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Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Egoist Ethics - A New Look

[Adapted from a recent email]

By and large, all of my knowledge and motivations are learned derivations from and about the pattern space that is my perceptual input. Anything I might "want" from the real world, I can only conceive of in the first place because I've integrated the concept of it out of my perceptual input, and further because at some level it correlates according to that model with whatever hard-wired factors drive my motivational system. Hence, I recognize myself as tautologically an egoist, in the somewhat meaningless sense that all decision-making entities must be. I began this paragraph with "by and large" because I also acknowledge I am prone to error and also potentially subject to memes, and hence there is a sense in which my current state may not even follow logically from the vague foundations I've just depicted. Indeed, it's these errors and memes which I consider the delta between "egoism" and where any given person actually is, and it is those things which I work on fixing in myself or helping others to identify in themselves.

But this merely shifts all responsibility onto that hard-wiring (once the errors and memes are gone), and so in order to really define my ethics, I'd need to fully know and understand my own, deep down hard-wiring, and frankly it's rather opaque. Probably my best bets at understanding it are a combination of introspection and teleological inference.

So, what I'm saying is that I am an egoist, but what makes me "happy" (or, more relevantly, what "motivates" me at the lowest levels) is not a trivial matter to be summarized in a sentence, or indeed perhaps even ever understood.

I.e., I'm not sure we can draw a clean line between "purely selfish" and any other designation -- even "altruist". The only approach I can imagine is if we chose some objective standard of success, such as reproduction or longevity, but I think those are far too simple--ultimately the objective standard IS the very "selfish gene" derived hard-wiring I'm referring to in the first place, and it aint simple.

So, all that disclaimer aside, my motivations include everything from basic survival instinct and the pursuit of pleasure to higher level senses of fairness, resentment, curiosity, empathy, resentment, and so on. And I'm honestly not sure how much each is directly wired vs. derived in some fashion from the others. I.e., do I have empathy because I've learned how it maps back to me in the big picture, or is it more primal than that? Dunno.

But the possibility that some of these higher level emotions are hard wired (to any degree) raises an interesting possibility:

What if these emotions are there to break the pattern wherein a group of individuals each acting by purely selfish measures gets stuck in, or even drawn to, some undesirable local minima? E.g., everybody buys Microsoft software because it's a net win for them given that everybody else is buying Microsoft software, even though in the bigger picture they're all just screwing themselves. Enter resentment and frustration -- unpleasant emotions which give us a penalty for something which otherwise we have no rational reason to change. (We have no rational reason to change because if we switch to other software that nobody's using, we're screwed, and hence nobody uses it! [I'm being obviously extreme for clarity]) So resentment gnaws at us and adds that extra weight it takes to tip the scale -- to get the fringe people to jump ship, and then more people once the fringe have established camp, and then still more when the camp starts to look larger and more attractive, and eventually the local minima is escaped and we move on.

Empathy, revenge, honor, and so on could all be similarly functional, as sort of directed sacrificial tendencies which when performed en masse may become beneficial to us as individuals, particularly in terms of genetic EV. Even sheep-like tendencies start to make sense in this framework, since those are the carte blanche of this principle.

I'm probably not saying anything new, but I've never thought of it quite in these terms before. It actually makes my own introspections a little less annoying and mysterious...

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com