Morality and Quantum Mechanics

by Neil Rickert

Quick editorial comment:  the connection that I make between morality and quantum mechanics is entirely metaphorical.  I am not proposing that quantum physicists work on moral philosophy.

This post is mostly a response to Dan Kaufman’s post at The Electric Agora:

I am posting it here, because my response is a bit long for a comment on Dan’s post.

I have usually avoided moral theories, because it has seemed obvious that they could not work.  In his post, Dan is pretty much arguing that.  He is arguing that moral theories don’t work and probably cannot work.  This is refreshing, given that we are so often bombarded with arguments that propose moral theories.

Description

Dan is discussing the difficulties of a rules based approach to moral issues.  We have, with science, a pretty good rules based approach to description.  And that’s where my metaphor arises.  So I’ll start with a rough overview of science as description.

Human societies have come up with ad hoc ways of describing the world — rules such as “what goes up must come down.”  These don’t quite work, but they work well enough to be useful.

Science takes these ad hoc rules, and makes them rigid.  To make them rigid, science formalizes these rule in a very precise way and then makes the formalized rules into conventions that are to be rigidly held.  And it asserts these conventions as laws of  nature.  What we call the law of gravity is an example of this.

As already mentioned, these laws of nature don’t quite work.  But, because we have established them as conventions, we can begin to report and record the apparent discrepancies (sometimes called “exceptions”) from these laws.  And when we look at those discrepancies, we begin to see patterns and we are able to come up with ad hoc rules that describe these discrepancies quite well.

With these new ad hoc rules, we come up with new conventions and new laws of nature.  We have started to build an hierarchical system of rules to describe the world.

Thus we erect layer upon layer, giving us the hierarchy of rules that we call “science”.

Eventually, this rule building comes to an end — as it must if we are to have agency.  For if the rule building could go on forever, then that would leave us as completely predictable mechanical automatons.

And that brings us to quantum mechanics — where the building of a rule based hierarchy comes to an end.  If we look at the remaining discrepancies, it is difficult to discern any pattern.  And that’s to be expected, because if there were a pattern, then the rule base approach would not have come to an end.  The apparent absence of pattern leads to what is called “quantum weirdness” where a small change somewhere seems to lead to an unexpected small change somewhere else.

Morality

If we try a rule based approach to morality, the same things happens.  Our attempted rule making comes to an end, as it must if we are to have agency.  And it comes to an end very quickly for moral questions, because those are the very questions where agency is of greatest relevance.

That leaves us with something analogous to quantum weirdness.  As we attempt to solve one moral problem, we discover that this attempt will cause another moral problem to arise elsewhere.

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19 Comments to “Morality and Quantum Mechanics”

  1. “If we try a rule based approach to morality, the same things happens. Our attempted rule making comes to an end, as it must if we are to have agency. And it comes to an end very quickly for moral questions, because those are the very questions where agency is of greatest relevance.”

    But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and come up with a number of moral rules to best achieve our moral goals, even if these rules are imperfect. Just as we wouldn’t throw out a rule pertaining to gravity or some other conception, simply because it has limitations. Instead, we simply live with the limitations of a moral system’s set of rules, and we build on it to make a situational ethical framework that is as good as it can be given our available information.

    The alternative is to not have any moral system at all, which is obviously not going to work nearly as well as having some moral system with its own set of limitations. And the majority of people in the world agree with this even intuitively, where they believe in some set of moral rules and try to adhere to them even if unconsciously through having cultivated virtues that become habitual and automatic and which largely conform to those rules.

    Imperfect rules shouldn’t lead people to abandon rules altogether, nor to abandon the ongoing search for better and better rules that incorporate the exceptions and better work with the complex causal structures that make up our day-to-day lives.

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    • But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and come up with a number of moral rules to best achieve our moral goals, even if these rules are imperfect.

      I don’t have a problem with trying. However, the rule making doesn’t work. We make a clear distinction between “legal” and “moral” precisely because it doesn’t work.

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      • “However, the rule making doesn’t work. ”

        I think you’re confusing it not working very well or perfectly with it not working at all. The reality is that many of our morals coincide with legal rules (the law) even if that subset of laws aren’t then called “moral rules”. The laws are themselves informed by much of the same information used to inform our moral rules. One moral rule that a lot of people try to follow is some form of the Golden Rule. This rule works relatively well, and thus “making this a rule” has worked very well. We’ve also found a way of incorporating many exceptions or more specific conditions (as found in situational ethics) in this rule as well, thus expanding it into a larger set of rules. This line of thinking goes back to Kant and his categorical imperatives, or “what one ought to do” being defined as “that which they would will to be a universal law.”

        Let’s consider for example a moral rule like “Do not lie.” This can can be expanded into “Do not lie unless it is to save an innocent life.” Kant actually failed to understand that exceptions could be built into his categorical imperatives, which is why he believed that lying was morally wrong no matter what (even if it was lying to save someone’s life, such as a Nazi asking about Jews hiding in your attic). Prior to understanding that exceptions can be built into rules to accommodate situational ethics, the rules work a lot less well (even though they still work better than no rules at any time). But once you add these exceptions in, you can make the moral framework a lot more useful and still easy enough to follow without too much mental effort. One can in fact accommodate any number of psychological idiosyncrasies into these exceptions as well (don’t do this unless you have such and such a brain condition, upbringing, etc.), but obviously doing this makes the set of rules much more complex than they otherwise would be, and therefore harder to memorize and recall on short notice.

        But we can still build in some number of exceptions to accommodate a large number of situations we deal with, while still leaving us with a good amount of individual freedom on what remains (many of what remains being morally ambiguous or being morally on par with some set of alternatives of one’s choosing). But to say that Newton’s laws of motion, for example don’t work because we can find situations where they don’t provide as good of an answer as a more complex formula, doesn’t mean that we should disregard Newton’s laws of motion for most of our everyday observations pertaining to motion. Likewise, we should try and find rules that work as good as possible and combine these with cultivated behaviors that allow us to best achieve our moral goals. Not having any rules whatsoever means there’s nothing rational to guide our behavior, no algorithm or feedback loop to push us in one direction or other based on inferred causal relations that lead to predicted sets of behaviors.

        I think many of these rules are already built into our intuition which means if they wind up being represented explicitly in a moral framework, they will already jive with what often works. But because our intuition is flawed, we also have developed software patches to our thinking where we, for example, learn rational reasons about the harm of stealing or raping or what-have-you, and then consciously try to avoid those behaviors even if they seem intuitive or natural in some particular situation. Many of these inferences are passed down culturally and we are raised to believe that X, Y, Z, etc. are right and A, B, C, etc. are wrong, and these are all a combination of intuitions (some of them flawed) and rational reasons (some of them flawed, based on false premises).

        Now you may be making a claim that moral rules are hard to follow or that moral progress occurs without the use of explicit rules (in some as yet unspecified way), but the fact of the matter is that our brain is still making use of rules for much of our behavior including much of what we consider to be moral behavior just as it has made use of rules to learn any particular grammar or language. The rules may not be explicitly taught, but in order to capture their intended result (a shared language, grammar, understanding, etc.), some kinds of rules are nevertheless being followed consciously or unconsciously. If there weren’t, then there would be no way to predict anyone’s behavior based on our experiences with those people, and there would be no way to predict our own behavior either (like knowing with some high degree of confidence that you will or will not kill your boss tomorrow).

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        • The attachment of endless caveats to the ‘rules’ simply illustrates the is/ought problem.
          When you are done with the rule-making for a given situation, all that’s left is a description of what we do, rather than an explanation of our motives or even the link between our perceptions and our motives.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hi keithnoback,

            “The attachment of endless caveats to the ‘rules’ simply illustrates the is/ought problem.”

            There really is no is/ought problem. That’s mostly the result of a misreading of Hume. What people tend to refer to as the is/ought problem is really resolvable by considering morality (or all motivations for actions) as a set of hypothetical imperatives. If you want X above all else, then you ought to do Y above all else. X and Y are in many cases things that can be empirically discovered and therefore accessible to science. And the “endless caveats” as you put it, only arises when you try and take account of every situational contingency. It’s no problem to still have a simpler set of rules which is a good approximation for most/many moral situations. Just as using Newton’s laws is good enough to predict the physical trajectories of an object even if far more complex quantum mechanical and relativistic formulae could be used to arrive at an answer that is better yet. The fact that we can improve upon Newtonian mechanics with a more complex set of equations isn’t an argument to never use Newtonian mechanics or to make simpler equations for some pragmatic purpose. Likewise, making moral rules can be useful even if they are not fool proof and even if they can be improved further.

            “When you are done with the rule-making for a given situation, all that’s left is a description of what we do, rather than an explanation of our motives or even the link between our perceptions and our motives.”

            Yes, but if the rules are designed based on our motivations and explanations for those motivations, then the rules are built upon that information, so it becomes more than a description of what we do. Rather it becomes a descriptions of what we ought to do above all else (presumably when rational and maximally informed).

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          • One more thing keithnoback,

            I’d recommend reading Philippa Foot’s “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” as it’s the basic bedrock of the best moral theory on offer so far (that I’ve found) as it subsumes all the major moral theories under one framework (Consequentialism, Deontology, and Virtue Ethics). It’s a shame that her work isn’t talked about more in classes on meta-ethics. I wouldn’t doubt that her being a woman has had something to do with that given the prejudices we’ve seen throughout history, but she makes a great case! I hope you can dabble in it someday if you’re interested!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d prefer to think that everything else she did was simply run over by a trolley.
    “Murder is wrong. That is to say, killing a person is wrong. Well, I mean ending a conscious existence for reasons other than the preservation of another conscious existence is wrong. To be more precise, trying and succeeding at primarily extinguishing another conscious existence in pursuit of an end other than the preservation of another conscious existence is wrong…”
    That is not a theoretical reduction, that is just a description of ‘murder’, minus the reason for its being wrong. Hume didn’t flesh out the is/ought problem, he just planted the seed.
    But the ought-problem remains. What constitutes the ought?
    If it is a manifestation of evolutionary psychology or divine whim, isn’t thereby eliminated?
    If it is an expression of our tastes, is it a matter of fact?
    If it is intuition, then whence our intuition?
    The hypothetical imperative dances by the real question: What makes a moral statement imperative (without making it a byproduct of something else)?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi keithnoback,

      “I’d prefer to think that everything else she did was simply run over by a trolley.”

      Lol! Yes indeed, she was the originator of the Trolley Problem! Good times! 🙂

      “Hume didn’t flesh out the is/ought problem, he just planted the seed.”

      He may have planted a seed, but he never identified any is/ought problem.

      “But the ought-problem remains. What constitutes the ought?”

      The ought (in a moral sense) is constituted by, or based upon, what a person actually values above all else which is going to be some kind of maximal satisfaction and life fulfillment.

      “If it is a manifestation of evolutionary psychology or divine whim, isn’t thereby eliminated?”

      Evolution comes into play becomes there’s some biology that underlies our psychology and maximal satisfaction and life fulfillment are thus contingent on the psychological substrate, which may include some set of fundamental drives and motivations. So determining what one ought to do above all else will include some input from evolutionary psychology.

      “If it is an expression of our tastes, is it a matter of fact?”

      If by tastes, you means opinions, then no. It is based on facts pertaining to our psychology, sociology, and biology. Even if there are differences between individuals, in terms of psychological idiosyncrasies that cause differences in what maximizes personal satisfaction and life fulfillment, that doesn’t make those any less objective or factual — even if they may not all be universal. But because of the vast overlap between humans in terms of their psychology, it’s highly likely that many moral facts are universal even if all of them are not.

      “If it is intuition, then whence our intuition?”

      Our intuition is “informed by” evolutionary processes and some types of conditioning/cultural-transmission (particularly conditioning that occurs earlier in life) and those are facts that play a role in this overall determination, but since morality should be informed by facts and a rational assessment of those facts, it will be the case that some moral facts go against our intuitions. Some may feel an intuitive aversion against homosexuality but we know now that we can use rationality to override that aversion by considering the facts pertaining to why we have that aversion, and how our lives actually improve when we strive to overcome that aversion.

      “The hypothetical imperative dances by the real question: What makes a moral statement imperative (without making it a byproduct of something else)?”

      What makes it imperative is its needing to be done in order to best accomplish the primary moral goal (overall personal satisfaction and life fulfillment). If you don’t make it imperative, then you are simply less likely to be satisfied and fulfilled. You are simply less likely to act morally.

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      • I see this as hopelessly vague.

        Like

        • Well I’m sorry you feel that way Neil. Morality is a complex topic because our brains/psychology and our actions are quite complex, and so specificity requires a lot more time and effort than is possible here. But you should try and look at the big picture and understand that first before worrying as much about the details. And if you wanna explore some particular specifics, I’m happy to do so for more clarification.

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          • I’m not sure what that has to do with anything.

            Your earlier reply was hopelessly vague, because it made several mentions of “fact” without actually pointing to any facts.

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  3. Hi Neil,

    “Your earlier reply was hopelessly vague, because it made several mentions of “fact” without actually pointing to any facts.”

    I didn’t need to point to any specific facts, because that wasn’t the intention in my reply. My intention was to point out that facts (as opposed to opinions or guesses) are used or ought to be used in the determination of what is and what isn’t moral behavior. The specific facts don’t matter for that point to be made. It seems that you misunderstood my reply as intending to point to specific facts (and then failing to do so), but that wasn’t my intention at all. It was merely to mention that certain facts exist (such as facts pertaining to our psychology, sociology, etc.) which are important in moral theorizing.

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    • That’s still hopelessly vague.

      Like

      • I predicted you might say something like that. The “hopelessly vague” response is one of your go-to phrases, isn’t it? 🙂

        I’m not sure why you think the general concept of “facts” is hopelessly vague, but I don’t think I can help you with that. I can only clarify what I mean in my own writing and responses.

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        • In your first reply to which I replied, I count 7 paragraphs in addition to what you quoted. When I read those paragraphs, I have no idea what are the implications, if any. Maybe you just like writing nice sounding prose that has no implications.

          I described that as “hopelessly vague”, thinking that you might fill in some details and make it more explicit. Instead, you just complain about my use of “hopelessly vague”.

          In what you wrote, I find this:

          It is based on facts pertaining to our psychology, sociology, and biology.

          Are you talking about somebody’s IQ, or their ethnic group or their religion or their height or weight or blood pressure. You give no clue. Your use of “fact” is too broad to be useful. And when I question your use of “fact”, you just brush away the question with no response.

          My tentative conclusion is that your replies have nothing of value.

          Like

          • “Maybe you just like writing nice sounding prose that has no implications.”

            While I like to write well and attempt to write clearly, my writing also contains implications for those that are able to understand them.

            “I described that as “hopelessly vague”, thinking that you might fill in some details and make it more explicit. Instead, you just complain about my use of “hopelessly vague”. ”

            If you want more details on some specific term or phrase I’m using, then ask for it. Don’t just describe it all as “hopelessly vague”. That doesn’t accomplish anything other than having me infer that you either didn’t read anything I wrote, didn’t read it all, or don’t know how to respond to it effectively.

            “In what you wrote, I find this: ‘It is based on facts pertaining to our psychology, sociology, and biology.’ Are you talking about somebody’s IQ, or their ethnic group or their religion or their height or weight or blood pressure. You give no clue.”

            Actually I did give a clue. It was when I wrote the following, which you must have missed:

            “Evolution comes into play becomes there’s some biology that underlies our psychology and MAXIMAL SATISFACTION AND LIFE FULFILLMENT ARE THUS CONTINGENT ON THE PSYCHOLOGICAL SUBSTRATE, which may include some set of fundamental drives and motivations. So determining what one ought to do above all else will include some input from evolutionary psychology.”

            And here I say:

            “It is based on facts pertaining to our psychology, sociology, and biology. EVEN IF THERE ARE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS, IN TERMS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL IDIOSYNCRASIES THAT CAUSE DIFFERENCES IN WHAT MAXIMIZES PERSONAL SATISFACTION AND LIFE FULFILLMENT, THAT DOESN’T MAKE THOSE ANY LESS OBJECTIVE OR FACTUAL — EVEN IF THEY MAY NOT ALL BE UNIVERSAL…”

            Thus, I am referring to any and all facts in biology, psychology and sociology that pertain to what maximizes our overall satisfaction and fulfillment. This is a general claim I’m making with no need for specifics (given my intention in writing it which was to explain how morality is derived from certain kinds of facts,as opposed to opinions or divine commands from gods and ghosts). But if you want a more specific answer, then consider that torturing a person generally results in psychological damage to both the tortured and the torturer (both are less happy and satisfied overall, even if one or the other doesn’t realize this because of irrationality or ignorance of certain facts). This is a psychological fact about human beings (most if not all of them, possibly excluding only the insane, psychopaths, etc., which are the minority). A person being compassionate and having friends (as another specific example) has positive psychological effects in terms of how they see themselves as a person, and positive sociological effects by building/maintaining a social safety net (mutual back scratching, etc.). Social contract theory is integral to maintaining any kind of state, protection of property, and thus securing safety and self-preservation are contingent on social contract theory and how it’s implemented. These are psychological and sociological facts that pertain to human beings (in part because we are a social species), and they are the kinds of facts that inform morality (or ought to, for best accomplishing overall satisfaction and life fulfillment).

            “My tentative conclusion is that your replies have nothing of value.”

            You might want to re-think that conclusion after reading what I wrote more carefully.

            Like

  4. At the risk of piling on: “The ought (in a moral sense) is constituted by, or based upon, what a person actually values above all else which is going to be some kind of maximal satisfaction and life fulfillment. ”
    That sounds like a mash-up of hedonism and utilitarianism.
    There are problems with those schools of thought, not the least of which is our propensity to see some plainly unfulfilling choices as morally right.
    I would point to the stipulation at the start of the trolley problem that you may not resolve the problem by jumping in front of the trolley yourself.
    Whether or not people would actually do it, they still see that as a morally right choice.

    Like

    • Hi keithnoback,

      “That sounds like a mash-up of hedonism and utilitarianism.”

      That’s a common misconception because of my use of the word “satisfaction”. I do not mean satisfaction in any hedonistic sense (like a heroin addict taking a dose), but rather in a more general sense of “preference satisfaction”. To see what I mean here, you have to start with a desire and then you have to ask why you have that desire, and the reason you come up with will be something like “because I want X”, and if you ask why you want X and you say “because I want Y”, eventually you’ll get to a point where you want something for no reason other than itself, basic overall satisfaction (rather than an instrumental desire because of wanting X, Y, and Z). So I’m referring to tautological or fundamental desires which have no reason (no conscious reason anyway) underlying them. If it turned out that a hedonistic person behaved in a way that they thought made them most satisfied (including a heroin addict taking another dose), but it actually led to an emptier life that was less satisfying than if they had abstained from the epicurean excess, then they behaved immorally even if they failed to realize this. Had they known the life they were missing out on, they would prefer it to the empty life of addiction and excess with its accompanying diminishing returns and such.

      As for utilitarianism, this is technically a type of utilitarianism but not the types that you tend to hear about from the philosophers that popularized it, such as John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer, etc. Those kinds of utilitarianism (as most forms of consequentialism) don’t take deontology and virtue ethics into account, which means they are incomplete. The type of utilitarianism I’m subscribing to is a subset of desire utilitarianism, but it would be better to call it a specific form of consequentialism because that term has less misleading connotations attached to it.

      “There are problems with those schools of thought, not the least of which is our propensity to see some plainly unfulfilling choices as morally right.”

      I agree with you, and that’s because those schools of thought don’t tend to take all the consequences into account, such as how one’s actions make them feel about themselves as a person. Once they incorporate all the facts, then those problems can be resolved as good as is possible for any moral system (if a person is going to have a goal to be moral at all).

      “I would point to the stipulation at the start of the trolley problem that you may not resolve the problem by jumping in front of the trolley yourself. Whether or not people would actually do it, they still see that as a morally right choice.”

      Yes, the trolley problem has a few different variations and with the most common version (one person dies versus five) most people would choose the one person even if many couldn’t bring themselves to pull the switch (to divert the train from the five people to the single person). In any case, the moral option is the option that would maximize satisfaction and life fulfillment of that individual. If they made a choice and couldn’t live with themselves afterward, it was likely the wrong choice, but if neither choice is one they want to live with, then one is still likely to be better than another. It’s all contingent on what maximizes overall satisfaction and life fulfillment.

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  5. I agree that rational rules are not up to the task of grappling with morality, and see Kant and Mill’s (for example) attempts to do so as emblematic of their respective zeitgeists. Your reason for concluding so, Neil, is interesting and worth mulling over. (The quantum parallels). I see the matter aptly thumbnailed in Iris Murdoch’s quote, a la Wikipedia, namely: “The prevailing view among analytic philosophers at the time was that, as with physical science, statements about reality must be publicly verifiable as true or false, leading to the conclusion that the ‘states and activities of the soul in all their variety must be revealed in observed behavior’ in order to be ‘classed as objective realities’. Murdoch, on the other hand, disagreed with what she saw as analytic philosophy’s consequent ‘rejection of the inner life'” This is in harmony with Thomas Nagel’s general views as to where science, as currently undertaken, meets it’s limitations as expressed within his ‘Mind and Cosmos’.

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