Bayesian Ethics

As I’ve written before, one of my past wrestles is with Utilitarianism: that the moral act is the one with the best consequences regardless of what rules it breaks. I’m now firmly Aristotelian – aka a ‘virtue ethicist’ – we are what we repeatedly do.

But Anthony Appiah the Princeton Philosopher has some challenging things to say about virtue ethics in a Philosophy Bites podcast – including some experiments. And I’m inclined to listen. I like a bit of scientific method.

I like Appiah’s ‘Cosmopolitanism’ too which has helped me articulate my ‘live and let live’ theory of internationalism at work. Humans value culture. Different cultures value different things. And Cosmopolitanism says, short of harm, we should let them. Which I think is about right.

Appiah challenges virtue with ‘experimental ethics’ – seeing what people actually do, rather than what we theorise, and looking inside people’s heads in brain scanners. He finds, for example, nearly everyone gets more generous to strangers if they find a suitably planted $10 note on the floor.

His conclusion is that the idea of a ‘moral’ person in the Aristotelian sense is not borne out by the experimental reality. For him, we make moral choices based on context, stimulus and ‘in the moment’ not based on ‘character’. I don’t entirely agree, but it’s interesting stuff.

Learning to use the head to override the instinctive ‘yuk’ response or being over-influenced by the situation is one of the things he advocates. But only sparingly. Here’s where rules, norms and culture – plus a moral education – might help. But he’s not for becoming too calculating.

He disagrees with Utilitarianism for example. First, because it doesn’t capture the experimental reality of how we respond to moral situations. Second, because were to implement calculating ‘consequentialism’ wide-scale it would dramatically impoverish human existence. Largely because promoting purely rational calculation would tend to demote difference and different views.

Cultural Cosmopolitanism makes life interesting and liveable. And if you’re going to accept difference in culture you have to accept it in worldview and ethics too. That people care about different things is what makes people interesting – and maddening.

I personally think virtue and ‘outlying’ single instances of behaviour are not incompatible. I don’t doubt that you can get very good and very bad moral choices and behaviours out of me if you significantly change my conditions and stimuli.

I also think that the prospects of me making better or worse choices are determined, yes, by the context and circumstances – but crucially, combined with who I am. And who I am is the product of a life lived, previous choices made, data, concepts and theories within and Bayesian probability mashing all that together in a nano-second every time I act.

I think there is ‘virtue’ and I have a ‘character’. It’s just that the complexity of the probabilistic calculations – all done subconsciously by that marvel of existence, a human brain – mean Utilitarianism is too crude and individual ethical experiments are too simple to anything like capture them. I return to my own dictum – if the human brain were simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

So I like Appiah’s ethical experiments – they deserve a well signposted place in my Bayesian brain’s data set – and I’ve shared then with others too to influence them. But virtue, character and Aristotle’s ‘I am what I repeatedly do’ still work best for me. Thanks to Appiah though, I’m also a Cosmopolitan. So I’m delighted to weigh a well-wrought difference of opinion in the Bayesian ethical balance. It all goes in the mix.

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One Response to Bayesian Ethics

  1. Toby Simmons says:

    Fascinating. A great blog all-round, a joy to read! Let me know what you think of mine . . . http://apieceofcoffee.wordpress.com/
    Keep on posting!

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