices that might be involved in any act. Why not argue that there are multiple complex virtues (and vices) involved in any act and that any morally significant behavioral outcome is based on which virtue(s) and/or vices prevail. For example in some prisoners dilemma players (in the real world) previous cooperation or failure to cooperate (retributive justice) might trump both beneficence and utility, thus cooperation would tend to be more common between family, friends, and people who look and/or act alike. THUS some individuals may be habitually retributive and tend to act reciprocally based of previous track records of others more than other virtues, such as beneficence or utility. Other individuals might be habitual benefactors and choose to do good, independent of history. Others might be utilitarians and tend toward the greater good and not the individual good. In short, we need a full deck of cards (virtues) to do ethics in the real world. Many of those virtues and vices are compound, complex, and in conflict. And of course, culture matters. In the end, decoding virtue-based ethics turns out to be dauntingly complex...much more complex than mere cooperation.

  2. Thanks, Dr. Blanchard.

    So, according to this line of thinking, could a tyrant could be more or less fit to live/reproduce in an area depending on temperature and moisture? Or do geographical features have that sort of influence on the evolution of virtue/morality?

    Your game theory example made it easier for me to understand your argument and I appreciate it. However, I have been thinking along the same lines as Mr. White. It seems too simple. I can see it working with computers, but would it necessarily work with humans who are inconsistent, swayed by moods and emotions, sometimes afflicted by mental diseases, susceptible to propaganda and influenced by countless other factors?

  3. Ron and Miranda raise similar but distinct challenges to my evolutionary account of virtue ethics. Ron puts it this way:

    "Virtue-based ethics tends to be overly-simplistic by ignoring competing and complementary virtues and vices that might be involved in any act."

    I don't agree with this. In its simplest form, the prisoner's dilemma presents a conflict between short term and long term interests. In the tournaments, individual players (or programs) come complete with distinct personalities.

    I profoundly agree that "we need a full deck of cards (virtues) to do ethics in the real world". We also need to know how many suits there are and how the cards rank in each suit.

    In the Politics, Aristotle shows how an astonishing variety of regimes can emerge from simple elements like exploitation and the common good, the one, the few, and the many. You have to understand the basic forms of regimes before you can make any sense of the complexity. Athens, for example, is a democracy; however, the election of the archon, based as it was on merit, was an aristocratic element. You get the idea.

    In the Nicomachean Ethics, he does much the same thing by offering a simple account of every virtue as a mean between extremes and then giving us an account of a number of distinct virtues. Of course, ethics is a much more complex game than is possible with playing cards because virtues are context dependent and there are very many contexts. Still, we need to know the difference between a heart and a spade, courage and recklessness. Just as a king is worth more than a jack, a courageous man at one's side in battle is worth more than a coward.

  4. I have a little difficult understanding Miranda's objection here. Yes, "humans are inconsistent, swayed by moods and emotions, sometimes afflicted by mental diseases, susceptible to propaganda and influenced by countless other factors". That only means that some will be better at the game better than others. The rules will determine who scores more points.

    Rank the following populations according to how likely they are to achieve prosperity and security: a group of isolated individuals, incapable of cooperation or trust, a second group who can trust only their own kin and neighbors, and a group that can enlarge its cooperative networks by evaluating new individuals as potential partners. That looks like an easy call to me. It explains why it is better to live in Iraq than Somalia and in the U.S. than in one of the clan communities in Iraq.

    Some communities are better at reciprocity than others. There is no significant population of human beings that does not understand it. Michael Tomasello has shown good evidence that our inclination to form cooperative partnerships based on mutual obligations and a sense of "we" is innate. It develops reliably in most individuals about the time we learn to walk.

    To be sure, there are some individuals in every community who cannot be trusted and so it necessary to keep punitive measures at hand. Even the simple minded computer programs managed that.

  5. Miranda asks: "could a tyrant could be more or less fit to live/reproduce in an area depending on temperature and moisture? Or do geographical features have that sort of influence on the evolution of virtue/morality?"

    It is very probably true that different human characters, good and bad, may be more fit in one physical environment than another. The argument that ancient Egypt had to be highly authoritarian and hierarchical because of their system of agriculture (using the Nile to flood and replenish their fields) is the classic example.

    It seems unlikely that this sort of thing could be stable enough over time to be selected for. Almost certainly, the niche within which human morality evolved was created by the mere fact that needy human beings for small bands of hunter gatherers tens of thousands of years ago.

  6. I was thinking that the game was supposed to be an indication of how humans would act, not just an indication of who would do better. Having had time to think it over, I have no objection.

    Regarding climate and environment: Interesting. But Russia's climate is very different and it has often had the same sort of system. Is climate really what's responsible?

  7. The prisoner's dilemma illustrates how simple the basic logic of justice can be. It supports the view that evolved psychological mechanisms could easily emerge if success in such games is selected for.

    As for geographical pressure on political systems, it does seem to me that there is some purchase here. Show me a nation that is not in the tropics and one with access by water from the interior to the seas, and I will show you a relatively prosperous economy. Show me one where either the one or the other is not true and I will show you a relatively retarded economy. Russia is an example. Its rivers flow north into frozen waters. Or consider Afghanistan, which is about as isolated geographically as it is possible for a country to be. It doesn't even have railroads yet.

    Why are the tropics an obstacle to development? Jungles and disease come to mind. There is a reason why the first civilization appeared in the fertile crescent. It was, well, fertile. Lying at the mid point on an east/west axis, a lot of flora and fauna could be moved there from other places. There may be a reason why Europe leaped ahead in the 15th century and why North America became the center of the world economy. Climate and rivers had something to do with it. This doesn't mean that climate determines political progress but it may well set minimal conditions for it.

  8. 1) This makes sense.

    2) I'm not sure it's that simple. Ukraine was, for some time, relatively prosperous. It isn't so much now. Ukraine is not isolated, nor is it in the tropics. Nevertheless, more than 24% of its people live below the poverty line.

    Brazil, on the other hand, is in the tropics and it has the world's fifth largest economy. That's not to say that jungles and diseases might not have negative effects on economic development, but I'm not convinced that they are as influential as some have theorized.

    Even if they are, though, would climate and geography necessarily affect morality in the same way that they affect prosperity?