Evolution of Ethics

The "rules of the road" simulations demonstrate how a rule can emerge over time from random encounters. The guiding force in the simulation is the common desires of the drivers to pass quickly and safely. As demonstrated, the rule will emerge even if a few of the drivers don't learn, and even if the experiment is dangerous.

It is likely that many of the ethical rules that exist in our society began this way. Other discoveries might also have a similar beginning, such as knowing which plants and herbs are safe to eat, and which have medicinal properties. There was no brilliant scientist or philosopher thousands of years ago who figured it all out. Rather, the knowledge was collected gradually, and we are the beneficiaries of it.

Handling Diversity

In the 1st and 3rd simulation, all the drivers were identical, with identical motives. A solution that pleased one would please all. But that is not always the case.

Let's revisit the second simulation, where 10 of the drivers were incapable of learning. Suppose that the could learn, but they didn't adopt the rule because they wanted the opposite of what the other drivers want. Suppose our ten "non learners" actually wanted to collide on purpose! As in the game of bumper cars perhaps they have crash proof cars and they enjoy bumping! How could we possibly reach a solution that pleases everone?

Before you conclude that all bumper cars are evil enemies of ordinary street cars, consider these alternatives:

Even bumper cars sometimes want to go places rather than just bumping around. So any of these alternatives would work fine for them. As you can see, with a bit of ingenuity, a variety of solutions are possible!

You will notice that I didn't create a simulation of this, because simulating creativity is not easy. But anyway, you get the point: ingenuity expands our ability for spreading happiness!

It is only if the bumper car drivers insist on hitting the cars of the drivers who don't want it that we would have an irreconcilable difference. In that case the matter would likely be settled by a power struggle which the larger group would typically win--but even in that case it may be possible to avoid violence. There is more than one kind of power: the powers of knowledge, invention, learning, skill, etc., where one person can be a benefit to another. People who have these powers are respected by others who need to benefit from them. The unruly bumper cars might agree to stop hitting the normal cars simply because the bumper car drivers would otherwise lose a variety of privledges and benefits.

Application to the real world

Just like the drivers in the basic simulation, people want rules that will protect them from being hurt. Sometimes there is more than one way to achieve the same result. It could be a left hand rule, or it could be a right hand rule, or it could be a big shock-absorbant bumper. But it is definately NOT a left-hand driver hitting an unprotected right-hand driver.

There can be more than one "right answer" -- more than one satisfactory solution, but there are also definately UN-satisfactory solutions!

Sometimes it is debated whether ethics can be studied objectively or not, as a science. I suggest that it can be. We can see clearly, both from the above simulations and from history, that rules will emerge in any population of learning, cooperation-capable animals. Sometimes there will be missteps, and progress may be slow, but gradually the animals will develop rules for their own benefit. That is a phenomenon that can be observed and explained.

Of course, observing and explaining is a little bit different from inventing and recommending. People by their nature must make decisions, so they seek recommendations. They also wish to discover inventions that make their lives more pleasing. So if science is limited to observing and explaining, we want something more than that. If inventing is outside of science, then we want engineering, whose primary purpose is to invent! And we want ethical leadership, devoted to establishing the standards more quickly and with less suffering than the evolutionary menthod by which rules will inevitably arise.

Remember simulation #3, in which many drivers died as the rule gradually established itself. Eventually that problem rectified itself, but many were sacrificed in the process. If a few had taken initiative at the outset to call all the drivers together and arrange the same outcome via a collaborative approach, all of the suffering could have been avoided.

Similarly in the real world we can see things that are not entirely as we want them to be. We can see that poverty and wars continue in many parts of the world. We can see environmental destruction occurring. There is a good chance that people will eventually learn new ways of behaving simply by trial and error, but if we apply intelligence, creativity, and collaboration to the process we can reach the solutions more quickly.


P.S.: For more thoughts on the science, invention, and ethics, read: Can Ethics be a Science?


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Copyright Arthur de Leyssac, 2016, all rights reserved.